Shrewd politics made blacks loyal to Clinton

November 02, 1998|By Brent Staples

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 the breaking point in Monicagate, as black intellectuals struggle to explain why the African-American electorate supports President Clinton so much more vigorously than the white one does.

The Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson conjectured reasonably enough on the New York Times op/ed page that black voters rushed to Mr. Clinton's aid because they feel historically vulnerable to invasions of privacy such as those committed during independent counsel Kenneth Starr investigation. The novelist Ishmael Reed stepped closer to an incendiary line, writing in The Sun that the African-American affinity for Mr. Clinton stems partly from the fact that the president has "a black style" and even "walks black." The Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison crossed into the fantastical when she wrote in the New Yorker that Mr. Clinton is "blacker than any actual person who could ever be elected in our children's lifetime." Explaining what she meant by "blackness," Ms. Morrison listed single motherhood, poverty, saxophone playing and an uncontrollable desire to eat at McDonald's.

Missing political analysis

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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 a recent poll results released by 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.

Elderly support

Mr. Clinton's favorable ratings among the black elderly (100 percent) are astonishing given that this group disapproves strongly of the death penalty, which he supports. These voters have given Mr. Clinton a pass on this issue, as long as black economic fortunes remain good. Combine those fortunes with Mr. 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 clever outreach campaign that went around the sometimes surly Congressional Black Caucus and reached black voters directly through their 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. Mr. Clinton returned the visits in triplicate, with church appearances that cemented his support -- while enhancing the reputations of the ministers he visited. When trouble arrived at the White House gate, black ministers -- many of whose church services are broadcast on radio -- unleashed a torrent of appeals on Mr. Clinton's behalf. Faced with a surge among its constituents, the Congressional Black Caucus scrambled to the front of the parade.

Mr. 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 like Bill

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 Mr. Clinton has a "black" way of being not only goes too far but is also sociologically imprecise.

Mr. 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. Given that most African Americans have Southern roots, Mr. 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 is a New York Times editorial writer.

Pub Date: 11/02/98

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