The Blogosphere, Left and Right, Passes On a Misleading Quote With Zero Attempt To Check Out the Context
Obama has gotten two more sterling silver endorsements: Teddy Kennedy and Toni Morrison. It's really annoying me that all the news articles and blog posts about the latter endorsement are repeating Morrison's comment in 1998 that Bill Clinton was "our first black president." What annoys me about it -- and actually, it's got me steamed, not just annoyed -- is that one news blog (ABC's Political Radar) dredges up the quote, and then, like good little parrots, everyone -- conservatives and liberals alike -- repeats it word for word: the same two sentences from an essay Morrison wrote for the New Yorker 10 years ago: "Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children's lifetime."
The suggestion being made, of course, is that this somehow compromises Obama's chances in the presidential race because a famous black writer's approving, praiseful comments about Clinton being a "black" president will stir up white racism and raise the dread specter of racial identity politics.
Meanwhile, no one has gone back to take a look at the actual complete essay of which these two sentences are a part. Had anyone bothered to do this, it would have been clear that Morrison's comment did not refer to Clinton's policies, or to the kind of president he was.
Here is the entire paragraph in which those two sentences appear:
African-American men seemed to understand it right away. Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children's lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas. And when virtually all the African-American Clinton appointees began, one by one, to disappear, when the President's body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution, when he was metaphorically seized and bodysearched, who could gainsay these black men who knew whereof they spoke? The message was clear "No matter how smart you are, how hard you work, how much coin you earn for us, we will put you in your place or put you out of the place you have somehow, albeit with our permission, achieved. You will be fired from your job, sent away in disgrace, and--who knows?--maybe sentenced and jailed to boot. In short, unless you do as we say (i.e., assimilate at once), your expletives belong to us."
"It" refers to the Monica Lewinsky scandal: Morrison is talking about the way Clinton was treated, by the media and the political establishment -- like a black man. And it made sense to many African-Americans that he would be treated as if he were black, because he had almost all the markers of a black person in this society: "... single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas." Black people identified with the humiliating treatment Clinton received -- specifically in the way his sexual life became public property -- because they identified with him -- with his background, with his personal history, with the basic details of who he was and the circumstances in which he was raised.
Barack Obama's biography is, in fact, sharply different from Clinton's in almost every way. The only significant commonality is that they were both raised by single mothers. Other than that, Obama was born in Hawaii and grew up there and in Indonesia. He never lived in the South. His mother was from Kansas; his father was African, from Kenya. His upbringing was middle-class; he did not grow up in poverty. He's not a Good Ol' Boy and his identity was not forged among Good Ol' Boys. There's no judgment attached to that for either Clinton or Obama -- it just means that they have next to nothing in common, biographically speaking, and Toni Morrison's having called Clinton "our first black president" has no implications whatsoever for Obama, should he be nominated and win the election, being in fact the first black president.