In life, and now in death, Muhammad Ali cut a swashbuckling, larger-than-life figure. Three days of celebration for Ali will culminate in a public funeral service led by former President Bill Clinton on Friday in Louisville, Ky., representing an ironic high point in the nation’s relationship with black radicalism.
A black power icon and anti-war hero being eulogized by a draft-dodging ex-president offers a perfect example of the dominant neoliberal philosophy that seeks to co-opt and mainstream symbols of defiance and dissent.
You can’t rehabilitate a revolutionary, but you can turn his legacy into a global brand.
Clinton eulogizing Ali is especially ironic since the former president’s political views and policy prescriptions for the black community stand in stark contrast with Ali’s youthful freedom dreams. The fact that Ali’s family invited Clinton to speak at Ali’s funeral does not excuse this contradiction; it only adds to it. Clinton, a “third way” Democrat who virtually abandoned the anti-poverty and anti-racist ethos of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, will now seek to reimagine his own fraught political legacy through posthumous association with Ali.
Like a magic trick, the neoliberal Democratic icon, who characterized Ali as a “friend,” is using the death of a genuine political revolutionary to justify a political legacy that a new generation of Black Lives Matter activists have rightfully called into question. Just because the Ali family has approved of these circumstances makes it no less an act of exploitation.
The age of Ferguson, Mo., and mass incarceration has produced an anti-Clinton (Bill and Hillary) backlash among younger blacks who, having actually checked the historical and policy record, question Clinton’s past standing as, in Toni Morrison’s words, the “first black president.”
Clinton’s popularity with the black community was always mediated by pragmatic political calculations, ones that often produced misery for the African-American poor. Playing saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show, appointing black Cabinet officials and praying in black churches seemed to render the Clinton legacy immune to its destructive racial politics. As a presidential candidate, then-Gov. Clinton flew to Arkansas to preside over the death sentence of a mentally ill black man and publicly scolded activist Sister Souljah—at Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH conference—in a successful effort to distance himself from civil rights activists for white voters.
As president, Clinton doubled down on this Janus-faced approach to racial justice and equality. He promised to “mend and not end” affirmative action, but he allowed his friend and assistant-attorney-general nominee Lani Guinier to be smeared by the right wing as a “quota queen”; passed draconian welfare reform that placed new pressures on poor, single black mothers; and championed a crime bill that incarcerated more black men in federal prison than Ronald Reagan.
Praised by critics on the left and right for his ability to “triangulate” between liberal and conservative policies, Clinton became the global symbol of neoliberalism—the economic, political and cultural system that privatizes, monetizes and militarizes institutions, politics, nation-states and, yes, even the legacies of fallen revolutionary icons.
Muhammad Ali’s legacy is the latest up for debate but will not be the last. Martin Luther King Jr.’s symbolism remains more contested now than in his own time, a byproduct of a national holiday, official memorial and national adulation that has erased much of King’s radical legacy.
Clinton’s prominent presence at Ali’s funeral ensures that such embellishment will continue. The Muhammad Ali who challenged a global empire, upbraided white supremacy, embraced the black power movement, befriended Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, and who identified Elijah Muhammad as a mentor will be largely absent from the proceedings in Louisville. Missing, too, will be an acknowledgment that the forces of racism from Ali’s time have regenerated in our own era, with spectacularly catastrophic results for black men and women, girls and boys, the elderly, the sick, the poor, and those in prison.
The very characteristics—his brash impatience with injustice and reckless belief in freedom—that are now posthumously admired made Ali one of the most reviled figures of his time. Bill Clinton’s crime bill demonized these same traits when found in young black men living in America.
Clinton’s eulogy will most certainly recall Ali’s universal appeal, making a specific and personal point of how, as a young white man from the South, the former president found inspiration in Ali, the black heavyweight champion who took on a controversial name and religion.
But Ali’s journey to the universal was rooted in the specific struggles of black people in America—a struggle that continues and that, however much he has aided the black middle class, Clinton’s policies have done much to injure. The universal and transcendent imagery attached to Ali was forged through the crucible of a search for black equality, one that continues in our own time.
Earlier this year, Clinton denounced black activists who criticized his past criminal-justice policies. Clinton blasted them for not “understanding” that despite the collateral damage of broken families, high rates of recidivism, growing juvenile incarceration and sentencing disparities based on race, his crime reform was the best thing that could have happened to black people.
At the time, I wondered how such an intelligent man could be so tone-deaf to the harsh realities facing the nation as well as the new racial consciousness gripping so many young people.
Clinton’s undeserved honor in eulogizing Muhammad Ali provides a bracing answer. Neoliberalism’s grip on our national political imagination—not to mention its curdling of America’s moral compass—gives Clinton permission to erase parts of his own and the nation’s past, modify the present and shape the future. Past and ongoing political sins are forgiven or go unmentioned, with protesters dismissed as extremists.
Revolutionaries are not brands, but neoliberalism’s genius is its capacity to turn icons of dissent and rebellion into markers of individual power and collective consumption. On this score, Bill Clinton eulogizing Muhammad Ali represents a match made in (corporate) heaven.
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Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.