How Black is Not White?

by Akim Reinhardt

Today in TV History: Bill Clinton and His Sax Visit Arsenio – TV ...During the 1990s, the impossibility of a black president was so ingrained in American culture that some people, including many African Americans, jokingly referred to President Bill Clinton as the first “black president.” The threshold Clinton had passed to achieve this honorary moniker? He seemed comfortable around black people. That’s all it took.

Because an actual black president was so inconceivable that a white president finally treating African Americans as regular people seemed as close as America would get any time soon.

In 1998, Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison brought Clinton’s unofficial title to national attention with a New Yorker essay aimed at discrediting the impeachment proceedings against him. One of Morrison’s rhetorical devices was to check off all the boxes in which Clinton displayed “almost every trope of blackness,” including being raised in a working class, single-parent household, and loving fast food.

By 2003, the idea of a black president was still outlandish enough that it served as common comedic fodder. Chris Rock starred in the film Head of State, a fantasy comedy in which Chicago Alderman Mays Gilliam becomes a fluke president. And Dave Chappelle portrayed an unabashedly African American version of President George Bush in a Chapelle Show sketch. The skit’s running joke was how outrageous and “unpresidential” it would be to have a black chief executive. Read more »

Our Epidemic: Visibility, Invisibility, Blindness, and Race

by Joan Harvey

I learned in New Jersey that to be a Negro meant, precisely, that one was never looked at but was simply at the mercy of the reflexes the color of one’s skin caused in other people. —James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. —Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

…American society is blind to hundreds, even thousands of murders perpetrated in its name by agents of governments. — John Lewis

Françoise Soulé Zinsou Duressé, je suis ce que je suis (still), 2018, single-channel video (color, sound), 4:50 minutes, courtesy of the artist.

I had begun thinking about how the coronavirus made very visible the shambles of our society, when the murder of George Floyd took place. Disasters pull aside the veil, and make an underlying reality more apparent. Already the coronavirus had exposed the reality of racism, capitalist economics, the weakness of our food system, our health care crisis, the extreme vulnerability of so many populations, and the built-in structural violence. The George Floyd murder, and the subsequent protests and riots, were police brutality made visible, and rage against the brutality made visible.

Activist and epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves, referring to the way the virus has been mishandled, asks:

How many people will die this summer, before Election Day? What proportion of the deaths will be among African-Americans, Latinos, other people of color? This is getting awfully close to genocide by default. What else do you call mass death by public policy?

His comments apply equally to the public policy that allows so many to be killed by police. Writing in 2014, civil rights leader John Lewis mentions a recent study that reported that “one black man is killed by police or vigilantes in our country every 28 hours, almost one a day.” Read more »