08/12/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bill and Barack and Blackness

Bill Clinton's recent interview with MSNBC ( demonstrates that he still feels hurt and angry that a number of his remarks during the campaign were properly taken as racist in tone. He and Geraldine Ferraro both felt they were done dirty by Obama supporters and pointed to their record. Bill Clinton angrily insists he's not a racist. Both Bill Clinton and Geraldine Ferraro do have honorable records on race. I believe they are generally people of good will and have at times sacrificed of themselves in the cause of racial equality. Nevertheless, their reaction points to the real problem Americans continue to have when the subject of race comes to the fore.

There is a real impulse to oversimplify. Either one is a KKK embracing David Duke or one is completely egalitarian and immune from the nation's long history of racial hostility and bias. Such a binary view misses that fact we are all tainted by our nation's history. It was only forty years ago that a politician could run on a segregationist platform and win a large number of votes. I was in grade school when the LDS Church recognized African Americans as fully human. I was older than that when the Southern Baptist acknowledged their wrong-doing in supporting slavery. I am part of the first generation not to attend segregated schools and not to have to drink from the colored drinking fountain. My point is this was not long ago. Do we really believe all those attitudes and biases have vanished? Are all the members of the previous generation dead? Was nothing passed down conscious or unconscious?

As an African American, I know my generation has traveled a long way. I am part of the first generation of blacks in my family to count whites among my friends. I believe the large majority of whites and blacks are people of good will who want to see reconciliation take place. Nevertheless, I can also admit that some of my thoughts,feelings, actions and reactions are tempered by suspicion, resentment and anger based on the past and present history of racial bias my family and I have encountered. I am not a conscious racist. But some of my thoughts and feelings come out of the heritage of racism that we all live with. When I as a black person operate out of that -- I need to acknowledge it, repent, figure out how it happened and try hard break the cycle of prejudice I have found myself in.

The problem with Clinton and so many others is that they seem unwilling to acknowledge that, though they be people of good will, some of their thoughts, actions, attitudes and behaviors have been influenced by the history of American racism. The dismissive attitudes toward Obama displayed by the Clintons, Ferraro and McCain reek of it. Bill's Jesse Jackson and fairy tale remarks, Hillary's hard working white people, Ferraro's lucky to be a black man and more of the McCain campaign that I have space to comment on are all racially tinged. Rather than showing some introspection and reflection on how and why they fell short of their desire to do what is right-- they resort to denials and attacks. This gets us nowhere.

We all, black and white, fall victim to racist attitudes and perceptions. We don't intend to. But we do. We can overcome it. In fact we have already come a long way as a society and as people. I am proud of America for that (and many other things). Yet, if we are to reach the place where race is no longer an issue, we have to acknowledge race is part of the subtext of all of our interactions and therefore is always a factor. It is seldom the factor but it is always part of the mix.

Think of welfare reform. Did it need to happen? Yes. Reform was needed. But can anyone honestly say that the emphasis placed on it in Clinton's first term really was in proportion to the most serious issues plaguing the nation (the need for an energy policy, health care reform, the need for oversight of the deregulated banking and energy sectors Remember the conditions were already in place for Enron and other large-scale fraud. Yet the nation focused on welfare reform. Can we all acknowledge there was an element of racism involved that made us obsess on a relatively small fiscal matter while ignoring the larger more significant fiscal matters? The war on drugs? Mandatory minimums for crack (a drug associated with urban poor blacks) well beyond the penalties for drugs associated with whites. Does anyone seriously think race played no part in this?

Bill, you are an honorable man. You have well served the country -- including its African American citizens. There is a reason you have been referred to as the first black president. Yet growing up where and when you did, you are not perfect on the issue of race. None of us are. Bill Clinton, you are a racist. We all are. But we can change. The first step to change is recognizing the need.