When author Toni Morrison called then–President Bill Clinton the nation's "first black president" in the late 1990s, it wasn't exactly a compliment. But some — Clinton included — still tout the term, even when we actually have a black president in the White House.
While campaigning for his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, at a rally in Memphis, Tennessee, on Friday, the former president made an appeal to genetic African ancestry.
Clinton reacted to Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) introducing him as a "stand-in for the first black president" by saying, "I’m happy to do that, but you know what else we learned from the human genome? We learned that unless your ancestors, every one of you, are 100 percent, 100 percent from sub-Saharan Africa, we are all mixed-race people."
In a statement to Vox, Clinton's Press Secretary Angel Urena provided the rest of the former president's statement :
And we learned that from a scientific point of view, if you just look at our genome, we are all 99.5 percent the same. That is, look around this room here. Every single, solitary difference you can see that is not age-related: skin color, eye color, body shape, gender, race, you name it, every one is rooted in one half of 1 percent of your genome. So the problems of the world today could be summed up as, we spend 99 and a half percent of our time fixating on that half of a percent, and if we spent a little more time fixated on the other 99 and a half percent, we could build a better future together.
Clinton’s comments do sound a bit like Meryl Streep’s recent "We’re all Africans, really" does. Sure, genetically all human beings are 99.9 percent identical. And, yes, anthropologically the first human being can be traced to the African continent. But race is not about genetics — race is fundamentally about power.
Back in 1998, Morrison called Clinton "our first black president" in a New Yorker essay because the scrutiny Clinton received around a sex scandal resembled a familiar racialized trope:
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. And when virtually all the African-American Clinton appointees began, one by one, to disappear, when the President’s body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution, when he was metaphorically seized and body-searched, who could gainsay these black men who knew whereof they spoke? 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 or put you out of the place you have somehow, albeit with our permission, achieved. You will be fired from your job, sent away in disgrace, and — who knows? — maybe sentenced and jailed to boot. In short, unless you do as we say (i.e., assimilate at once), your expletives belong to us."
Morrison’s statement was not a compliment, which she clarified in a 2008 interview with Time.
"People misunderstood the phrase," she said. "I was deploring the way in which President Clinton was being treated, vis-à-vis the sex scandal that was surrounding him. I said he was being treated like a black on the street, already guilty, already a perp. I have no idea what his real instincts are, in terms of race."
Updated to reflect former Clinton's full statement as provided by his press secretary.