President Clinton, once dubbed the “first black president,” “exploited” blacks, said an activist at a meeting of leaders gathered in Detroit for a fund-raiser for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“He exploited black sentiment because he knew the rituals of black culture,” said Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of religious studies at DePaul University in Chicago. “Bill Clinton exploited us like no president before him.”
The Associated Press first reported the remarks Sunday, and some black leaders say they prove untrue the notion that Mr. Clinton is accepted almost universally by the nation’s blacks.
Mr. Clinton was called “our first black president” by author Toni Morrison in an article she wrote for the New Yorker magazine in 1998. Her tongue-in-cheek comment inspired a legion of black leaders to heap praise on Mr. Clinton for what they said were his pro-minority policies and his poverty-stricken lineage.
“Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas,” Miss Morrison wrote.
Mr. Clinton’s decision to move his post-presidential office to Harlem was lauded by local and national political leaders, who reprised Miss Morrison’s sentiments.
Even in New York, though, the embrace has not been universal among the black community.
“I think that to some extent, Bill Clinton was one of the worst presidents ever for African Americans,” said Charles Barron, New York City Council member from Brooklyn’s District 42. “Policywise, he approved one of the worst-ever welfare reform policies.”
“But we had been neglected by so many previous administrations that [we accepted] the first man who came by and winked at us and played saxophone on Arsenio Hall,” he said yesterday while agreeing with Mr. Dyson’s criticisms. “Well, shame on so many African Americans for holding Bill Clinton up as some sort of hero.”
But Mr. Clinton still enjoys broad support in the black community, said Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich, executive director of the Black Leadership Forum.
While some scorn Mr. Clinton for what they call his patronization of blacks, “Nobody’s perfect, and I think that, the same as every politician that I know, Bill Clinton used the strengths he had as creatively as he could.”
“He had more African Americans in his Cabinet at one time than the rest of the preceding presidents combined,” Miss Scruggs-Leftwich said. “He launched the race initiative and made multiple trips to Africa.”
The meeting was part of the first Freedom Weekend, a program sponsored by the Detroit branch of the NAACP. The local NAACP held its 47th annual, $150-a-plate fund-raising dinner Sunday night. The dinner drew an estimated 10,000 people to a downtown ballroom.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who attended Sunday’s dinner, has also been an outspoken supporter of the former president and said in an interview in 2000 that his decision to stay out of the presidential races in 1992 and 1996 was made in part because “there were coattails. In many ways, Clinton inherited much of what we had done.”
Among those taking part in the meeting Saturday were Democratic Reps. John Conyers Jr. and Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, both of Michigan; Detroit Mayor Kwame M. Kilpatrick, a Democrat; the Rev. Al Sharpton; and Johnnie Cochran, a lawyer.
The national office of the NAACP did not return calls.