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, 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?
In late October, I joined Hillary Clinton in a conference room in midtown Manhattan to try to find out what lessons about race the years have taught her. She had turned 68 the day before, and seemed calm and confident, and ready to discuss the young black activists drawing so much attention, even the ones that had disrupted her campaign for the presidency.
And so my first question to her was about the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. “You know, I believe that what these young men and women are doing is so critically important,” she said. “It’s not to dismiss what President Obama or anybody else says about the progress we’ve made. All of that’s fine. But what we have to be honest about is that, in too many places, not just on the streets but in all kinds of institutions and communities, this message pierces either the indifference, the insensitivity, or, indeed, the hostility and racism.”
Two months earlier, in New Hampshire, a group of BLM activists had been barred from a campaign event on drug abuse, and Clinton had agreed to meet with them afterward. Her exchange with Julius Jones, the 35-year-old founder of a BLM chapter in Worcester, Massachusetts, drew the most notice. Jones compared mass incarceration from the drug war to a “prison plantation system,” adding that “until someone takes that message and speaks that truth to white people in this country so that we can actually take on anti-blackness as a founding problem in this country, I don’t believe that there is going to be a solution.” With skepticism, he’d asked Clinton a critical question: “What in your heart has changed that’s going to change the direction of this country?”
Clinton demurred. “I don’t believe you just change hearts,” she said. “I believe you change laws. You change allocation of resources. You change the way systems operate.” If all that transpired under her presidency, or anyone else’s, was a change of heart, and not the systemic change she prescribed, “we’ll be back here in ten years having the same conversation.”
Jones had earlier said, “Respectfully … you don’t tell black people what we need to know, and we won’t tell you all what you need to do.” Clinton fired back, in what was viewed by many as the response of a white liberal forced to reckon with her own behavior. “Well, respectfully, if that is your position, then I will talk only to white people about how we are going to deal with … a very real problem.”
The New York Times described their interaction as “visceral and raw,” and Clinton didn’t disagree when I asked her about it. “It was very affecting to me,” she said, “because when you are trying to raise consciousness, and you are so passionate about the wrongs that you see, and you want to be part of a movement to call them out and go beyond and try to provide solutions, it’s important that people listen—particularly people in positions of influence.” But, she added, she was concerned the “grassroots energy” of BLM would not result in actual change. “I am running for office because I believe politics really matters,” she said. “And it matters because we’ve got to harness the energy of people, organize them, mobilize them, politicize them, to bring about changes from the local level to the national level.”
She believes the BLM activists are starting to understand that both direct action and legislative work will be needed to enact change for black folk in this country. Clinton told me about a female BLM activist she met in October in Washington, D.C., who was on the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. When she complimented the activist on the work they’d done—calling for a National Crime and Justice Task Force and for police departments to collect better data about the race of those they stopped and arrested—and then asked when these actions would be implemented, the activist told Clinton the commission would expire at the end of the year.
“I said, ‘Well, you gotta get in there and say, “No, you’re not going to expire. You’re going to be there.” So it’s a constant: What is it we have to do? Not just to keep the issue alive, not just to have a charismatic young voice in the mix, but OK, how do we do the hard, boring work of building the coalitions and writing the legislation, getting reforms done across the board from the local level to the national level.’”
As in the debates with Obama in 2008 and with BLM activists, Clinton measured success in terms of legislative accomplishments. She mentioned the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, which she called a landmark in American history. “That didn’t mean that people’s hearts changed. But it meant that we had the power of the law, we had the Constitution on our side. And that was a powerful tool to change circumstances that open doors to so many people.”
There are two narratives here—one focused on heart, the other on law—and they are at odds with each other in a way that illustrates the dualistic character of race: the need for structural social change, as Clinton would have it, and the urgent need to address an anti-blackness that is beyond the purview of the law but which feeds the behaviors the law is concerned with, and which makes the law necessary. Earlier generations of black people have separated the body and soul in a division of political and moral labor. The law has been left to politicians and jurists, the heart ceded to the clergy and psychologists and social scientists. The Black Lives Matter activists have no time for this. They insist on the unity of politics and morality: The racist act is connected to the racist intent; the murdering hand is connected to the murdering heart.
Race is like religion: It has its conservative literalists and fundamentalist adherents; it has liberal interpreters who advocate separation of church and state and radical revisionists who abandon dogma but dote on the moral heart of the faith. Clinton, like King, is a racial liberal. She seeks to uphold the virtue of legislation and policy. BLM is made up of radical revisionists who embrace the intent more than the form. They see the existential blight and bilious revulsion of blackness as it courses through the veins of the culture. This is a perspective that has been criticized, not just by Hillary Clinton, but by the black old guard, the ones she wronged in the 2008 campaign but who share her belief in getting things done.
The counter to this view, of course, is one with which Clinton and the rest of us will eventually have to contend. The solutions proffered in the name of progressive racial faith—change in law, change in policy—have no answer for the hate that trumps law, the bigotry that adapts to whatever law is on the books and finds a way to twist it to its advantage. Whether Clinton, or any politician, can truly address this conundrum is another matter. But she must, at the very least, be forced to speak its name.
“Hello, my friend,” Clinton said to Jesse Jackson. It was a few days after we’d met in New York, and I had traveled with Clinton to Atlanta, where she would address a minister’s luncheon at the Hyatt. She had emerged from the hotel’s freight elevator and passed a few moments in conversation with Jackson. Clinton’s on-camera body language can often appear stiff—ready to listen, to defend—but here I saw an easier physical style. She clearly felt at home.
“Who’s that good-looking man behind you?” she said, referring to Jackson’s son Yusef, a Chicago businessman. “Great to see you.”
I have known Jackson for a quarter century, following him the length and breadth of this country and trailing him abroad, and when I watched him with Clinton, I saw genuine comfort. He is a leader who has played hardball in the political big leagues for many years and made his share of mistakes. The Clintons and Jackson—who I believe serves as proxy for huge swaths of black America—are like old lovers who have hurt one another but who have decided to forgive as they conduct business and pursue mutual goals.
I was here with Clinton because I wanted to gauge her standing among the older black elite, which had abandoned her utterly in 2008. And where better to do so than in Atlanta, headquarters of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the place where Maynard Jackson became the city’s first black mayor, where Andrew Young succeeded him after serving as United Nations ambassador under Jimmy Carter, and where Representative John Lewis, the most resonant remaining symbol of the old guard, lives. Atlanta would show me what these folks thought about her promises of new policy.
Jackson huddled with Clinton alone for a few moments and then he escorted her inside to the crowd of dignitaries assembled to greet her before she spoke. Before things began in the main hall, Clinton stood in a prayer circle with a coterie of black ministers led by the Reverend Dr. Cynthia Hale, the tall, strikingly beautiful pastor of Ray of Hope Christian Church.
“You knew before the foundation of the world that Secretary Hillary Clinton would be in this place,” Hale began. “In your providence, God, you have positioned her to be elevated. And we agree with that, oh God. So we’ve come to hold hands, to direct our thoughts and prayers towards her so that she might have strength for the battle. Thank you God, for her own intellect, her abilities, her integrity, her heart, her compassion for people. And for the ability that she has to run a nation.”
“Yes, Lord,” a male voice affirmed.
“When she speaks, God, every time let her speak with authority,” Hale continued. “We pray, oh God, for her family. And we pray, God, for their strength. Thank you, God, that she is the woman that You have chosen for this hour.”
Hale finished amid a flurry of “amens,” and Jackson, in a reminder that perhaps not everything from 2008 had been forgotten, jokingly noted that Hale had prayed for Hillary but not Bill.
“Well, she did say ‘family,’ ” Clinton protested with amusement. “And that does count.”
Later, I asked Jackson what counted politically for these folks. When he declined to answer my question directly, mentioning Clinton’s “legacy of relationships,” and the work she’d done on health care and with children, I pressed him, asking about lingering black resentment from the first presidential campaign, in particular about Bill’s remarks about him. He offered a slightly weary rejoinder.
“Well, I did win South Carolina. Twice. Now you can read into it what you choose to read into it,” he said. Then he shifted seamlessly into a comfortable speechmaking mode. “We can’t go forward looking backwards. What’s at stake now is not South Carolina in 2008; what’s at stake now is South Carolina 2017, where they turned back billions of dollars in Medicaid money. That’s why people who are poor can’t get health insurance and are dying prematurely. What’s in front of us now is: If we bail out the banks, then we should bail out the people who are victims of bank behavior. We always have to be mindful of what’s behind us, but the rearview mirror cannot be our preoccupation.”
Cynics might conclude that Jackson is eager to embrace Clinton because he wants to return from the political exile that he’d been subjected to under the race-shy Obama. Jackson was accidentally taped in 2008 saying that Obama had “been talking down to black people. … I want to cut his nuts off,” a remark that didn’t result in too many invitations to the White House. Still, some others were forgiven: When Obama was elected, he didn’t punish Senator Joe Lieberman, who had endorsed John McCain for president. Jackson’s cut was deeper, a racial wound.
There has always been a sense among the black old guard that Obama lacks a natural feel for them, or for black folk writ large—that he didn’t really know who we are. Crime-bill-signing, welfare-reform-promoting, Jackson-backstabbing Bill Clinton—now he knew black folk. And that is why they were so angry at Hillary in 2008: because they felt Bill had betrayed them. “Some African Americans have not forgiven the couple for statements they made in 2008 ... that were interpreted as racially insensitive or that seemed to suggest black voters owed a political debt to the Clintons,” The Washington Post’s Vanessa Williams wrote in November. Bill Clinton had indeed given black folk access, started a conversation on race, and offered blacks more cabinet posts than any president in history. (More, even, than Obama would.) And Hillary had been burned by the flocking of black folk to Obama, a devastating blow that demanded its own healing. Clinton, predictably, didn’t see it that way, telling me earlier, “I’m neither my husband nor President Obama, and I’m not running for either of their third terms. I’m running for my first term.” But it was one thing for Ted Kennedy to fly the coop; it was another for John Lewis. There were a few who stuck it out until the end: Emanuel Cleaver, Stephanie Tubbs Jones, and my wife, Marcia Dyson. But most of the big black figures had gathered in Obama’s tent.
These emotions don’t make for political harmony. But clearly both Jackson, who invited her to his event, and everyone at the minister’s luncheon, had forgiven Clinton. And some were never really mad at her: A Gallup poll in August put her favorable rating among black people at 80 percent. But their calculations are also practical: They think she will win, and more important, that she should win. She waited her turn, the Republicans—even Carson—are impossible, and as Obama’s election proved, black folk are done with symbolic candidacies. Despite the appeal of Bernie Sanders’s economic platform, and his growing sensitivity on race, he is going to lose. They want no part of him.
As I shadowed Clinton for a few days and saw her speak with sincerity to black people, I began to wonder if some of her shift on race was also the product of her time as secretary of state. A front seat to the Obama presidency showed her how much animus lurked in the depths of the nation’s racial subconscious, just how brutal and unforgiving the nation can be about the idea of a black man in charge. That understanding has translated into increased compassion for the average black citizen: If this is what America at its worst thinks about an obviously gifted black man—if they fail to create much room in their psyches for a figure who is exceptional by any measure—then what must be the plight of the ordinary Shaquille or Shaniqua making their way in the world? “You’ve got to be thinking all the time, how do we create questions that are rooted in the real life experience of African Americans today?” Clinton had told me in New York. “And present them in a way that gets white Americans to go, ‘Oh. I didn’t know that. I never thought about that. Oh. Well, that’s not right.’” The racial lightbulb seems to have gone on in Clinton’s mind.
Clinton received a rousing ovation as she offered her remarks at the luncheon, proving that at least these particular black people were not preoccupied with the past. And while the forgiveness here sprang from the overlapping dictates of mutual need, it still must have felt good to be back in these good black graces, helped along by time, her service under Obama, and the turning of the political tides in her favor. She sounded genuinely grateful as she spoke, praising the people who had come to hear her for the “continuing work that so many of you have done … to feel that opportunity was there, to find ways to live up to their own God-given potential … knowing that you all have played a role in this: the clergy, business, activists, professionals—all of you. And I really am here today to say thank you.”
Things would be considerably less gracious at a rally later that day in a gymnasium at Clark Atlanta University. There, surrounded by a mostly younger coterie of black leaders—Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, former NBA player Grant Hill, R&B artists Usher and Monica, as well as civil rights legends Andrew Young, C.T. Vivian, and John Lewis, who introduced her—Clinton was at first greeted with great enthusiasm.
“I know that there are differences in the world we live in today,” she began, “and in the challenges we face, but the leaders of the civil rights movement had it right: organizing, mobilizing and politicizing, using nonviolence, using the power of the feelings that come forward—”
As if on cue, nine young activists made their way into the gymnasium, clapping, singing the protest anthem “Hell You Talmbout,” and chanting, “Black lives matter!”
“And yes, they do,” Clinton hastily agreed. “Yes, they do. Yes, they do, and I’m going to talk a lot about that in a minute.”
The activists continued their clamor, but Clinton was undaunted.
“Now, my friends, I am going to get to some very important points that actually prove that black lives do matter and we have to take action together.”
As the activists protested, Clinton preached, offering a remarkable run of ideas that revealed her maturing grasp of the platform the activists proposed:
To all the young people here today, those who are listening, and those who are singing, let me say this: We need you. We need the promise of a rising generation of activists and organizers who are fearless in your advocacy and determination. Actually, a few weeks ago, I sat down with some of the people here. We had a very nice conversation. And they were full of energy and ideas, and they shared some of their experiences with me. And I understand and I appreciate their passion and their urgency. But as I told them then, we have to come together as a nation to make the changes that they are calling for. You know, in that meeting a young woman said they spoke about being outsiders in their own country, and those words broke my heart, coming from someone so young. And they also should stiffen our spines, because life does matter and we need to act like it matters.
Clinton’s rhetoric, powerful as it was, failed to satisfy the protesters. Mayor Reed and Representative Lewis ranged through the crowd, attempting to calm them. They were finally forced to give up and return to join Clinton on the stage, symbolic sentinels of the black political elite.
Clinton was getting her first full blast of the public agitation that BLM activists could marshal. They would not be placated: Unlike the old guard, the BLM movement has no history with Clinton. They owe her nothing. This contrasting response to Clinton underscores a bigger battle: one between advocates of respectability politics who believe that black decency carries its own moral force and may persuade white America to treat black Americans humanely, and advocates of what may be termed subversive indifference—those who strategically ignore the reasons and passions of white America in calculating the merit of political response to black suffering. To be sure, there are many black folk who spurn respectability politics but who nonetheless tout an etiquette of political respect: Preserve the humanity of one’s opponent and listen to the other side as the predicate for social change.
The advocates of respectability politics care about how someone like Clinton feels about them; advocates of the etiquette of respect don’t seek Clinton’s approval, or the approval of the black elite, as much as they seek to pressure Clinton and white America into a dialogue about race on the road to transformation. BLM activists don’t care about either: They neither seek the approval of Clinton—or John Lewis, for that matter—nor are they content merely to talk with the white or black powers that be. To paraphrase Marx, BLM believes that leaders and thinkers have interpreted the world, but the point is to change it. If that means practicing politicus interruptus, then so be it—another conference, white paper, commission, rally, or speech won’t do.
I am an advocate of the etiquette of respect—primarily because I want to be heard even as I listen to others in the attempt to forge change. Those who confuse this for bloodless civility mistake political kindness for political weakness. It is critical to listen, even if one greatly disagrees, not only to plot further strategy, and to determine if what one argues is agreed to or effectively rebutted, but—and this is equally important—to embody the values one seeks to impart. If the point of interrupting speech is to change behavior—a noble goal—what’s to keep others from practicing the same methods on those who interrupt, of interrupting the interrupters, disrupting the disrupters? As a method of gaining audience, the politics of disruption may be invaluable; as a tool to supply the content of social change, not so much.
There is support for the BLM methods in the old guard. The Reverend Dr. Frederick Haynes, the 55-year-old orator, Dallas megachurch pastor, and social activist who gave the keynote speech at Jackson’s luncheon, sees disruption as a critical method of social resistance that unites, rather than divides, multiple generations of black activists.
“Nothing in this country that has progressed has happened without the politics of disruption,” Haynes told me. “You can go to the Boston Tea Party: That’s the politics of disruption. The ending of slavery was through the politics of disruption. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, that disrupted the psyche of a country that called itself a democracy. I say let’s keep doing it, and let’s hit the Republicans as well, because we do not progress as a people unless we disrupt what is.”
Not all activist ministers agree. At a black community forum with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, held recently at the Holman United Methodist Church in L.A., BLM disrupted the meeting, leading pastor Kelvin Sauls to decry their methods. “There were about 800 people here,” Sauls told the Los Angeles Times, “and 750 of those individuals were silenced because of the disrespect that they have brought to the sanctuary as well as to us as a congregation.”
It remains to be seen whether, in the long run, this sort of direct action at public events will be effective. But there is no denying this point: The palpable discomfort demonstrations produce force our political figures to grapple with new ideas. This is a productive tension.
Consider that Clinton’s message seems tailor-made for BLM activists concerned about white privilege, institutional power, personal culpability, and political prescriptions for substantive change. She was speaking their language, only they never heard her. John Lewis, while acknowledging the need for young activists to make “good trouble,” also said they “have to respect the right of everybody to be heard,” adding that “you do that in a nonviolent, orderly fashion.” The BLM activists, however, believe that without their actions, Clinton may never have addressed the issues they care about.
“Disruption is a tactic that will be here for the long run because a lot of times conversations do not happen without pressure,” Avery Jackson, a 20-year-old Morehouse College student, and one of the protesters, told me. “People want a president of the United States who is going to address this, and if they want us to be quiet, they’re going to have to make some change.”
Julius Jones, the BLM activist who’d met with Clinton in New Hampshire, agreed, characterizing these protests as a valid, and considered, tactic. “Some folks wanted us to yell at her. And some folks wanted us to talk to her,” he told me. “There’s a difference between rejecting the politics of respectability and just a respectful conversation. And it’s really important. But I also feel like the way that you get access, the reason why we were able to have a conversation with Hillary Clinton, is directly because of the actions in Seattle,” when BLM activists went after Bernie Sanders.
For Clinton ultimately to be successful in her run for the presidency—and if she’s going to get there with the support of black people, which she will need—she’s going to have to find a way to speak to both the old generation and the new. And she will need to figure out how to get the heart-system dyad right. One way to do that would be to push BLM to find a broader framework for its concerns than just policing. She had met with BLM activists again after New Hampshire, she said, and was impressed when they’d asked: “‘What about housing? What about education? What about community building? What about trying to make it better for more people to have a chance to succeed?’ I think that’s the right direction. You don’t want to get so broad that you lose focus, but you gotta put what you’re really focused on within a broader context. And I felt they were doing that.” And while Clinton believed that BLM was making progress, it is unclear whether the feeling was mutual.
The activists at Clark protested Clinton for nearly 30 minutes, and for nearly 30 minutes Clinton sought to speak over them. The pro-Clinton crowd grew increasingly irritated and offered chants of their own like “let her talk,” until the young people were escorted from the gym.
“I appreciate the congressman and the mayor having my back,” Clinton chuckled as the crowd roared its approval.
She then began to offer details from her criminal justice platform. She called for more responsible policing, saying “the names of young African American men and women cut down too young is a rebuke to us all,” and an end to racial profiling. She argued that citizens with privilege and power had a responsibility to try to see things as others do, admitting earlier that white Americans had “close[d] our eyes to the truth,” believing that “bigotry is largely behind us, that institutionalized racism no longer exists. But as you know so well, despite our best efforts and our highest hopes, America’s long struggle with race is far from finished.”
In her way, Clinton had found that necessary spot, where their calls for changing her heart, and the hearts of white America, dovetailed with her call for altering the system.
Obama never had to face the heat of Black Lives Matter as he ran for office. His slow action on police problems, and his reluctance to confront racial crises, opened a leadership vacuum into which this movement has slipped. Obama has been a big disappointment to many of the black people who, like me, looked to him for leadership. On race, as his conservative opponents like to say about foreign policy, he has led from behind. He has offered lectures about failed black morality but, until recently, avoided embracing race as an issue, for fear that it would damage his ability to “get things done” with the white mainstream.
Which means that Obama has been, until late in his presidency, of little practical use to black folk, the same people who magnified his symbolic value while deflecting attention from his failure to adopt substantive policies to counter, for instance, black unemployment, or persistent intergenerational poverty, or until recently, a criminal justice system that has engulfed the lives of millions of his people. Obama and his fellow Democrats, unlike the BLM activists, have mostly steered safely clear of the folklore of race, the strains of anti-blackness that thread through American history and shape this country’s policies, perspectives, and politics.
Bill Clinton manipulated the racial passions of black folk frustrated at being denied access to the parlors of power. He offered a kind of racial parallelism that suggested—but never delivered—equality between black and white life and privileges. Obama, meanwhile, argued that what was good for America was good for black folk, when exactly the opposite is true: Helping black folk turns out to help America. Tamping down the war on drugs, which targeted black and brown folk, also spared hundreds of thousands of white youth hooked on methamphetamine. Strengthening the social safety net for our most vulnerable black and brown citizens also helped struggling white families hit hard by the recession. Obama’s handsome black face and megawatt smile were enough to blind black folk to the stunning underperformance of his administration on race. If Bill Clinton gave black America bad policy and Obama gave black America no policy, then Hillary Clinton is left only with good policy. She must achieve what her predecessors only promised.
In a sense, Clinton has emerged at precisely what seems like a strikingly unpropitious moment. The boring, the tedious, the serious attention to the small gestures that make big impacts are ill-suited to the unruly temper of the times. But this perceived liability may be her strongest asset to the black masses: She can offer strict attention to policy that unapologetically plays to black needs without ever feeling pressure—as Obama has—to disown, to begrudge the style, of explicit black advance.
In New York, when I asked Clinton what policies her administration would put forth to help black folk, she effortlessly rattled them off: She spoke of redirecting federal resources to local and state law enforcement. She spoke about black unemployment, a subject Obama has hardly acknowledged, the school-to-prison pipeline, which, she said, “often starts because black kids get suspended and expelled at a much higher rate.” She talked about creating “real alternatives to incarceration” for black people, adding that “we don’t want them being put into the prison system for nonviolent, low-level offenses, but we also don’t want them just thrown out on the street. There’s got to be a much better array of services that is available for people to try to get their own lives on the right track.” She touted community empowerment and “the use of the federal dollar to try to support small businesses, which are still the backbone of most African American communities”; she advocated job-training programs, addiction services, mental health treatment: the meat, the substance.
When Bill Clinton got into office he was dubbed by Toni Morrison and Chris Rock as our nation’s first black president. It was a symbolic, and somewhat ridiculous, mantle he wore with pride until Barack Obama came along to steal his swag. But Obama’s tentative racial posture opened the door for both BLM and Hillary Clinton, for leaders who might seize the reins of race and guide the country to deeper engagement and broader healing. In the weird, paradoxical politics of American race, Bill Clinton had greater permission to be black in public than Barack Obama, which is another way of saying it cost Obama far more political capital to revel in race the way Clinton did. No matter the cause, the effect of Obama’s limited ability to maneuver inside the perilous parameters of race means that an even more punishing paradox looms: A white woman shattering the barrier of gender may carry the baton of racial engagement further than he ever could, or did, or was willing to fight to do.
The pre-Obama Bill Clinton took full advantage of his honorary black status. The post-Obama Hillary Clinton has no such luck. But in truth, she has a greater chance of success than either her husband or her potential predecessor. If Hillary Clinton becomes president, she will have already been tested by a fiercer racial challenge from black America than either her husband or Obama faced, and she can expect the heat to continue after she takes office. If she continues to grow, and refuses to drink from the trough of white privilege, she may achieve something that neither Bill nor Barack can claim: a presidency built on racial transparency and honesty, one that doesn’t lecture black people about what they should do to get themselves together, but instead thrives on principled engagement with black suffering.
Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both made much of their spiritual connection to Martin Luther King Jr. But they mean the King who spun his dreams in public, not the one who hung his heartbreak on increasingly radical rhetoric near the end of his life—in part because he had learned from Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael the political value of black self-love and black power. He found a synthesis of heart and system. If Hillary continues to learn from BLM, and in turn teaches them a thing or two, it may not be a match made in heaven—after all, that’s what many said about Obama. But it may be a partnership that yields more action on race than we’ve had for far too long.