Racism, alive and kicking in Obama’s America
Harry Reid under fire, but Clinton’s remark to Kennedy was seriously racist
Even though he's had to perform all the usual acts of contrition, tumid with "deep regrets" and "sincere apologies", Senator Harry Reid of Nevada is surely getting a bum rap. The 2008 campaign book Game Change, by Time Magazine's Mark Halperin and New York magazine's John Heilemann, quotes the US Senate's top Democrat as saying of Obama early in his presidential bid that he was "light skinned" and "with no Negro dialect, unless he wants to have one". Republicans have gleefully been painting Reid as a racist for the references to skin tone and the use of 'Negro' and 'dialect'.
Obama is indeed light-skinned and there's nothing wrong with pointing it out. Forty years ago 'Negro' was a correct way of describing African Americans. It's rather quaint now, but not by definition racist, any more than is 'dialect'.
On the other hand, if the late Ted Kennedy was quoting Bill Clinton correctly, the former president most certainly was making a racist remark when he said to Kennedy of the black man then battling Mrs Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, "A few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee".
The only way Clinton could have wriggled out of that one is to claim that he was actually trying to express to Kennedy his delighted amazement at Obama's candidacy and at how far America had come in shaking off its racist past. But he hasn't tried it, and Kennedy, in furiously retailing Clinton's remark, left no doubt about his opinion that it was a racist put-down by Bubba Clinton.
Clinton had it coming to him. For years he's coasted along on the black novelist Toni Morrison's supposed compliment that he was "our first black president". What Morrison actually wrote in 1998, when Clinton was impeached, was as follows: "Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: 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." And what Morrison meant, so she said a decade later, was that "President Clinton was being treated, vis-à-vis the sex scandal that was surrounding him… like a black on the street, already guilty, already a perp. I have no idea what his real instincts are, in terms of race."
There's plenty of evidence that in terms of effective politics Clinton was an appalling bigot. Fighting for political survival amid the Flowers sex scandal in the 1992 presidential campaign he raced back from New Hampshire to Arkansas to be present in the governor's mansion to ensure no last-minute hitch occurred in the execution of a mentally retarded black man, Ricky Ray Rector. Later in the campaign he made a great show of denouncing a rap singer, Sister Souljah.
In office, Clinton consistently demonised black teenage mothers, and promoted legislation, on crime and welfare - delightedly backed by Republicans - that impacted on black Americans with particular savagery.
As with Tiger Woods, Clinton's sexual rampages appear to have detoured black women, possibly in the president's case because Bill thought that while he might survive a fling with a nice Jewish girl, getting blow jobs in the Oval Office from a black woman would have been immediate political suicide. Among the black men he caused to suffer were the musicians invited to the White House who had to endure his inevitable intrusions with his saxophone, which he played very badly. Imagine Obama, or any other president, sticking a fiddle under his chin and rushing up to saw away on the instrument amid a White House recital by Itzhak Perlman.
The black men Clinton favoured were of unprincipled character, like Ron Brown and Vernon Jordan. Jesse Jackson was summoned to counsel Clinton, not about improving the lot of the poor, but to publicly "counsel" and spiritually guide the president amid the darkness of the Lewinsky scandal. (This is a duty for which the Rev presumably charges a substantial hourly rate, though he may have waived this in Clinton's case, on the grounds that it was reward enough to be invited to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue at that momentous hour. He's similarly counselled beleaguered politicians like Trent Lott, the Republican minority leader of the Senate, who got into bad trouble for saying on Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday that the country would have been better off if the south's most notorious racist had been running the show.)
The Republicans are sticking it to Reid to distract attention from the fact that the prime activity of their chief spokesmen at the moment – Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh – is to convey to the general population in as vivid terms as possible, short of putting on white robes and peaked hats, that the country's going to the dogs, prostrating itself before Islamic terror, because a black man is ensconced in the Oval Office. On his radio show on Wednesday, Limbaugh said the earthquake in Haiti will play right into Obama's hands by allowing him to play up his "compassionate" and "humanitarian" credentials, and that the President will use this crisis to "boost his credibility with the black community".
Limbaugh, like many Republicans, clearly thinks that Uncle Sam should be stinting in his aid to stricken Haiti: "We've already donated to Haiti. It's called the US income tax." Pat Robertson, America's top right-wing Christian, announced on his TV show on Wednesday that Haiti's sufferings were the result of a "pact with the devil" that Haitian rebels made in the 18th century. "Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon the third, or whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, we will serve you if you will get us free from the French. True story. And so, the devil said, okay it's a deal. And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since they have been cursed by one thing after the other."
The off-hand way Robertson said "true story" to the visibly embarrassed young black woman sitting next to him in the 700 Club studio reminded me very much of his fellow Yalie, George Bush Sr.
Of course, Obama has done some Clinton-style grandstanding about blacks to white audiences. Bill and Hillary went after black teenage moms. Obama prefers to talk about the irresponsibility of young black males. He's not had time to inflict the damage that Bill supervised against poor blacks generally, but give the man time. His eagerness to bail out bankers rather than bankrupts is marked.
As the black radical organiser Kevin Alexander Gray recently remarked on the CounterPunch site, "So as wealth, poverty, education and health disparities between blacks and whites grow wider, and as the number of black homeless, jobless and incarcerated increases, there is a host of questions blacks need to find answers to and act on. How do they pursue a political agenda, recognising that Obama is not the 'president of black America' and is unwilling to go to the mat for black Americans or any really progressive policies? … And if Obama is not part of the solution, he's part of the problem. Right now, he's the latter."
It's always sadly comic to listen to these arguments about decorum and whether Reid said something bad or not. It implies that America is sensitive to issues of race. But the indices of rampant, unchanging racism inscribed in almost every economic statistic put out by the US government proclaim exactly the opposite. Bickering about decorum is a useful red herring. ·
Comments are now closed on this article