It Was No Compliment to Call Bill Clinton 'The First Black President'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In 1998, Toni Morrison wrote a comment for The New Yorker arguing that  “white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime.”  Last week the New York Times, implicitly cited Morrison’s piece, and claimed the author was giving Clinton “a compliment.” This interpretation of Morrison’s claim is as common as it is erroneous.

The popular interpretation of Morrison’s point (exhibited here) holds that, summoning all of her powers, the writer gazed into the very essence of Clinton, and found him sufficiently soulful. In fact, Morrison’s point had little to do with soul of any kind.  She was not much concerned with Clinton’s knowledge of Ebonics, his style of handshake, nor whether he pledged Alpha or Q.  Morrison was concerned with power.

Race has never been much about skin color, or physical features, so much as the need to name someone before doing something to them. Race is not a sober-minded description of peoples. It is  casus belli.

Dig Morrison’s description of Clinton’s blackness:

After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas. And when virtually all the African-American Clinton appointees began, one by one, to disappear, when the President’s body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution, when he was metaphorically seized and body-searched, who could gainsay these black men who knew whereof they spoke? The message was clear: “No matter how smart you are, how hard you work, how much coin you earn for us, we will put you in your place or put you out of the place you have somehow, albeit with our permission, achieved. You will be fired from your job, sent away in disgrace, and—who knows?—maybe sentenced and jailed to boot. In short, unless you do as we say (i.e., assimilate at once), your expletives belong to us.”

With the exception of the saxophone-playing detail, everything here boils down to power. Clinton isn’t black, in Morrison’s rendition, because he knows every verse of Lift Every Voice and Sing, but because the powers arrayed against him find their most illustrative analogue in white supremacy. “People misunderstood that phrase,” Morrison would later say. “I said he was being treated like a black on the street, already guilty, already a perp.”

Now, one can make all sorts of arguments over whether the pursuit of Clinton was, in fact, analogous to how black people have been regarded across American history. But Morrison was not giving Clinton an award. She was welcoming him into a club which should not exist.

Most Americans understand race as indelible—as a thing which you really are—and thus Morrison’s point went right over the heads of even relatively educated people. This is convenient. As long as “race” can be considered as who you are, and not what someone else did to you, then Americans can see themselves as heroic do-gooders in struggling against our more ignorant and animalistic impulses.

Morrison’s argument sprang from another worldview—one that sees race as a choice, as an action, as a made thing. This worldview is less convenient. For if race in America is a “made thing,” an action, then it is not sufficient for people who wish for a world without such categories to simply sigh in self-congratulation. They must commit themselves to opposing, to the discipline of making, and doing, other things.