When Toni Morrison famously quipped that Bill Clinton was the nation's "first black president," she was commenting on the media's treatment of him during his first presidential campaign in 1992. Next to incumbent president George H.W. Bush, Clinton was a stark study in contrast. Not only were his policies seemingly more liberal, but his background was far from illustrious. And so the media portrayals of the younger upstart from Arkansas mobilized tropes of black deviance around his working-class upbringing, wayward family members, and many rumored affairs. When citing Clinton as the "first black president," Morrison was certainly not making a claim about how Clinton sees himself but how others racialized him through his class background and family history. True enough, Clinton has, with varying degrees of success, tried to ingratiate himself to black communities with all of his saxophone playing, visits to black churches, and charismatic southern Baptist swag.
But, despite all of this, Clinton has also been very clear about who he is and what he does: He is an opportunist who has consistently used black people as pawns to climb the political ladder. He finds black people helpful when they are politically expedient — like when they constitute a consistent voting bloc of the Democratic Party. He is also more than willing to throw individual and collective black people under the bus — check the receipts from Lani Guinier, who Clinton nominated as head of the Justice Department's civil rights division and later abandoned in the face of controversy, to the racialized language of welfare reform. And when black people speak up, question, or critique him, the backlash is swift and brutal.
Bill Clinton's recent comments on Black Lives Matter make that abundantly clear.
While stumping for Hillary Clinton this week, he was interrupted by protesters who demanded accountability for his wife's comments on black youth as "super predators" in 1994, language that was used to bolster racist legislation that has supported the mass incarceration of black people and gutted black communities. And rather than addressing the dog-whistle politics he has successfully used in the past or even offering up an anemic apology, Bill Clinton doubled down on his language and justified the legislation, even going so far as to insist that the protesters — and, therefore, the Black Lives Matter movement itself — support drug dealers and murderers, and not the real victims of crime. Exasperated and dismissive of the protesters who heckled him, he shouted and wagged his finger at the audience. "I don't know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped on crack and sent them out on the street to murder other African-American children. Maybe you thought they were good citizens. She [Hillary Clinton] didn't."
Certainly, admonishing protesters for apparently not paying attention to "black-on-black" crime while claiming that Hillary Clinton apparently did and does is not going to win her campaign any favors.
At first glance, you might be wondering why Bill Clinton is lashing out at BLM in a moment where his wife's campaign needs all the momentum it can get to secure her party's nomination and, particularly, when the Bernie Sanders campaign seems to be galvanizing young voters on the left (when his campaign is not trafficking in sexism, like suggesting that Hillary Clinton is too ambitious) in ways that seem to elude Hillary Clinton.
The truth is, while Sanders has moved Clinton's campaign to the left on several issues and seems to have more street cred as a progressive, neither campaign can claim to be especially savvy around issues of race — both have struggled to engage Black Lives Matter at various points and the Sanders campaign has been largely unsuccessfully in courting black voters in the South. Still, this anti-Black Lives Matter moment is not helpful to the Clinton campaign and will undoubtedly be fodder for Sanders's camp.
Yet, I would be reluctant to say that Bill Clinton's angry tirade against BLM was a misstep, a moment of him just losing his cool, or an unfortunate slip of the tongue. Rather, not only do I think that the former president meant every word he said, I also think that his pushback was deliberate and purposeful. A calculated risk, perhaps, but one that could pay off big in the long run. Clinton might have been dismissing the young people who spoke out against him and his wife, but he was really talking to another audience, one that was largely outside of that room.
Sure, Bernie Sanders has the bleeding hearts on lock, but the Clinton campaign is not just interested in winning over liberals and progressives. They also hope to garner votes from disaffected whites who feel left behind in the economic and demographic shifts the country is going through. And while some, perhaps even many, of these white potential voters are supporting Donald Trump, some of them are on the fence about the demagogue and are equally disinterested in his truly conservative opponents, Ted Cruz and John Kasich.
Bill Clinton was talking to those voters, letting the folks who think that today's BLM protesters are whiny, entitled, spoiled Millennial brats who don't know about following orders. And that he and, by proxy, Hillary Clinton are not afraid to put these uppity negroes back in their place. Bill Clinton is also signifying to those in black communities who find the current rhetoric of black protest too brash and aggressive, those who feel like protesters should be marching peacefully, demanding rights while they sing hymns, as the sanitized history of Martin Luther King Jr. suggests is the most respectable way to make change.
This is not the first time Bill Clinton has used race to despicable ends during an election cycle. In 1992, he claimed that black hip-hop writer and activist Sista Souljah's comments that she had never met "good white people," among other things, were akin to the racism of white supremacist and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke — a hyperbolic comparison that fed on white fears of rabid black power. During the 2008 presidential race, he was particularly egregious with dog-whistle racial remarks, claiming that the Barack Obama campaign purposefully "played the race card" and suggesting that then-senator Obama was an amateur living out "fairy tale" political aspirations.