In 1998, I was not quite in sync with literary icon Toni Morrison when she wrote of President Bill Clinton: “White skin notwithstanding, this is our first black president.”

She was making a provocative point about the aggressively negative treatment Clinton received from wide swaths of the media and political world. Her specific proof was not off base, if tongue-in-cheek.

“Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime,” Morrison wrote. “After all, 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.”

But regardless, it seemed a bit disjointed to use the moniker, “first black president,” for a man who — while sympathetic to the circumstances of Americans of African descent — had not and could not experience what it actually means to live as a black man.

So, no, I couldn’t get on board with the notion that Clinton was our first black president — even if the statement was made almost solely to spur political conversation.

But as I had learned in Virginia during the fall of 1989 — and then through travels across the country — Americans should not be underestimated. I felt voters were closer to electing a black president than conventional wisdom suggested.

The national electorate confirmed my hunch in November 2008, choosing Barack Obama, a darker-skinned man of mixed racial heritage, to be chief executive. He is a gentleman I proudly campaigned nationwide to elect.

All of a sudden, during both Morrison’s and my lifetime — not just our children’s — America elected a black president, in a spirit of hope and optimism painted in votes from all hues across the human rainbow.

Yet here we sit, more than three years after Obama’s win, and too many people are pulling me aside in private to ask why his standing in the African-American community has softened since his Inauguration. They also question whether the reduced excitement among young and new voters — with that lack of enthusiasm from African-Americans — might hinder Obama’s 2012 campaign.

This has forced me to think back to Morrison’s comment.

Obama was elected in a flourish of promise that many in the African-American community believed would help not only to symbolize African-American progress since the Civil War and Civil Rights Acts but that his presidency would result in doors opening in the halls of power as had never been seen before by black America.

Has that happened? I am forced to say, “No” — especially when comparing Morrison’s metaphorical first black president to the actual first black president.

Think back on a small slice of merely the upper levels of the Clinton administration, and remember how many Cabinet agencies the Arkansan had named African-Americans to lead: Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, Labor Secretary Alexis Herman, Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary, Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, Veterans Affairs Secretary Jesse Brown, Army Secretary Togo West, who succeeded Brown at Veteran Affairs, Office and Management and Budget Director Franklin Raines and Director of National Drug Control Policy Lee Brown. Clinton also regularly cited Vernon Jordan as a respected adviser and strategist.
Clinton may not have been the nation’s first black president — but he did make appointments like he was. Obama would do well to look a little closer at the Clinton template.

I have heard any number of people worry what will happen to the estimation of African-Americans if Obama is not reelected. I remind them, come Jan. 20, 2017, at the latest, he will not be president — regardless of what happens next fall.

I also ask them to consider what legacy Obama will leave — no matter when he vacates the Oval Office. What will he have left for black Americans beyond an electoral point in time? Who will follow him? Who will be the second to Obama’s first, and what has he done to help prepare for that?

The answers have not been made obvious for the public to embrace.

In discussing this with my college class at Virginia Commonwealth University, one astute young man raised his hand and asked me the natural follow-up question: “Governor, what did you do when you had the chance?”

It’s a good question. One I don’t mind handling because of the record my team and I built when entrusted with Virginia’s executive office.

We hired Jacqueline Epps to be the first African-American head of the Virginia Retirement System, a multibillion-dollar enterprise; Eddie Moore, as the first African-American state treasurer; James Dyke, first African-American secretary of education; and Ruby Martin, the first African-American secretary of administration. We appointed the most black members to state boards and commissions ever seen in Virginia’s history.

We did not govern solely for any single specific segment of Virginia’s population. But we also did not ignore the responsibility and opportunity to open the doors of government leadership to all.

The third branch, the judiciary, though, provides the greatest layer of concern when it comes to Obama’s record of appointments. A person with even the smallest understanding of the Civil Rights era knows many, if not most, of its significant achievements were spurred by the judiciary — the Supreme Court in particular. Thurgood Marshall’s voice made a difference arguing cases before the court and then as a long-term member after his appointment by President Lyndon B. Johnson. His sensibility is missing, and it is needed again.

For any talents Justice Clarance Thomas may bring to the table — he does not use them to advance the causes that Marshall spent a lifetime fighting for. Marshall needs a successor. Obama’s actions say he believes Thomas fills that role. Others of us urge him to reconsider.

The question comes up in every presidential election: “What kind of justices will you appoint to the Supreme Court?” With the first vacancy during Obama’s term, conventional wisdom suggested that he needed to court the Latino vote and name a Latino to curry favor with that growing electorate. We waited to be surprised — but to no avail.

When the second vacancy occurred — a rarity because few presidents get to appoint more than one, and some not even that — we again had high expectations that an African-American would be appointed.

When not a single African-American — at least publicly — was seriously considered, certain presumptions began to arise. The first is that there were none qualified; the second is that there were none psychologically or politically suited.

There are too many persons, too numerous to name, who stand in rebuttal to such nonsense. Don’t give up, wait until the next one comes around, that might be your turn.

Clinton, among others, seeded the government with those who could grow to fill this role. Obama needs to take advantage of previous seasons’ sowing of the fields.

By birth and life experience, Clinton cannot lay claim to the title of first black president — as Morrison knighted him. But Obama needs to work harder to make it less obvious that Clinton, in governing deed, actually deserves it more that the 44th president does.

When I arrived in the Ivory Coast in the early 1990s on a tour of seven African nations, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, the first president of that country, greeted me. He was instrumental in the efforts leading to the decolonization of Africa.

“I have waited for you,” Houphouet-Boigny said through an interpreter. He meant this to show his pride in seeing America elect a governor of African descent.

In reflecting on what he said to me, I, too, have waited for a long time. If the Republicans persist in their “presidential candidate for the month” campaign, then I’m correct in assuming Obama will most likely be reelected — and that we are correct in reminding him that we have waited.

The piece originally appeared in Politico on December 12, 2011:

You May Also Like

The 2016 Richmond Mayoral Forum

The Richmond TImes-Dispatch has extensive coverage of the Mayoral Forum held at…