When I was 9 years old, my sister and I snuck downstairs to watch TV after my parents fell asleep and, unbeknownst to us, witnessed an event that fundamentally changed American culture: Bill Clinton playing the saxophone on Arsenio Hall.
To the I-don’t-remember-a-time-before-wifi generation, this event means little. But for those of us who are a bit older, we understand the significance of that night: It was the moment the black community fell in love with William Jefferson Clinton — a love that’s lasted almost 25 years, despite the excessive harm he’s inflicted on our community.
When I saw Bill Clinton this week lose his cool with Black Lives Matter protesters, get emotional and throw caution (and his notes) to the wind, I thought it was the most awesome thing I’d seen all week. Don’t get me wrong: What he said was a load of BS, at best mirroring a MADtv sketch (“I’ll tell you another story about a place where black lives matter: Africa!”) and at worst resembling a Trump supporter hopped up on hate, peer pressure and mob mentality. When Clinton said, “You are defending the people who kill the lives you say matter. Tell the truth. You are defending the people who cause young people to go out and take guns,” he sounded less like the man we once lovingly referred to as the “first black president” and more like someone vying for a Fox News show.
But what was so awesome about his rant was the fact that, for once, we got to see under the veneer of white, liberal political correctness — we got to see a white person with power who’s done real harm to our community say what he truly believes. And as a black person, there’s nothing I appreciate more than white people being upfront and honest about their problematic beliefs.
While conservatives often make no bones about being openly xenophobic and racist, there’s something unsettling about the way many white liberals interact with people of color. Often, liberals are so well-versed on the polite conventions of respectable and appropriate speech that they can become talking-point robots rather than individuals who have their own set of beliefs. This applies to how straight liberals often address the LGBTQ community, how upper- and upper-middle-class people address the poor, and how white people address people of color. There’s nothing scarier for a minority than not really knowing what the person across from them actually thinks about their intrinsic worth and their fight against oppression. Bill Clinton, a man we in the black community have faithfully supported for decades while being actively ignored by presidential candidates or used as fodder to advance racist stereotypes for political gain (e.g., Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queens”), has finally revealed himself in all his glory — and it was an absolutely amazing sight to behold.
There are some, both within and outside of the black community, who will say former President Clinton should be banned from public events after this week’s outburst. But I disagree. Bill Clinton’s Nineties-era policies, with Hillary Clinton’s support at the time, have irreparably harmed the black community by using racially coded language to support mass incarceration and damaging “welfare reform” — yet they’ve retained much of the goodwill Bill earned them by donning his Blues Brothers shades on Arsenio Hall. For Bill Clinton to more or less announce that he doesn’t give a damn about the Black Lives Matter movement is great to hear as a supporter of the movement, because I really appreciate knowing where people stand.
We need to have real conversations. You don’t have to like what Bill Clinton said — Lord knows I didn’t — but if we minorities want to protect ourselves, it’s time to know who is down to fight with us, and who is trying to fight against us. Slick Willie can’t talk his way out of this one — and that’s exactly the way we should want to interact with our elected officials and those otherwise in power.
I’ll take your honest opinion of my intrinsic worth over a sax solo any day.