Bill Clinton's Obama remarks should be a wake-up call

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It keeps getting deeper by the second. I was on television the other day to discuss the recent incident during which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid stated that Barack Obama might have had a chance to become president because he is “light-skinned” and doesn’t speak with a “Negro dialect”. But the real bombshell was the statements allegedly made by former President Bill Clinton.

According to a new book (called “Game Change”) to be released this week, Bill Clinton told Ted Kennedy that, “A few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee,” referring to then presidential candidate Barack Obama. Clinton also griped that Kennedy was only supporting Obama because he is black.

To say that the black community should be offended by Bill Clinton’s words would be an understatement. If the allegations in “Game Change” are true, this is going to destroy the already wounded relationship between the Clinton family and the African American community. Early on in the 2008 presidential campaign (back when no one thought Barack Obama could seriously challenge Clinton for the Democratic nomination), African-Americans were excited by the idea that we no longer had to have a “sugar substitute,” and could instead taste the very real sweetness that comes with having meaningful access to the White House. Although I have critiqued President Obama on multiple occasions, I am quite proud of his accomplishment.

For many years, Bill Clinton proudly accepted the false label of “first black president,” which offended real black men in America who wondered if someone who looks like us could ever be considered capable enough to possess that kind of power. By allowing himself to be proclaimed to be a surrogate for blacks, Bill Clinton was upholding the implicit argument that blackness must be stealth and that African-Americans could only have access to power through advocacy from well-intended whites. Many in the black community felt patronized and disrespected by the Clintons, who almost seemed to feel that they were doing us a favor by even caring the slightest bit about African-American issues.

Hillary Clinton’s “Gone with the Wind” attitude began to reveal itself as she unraveled over the course of the 2008 Democratic primaries, using nasty racial references to undermine Obama’s bid for the presidency. Bill put icing on the cake by publicly comparing Obama’s campaign to that of Jesse Jackson in 1984, arguing that Obama had no chance to win because he was a black candidate. Bill Clinton’s remarks remind us quite clearly that white supremacist thinking also victimizes those who support the African-American community. Black people could have a seat in the car of American politics, but we should never have the ungrateful audacity to actually ask to be the driver.

While black America is certainly appreciative of the contributions of Bill and Hillary Clinton, a new day has come. Black people are no longer interested in second-class citizenship, and I conjecture that we will be more liberated to lay our expectations on the table. We are not to be constrained by secret alliances and pressures toward assimilation; rather, this century should be one where blackness is no longer proclaimed to be a liability, and can instead be a source of pride and power. While even our friends might see us as coffee servants and (as Rod Blagojevich alluded to) shoe shine boys, we see ourselves as leaders, thinkers and high achievers. Small-minded behavior like that of former President Clinton cannot and will not be tolerated, and in our quest for a national conversation on race, such issues should be laid out for all to discuss. Now Bill, please go get me a cup of coffee — I take my coffee black. Just kidding Bill, I would never disrespect you by referring to you as a coffee boy — too bad you don’t feel the same way.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a professor at Syracuse University and founder of the Your Black World Coalition.