The Triumph of Robust Tokenism

Clinton's racial strategy helped mainly those who had already helped themselves

What has William Jefferson Clinton, the master of American electoral politics over the past decade, done to and for race relations? The record, of course, is as mixed as the rest of his legacy.

To his great political benefit, Clinton managed simultaneously to appeal to Reagan Democrat whites who were impatient with ongoing complaints about racial injustice and to Maxine Waters-style blacks who were insistent that more must be done to redress past and present racial inequities. This political balancing act played a large role in enabling him to win the White House in 1992, to outlast the Gingrich Revolution of 1994, to overcome the Bob Dole challenge of 1996, and to weather the Monica Lewinsky embarrassment of 1998.

Clinton's strategy was two-pronged. One prong entailed assuaging fears that "progressive" politicians who attempt to be sensitive to the wrongs of racism will give away too much to racial minorities, particularly blacks. Clinton took this approach in his 1992 campaign when he decided to upstage Jesse Jackson at a forum Jackson had organized—a meeting of the Rainbow Coalition, his personal fiefdom. One of Jackson's guests was a young rap artist, Sister Souljah, who had made remarks to the press suggesting that it would be preferable for black criminals to prey on whites rather than on their racial kin. Clinton seized the opportunity to condemn Sister Souljah. Although he did so before an immediate audience that was mainly black, the audience he plainly had in mind was impressionable whites. He wanted to show them that he could stand up to blacks on their own turf and rebuff black guilt-tripping and mau-mauing. An array of black politicians and commentators assailed Clinton for "disrespecting" his host. But their highly public anger played right into Clinton's strategy: the more vociferous their denunciation, the more credibly Clinton could signal to white Reagan Democrats that he was courageously willing to offend his black allies, even if doing so cost him politically—though, of course, standing up to them was precisely the politic thing to do.

As President, Clinton made sure to insulate himself periodically against the charge that on matters of race he was too soft. This largely explains his sermons in black churches castigating illegitimacy, criminality, and other moral failings (this from the man who would give us the infamous blue dress); his signing of a welfare bill that was overwhelmingly opposed by the Congressional Black Caucus; and his refusal to speak up in favor of relaxing the draconian drug laws that have had an egregiously disproportionate and destructive impact on black communities. This calculation also explains Clinton's continuing support for capital punishment even though it is obvious that racial selectivity plays a major (albeit subtle) role in determining who are the unlucky few the State deems fit to kill.

The second prong of Clinton's strategy involved persuading influential black leaders—the CBC, the NAACP, black preachers—that ultimately he was on their side, that he felt their pain and shared their aspirations, that he sincerely liked them and was willing to display a fond association with them before the white American public. To accomplish this aim Clinton did several important things. He defended affirmative action—the one program that black activists see as indispensable and non-negotiable. He appointed blacks to high office, including positions above those commonly associated with African-Americans. He made it clear to everyone—through attendance at black churches, walks in black neighborhoods, highly public friendships with black people—that he enjoys the presence and ways of black folk. He visited Africa. And he created and hosted occasions aimed at making amends for America's past racial sins. These occasions generated enormously moving (and politically safe) moments, such as the one in which he apologized for the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment and the one in which he awarded Medals of Honor to black veterans whose heroism had previously been ignored. It is because of these measures and because of the paucity of such gestures from political rivals that Clinton has won the enthusiastic loyalty and deep affection of many blacks.

Though Clinton's racial strategy has been good for him, has it, on balance, been good for the country? The answer is by no means clear. For all of Clinton's much-expressed concern about social justice in general and racial justice in particular, his programs, policies, and gestures have done painfully little to help those whom Professor William Julius Wilson calls "the truly disadvantaged"—impoverished people, disproportionately colored, who are locked away in pestilent and crime-ridden inner cities or forgotten rural or small-town wastelands, people who are bereft of the money, training, skills, or education needed to escape their plight. True, Clinton had to contend with a reactionary, Republican-led Congress for much of his presidency. But even before the Gingrichian deluge of 1994 he had made it plain that his sympathies lay predominantly with "the middle class." For those below it, he offered chastising lectures that legitimated the essentially conservative notion that the predicament of the poor results primarily from their own conduct and not from the deformative deprivations imposed on them by a grievously unfair social order that is in large part a class hierarchy and in smaller part a pigmentocracy.

In 1997 Clinton initiated a "conversation on race" and created a commission chaired by Professor John Hope Franklin to oversee the envisioned discussions. Rather quickly, however, the initiative displayed the parochial, shallow self-servingness that besmirches all too much of Clinton's talk about race relations. Portrayed as an effort at dialogue, the President's conversation was from the beginning a tightly scripted monologue that regurgitated familiar nostrums while avoiding discussion of real problems. Compared with the reports and agendas on race relations produced by commissions established by Harry Truman in 1946 and Lyndon Johnson in 1967, the report and agenda produced by Clinton's commission are laughable. Does this matter? Any highly public action taken by a President matters. Because of Clinton's conversation and its embarrassing end, a long time will have to pass before another President invests personal and political capital in pressing for public education about the American race question.

Clinton's main bequest to race relations is that he helped to sustain and accelerate the desegregation of the higher circles of American life. On the psychological plane he has gently pushed the white American public to accept something that for many whites is still more in question than one would like to believe: that blacks really can be equal or even superior to whites in performing the most crucial and difficult tasks demanded by our society. President George Bush contributed to this process in a major way when he selected General Colin Powell to be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Through his appointment of blacks and genuine friendships with blacks, Clinton has deepened this tendency in American life. To a large extent, desegregation remains at the primitive level of mere tokenism. But compared with exclusion, robust tokenism, though far from enough, is a step in the right direction.

Randall Kennedy is a professor at Harvard Law School.