Bill Clinton Was Racialized, Too

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

"The day he told that fucking Jackson off," a white electrician told a pollster, "is the day he got my vote."

It's worth considering this attack on Abraham Lincoln by Stephen Douglas during their famed debates:

I ask you, are you in favor of conferring upon the negro the rights and privileges of citizenship? ("No, no.") Do you desire to strike out of our State Constitution that clause which keeps slaves and free negroes out of the State, and allow the free negroes to flow in, ("never,") and cover your prairies with black settlements? Do you desire to turn this beautiful State into a free negro colony, ("no, no,") in order that when Missouri abolishes slavery she can send one hundred thousand emancipated slaves into Illinois, to become citizens and voters, on an equality with yourselves? ("Never," "no.")

If you desire negro citizenship, if you desire to allow them to come into the State and settle with the white man, if you desire them to vote on an equality with yourselves, and to make them eligible to office, to serve on juries, and to adjudge your rights, then support Mr. Lincoln and the Black Republican party, who are in favor of the citizenship of the negro. ("Never, never.") For one, I am opposed to negro citizenship in any and every form. (Cheers.)

I believe this Government was made on the white basis. ("Good.") I believe it was made by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity for ever, and I am in favor of confining citizenship to white men, men of European birth and descent, instead of conferring it upon negroes, Indians, and other inferior races. ("Good for you." "Douglas forever.")

Abraham Lincoln's light skin did not save him from a racist political attack, anymore than it saved him from a racist assassination plot. Indeed it is eerie to see how much the words of Stephen Douglas ("I believe this government was made on the white basis") were echoed by John Wilkes Booth ("This country was formed for the white, not for the black man"). American politics cannot escape the winds of white supremacy.

White supremacy birthed American politics. In the 1990s, as today, the Democratic Party was perceived by many as the party of black interests. It's not incidental that many of Clinton's most crazed critics (Jesse Helms, for example) and violent critics (the militia movement) were no strangers to white supremacy. That the black Democratic Party is now actually headed by a black man is bound to cause some portion of America to feel a certain way. 

Beinart concludes by arguing:

To believe that the right’s hostility to Obama stems mostly from his race is actually comforting, since it suggests that the next Democratic president won’t have it nearly as bad. If you believe that, Hillary Clinton has a bridge she’d like to sell you.

The hostility does not stem "from his race" but from racism. (And "mostly" is beside the point. Any amount of racism must be intolerable.) Racism—and sexism and homophobia—are about organizing power, not merely disliking the cut of one's jib. And if Hillary Clinton becomes president, she will have to cope with being perceived as a woman representing the interests of black people and women of all ethnicities. Sexism will never be off the stage. Nor will racism.

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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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