Clinton did a James Brown. The Godfather's most cherished routine was to sing "Please, Please, Please" with such fervor that he would drop to his knees, begging. Then a Flame, one of Brown's backup singers, would drape a cape around him and lead him away from the microphone, consoling him. Suddenly, the hardest-working man in show business would break away, return to the microphone and engage in another round of soul-stirring pyrotechnics.
Clinton's James Brown performance was before 400 people in Oak Bluffs, MA, in a simple wood-shingled chapel on Martha's Vineyard. This selection of the elect had gathered to celebrate one of the seminal events in American history, the civil rights movement's 1963 March on Washington. Mr. Clinton gave a speech and read from former civil rights activist, and now Congressman, John Lewis' memoir Walking with the Wind. Then he held hands with others and sang "We Shall Overcome"?his version of "Please, Please, Please." Charles J. Ogletree, a Harvard Law professor, Henry Louis Gates Jr., another member of the Harvard faculty, and Anita Hill were also there. Mr. Ogletree supported the President for several reasons: minority appointments to the Cabinet, judgeships, Clinton's visit to Africa and the President's Initiative on Race. The unmistakable genius of the Clinton administration is that it can buy blacks for so little.
Mr. Clinton's success in confusing the minds of black voters has convinced black elected officials and so-called black public intellectuals to do even less than usual. It's well known that Clinton is popular with black voters because he has learned how to finesse America's racial politics with his deft way of not appearing anti-black while engaging in coded anti-black politics (on crime, welfare, etc.).
Clearly, black politics and black political culture have regressed during the age of Clinton. Once there was a King exhorting the nation to live up to its democratic precepts; a Malcolm X eviscerating America's racial policies; an Adam Clayton Powell legislating an array of laws that affected American public policy; and, even more important, black popular mobilization. With Louis Farrakhan and the emergence of the new nigga white America loves to hate, Khalid Muhammad, it seems such men are striking a chord with some blacks?or are filling a political vacuum. Neither Farrakhan nor Muhammad has anything substantial to offer, yet they understand one essential thing about black politics: it feeds off of symbols. They understand they will pay no political price for not delivering the goods.
The state of affairs regarding African-American political leadership stems from the fact that it follows a broker-agent model: usually charismatic black individuals claim to represent the black community as a whole before institutional policymakers. The preeminent example of such is Jesse Jackson, a man who garnered black (and white) votes in 1984 and 1988 and traded them for positions that strengthened him as an interest-group powerbroker, a position that rarely benefits the greatest number of average blacks.
The black intelligentsia apparently has no interest in pointing out the glaring contradictions between Clinton's symbolic politics and his lack of substantial policies in regard to blacks. Instead, Toni Morrison and Manning Marable discourse on Clinton's "blackness," or the tropes of such. You will not hear a J'accuse! from them, affirming Harold Cruse's condemnation of the black intellectual class as a "colossal fraud."
Weeks after Martha's Vineyard, Clinton and Al Gore appeared at the Black Congressional Caucus' annual weekend gathering in Washington and did a Sam and Dave version of "I Thank You." There, Mr. Gore ran down a list of black appointments that his boss had made to various departments in the Clinton administration: Energy, Agriculture, Commerce, Veterans Affairs and Labor. "As the list rolled on..." wrote Katharine Seelye of The New York Times, "its sheer length and Mr. Gore's full throttle rendition brought the audience to its feet with sustained applause."
Missing from that list were the other ways in which Mr. Clinton had tended to the needs of African-Americans and served the larger cause of justice. He fired Surgeon Gen. Joycelyn Elders; shoved aside his Justice Dept. candidate and friend Lani Guinier; affirmed the execution of a mentally defective black Arkansas inmate; signed an horrific crime bill that restricts habeas corpus but widens the scope of wiretapping, and added new death penalty provisions; refused to equalize the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing, so that blacks continue getting hit the hardest over the former; signed the egregious welfare reform bill; signed NAFTA; and disallowed the use of the word "genocide" in reports, knowing full well that doing so would prohibit an American response to the genocidal killings in Rwanda. Moreover, he's never said or done anything about the rampant rise of police brutality in cities with sizable black populations.
And this is precisely the problem. Really intractable problems like police brutality, racial profiling and crumbling public schools are given short shrift. Rather, Clinton's politics underscore the class schisms in black America. While those at Oak Bluffs and at the BCC black-tie chow-down are moving on up, those who are earning $50,000 or less are facing a political system that has openly become a plutocracy.
One sees Charles Rangel, a New York City Democrat, smitten with the idea of Mrs. Clinton running for Senate from New York, telling her that she doesn't even have to worry about submitting to a primary. An untested novice with considerable political baggage was given the nomination without any competition or prior review by the electorate. Why? Because she's the wife of the party's chief fundraiser. How democratic.
Or take the Confederate flag issue. This is the sort of symbolic politics that has reigned in the era of Bill Clinton. As odious as the Stars and Bars is, the flag doesn't rank with the problems that have an immediate impact on most blacks, like crumbling school systems or racial profiling. Yet black organizations like the NAACP would prefer to deal with the flag issue rather than with the collapse of public education. It's understandable. Black Leadership, Inc. is simply a business. Another industry. And because of the false politics of race in the country, programs like affirmative action become a way for some blacks on either side of the political spectrum to gain points. Black Leadership, Inc. has made a tacit agreement, as argued by Michael Lind in The Next American Nation, not to disrupt the status quo, a status quo that benefits it. The Grand Compromise of Multicultural America is the tacit understanding between the white overclass and the nonwhite overclass that, in return for being granted benefits in the form of racial preference programs, black and Hispanic leaders will not engage in disruptive mass agitation like that of the 60s.
Thus, there is no popular mobilization now because a segment of the black population?liberal and conservative?has become aligned with the white overclass. The fix is in, and black leadership, as it has been formally constituted, no longer exists. The current crop of so-called black leaders and intellectual leaders recalls Frantz Fanon's prescient view regarding the corrupt nature of the postcolonial African bourgeoisie: "Its innermost vocation seems to be to keep in the running and to be part of the racket."
Norman Kelley is the author of Black Heat. His next novel, The Big Mango (Akashic Books), will be published in September.