This article was originally published by Salon on October 12, 1998.
A revealing aspect of the current White House crisis is the racial gap in public opinion polls, which is almost as wide as after the O.J. Simpson verdict. When the world discovered in January that the president was having sex with a young intern, a New York Times poll found that 81 percent of blacks (compared to 58 percent of whites) nonetheless approved of the way the president was conducting his job. When asked whether the president shared the moral values of most Americans, fully 77 percent of blacks (twice as many as whites) said yes.
Nine months later, after the discovery of the stained dress and the release of the Starr Report, 63 percent of blacks still thought the president — now a proven liar and philanderer — shared the nation’s morality. This was nearly three times the number of whites (22 percent) who did.
This striking disparity, reflecting a unique community support of the president (even feminists are more ambivalent), has prompted several attempts to explain it. According to a widely quoted comment by comedian Chris Rock, Clinton’s African-American support is inspired by the fact that he is “the first black president.” Explains Rock: “It’s very simple. Black people are used to being persecuted. Hence, they relate to Clinton.”
The comedian is not alone in these ruminations. In an article exploring African-American reactions, New York Times reporter Kevin Sack quotes NAACP head Julian Bond saying, “You just can’t help but think that some of this [investigation of Clinton] is race-based,” while Harvard Professor Alvin Poussaint reports that rumors have been circulating in the African-American community to the effect that Clinton “must have had black ancestry.”
A full-blown expression of these attitudes is on display in the current New Yorker, where Nobel laureate Toni Morrison writes of the crisis: “African-American men seemed to understand it right away. Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black president. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.”
Perhaps one has to be, as I am, a lapsed man of the left to react to the loopy anti-white attitudes laced into these cadences from our most celebrated and rewarded national literary figure. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetimes? Apparently, Colin Powell, the most popular presidential hopeful in polls taken only two years ago, isn’t all that black, having been born into a two-parent household and, though poor in origins and familiar with discrimination, not known for his unhealthy food addictions or stereotypical musical tastes.
On the other hand, perhaps the liberal identification of blackness with victimization and social dysfunction isn’t so wide of the mark in explaining the sympathy of political leftists like Morrison and Bond, or the support of the congressional black caucus for the immoralist from Little Rock. Perhaps it reflects a resonance in the black community to the White House’s cynical strategy of defining presidential deviancy down: “They all do it.” Roosevelt, Kennedy, Eisenhower, Bush — they all lie and cheat. So why shouldn’t our guy? This certainly seems to be the corrosive logic behind which some blacks have rallied behind other criminal politicians, like corrupt and crack-addicted Washington Mayor Marion Barry. It could easily account for the undertones of racial paranoia (“they’re out to get our guys”) that surfaced when African-American members of the Clinton administration — Ron Brown, Mike Espy, Hazel O’Leary — all came under investigation for irregularities in office.
Which is precisely the way Toni Morrison frames Clinton’s problem: “When virtually all the African-American Clinton appointees began, one by one, to disappear, when the President’s body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution, when he was metaphorically seized and body-searched, who could gainsay these black men who knew whereof they spoke?” According to Morrison, the message from white America is clear, “No matter how smart you are, how hard you work, how much coin you earn for us, we will put you in your place or put you out of the place.” Or, as the late Malcolm X, in his racist phase, once put it (I paraphrase): No matter how high you rise, you’re always a nigger to them.