Editor's note: In an article titled “Yes She Can,” a play on President Barack Obama’s inspiring 2008 campaign slogan, Michael Eric Dyson writes for the New Republic of his conversion to the belief that Hillary Clinton will do more for black people than the president himself. Calling himself a skeptic after a series of questionable incidents involving Clinton and her husband, beginning with the bruising 2008 primary race that raised the ire of black voters in South Carolina and elsewhere, Dyson accepted an invitation to spend three days on the road with the Clinton campaign. In this excerpt, he details what he saw (sometimes in her body language) and heard in conversations with activists, old pols and preachers.
There is good reason to be skeptical about Hillary Clinton and race. It’s never been anything explicit, necessarily, but she has sinned in the realm of signification, the place where innuendo and plausible deniability live. Let us start with her first presidential campaign in 2008, and the infamous “3 a.m. phone call” television ad that so spooked folks in the nation’s white hinterland. “It’s 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep,” a concerned narrator intoned. “Who do you want answering the phone?”
On the surface, there was nothing especially racially troubling about an advertisement that said the nation’s first female commander in chief had the chops and bravura to answer the call. But to seasoned observers of racial coding, myself included, the image of innocent sleeping children and a nervously attentive mother evoked an uglier racial epoch. “I couldn’t help but think of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation … with its portrayal of black men lurking in the bushes around white society,” Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson wrote in the New York Times. “The person answering the phone might be a black man, someone who could not be trusted to protect us from this threat.”
Then there was the time that Clinton, having lost the 2008 primary in North Carolina, pointed out that “Obama’s support among working, hardworking Americans, white Americans”—my emphasis—“is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me.” When pressed about the racial undertones of her comments, Clinton was defiant. “These are the people you have to win if you’re a Democrat. … Everybody knows that.”
Or the debate dustup with Obama that year over the role of Martin Luther King Jr. in bringing about social change. “We don’t need to be raising the false hopes of our country about what can be delivered,” Clinton said. After the debate, Obama responded that hope inspired John F. Kennedy to put a man on the moon and allowed King to imagine the demise of segregation. “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act,” Clinton later said on Fox News. “It took a president to get it done. The power of that dream became real in people’s lives because we had a president who said we are going to do it, and actually got it accomplished.” Never mind the black-led social movement that forced Johnson to act, nor the pregnant political moment that was brought into being because of King’s fierce eloquence. I was angered by her presumption, and I wasn’t the only one.
And then there are the transgressions of her husband, Bill Clinton, and his racial meltdown during her primary defeat in South Carolina. The former president, used to enjoying wide and deep black support, implied that an Obama victory would be insignificant because, after all, Jesse Jackson had won the state twice in his failed 1984 and 1988 presidential runs. Black voters could only read his comments as an effort to blacken Obama, to ghettoize him, and to place him in the Negro niche of symbolic politics.
As president, when it came to black people, Bill Clinton was a magician. He could conjure from his political top hat racial rabbits that pleased the black crowd and made them go “ahh.” Yet he still signed the crime bill, which contributed mightily to our present predicament of over-incarceration, especially of black and brown folk; and he gave us welfare reform, taking back with the stroke of a pen the racial comfort he had offered with the wave of his mystical wand.
Eight years and a Barack Obama presidency later, it is tempting to forget these incidents and say, “That was then, this is now.” But when it comes to race, the past is never prologue: It is the basis for the present. In 2008, we hungered for a president of our own. And while few of us believed that the first black occupant of the Oval Office would yield a post-racial nation, many did hope that Obama’s victory pointed to the triumph of the best part of our country over its despotic and ill-intending ones.
I was once a vocal surrogate for Obama. But I grew disillusioned with his timid responses to racial crisis, with how willing he was to disclaim his racial affiliation, and more grievously, his shirking of his political duty—“I’m not the president of black America,” he has said. Obama will undoubtedly go down as one of the most important presidents in our nation’s history. But his accomplishments on race will not be what gain him that distinction.
All of which leaves us with an important question: What can Hillary Clinton do for black people as president? She possesses neither her husband’s performative charisma with black folk, nor Obama’s undeniable blackness. She must instead wield the sort of power that politicians would, in a better world, solely rely on: public policy. If we were betrayed by Bill Clinton, and suffered dashed hopes under Obama, maybe, just maybe, we will get from Hillary Clinton what we most need and truly deserve: a set of political practices and policies that reinforce the truth that black lives must, and do, finally matter.
On the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton has exhibited a greater sophistication about race, increased sensitivity about how blackness is lived in our country, and a deeper awareness of how the small brutalities of racism rend the fabric of the social compact after first spoiling the flesh of those at the bottom of society. If there were disturbing racial echoes in Hillary’s first attempt to gain the White House, what’s to guarantee we won’t get blinkered in a fog of racial sensitivity now? Has Hillary Clinton changed? Have we?
Read Michael Eric Dyson’s entire piece at the New Republic.