Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Black Like Me

Bill Clinton has long been referred to as our “first black president.” As the campaign wears on, he seems to be undergoing a change of pigment.

I don’t think for a moment that Bill and Hillary Clinton are racists, in the sense that they believe that black people are innately inferior in intelligence and character. They are, however, guilty of the related sin of paternalism.

This attitude surfaced before Hillary Clinton’s unfortunate LBJ-MLK comparison to herself and Senator Barack Obama. Last year, Clinton made an absolutely cringe-worthy speech in which she clumsily tried to mimic the cadences of a black preacher. Al Jolson was a more convincing African American. The performance reminded me a bit of the Lenny Bruce routine, "How to Relax Your Colored Friends at Parties."

If Clinton herself is not racist, however,, there is an ugly, bigoted undertone to the comments of Clinton surrogates like Andrew Cuomo, who referred to Obama’s political style as “shuck and jive,” or the suggestion by Clinton backer Bill Shaheen that Obama may have dealt drugs in the past, or the comments of an anonymous Clinton campaign staffer who said, " If you have a social need, you're with Hillary. If you want Obama to be your imaginary hip black friend and you're young and you have no social needs, then he's cool."

It can’t be said enough, Clinton and her husband’s chief sin is that they seems to buy into the white master narrative of history in which Caucasians are always the chief actors, while people of color (to use a clumsy phrase) are on the margins, acted on and lead by those blessed with less melanin.

Make no mistake about it, Clinton’s recent comments angered many African Americans. This past weekend I participated in a panel as part of the “381 Days: The Montgomery Bus Boycott Story” exhibit at the Dallas African American Museum. The room was filled with pioneers in the Dallas Civil Rights Movement, including Pete Johnson who was friends with Martin Luther King, Andrew Young and Ralph Abernathy and the other leaders of the freedom campaign. Johnson was actually supposed to be in the car with Mississippi Freedom Summer volunteers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman one lethal night in 1964 and thus narrowly missed being murdered by racist policemen and their Klan allies. Pete Johnson, however, did get beaten on the head during a civil rights march, hard enough to put him in a coma.

These revolutionaries bear the scars of the struggle on their bodies. Johnson, former Dallas City Council member Diane Ragsdale and others who fought the civil rights battle in the streets shared one sentiment: white politicians paid no attention to segregation and black poverty and oppression until they were forced to by brave, protesting African American men, women and children.

“We forced Johnson to [pass the Voting Rights Act].” I overheard Ragsdale say. As I said in a previous post, I don’t completely agree with that. I think LBJ deserves some credit for his legislative role in ending Jim Crow and making real the right to vote in the South. But to make him the central figure in the greatest domestic drama in 20th century America is absurd and shortchanges the courage of the civil rights protestors, as well as diminishes their achievements.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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