Jewish World Review March 5, 2004/ 12 Adar 5764
On being black like Clinton
Speaking strictly as a honkie, I find few pastimes more amusing than watching white people try to "be black." With John Kerry's announcement that he would like to be the second black president, the next eight months promise an embarrassment of riches.
Kerry, whose "soul" quotient makes George Bush look like James Brown, made the remark Tuesday following his anointing as the Democratic presidential nominee: "President Clinton was often known as the first black president. I wouldn't be upset if I could earn the right to be the second."
How does one earn the right to be a black president? That may depend on what your definition of "black" is.
The definition that got Clinton thus dubbed was provided by Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, who wrote in a 1998 New Yorker essay that Clinton was our nation's first black president because he "displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas."
If that's the definition of "black," then there are legions of "blacks" out here posing as white boys, but John Kerry - born and married rich, Boston Brahmin, guitar-playing, goat-cheese-loving Beacon Hill boy - ain't one of them.
Of course Morrison was being facetious, but the joke stuck and has been expanded in hilarious and family-inappropriate ways. Meanwhile, Clinton has been building his "black" resume.
He's been inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame and is honorary chairman of the international advisory board for a planned $37 million national black history museum slated to open in Charleston, S.C., in 2007. He even located his post-presidential offices in Harlem, but not before his first choice was criticized as too expensive.
Nevertheless, and despite Clinton's nearly 90 percent approval rating among blacks at the end of his administration, not all African-Americans worship at his temple of racial healing. Some see the emperor's bare backside.
Such as Kevin Gray, a veteran civil-rights activist in South Carolina and until recently, Al Sharpton's state campaign manager. To Gray, Clinton is all style and no soul brother. As for Morrison's paean to President Feel Y'r Pain, Gray says it was an insult to blacks.
"The punch line is that Clinton is decadent and promiscuous, got rhythm, got caught and got over - so he's black!" wrote Gray in the Dec. 7, 2002, issue of CounterPunch, the very alternative political newsletter that, by its own description, wages battle against "the war machine, big business and the rapers of nature."
In other words, not the likeliest of Bush fans or Clinton enemies.
Gray goes on in the article to show how many of Clinton's policies - and his passivity on others - were damaging to blacks. In just one example, Gray notes that black incarceration rates blossomed under Clinton, exceeding rates during Ronald Reagan's eight years.
Otherwise, Gray cuts a swath through Clinton's "phony civil-rights legacy," calling him a racial hypocrite expert at playing the race card, who has co-opted civil rights themes and figures for his own political gain.
And Brother Kerry? Gray is skeptical that Kerry, who seems more tone deaf than colorblind, can "get" black folks and black issues. When Kerry talks about states' rights, for instance, red flags fly up in Gray's neighborhood.
"He must be as dumb as Howard Dean," says Gray, referring to Dean's pre-primary play to South Carolina's bubba vote. How could Dean not know, Gray asks, that white boys in pickup trucks with Confederate flags is a metaphor for the KKK? Likewise, how could Kerry not know that "states' rights" is code for "slavery" and "segregation" among blacks living south of the Mason-Dixon?
More red flags went up when Kerry, responding to questions about diversity in his campaign, launched into his record of hiring blacks when he was a prosecutor.
"I thought, oh man, the first thing you can talk about is locking up people," says Gray. "His whole orientation toward black people is they're 'problem people.' Excuse my French," he said, laughing, "but I thought, if that's the only way that cracker's going to get into the race debate, I'll go with the devil we know."
Did Al Sharpton's former South Carolina campaign manager just say he'd vote for George Bush?
"I would vote for Ralph Nader on principle knowing that we're going to get the devil that we know."
A dark horse of a different color, that, and perhaps an early warning to white men who dare to be black presidents.
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