About a week ago, former President Bill Clinton once again had to defend his 1994 crime bill at an event in Paterson, New Jersey.
“Why did you put more people in prison?” someone asked him before being escorted out of the rally.
As President Clinton has tried to point out his antiracist achievements, his critics have soundly and regularly pointed out his racist failures, from shattering welfare, to turning United Nations peacekeepers away from the Rwandan genocide, to claiming urban Black criminals were incorrigible, to instituting a “tough-on-crime” bill that led to an unprecedented mass incarceration of Black and Brown bodies, to claiming that Black welfare recipients had a personal responsibility problem.
In short, Bill Clinton’s critics have laid bare the lesser seen racist record of his administration. And in the process, they have exposed much more than the record of the Clinton family that some Black people love to love, and other Black people love to hate. They have exposed the racism of American liberalism. And through this timely exposition, another generation of open-minded Americans have learned that liberalism is not as antiracist as liberals claim it to be.
In fact, American liberalism has never been as antiracist as intellectuals and historians—and especially liberal intellectual historians—claim it to be. I tried to revise this history and showcase the debate between racists in my new book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. With its ideology of Black behavioral inferiority and policy directives aimed at developing or assimilating Black bodies, American liberalism has never stood for antiracism in its fight against slaveholders, segregationists, and conservatives. American liberalism has never stood behind the antiracist idea that the racial groups are biologically equal, and on the same level amid all their physical and cultural differences. The intellectual pre-history of President Clinton’s liberalism bears this out.
In the 1990s, President Clinton was standing in the conceptual footsteps of some of the most heralded liberal reformers in American political history, including Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, and Lyndon B. Johnson—political stalwarts that historians have praised as much as President Clinton is praising himself on the campaign trail.
These heralded politicians have insightfully spoken out against racist ideas of Black biological inferiority, and challenged racial discriminators. But these liberal reformers—and others like them—have also been unaware of—or in denial about the racist ideas of Black behavioral inferiority in the corridors of their thought. As such, they ended up boldly challenging racism in America and unknowingly helping to feed the racist backlash, a backlash that has always fed on racist ideas.
From the beginning of the United States this has been the case. Eighty-four-year-old Ben Franklin spent some of his last political capital trying to resolve the lethal contradiction of American freedom and slavery. Remove this “inconsistency” from the land of “equal liberty,” Franklin petitioned the First U.S. Congress on February 3, 1790. But Franklin also swore months earlier during an antislavery address that the enslaved African “too frequently sinks beneath the common standard of the human species.” He thought the dehumanizing environment of slavery had in fact dehumanized Black people.
Over the next seven decades, abolitionists—proclaiming that slavery had horrifically imbruted Black people—were incessantly overwhelmed by proslavery backlashes proclaiming these Black brutes should not be freed. During the Civil War, northerners feared freed Black sub-human brutes sprinting north, and becoming “roaming, vicious vagabonds,” as the Chicago Tribune put it. President Abraham Lincoln hardly quelled these racist fears. Months before his intrepid Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln had told Black people once again that they could never “be placed on an equality with the white race” in the United States.
Lincoln’s successor, President Andrew Johnson, agreed. A man as temperamental as Donald Trump, Johnson presided over the postwar racist backlash against Congress’s civil and voting rights measures. “No independent government of any form has ever been successful in [Black] hands,” Johnson declared before Congress in 1867. With voting power, Blacks would cause “a tyranny such as this continent has never yet witnessed.”
The unprecedented tyranny actually abducted the Black vote and imposed Jim Crow by the end of the century. The Black Freedom Movement and the politician who redeemed the Johnson name in the academy of American presidents witnessed a revival of the backlash. But President Lyndon B. Johnson was hardly satisfied with helping to lead the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965). “We seek not just…equality as a right and theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result,” Johnson pronounced in antiracist fashion in 1965.
Racial disparities in unemployment, income, poverty, housing, and infant mortality had all grown in the 1950s and early 1960s. Johnson tried to answer that controversial question that had long separated the racist from the antiracist ideas: Why were socioeconomic inequities persisting—or in Johnson’s time—growing between the races? Racist ideas had long blamed Black behavior. Antiracist ideas had long blamed discrimination. Johnson claimed both ideas. He acknowledged discrimination and how it had led to “the breakdown of the Negro family structure,” drawing from misleading statistics about the growing percentage of Black children in single, female-led homes. The abolitionist theory that Africa and slavery had nurtured inferior Black behaviors had been replaced by theories that segregation and poverty had nurtured inferior Black behaviors. In fact, Black Americans’ history of oppression has made Black opportunities—not Black people inferior.
By helping to popularize what I call the oppression-inferiority thesis—a bedrock theory of American liberalism—Johnson helped mobilize the backlash against Sixties achievements and his own Democratic Party. Republican presidents’ Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush—and the self-identified New Democrat, Bill Clinton—stirred up and presided over this powerful backlash to so-called Black power anarchists, affirmative action “handouts,” “welfare queens,” “crackhead” fathers, and all their gang-banging, “super-predator” children in the late twentieth century.
When President Clinton began his “candid conversation on the state of race relations” in 1997, he exposed the lack of equal opportunity like any committed antiracist. But, “beyond opportunity,” he also made sure to “demand responsibility from every American.” Joining yet again the bipartisan clamor that Black people had a personal responsibility problem, Clinton helped feed the racist backlash that eventually silenced his conversation and invented a colorblind America that Barack Obama’s election transfigured into a post-racial America.
Before being elected, Obama spoke courageously and profoundly about the history and presence of racial discrimination during his insightful race speech in 2008. He also spoke of this discrimination bequeathing a “legacy of defeat” and Black people needing to take personal responsibility and face “our own complicity…in our condition.” For all his achievements, President Obama has reproduced these mixed messages throughout his time in office, as his antiracist critics have grumbled for years. But President Obama is hardly alone or unusual—just as President Clinton was hardly alone or unusual in the 1990s. They stood in the old conceptual building of American liberalism—a conceptual building that is once again feeding the backlash in the campaign of Donald Trump—a conceptual building that Americans are fleeing in mass for the newer building of American progressivism.
Bill Clinton is not merely defending himself and his wife’s candidacy on the campaign trail. He is defending the obsolete building of American liberalism.Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.