Black Like Whom?

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Oct. 25 1998 3:30 AM

Black Like Whom?

The real reasons African-Americans support Clinton.

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Like it or not, African-Americans have inherited a historical exemption that allows them to employ racial pejoratives freely and even playfully. But the exemption has been strained to breaking point in Flytrap, as black intellectuals struggle to explain why the African-American electorate supports Bill Clinton so much more vigorously than the white one does.

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Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson conjectured reasonably enough on the NewYork Times op-ed page that black voters rushed to Clinton's aid because they feel historically vulnerable to invasions of privacy like those committed during the Starr investigation. Novelist Ishmael Reed stepped closer to an incendiary line, writing in the Baltimore Sun that the African-American affinity for Clinton stems partly from the fact that the president has "a black style" and even "walks black." Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison crossed into the fantastical when she wrote in The New Yorker that Clinton is "blacker than any actual person who could ever be elected in our children's lifetime." Explaining what she meant by "blackness," Morrison listed single motherhood, poverty, saxophone playing, and an uncontrollable desire to eat at McDonald's. Emboldened by this example, white liberal playwright Arthur Miller suggested on the Times op-ed page that Clinton's "blackness" resides in the fact he came from "a broken home" with "an alcoholic mother."

The deconstruction of so-called "blackness" might pass muster as a parlor game, but it's lame as political analysis. The notion that blacks cleave to Clinton because he does the pimp walk, eats fried chicken, and reminds them of unwed motherhood trades on noxious racial stereotypes and implies that African-Americans lack the ability to make rational political decisions. It also shortchanges the White House, which conducted a brilliant campaign to court black voters directly.

Any pollster worth his paycheck knows that political approval ratings are based almost entirely on economic concerns. By that standard, African-Americans have done better under Clinton than under any president back to and including Nixon--whose enlightened policies on urban aid and public health surely qualify him as the "blackest" president of all time. This point is borne out in this week's poll results from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington. For the first time in a Joint Center survey, black people were more likely than whites to report that they were better off financially--by a margin of 51 percent to 31.5 percent.

Clinton's favorable ratings among the black elderly (100 percent) are astonishing given that this group disapproves strongly of the death penalty, which Clinton supports with gusto. These voters have given Clinton a pass on this issue, telling him that he can burn the criminals he wants as long as black economic fortunes remain good. Combine those fortunes with Clinton's support of affirmative action and his appointments of blacks to Cabinet positions--and 12 years of Republican assaults on equal opportunity--and it should come as no surprise that blacks are enthusiastic about this president.

The White House helped itself with a brilliant outreach campaign that went around the sometimes surly Congressional Black Caucus and reached black voters directly through their ministers and churches. The office that carried out this plan was officially called the White House Office of Public Liaison--but was more colloquially known as the Office of Negro Affairs. Alexis M. Herman ran this effort so well that she was later named secretary of Labor. While at the White House, her job included bringing in powerful black ministers, who were more than happy to take photo opportunities with Arkansas Bill. They prayed and ate with him and prayed some more. Clinton returned the visits in triplicate, with church appearances that cemented his support--while enhancing the reputations of the ministers he visited. When Torquemada arrived at the White House gate, black ministers--many of whose church services are broadcast on radio--unleashed a torrent of appeals on Clinton's behalf. Faced with a surge among its constituents, the Congressional Black Caucus scrambled to the front of the parade.

Clinton's church visits were more than singing and chicken dinners. He delivered his toughest talks on welfare from church pulpits. He realized intuitively what many Democrats and the Republicans have always failed to see: that the black middle class is prime conservative timber--angry about crime, intolerant of social pathology, and deeply scornful of the traditional welfare system. Given how this strategy paid off--pleasing both conservative whites and the black middle class--Republicans like George W. Bush will surely duplicate it in 2000.

Black people, particularly black Southerners, have endured political contempt for so long that many of them have come to assume that any white person who treats them with respect must somehow be black under the skin. But the claim that Clinton has a "black" way of being not only goes too far but is also sociologically imprecise. Clinton is a Southerner, like his hero Elvis; what that means is that they both grew up close to black people, with open access to black culture, a lot of which is synonymous with American pop culture. The Baptist churches in the South were segregated--but they sang the same hymns and preached the same sermons. Given that all African-Americans have Southern roots, Clinton's personal style and patterns travel easily from one black community to another. In short, he is more comfortable in a room of black faces than any American president before him. This is what Toni Morrison and others were trying to say when they described him as "black."

Brent Staples writes editorials on politics and culture for the New York Times.

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