Wherein We Discuss "First Black Presidents"

What, exactly, is that supposed to mean?

One of Bill Clinton's more amusing claims is that of being the "first black president."  This claim isn't original with him; he's not quite that arrogant.  Toni Morrison, a prestigious black writer (and winner of Nobel and Pulitzer prizes) made the comment in October of 2001 at the Congressional Black Caucus.

Even at that early date, there was some confusion over exactly what this was supposed to mean and its justification.  Clinton himself put forth the following explanation:

I think it's a function of the work I have done, not just as president, but my whole public life to try to bridge the racial divide and the fact that even when I was a little boy I had friends who were African-American.

Well!  It's probably fair to say that there have been a good number of presidents who had friends who were African-American.  George Bush Senior appointed Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court - as marks of friendship go, that must rate pretty high.  Being from Georgia, it's safe to assume that Jimmy Carter had black friends.  If DNA studies are to be believed, Thomas Jefferson had at least one particularly close black companion - although that may be what Slick Willie is referring to himself.

Friendship with blacks seems like a relatively low bar for the title of "first black president", in fact almost a meaningless one.  Some of the attendees at the dinner felt the same way:

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) said she has no idea what people mean when they talk about Clinton being "the first black president. "I don't know what that means. I don't know what that means," she commented as she walked away.

Clinton also cited the work he did - though he didn't get specific.  What work would that be, exactly?  Welfare reform, perhaps?  It is quite unlikely that the members of the Congressional Black Caucus would have considered that a major qualifier.

In any case, looking at the past history of presidents and their actions on behalf of black people, no president could possibly rank any higher than Abraham Lincoln.  Not only did he start a major war to free the American slaves -- something no one else has ever done -- but he was the first president to entertain blacks as honored guests in the White House.

If anyone should qualify as the "first black president" on the grounds of helping black Americans, it should be he.  Considering the tenor of the times, however, President Lincoln might not have appreciated the moniker as much as Bill Clinton does, so he can be excused.

It's interesting that Bill Clinton is not called the first African-American president.  He is the first "black" president, with no geographic qualifiers included.  That would imply that part of the qualifying measure is not just what's been done for American blacks, but for blacks elsewhere.

Here we find an interesting fact.  There is another president who has worked tirelessly to save the lives of millions of black Africans.  He has tripled aid to that continent; he has raised the profile of the health issues there, so as to encourage others to give more; and he has attempted to jawbone various warring parties into sitting down to talk over their differences, with some successes.

These great accomplishments, and even better intentions, have gone all but unnoticed in the United States.  But in Africa itself, the residents are very well aware, and grateful.

According to survey data, the majority of Africans have a favorable view of the United States.  In fact, citizens of some African countries have a more favorable view of the U.S. than Americans have.

Perhaps the best news of all, these efforts are not merely "alms to the poor," the largess of a wealthy man to some guttersnipe.  They are, rather, specifically intended to help Africans establish their own stable democracies; their own economies; and to better themselves through their own efforts, becoming equal members of the community of developed nations.

This goal would have been wholeheartedly welcomed by the early American black leaders, such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and George Washington Carver, who were adamant about the need of blacks to work hard, study hard, and earn their success.  Dr. Carver advised his people to:

Learn to do common things uncommonly well; we must always keep in mind that anything that helps fill the dinner pail is valuable. When you do the common things in life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world.

Carver also said:

There is no short cut to achievement. Life requires thorough preparation - veneer isn't worth anything.

If it is accepted as legitimate for the "first black president" to be a person who's not, in fact, black, then that honorific can only be granted on the basis of deeds or by a popular poll, not by the partisan decision of a handful of elites.  And based specifically on his actions, on his policies, on the heartfelt opinion of millions of black Africans, and even of celebrities, I have the distinct honor of presenting to you the first black President of the United States:

George W. Bush.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Petrarch or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments
Bush also had the first black secretary of state, right? Also the first black female secretary of state, right? Is he like super-black now?
February 22, 2008 8:59 PM
And a black Secretary of Ed. Where's the love?
February 22, 2008 10:13 PM
This is the most racist thing I've read in a long time because it wraps itself in an empty facade of afro-omniscience. I love how the writers of this site present an aura of "good for 'em"-ness for the good of all us idiot blacks. Conservatives like George Bush have run amuck over welfare and affirmation action and all the other policies that our (black) leaders have tried to setup for the past twenty years. Just when you think you're getting somewhere....
February 23, 2008 8:44 AM
And don't forget Karl Rove's best friend was his BlackBerry.
February 23, 2008 9:38 AM
I do not understand yo's comment. He said "George Bush has run amuck over welfare" but ti was president Clinton who led the recent efforts at welfare reform. Mr. Bush has left welfare pretty much as it was when he arrived.

As scrag noted in


there are two basic approaches to minority groups - try to mainstream them or try to keep them in separate racial enclaves. Dr. Thomas Sowell has pointed out that blacks stopped making economic progress when affirmative action was started. By teaching blacks to depend on white generosity for progress, leaders who support affirmative action keep their people down.

Does yo object to Mr. Bush' efforts to fight malaria in Africa? How is it racist to write about how our government is trying to help people in Africa? What about Oprah's efforts to start a school in Africa? Was that racist?

I don't understand where yo is coming from.
February 23, 2008 11:26 AM
I'm half white, half black. In later years, this has given me a great perspective on race since I associate with (and am) both races. The problem that most white face when discussing black issues is that they do not properly understand the condescension that blacks feel when they are with whites or employed by whites or regulated by whites or whatever. The depth of that condescension is greatly misunderstood. Institutionalized racsim no longer exists, but institutionalized patronization does. Affirmation Action is probably the chief culprit.
February 25, 2008 8:49 AM
I think micah got it DEAD ON. "Condescension" means "voluntary assumption of equality with a person regarded as inferior." All white people know black people who got jobs or college places for which they were not qualified. When that happens, the only politically correct thing a white person can do is to condescend. The future Mrs. Obama talked about that in her senior thesis at Princeton,


Given that everyone assumed that she wasn't qualified to be at Princeton, what else could they do?
February 28, 2008 9:34 AM
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