When I consider what Hillary Clinton is likely to say in a presidential debate, I having one guiding principle. Namely, that electing her U.S. president is rationally indefensible, so her appeal to voters will inevitably involve lies or sleazy diversionary tactics. Such was my prediction for Sunday night’s presidential debate, and I was hardly disappointed.
But the nature of the candidate, and the timing and venue of the debate, should have alerted me more clearly to the nature of the forthcoming sleaze. As the pin-up girl for identity politics, debating in largely black South Carolina on the eve of Martin Luther King Day, Clinton decided to play the racial identity card—a “blaxploitation” move designed to keep black voters.
Now, of course, it was totally fitting (and given the timing and venue, politically obligatory) that all three candidates’ introductory remarks should pay tribute to Dr. King, a morally heroic exemplar for Americans of any race. But for “Sistah Hillary,” that was only the start of her evening’s blatantly racial appeal—an appeal that honored King’s pigmentation vastly more than his principles.
For the lion’s share of Clinton’s night was spent schmoozing blacks over her unequaled love for first black president Barack Obama, to the exclusion of considering at all whether his presidential agenda, while undoubtedly pleasing to plutocrats, could have more greatly profited actual black people. (The Black Agenda Report, a very worthwhile black leftist publication, apparently begs to differ from Sistah Hillary on this subject; consider, for example, BAR’s rather scathing appraisal of Obama’s legacy.) And also to the exclusion, apparently, of remembering her own 2008 campaign’s racist dog whistles against that same Barack Obama. But hey, the chance to wax distantly indignant—an identity-liberal specialty—over the genuinely reprehensible water crisis in Flint, Michigan (a black-majority city) gave Clinton a chance to drown out 2008 with a more decorous sort of dog whistling, and Hillary’s whistle was certainly up to the task.
To sum matters up, Sistah Hillary decided to debate in blackface. And while Clinton’s political-correctness police, her identity-politics brownshirts, will predictably scream racism (or sexism) over my precise, if acerbic language, no Democratic debate tactic could more deeply insult—or undermine—the legacy of Dr. King than Clinton’s Orwellian minstrel show performance.
Now, in describing my talk of “blackface” and “minstrel shows” as precise, I, of course, realize I’m way off base in one particular respect: Clinton’s intended audience. Whereas minstrel shows performers donned racially demeaning blackface to regale white audiences, Sistah Hillary assumed her own racially demeaning blackface to seduce black ones. And while the demeaning of blacks is the one factor Clinton’s minstrel show had in common with earlier ones, I can only devoutly hope such identity-politics minstrel shows soon have something in common with historical ones: that both are tabooed by society as racially insulting farces. For identity politics is itself a farce, and far more often than not a cynical attempt to hoodwink the identity groups whose interests it supposedly exists to protect.
Let’s face it: identity politics routinely harms its political client groups—in four crucial senses. First, it demeans identity group members, denying their often vast individual differences and their ability to think in broadly human categories that transcend group identity. To anyone familiar with MLK’s life, it’s obvious that his success depended crucially on his simultaneous ability to self-identify as an American black and to reason in universal moral categories that utterly transcended his identity as a member of any particular nation or race. Second, it’s manipulative, encouraging identity group members to think in terms of racial, ethnic, and gender identities—for their manipulators’ purposes—when in fact it might be far more beneficial for them to think in terms of others ones, say as victims of economic injustice. Third, it enflames the “us vs. them” racist, sexist, or xenophobic hostilities from which they already suffer, needlessly angering poor whites, who feel their own very real problems neglected amidst the canonization of approved identity groups and their own demonization. Last but hardly least, it frequently stymies the human development of identity group members, subjecting them to the low expectations of officially recognized victims while sparing them the constructive criticism that’s essential to individual growth.
Sistah Hillary’s sympathetic minstrel show demeaned African-Americans in all these crucial senses. Above all, it demeaned Martin Luther King himself, diminishing to a black plaster saint a challenging, racially transcendent moral hero—a fearless, unsparing social critic whose very stature renders white Hillary Clinton and black Barack Obama moral pygmies by comparison. Instead, Hillary—an honorary “sistah” because her uterus gives her a share in the common pool of identity victimhood—wrapped Dr. King and Obama (and implicitly herself) in the same morally blind mantle of identity sanctity, never considering that King himself might object deeply to the moral company he was being forced to keep.
Indeed, Clinton and Obama—but not Dr. King—seem very much cut from the same cloth: a type black Ivy League professor and public intellectual Adolph Reed frequently encounters among his ambitious minority students, who feel racial or gender justice is fully satisfied if it grants unlimited scope to their personal ambitions. Hillary’s shattering of the gender glass ceiling is as likely to be as much a victory for women generally as Obama’s shattering of the racial one was for blacks: an ideal chance for identity hero worship but almost nothing else. MLK, who selflessly fought his whole life for the poor and dispossessed of all races and genders, was certainly cut from different cloth.
Humbly as he might state his objections—based solely on moral principle and not any sense of diminished personal dignity—compelling evidence suggests Dr. King’s objections to keeping moral company with Obama and Clinton would be considerable. Adolph Reed notes, in the link I just cited, that the overwhelming majority of blacks are working class, and would benefit (perhaps more than any other group) from any measure that substantially benefits the working class; MLK, in fighting for the poor generally, obviously knew that. It’s impossible to believe King would endorse the devil’s bargain, made by Obama and both Clintons, to abandon economic justice for workers for the sake of focusing on identity politics and the enrichment of Wall Street donors. Nor is it likely King, a fierce critic of the Vietnam War and U.S. imperialism, would have endorsed Bill Clinton’s genocidal sanctions against Iraq, Obama’s illegal, murderous drone strikes and failure to prosecute the Bush war criminals, or Hillary’s creation of a failed state in Libya and arms sales to human-rights-violating nations after they donated to the Clinton Foundation. It’s also unlikely King, had he known of climate change and its dire effects on the world’s poorest and darkest-skinned nations, would have approved of Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy, or Hillary’s global push for fracking that top climatologist James Hansen described as “screwing your children and grandchildren.”
Nor, finally, is it fathomable that King, as a lifelong servant of truth, would have approved an especially shameful instance of Hillary’s deceit—one occurring at the very debate she launched by paying lip service to his memory. Above all when the sleazy deceit, as documented by Truthdig editor Bill Scheer, served specifically to unjustly transfer blame to Bernie Sanders for Bill Clinton financial policies that had horrendous effects on blacks. And when those policies themselves served, unsurprisingly, to put Wall Street in a very favorable frame of mind to donate to Hillary’s upcoming Senate campaign. As Scheer notes, Hillary shamelessly accused Bernie (unlike her) of having voted for the deregulation of the financial markets, when in fact this was a Bill Clinton policy buried in an omnibus bill Bernie, like the rest of Congress, was blackmailed into voting for just to keep the government operating. A policy, moreover, strongly endorsed by Hillary’s current chief economic adviser Gary Gensler, whom Bernie, aware of having been played, later opposed when Obama nominated him to head the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. It’s richly ironic—and extraordinarily sleazy—that Gensler would advise Hillary to call Bernie for voting (under duress) for a pernicious policy of which he himself was chief architect.
And Gensler was likewise part of the set of Bill Clinton economic advisers who called for repeal of Glass Steagall. As Scheer writes, “That repeal, as well as preventing any regulation of the toxic mortgage packages and swaps that still hobble the world economy and wiped out the fortunes of black and brown people with particular severity [emphasis mine], is Bill Clinton’s horrid legacy, and it is one that his wife now attempts to blame on Bernie Sanders.”
In short, it’s not inconceivable, taking a long view of history (including climate devastation in poor countries), that identity liberals donning blackface will ultimately have a more pernicious effect of the lives of black people than the KKK. One can only applaud the efforts of educators like Adolph Reed, the writers of the Black Agenda Report, or Cornel West to pierce the veil of identity liberalism and take up the real critical legacy of Martin Luther King. And one can only hope figures like West can teach black voters the real merits of his “Brother Bernie” before Sistah Hillary works her evil “black magic” on us all.
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