Race and Political Context: The “First Black President” Reconsidered

Introduction:

As part of the ongoing conversation my colleague Jack and I are having on black politics, I would like to briefly describe the racial environment the game of politics was being played in during the 90’s. Republicans had won the last 3 presidencies in 1980, 1984 and 1988 before Bill Clinton was elected in 1992. Democrats only held a majority in Congress for the first two years of the Clinton administration, with Republicans gaining control in 1994. The Republican control of Congress remained until the end of the Clinton presidency.

Black political scholars in 1992 saw an eminent dilemma that I touched upon in my original post about white liberals vs. black people. As I sketch the racial environment and rhetoric of the decade, I would like to keep in mind that “Blackness is like a tree branch that extends to the heart and mind, with a powerfully vivid memory and heightened sensitivity at the root.”

After the 1988 election of George H. W. Bush, the “New Democrats” were formed. Bill Clinton presented himself as one during the 1992 presidential election. What the “New Democrats” would mean to black voters would be somewhat unclear as such a politician is “a centrist candidate more attuned than his immediate predecessors to the concerns and values of the white, middle-class voters who had deserted the party in its losing presidential campaigns in the 1980s.

Jon F. Hale elaborates on the relationship between New Democrat liberalism and race:

“In attacking the liberal fundamentalists, the DLC is signaling to swing voters in
the white, middle class that Democrats are not exclusively black, feminist, gay,
and liberal. While this message is offensive to the groups just mentioned, it holds
the potential to wedge the Democrats’ foot in the door of voters who make the
difference in presidential elections and many subpresidential election”

 

 

The concept of electoral capture is crucial to understanding black politics on the left side of the political aisle. It is defined as when “any politically relevant group that votes overwhelmingly for one of the major political parties and subsequently finds the primary or opposition party making little or no effort to appeal to its interests or attract its votes.” The party capture effect the Democrats have on black voters has been criticized from those on the right and the left, as it is postulated that the Democratic Party takes black voters for granted. The lack of competition for the black vote throughout history contrasts with the goal of competing for rural white working-class votes between the New Democrats and Republicans.

 

With the ascendance of the New Democrats, what would the cost be for black voters, whom are subject to party capture to the Democratic Party?

 

Analysis:

 

It appears that my colleague has unfortunately been flirting with the white paternalism that I ardently warned about in my original post, as he implicitly dismisses black cultural and intellectual autonomy: “Before mixing metaphors about my insufficient understanding of blackness’ “powerful memory and heightened sensitivity,” maybe we should take a closer examination of the facts.”

Let’s take a closer examination of the facts and consider a major event that is racially symbolic and was a case in which liberal anti-racism was discarded. The execution of Ricky Ray Rector is a common topic covered in Africana studies departments in colleges across the country. Bill Clinton oversaw it. He left the campaign trail from New Hampshire, traveled all the way back home to Arkansas to witness the execution of a mentally handicapped black man so handicapped that when he got his last meal before his execution he asked to save his dessert for later. All of this for the Democrats “to wrest the crime issue from the Republicans and make it their own”

What made this execution so racially symbolic was not just the harsh tough on crime rhetoric of the era, but how it so closely mirrors the wanted execution of a black man in the presidential campaign preceding Clinton’s. The controversial Willie Horton ads, also prominent topics in Africana studies departments, were center to George Bush Sr’s strategy at portraying Democrat Michael Dukakis as weak on crime.The original ad “Weekend Passes” generated substantial racial controversy, but that along with the second ad sealed the fate of Dukakis, according to pundits. After such a devastating defeat “no Democrat wanted to face a “Willie Horton ad” like the one that helped destroy Michael Dukakis in 1988.” The “Old Democrats” such as Michael Dukakis were perceived as soft on crime. Bill Clinton ensured that “I can be nicked a lot, but no one can say I’m soft on crime.” The dog whistles were loud and clear to the working class whites.

The Rick Ray Rector execution also speaks to the topic of race and capital punishment that I discussed in my prior posts, where I highlighted the Clintons’ support of capital punishment.

 

In my Politics of Black America class we read “We Have No Leaders: African Americans in the Post-Civil Rights Era” and read chapter 10  “Racial Symbolism as “Ideology” in the Post–Civil Rights Era, and a Postscript on the Clinton Administration and the 1994 Election”. The author mentions the infamous New York Times article “How Race Destroyed the Democratic Coalition”, which concludes that the Democratic Party’s association with blacks would be a major liability in elections. Whether or not this is true, (and a major racial ethical question that relates to the dilemma from my first post) Robert C. Smith elucidates the connection between this belief and the “New Democrats”:

“Finally in 1991, Thomas Edsal, …argued that the Democratic Party should deemphasize issues of racism, poverty, civil rights, and affirmative action…This is precisely the script followed by the Clinton strategists.”

Additionally:

“Bill Clinton could not have been nominated or elected without the overwhelming support of black voters. Yet his campaign was deliberately designed to distance him and the party from blacks”

 

The infamous “Sistah Souljah” moment, which was so well known in politics that it has become a term in colloquial usage to describe similar events, is another defining moment of race in Clinton’s presidency. The 1992 L.A. race riots which were sparked by the racist police abuse of Rodney King (caught on video), were the Freddie Gray Baltimore riots of the 1990’s. Female rapper Sistah Souljah made the following comment in reference to the riots to the Washington Post:

“If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?… So if you’re a gang member and you would normally be killing somebody, why not kill a white person? Do you think that somebody thinks that white people are better, are above and beyond dying, when they would kill their own kind?”

It is obvious that this comment is off hand, but Bill Clinton capitalized on it as a prime opportunity to distance himself from black people. Not only did he rebuke the rapper, but tied her views to Jesse Jackson, a prominent black Democratic presidential candidate who ran in 1984 and 1988. Bill Clinton spoke at Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition and in a calculated act, admonished Jackson for even having Sistah Souljah in the panel. Acclaimed Civil Rights activist and Professor Roger Wilkins assesses the condescending symbolic distancing:

“In that context Clinton’s speech was arrogant, and it was cheap. He came there to show suburban whites that he can stand up to blacks. It was contrived.”

What is most tragic about the racial tone of this moment is the effectiveness of it. The racial chasm was filled. It was obvious that “white people got the message: According to polls, white voters were more familiar with Clinton’s attack on Sister Souljah than they were with his economic plan.”

The way in which the Clinton camp bent over backwards to cloak their racial tactics is astounding. To this day, many liberals will still see no issue with any of what Clinton said during his administration. Some will justify it on the grounds of the “political context” of the time, but that is not the answer any of us would like to hear if it was given from the party that does not have the black vote guaranteed in every election. I’m not sure if it’s faux liberalism which leads one to conclude that throwing your most loyal constituents under the bus is acceptable, or a convenient rejection of black political scrutiny to ensure establishment dominance. Maybe one should ask Hillary Clinton in 2008, the subject of my next post.

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