The Clinton Fallacy
Did blacks really make big economic gains during the '90s?
Hillary Clinton's campaign deployed President Bill Clinton in South Carolina for the specific purpose of delivering the black vote, aiming to remind African-Americans of the good times when Clinton was president. Which raises the question: Why do so many people think the Clinton years were good times for black America?
A hopeful African-American electorate was at the core of Bill Clinton's successful bids for the presidency. In many ways, the scandal-marred, deeply partisan years of the Clinton administration proved disappointing in the face of such early optimism. Welfare reform, the growth of black imprisonment, and the public abandonment of progressive African-Americans like Lani Guinier are some of the most memorable racial disappointments of those years. Even through these disappointments, African-Americans were among Clinton's strongest supporters because many believed Clinton's era was an economic boon.
But there is evidence that Clinton's unmatched popularity among blacks confused many about the true economic impact of his presidency. In a 2005 article I co-authored in the Journal of Black Studies, I analyzed five national surveys from 1984 through 2000. The data show that nearly a third of black Americans held false understandings of black economic conditions during the Clinton years. By the time Clinton left office, many African-Americans incorrectly believed that blacks were doing better economically than whites. In the '80s, barely 5 percent of blacks believed blacks were economically better off than whites. By 2000, nearly 30 percent of African-American respondents believed that blacks were doing better economically than whites. This belief is simply wrong.
There is no evidence to suggest that African-Americans were in a better economic position than whites at any time in American history, including during Clinton's presidency. In fact, striking gaps in income, employment, and wealth continue to distinguish black economic reality in the United States. Clinton's administration did keep inflation low and reduce unemployment. This was a rising tide that lifted many boats, including some black ones. But it strikes me as bizarre that nearly a third of blacks perceived a reversal in the deeply historically entrenched economic position of the races.
The hypnotic racial dance of cultural authenticity that Bill Clinton performed in office lulled many blacks into perceptual fog. Clinton actively cultivated a unique and intense relationship with black voters. He relished this bond and often acknowledged his honorary blackness. It is important to remember that the description of Clinton as black was prompted by his experience of personal, public humiliation at the hands of his political foes. It is not a claim about his racial heritage, but instead a reaction to his experience with and use of cultural markers that often stand for the denigrated elements of black life in America.
As Clinton performed blackness, real black people got poorer. The poorest African-Americans experienced an absolute decline in income, and they also became poorer relative to the poorest whites. The richest African-Americans saw an increase in income, but even the highest-earning blacks still considerably lagged their white counterparts. Furthermore, the '90s witnessed the continued growth of the significant gap between black and white median wealth.
My research shows that respondents who liked Clinton best were always most likely to mistake blacks as doing better than whites. These attitudes about Clinton are not neutral. Deep racial affection toward Bill Clinton contributed to many African-Americans' misunderstanding the continuing economic inequality faced by the race. Like the idea of Bill Clinton as a black president, these overblown ideas of the massive economic benefits accruing to African-Americans in the '90s were largely an illusion. It is hard to vote your interests if you can't judge your circumstances.
Melissa Harris-Lacewell is associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University.
Photograph of Bill Clinton by Win McNamee/Getty Images.