In a 1998 piece for The New Yorker, Toni Morrison anointed Bill Clinton the first black president. “Clinton,” she argued, displayed “almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.” But these are all questions of money and means — tropes not of race, but of class. Clinton is not black — he was poor, and Morrison simply conflated the two. In an essay in Commentary about black identity, John McWhorter distilled that ugly notion to its essence: For these thinkers, “To be black is to be at the bottom.” Blackness is poverty; therefore poverty is blackness.
Moving beyond these simple definitions, Morrison postulated that black men identified with Clinton most as a victim, the helpless prey of a corrupt system (this was during the Lewinsky scandal). As she imagined it, “The message was clear: ‘No matter how smart you are, how hard you work, how much coin you earn for us, we will put you in your place . . .’” She identified Clinton’s prosecution as a “lynching,” even a “crucifixion.” In the eyes of black men, she argued, the black experience was fundamentally one of victimhood — blackness as helplessness. There is today no one more famous for being abandoned by his father than Barack Obama, whose memoir, Dreams from My Father, is about growing up without his namesake. Yet even so, Obama fails Morrison’s litmus test, lacking those other bona fides: poverty, drudgery, and toil. Obama, who has thrived in “the system” — as a student, as a legislator, as a candidate — has not shared in this experience, considered formative and fundamental.