Over fifteen years before Barack Obama was sworn into the Oval Office and became the United States’ first black President, Bill Clinton was called “our first black President.”
So how is it that the nation’s 42nd (white) president got that honorific before the first actual Black president?
The answer is a story that really spans the duration of Clinton’s presidency. Founding member of the National Association of Black Journalists, Dewayne Wickham, probably tells it best in his acclaimed book, Bill Clinton and Black America (2004). In his book, Wickham accounts for “the large African-American presence in [Clinton’s] administration, his perceived legal persecutions, his personal style,” and “his lasting yet tumultuous marriage”—not to mention his relocation to NYC’s Harlem after his presidency—which help explain why the former-Arkansas-governor-turned-president appealed so well to the American black community of the 1990s.
While this post can’t pretend to have a more extensive answer than Wickham in that regard, it can seek to provide a more succinct and specific answer to why Bill Clinton was (and indeed in some circles might still be called) “our first black President.” My answer to this question boils down to the following three essential events of the Black 1990s:
- The Arsenio Hall Show hosted Bill Clinton playing the saxophone in June of 1992, which helped Clinton win the hearts of Black America in a big way.
- Black voters turned out to give Bill Clinton a supermajority of their votes in November of 1992.
- Toni Morrison wrote Bill Clinton into Black History when she literally called him “our first black President in 1998”
Although I will touch on some of the complications and contradictions inherent to attributing Clinton this honorific, I will not be able to address those problems in deep detail, particularly as they include his complicit usage of the term “superpredators” to implicitly describe young, urban (codeword: black) criminals who purportedly preyed on America’s youth to partake in gang culture in the early 1990s. Addressing those problems in the detail they deserve would take the length of another post, if not a full-length article, to explain sufficiently.
In channeling the former president’s birthplace in my home state of Arkansas, my hope is that this post will generate interest in crafting a more careful and critical post that can balance the other side of the honor and praise that is so often allotted to Bill Clinton. At the same time, I hope it will recognize that the former president contributed more than most of the presidents that came before him in terms of representing the American black community during his administration.
Directly after Bill Clinton clinched the Democratic Party’s nomination for president in 1992, The Arsenio Hall Show hosted the newly minted presidential candidate.
Out of this hosting opportunity, Clinton not only decided to make an appearance; he deliberately sought to show his soulful side to the American black community by kicking off the show playing Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” on his tenor saxophone. Casually and with sunglasses. Almost like another member of Hall’s band. The rest became history. Hall’s amicable and subsequent interview with Clinton effectively served to endorse the Democratic candidate, on a predominantly black show with a predominantly black audience, for president in 1992.
And so, what would also turn out to be a controversial appearance on Arsenio Hall literally set the stage for Clinton to clinch a supermajority (83%) of the Black Vote in November of that same year.
The Black Vote
On November 8, 1992, Bill Clinton received a greater percentage of the black vote than any president to win a U.S. Presidential election since Jimmy Carter in 1976.
After winning the election, Clinton also appointed a number of black American citizens to serve in his administration, including but not limited to:
- Mike Espy, Secretary of Agriculture (1993)
- Ron Brown, Secretary of Commerce (1993)
- Hazel R. O’ Leary, Secretary of Energy (1993)
- Jesse Brown, Secretary of Veterans Affairs (1993)
- Alexis Herman, Secretary of Labor (1997)
- Rodney E. Slater, Secretary of Transportation (1997)
- Togo D. West, Jr., Secretary of Veterans Affairs (1998)
In fact, Clinton appointed more black Cabinet Secretaries than any U.S. president in the nation’s history, including Barack Obama. Doing so gave the Clinton the appearance not only of better representing black people in the nation’s highest office, but also of rewarding black voters for turning out to vote for him with real change at the highest levels of administration.
And in 1999, towards the end of Clinton’s presidency, the Clinton White House sought to commemorate such real changes with a web page titled “Working on Behalf of African Americans.”
This page mentions over 80 initiatives that the Clinton administration advocated for and took part in during their time in office, including but not limited to (and these are line-items lifted directly from the page):
- Closing the Book on A Generation of Deficits.
- Real Wages Are Rising for African Americans.
- Addressing HIV/AIDS in Minority Community with an Historic $130 Million Effort.
- Extended Health Care to Millions of Children with the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).
- Hosted the First-Ever White House Conference on Africa in July 1994.
- Launched the President’s Partnership for Economic Opportunity in Africa Initiative.
But the ultimate event that that made Bill Clinton America’s “first black president, was the stroke of Toni Morrison’s pen in 1998 during the sex scandal that shook Clinton’s presidency to the core.
Toni Morrison Calls Clinton “our First Black President”
Noting the heightened political rhetoric of impeachment coming out of Washington in wake of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, Toni Morrison wrote a short, slightly miffed column for The New Yorker that would make history in October of 1998.
In her column, Morrison called attention to the news media’s unrelenting coverage of the sex scandal, as well as its similarity to the all-too-American narrative of covering America black men with unrelenting bias and surveillance.
Over the years, and especially since Barack Obama was rightfully heralded as the United States’ first black president, Morrison has received substantial blowback for calling a white president “our first black President.” Most of this blowback, however, stems from the assumption that she was praising Clinton, when she in fact was
In other words, the reasons why Clinton was called “the first black President” are myriad, but they had less to do with race than they had to do with representation.
— Joshua Ryan Jackson
“Bill Clinton on the Arsenio Hall Show (1992).” YouTube, uploaded by The Arsenio Hall Show, 15 January 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vaj8iCCZFhM.
Morrison, Toni. “Comment.” The New Yorker. October 5 1998, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1998/10/05/comment-6543, Accessed 28 April 2018.
Wickham, Dewayne. Bill Clinton and Black America. One World, 2004.