“I Know How Black Folks Think”: Reflections on an Outrageously Non-Scandalous Remark From Bill Clinton


Imagine that George Bush Senior was heard to say this about why the Jewish-American vote went a certain way in a New York City mayoral election: "well, that doesn’t surprise me because I know how Jews think."

Imagine that Jimmy Carter was overheard offering the following about the Latino vote in Los Angeles: "that’s what I would have expected, since I know how Mexicans think."

Imagine that Reverend Jesse Jackson was heard saying the following about Caucasian voting patterns in Iowa: "makes sense to me; I know how whites think."

Now imagine that Bill Clinton was overheard saying the following about why Ray Nagin was able to use the black vote to defeat Mitch Landrieu in the 2006 New Orleans mayoral election: "I understand it, because I know how black folks think."

We have no indication that the first three comments ever occurred. But the fourth comment is a matter of record. It can be found on p. 53 of the September 18 2006 New Yorker, inside a 23-page portrait of Clinton called "The Wanderer." The article was written by New Yorker writer David Remnick, who tagged along with the ex-president on a trip to South Africa in the summer of 2006. One evening at the Saxon Hotel in Johannesburg, the famously verbose dropped his "how black folks think" line while holding forth at a table with Remnick and others. Here is Remnick’s account:

"Over dinner at the Saxon, though, Clinton hardly seemed a hunched solitary soul. He was a happy warrior, Hubert Horatio Humphrey in modern dress, performing. He needed little prodding to soliloquize on the killer instincts and hypocrisies of Newt Gingrich when he was Speaker of the House; on the "crucial differences" on Iraq between Joe Lieberman and the rest of the Democrats in the Senate (read: Hillary); on the complications of building a Presidential library and its fantastic cost ($165 million); and on a crocodile he saw on his last trip to South Africa (‘That boy was as wide as my wingspan, I swear to God!’);."

"At around eleven, Clinton suddenly wandered off to talk with Douw Steyn. Half an hour later, though, he returned, accepted a cup of black coffee, and said, "I want to sit down and hear what you guys are talking about!" He picked up the thread of his monologue, describing in fantastic detail why Ray Nagin edged Mitch Landrieu in the New Orleans mayoral race ("I understand it, because I know how black folks think"), which led to a story about the uninhibited (and currently incarcerated) ex-governor of Louisiana Edwin Edwards, and then on to another retired pol, Boris Yeltsin."

The obvious question to anyone who says they know how "people" in a given racial or ethnic group "think" is "WHICH whites [or]Italians/Jews/Latinos/Hungarians/ blacks?" Rich ones? Poor ones? Left ones? Right ones? Young ones? Old ones? College educated ones? High school dropout ones? Rural ones? Urban ones? Suburban ones? Gay ones? Straight ones? Gay suburban ones with community college degrees? Poor urban straight ones with felony records? Rich urban bisexual ones with Ivy League degrees? "

There is naturally no unitary pattern of thought and political opinion in black America. Thus Bill Cosby sparks applause from some blacks and criticism from others when he blames black poverty on the bad behavior and (he thinks) culture of the black poor, not societal forces and structures of racial and class oppression.

Which category of black Americans truly represents and reflects "how black folks think" about disproportionate black poverty – the ones who blame the ghetto poor or the ones who point to harsh societal circumstances? Neither, since there is no single pattern of black thought on the topic. There never has been and there never will be.

Or take the different responses I get from black readers when I write a critical left commentary about Barack Obama’s centrist ideology and politics. I typically get eight or nine e-mails from self-identified black Americans saying (in essence) the following: "you are exactly right about Obama. He is far too conservative and beholden to dominant class and race hierarchies. This is what I thinking; thank you very much providing some important details on this important matter." I also generally get three or four messages from more conservative blacks accusing me of launching unwarranted assaults on a righteous black man who is risking his life in a heroic effort to uplift his race and the American people. Which set of e-mailers represents "how black folks think?"

The same division emerged when I wrote two critical pieces about Wal-Mart’s effort to use the economic desperation of Chicago’s black ghetto in the company’s campaign to penetrate the Chicago retail market. Left and labor-connected blacks wrote to thank me for "telling the truth" about Wal-Mart’s false promises to the inner city and its determination to exploit black misery. More pro-business and "pragmatic" blacks wrote to castigate me for undermining necessary and (they seemed to think) sincere efforts by the retail giant to spark desperately needed economic development in disadvantaged black neighborhoods. Which group of e-mailers reflected "how black folks think?"

Or look at the different ways that some black Americans reflect on the presidential record of Bill Clinton. In his conservative campaign book The Audacity of Hope (New York, 2006), Obama calls Clinton "recognizably progressive." He applauds Clinton for showing that "markets and fiscal discipline" and "personal responsibility [are] needed to combat poverty" (p. 34). These are interesting reflections on the Clinton administration’s significant efforts to deepen black poverty by eliminating poor peoples’ entitlement to public family cash assistance and by privileging deficit reduction and military spending over social programs. Like many in the black bourgeoisie, Obama buys into the (I think) preposterous notion that black America had a friend in the White House when Clinton was president.

The black writer Elaine Brown takes a different perspective on the Clinton presidency. By Brown’s account in her remarkable book The Condemnation of Little B (Boston, 2002), Clinton launched a terrible assault on black America with his "Three Strikes" crime bill and his broad neoliberal agenda. Brown heaps special scorn on Clinton’s enactment of a vicious welfare "reform" that "cut off [black and other poor children's] lifelines to food and medical care" even while Clinton kept "the era of government" subsidy alive for "rich corporations and their executives." By Brown’s account, "Clinton did nothing to elevate the economic status of blacks and other poor people in America. In fact," Brown says, "the Clinton era was in many ways more detrimental to blacks than the Reagan and Bush years had been" (Brown, The Condemnation, pp. 182-183). Brown is especially harsh towards wealthy and influential black Americans (Oprah Winfrey, Henry Louis "Skip" Gates and William Julius Wilson, among others) she accuses of abandoning the black lower class and of deeply enabling the Clinton era assault.

Which African-American accurately reflects "how black folks think" – Obama or Brown?

The answer, of course, is that there is no one way that "black folks think," just as there is one way that whites, Jews, Latinos or Iraqis think. It is racist or at least racialist to say that there is a unity mode of cognition inside any racial group.

Clinton’s comment ought to be seen as outrageous. If real and widely exposed, the three imaginary comments posited at the beginning of this essay would probably carry a significant public relations cost for those who uttered them. What are the chances that Clinton’s racialist generalization about "blacks’" cognitions could become scandal? Given the passage of time and the balance of racial forces in post-Civil Rights and persistently white-supremacist America, those chances are not high. Still, Clinton’s curious comment deserves consideration and reflection in a nation that falsely claims to have transcended race and (above all) racism.

Paul Street is a writer and speaker in Iowa City, IA. He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004), Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005), and Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, and Policy in Chicago (Chicago, 2005) and The Empire and Inequality Report. Street’s next book Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (New York, 2007) will be released next June. Street can be reached at [email protected]



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