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Once beloved, Clinton now manages to alienate blacks
By Renford Reese
Daily Bulletin (Ontario, CA)
January 31, 2008

The Clintons have done something that many would have thought impossible a few weeks ago - alienated black voters.

It was especially improbable that Bill Clinton, the most beloved public figure among blacks, would alienate black voters. Indeed, it is stunning to see that one week of insensitive comments made by the former president and his wife about Democratic rival Barack Obama have threatened to undermine over two decades of goodwill the nation's black population has had for the Clintons.

During Clinton's two terms as president he cultivated a relationship with blacks that was unprecedented, even for a black political figure. He appointed more blacks to his cabinet than all previous U.S. presidents combined. He established a Civil Rights Commission to highlight the problem of race relations in the United States. The rest of his policies that benefited blacks benefited the general population as well. The fact is, he was a darn good president for all Americans.  This is more evident today as we cope with multiple crises.

His title as the first black president and much of the foundation of Clinton's relationship with blacks, however, is symbolic. During the 1992 presidential race he played the saxophone on Arsenio Hall's show. He currently has an office in Harlem. He is comfortable in the black church - singing many black hymns, including James Weldon Johnson's "The Negro National Anthem," by heart.

On policy issues, he was not as amenable to blacks. Clinton was the person that signed the 1994 Crime Control Act and the 1996 Welfare Reform Act; each law has had a devastating impact on the black community.

According to a 2001 report entitled "Too Little Too Late: President Clinton's Prison Legacy," the prison population quadrupled during the Clinton administrations. African-American men were the most affected by this dramatic increase. It is not that Clinton was insensitive to the plight of blacks, but he could not risk the status of the Democratic Party by appearing to be soft on crime. This is the primary reason why he did not fight to adjust the extreme disparity in incarceration time for drug offenses involving crack cocaine versus powder cocaine.  The fact is Bill Clinton loves the game of politics more than he does black people or the black agenda.

It was the belittling and paternalism that I despised about "Mr. Charlie" when I grew up in the 1970s in McDonough, Ga. Irrespective of how grown and accomplished you were, "Mr. Charlie" seemed to always treat you like a boy. Clinton's paternalistic treatment of Obama during the South Carolina campaign reminded me of the person I grew to dislike as a child.

Growing up in the South, I came to realize, in many cases, whatever blacks staunchly want whites are staunchly against, and visa versa. Knowing this, there is a chance the former president calculated the belittling of Obama in hopes that white America would see blacks rally behind the charismatic phenomenon. This picture of black solidarity would assuredly turn many whites off and put them squarely back into the Hillary camp. If this was his strategy, it was brilliant but callous.

If Hillary wins the nomination, Bill's strategy will likely be the primary cause. This win by an "any means necessary" approach, however, will be hollow and tragic. Not only would the former president have instigated racial polarization, something that he has been committed to reconciling, he will have severely undermined his legacy with his staunchest supporters.

Renford Reese, Ph.D., is a professor in the Political Science Department and the director of the Colorful Flags Program at Cal Poly Pomona University. He is the author of "American Bravado" (2008),"Prison Race" (2006), and the widely discussed "American Paradox: Young Black Men" (2004). See his work at: