Bill Clinton may no longer be in the White House, but he’s still the Teflon King. While controversy has raged over Harry Reid’s comments about President Barack Obama’s electability because of skin color and ability to speak without a “Negro dialect,” Clinton has so far escaped much attention for remarks reported in the same book that could be viewed as far more insidious than Reid’s and far more damaging to his image.
In Game Change, by journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, Clinton is quoted complaining about Obama to Ted Kennedy: A few years back, Clinton said, this guy would be serving us coffee.
The guy with degrees from Columbia and Harvard Law? The guy who made Law Review? The former senator from Illinois?
Since Clinton can’t fault Obama for his credentials, the reference to serving coffee leads us to an obvious conclusion—that because he is black, it is the kind of role Bill Clinton would have expected him to play in his life not so long ago.
We have gotten to a point where any comments that have a racial component are suspect. That may be inevitable after a long and wretched history of racial hostility and inflammatory language, but that also serves to stifle discussion. The brouhaha stirred up by Republicans over Harry Reid’s comments fails to address the substance of what he said.
As Omar Wasow points out in his article “Was Harry Reid Right?,” academic studies have shown that white voters are more likely to vote for a light-skinned black candidate than one with a dark complexion. Such reactions are rooted in long-held stereotypes and may take generations to overcome. There are even distinctions and preferences based on skin color within the black community.
On the surface, Clinton’s comments reflect his frustration that Obama came out of nowhere to upset the plans that he and his wife had made to retake the White House. During the campaign last year, he dismissed Obama’s candidacy as a “fairy tale,” setting off a debate about whether he and Hillary had injected race into the campaign.
But the refusal to see a black man beyond a servile role is a recurring experience for African Americans. Many black professionals can tell the story of being mistaken for a waiter or parking attendant no matter how well they are dressed. When New York police staged a massive protest against David Dinkins in 1992, the Big Apple’s first black mayor, they carried a caricature of the mayor with a towel draped over his arm.
While there has been a great deal of racial progress in the United States, deep-seated assumptions are hard to break. It is not far-fetched to assume that Bill Clinton, born and raised poor and white in Arkansas, was indoctrinated with certain attitudes that resurfaced in a moment of heat.
What makes this revelation about Clinton so infuriating is that he’s long enjoyed the affection and loyalty of African Americans, particularly during his presidency. Then, Clinton seemed so comfortable around black people. He brought blacks to significant new roles in his government—Ron Brown as secretary of commerce, for example. Toni Morrison penned an essay in 1998 dubbing him “the first black president.” Black voters stayed solidly in his camp through both terms. And after he left office, he was the first white person inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.
But racism is a lot more complex than a Fox News shoutcast. There is not just one form of racism or one manifestation of it. There are degrees of racism, and some are less extreme than others—but no less insidious. Some companies will hire blacks, for example, but not promote them because managers refuse to see them as leaders. Other companies don’t hire them at all because they can’t find someone “qualified.” Individuals may have black friends, but would never consider marrying an African American or living in a predominantly black neighborhood. In Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing, the son of the pizza store owner rants about blacks—then concedes his favorite athletes and his favorite musicians are all black.
African Americans have largely learned to distinguish degrees of racism and to decide which manifestations to confront or ignore. We all have white friends with blind spots. When I was a young musician in New York, I noted that many of the older, white jazz musicians never had a good thing to say about any living black musician—Miles, Coltrane, Sonny—when they were in a group; but privately, they would spend hours analyzing and emulating the work of the same musician who had been the subject of so much negativity.
There’s no doubt that Bill Clinton has devoted much of his post-presidential work on issues important to African Americans and Africans. He has made a real impact on tackling the ills that plague Africa. More recently, he took the lead in an effort to bring investors to impoverished Haiti. In the end, African Americans will have to decide whether calling Barack Obama a waiter is just one of Bill Clinton’s blind spots and that they can forgive and embrace him again.
Joel Dreyfuss is managing editor of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.