Bill Clinton Was Racialized, Too

The 42nd president's whiteness didn't shield him from old attacks.
Associated Press

My colleague Peter Beinart rebukes Representative Bennie Thompson's claim that Clarence Thomas is an "Uncle Tom." He then goes on to challenge the explanatory power of racism in understanding some of President Obama's more unhinged foes:

Conservatives may never have questioned Bill Clinton’s Christianity or his claim to being born in the United States. But they challenged his legitimacy just as aggressively as they’ve challenged Obama’s.

In May 1993, speaking before hundreds of servicemen at a military banquet, Major General Harold Campbell used the phrases “dope smoking, skirt chasing, draft dodging” to describe his commander-in-chief. The following May, Rush Limbaugh accused the Clintons of having ordered the murder of White House lawyer Vince Foster. That November, Senator Jesse Helms said, “Mr. Clinton better watch out if he comes down here [to North Carolina]. He'd better have a bodyguard.” On his television show, Jerry Falwell hawked videos purporting to prove that as governor of Arkansas, Clinton had overseen a massive drug-running scheme. Eighteen House Republicans introduced legislation to impeach Clinton in November 1997, months before America learned the name “Monica Lewinsky.” 

It's certainly true that white politicians are not immune to campaigns of delegitimization. Obama has made the same point as Beinart. But I think this view deserves more scrutiny.

As Beinart notes, the anti-Obama paranoia focuses on his citizenship—both broad and narrow. This is not just another means of delegitimization, but a specific specimen with racist roots. In the broadest sense, the idea that black people are not quite Americans but an alien presence unworthy of citizenship did not begin with Barack Obama. It's all very nice that Martin Luther King is now hailed as the quintessential American. In his day, he was regarded by forces high in the American government as an agent of foreign powers. Slaveholding moderates dreamed of shipping blacks back to their "native land" of Africa—despite the fact that Africans had arrived in the "New World" before most of the families of the slaveholders. In the mid-19th century, states like Illinois sought to expel the black alien presence.

For Obama, the delegitimizing does not even end with his citizenship but with his very person. This attack has a history. The claim that Obama didn't actually write Dreams From My Father, for instance, echoes earlier claims that lodged against another prominent biracial African American:

About eight years ago I knew this recreant slave, Frederick Bailey, (instead of Douglass.) He then lived with Edward Covy, and was an unlearned, and rather an ordinary Negro, and I am confident he was not capable of writing the Narrative alluded to; for none but an educated man, and one who had some knowledge of the rules of grammar, could write so correctly.

African Americans of some accomplishment have a deep acquaintance with this kind of white incredulity. Yesterday it was cries of unlearned, ordinary Negro. Today it is cries of affirmative action. (Even when you went to a black school.) Or it's Donald Trump demanding Barack Obama's college transcriptsThe spectacle of a black man forced to present his papers to white people is not some new incomprehensible response to our first Hawaiian president. It is an old and predictable response to black achievement. It may well be true that Barack Obama and Bill Clinton have endured the same amount of disrespect. But the nature of that disrespect matters. It matters that Rush Limbaugh did not refer to healthcare in the Clinton era as reparations. All kinds of crazy are not equal, and in America, racist crazy has a special history worthy of highlighting.

Even Bill Clinton did not exist in a bubble of neutralized racism. He was a product of American politics in the post-civil-rights era, and thus had to cope with all the requisite forces. Racism does not merely concern itself with individual enmity, but with group interests. The men who killed Andrew Goodman did not merely hate him individually, they hated what he represented. By the time Bill Clinton came to prominence, his party was closely associated with black interests. This was problem. And Clinton knew it

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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