The African-American vote is always critical for Democrats. In 2008 and 2012, Black voters turned out in historic numbers for President Obama. And with this year’s primary contest closer than anyone anticipated, the focus has turned even more intently to Black voters. This is especially true for Hillary Clinton, who needs a big Black turnout to defeat Bernie Sanders. The question is: Will she get it?
So far, Clinton still remains more popular with Black voters than Sanders but not because she is the better candidate when it comes to taking on racism and injustice. Clinton benefits from her longevity in the public eye—as first lady, senator and secretary of state—and from the mythology that she and former president Bill Clinton are friends of Black people. The Clintons, the media, and the Black political establishment have worked hard to create a narrative of the Clinton era as one of Black progress. It is a narrative that is undeserved and, until recently, has gone largely unchallenged.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign likes to describe Sanders as a newcomer to the struggle for civil rights, implying that she has much deeper roots. Whatever her involvement with civil rights organizations, the destructiveness of Bill Clinton’s policies on the lives of African Americans—many of which were enthusiastically championed by Hillary—remains unparalleled. Recently a number of well-known Black activists and writers have begun exposing the actual legacy of the Clintons in the 1990s. The Clintons helped whip up an atmosphere of hysteria surrounding crime that created the pretext for draconian legislation that dramatically expanded the powers of the criminal justice system. It is well known now that by the end of the Clinton era, the incarceration rate of Black men had tripled, but what is less understood is how the law-and-order hysteria directed at Black men ushered in the era of racial profiling and stop-and-frisk police practices.
In 1998, major class action lawsuits in Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Florida highlighted the extent to which African Americans were subjected to unwarranted suspicion and harassment on the nation’s interstates. That same year the ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of several Black motorists who complained of racially-motivated traffic stops on Interstate 95. This growing activism and legal action against “driving while black” was punctuated by the police killing of unarmed, Black immigrant Amadou Diallo in February of 1999. Diallo was shot at 41 times and struck with 19 bullets while standing by the front door of his apartment building. The campaign of criminalizing Black skin intensified under the Clinton regime in ways that we are only beginning to grasp today.
Bill and Hillary also championed anti-social welfare policies that hinged on thinly-veiled racial stereotypes of Black women as “welfare cheats.” I will never forget the celebration of Clinton’s anti-welfare bill in the White House Rose Garden in 1996. There he sat, flanked by two Black women who had received public assistance while signing the bill into law. Few at the time knew that, of course, the vast majority of welfare recipients at the time were white women.
Perhaps the most insidious legacy of that era is how the Clintons, and the Democratic Party in general, doubled down on notions of “culture” and lapsed “personal responsibility” to explain the material differences between Blacks and whites. Indeed, Clinton’s welfare repeal law was called the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act.” Years earlier, after the Los Angeles rebellion in 1992, then-candidate Bill Cinton traveled to South Central L.A. and diagnosed the roots of the crisis. He said, “People … are looting because they are not part of the system at all anymore,” Clinton said. “They do not share our values, and their children are growing up in a culture alien from ours, without family, without neighborhood, without church, without support.” These comments foreshadowed the Clinton Administration’s approach to race politics.
Hillary Clinton, of course, cannot be solely held to account for the crimes of her husband, unless she chooses to wrap herself in what she considers to be a successful aspect of his presidential tenure. But she cannot have it both ways—embracing the positive while distancing herself from the destructive.
Between the Clintons’ thirst for a racist law-and-order political agenda and their simultaneous invocation of racist stereotypes to undermine public support for social welfare policies, it is not a stretch to say that the Black Lives Matter movement is, at least in part, a reaction to the failed and utterly destructive policies and politics of the Clinton era that ended a mere 14 years before its emergence.
Given this history, I was underwhelmed last week when Hillary Clinton unveiled her carefully crafted yet still strategically vague speech on race in Harlem. Clinton went to great lengths to describe her battle plan to combat “systemic racism.” Describing aspects of racial inequality in the U.S., she said, “We still need to face the painful reality that African-Americans are nearly three times as likely as whites to be denied a mortgage." And she went on to say, "Something's wrong when the median wealth for black families is just a tiny fraction of the median wealth of white families."
This is, of course, very true and indicative of the persistence of racism in the U.S., but what is Clinton’s plan to eradicate this racial inequality? Clinton has pledged an anemic $125 billion to “economically revitalize” urban and rural African-American enclaves throughout the country. Given our crumbling urban infrastructure, from deteriorating schools to ancient water main pipes, $125 billion is a paltry sum. And it’s a fraction of what the banks received when the government bailed them out.
But just as important is how Clinton says she wants to use those funds. In declaring support for job training and education, re-entry for the formerly incarcerated, and low-income homeownership, she describes Blacks as having been “left behind.” Indeed, on her website, the plan is referred to as the “Breaking Every Barrier Agenda: Revitalizing the Economy in Communities Left Behind.” This passive characterization of Black poverty and structurally deteriorating communities diminishes how larger, systemic economic changes combine with racial discrimination to exclude poor and working class African Americans from good jobs, schools and housing. All the job training in the world cannot change how Black college graduates experience almost three times the unemployment rate of their white peers. That is not the result of being “left behind”—that is job discrimination.
Moreover, it is telling that while Clinton cites mortgage discrimination in her examples of racial inequality, she says next to nothing about how she will combat bias in the banking and financing sector. Will she champion robust enforcement of current anti-discrimination policies against the banks? Will she support steep punishments against banks for resurrecting redlining practices? And what exactly is her plan for ending poverty in working class Black communities? Clinton is opposed to a federal minimum wage of $15 an hour. Is it enough to simply call for “more jobs” without clarifying what kind of jobs and whether they will offer a living wage and benefits?
Instead of providing concrete details on how a Hillary Clinton administration would confront racism and discrimination in the job market, Clinton has instead cynically attacked Bernie Sanders for being too focused on economic issues.
Comparatively, the Sanders campaign is a breath of fresh air and an affront to the status quo. Although Sanders’ popularity has seemed to come out of nowhere, in many ways it is an outgrowth of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement. By highlighting the economic inequality at the heart of American society, Sanders has tapped into the growing anger and resentment of policies that have favored the rich and elite for decades now. He has clearly positioned himself as the candidate of the 99 percent vowing to break up the big banks, but also championing a broader social platform of universal healthcare, free college tuition and other programs intended to redistribute wealth from the one percent to the vast majority of the population.
In the same way that the Occupy phenomenon was dismissed as a “white movement,” there have been similar complaints about the Sanders campaign. While it’s fair to say that Sanders has been almost exclusively focused on economic inequality, it is a significant leap to conclude that Black voters must feel alienated by that focus.
This argument vastly underestimates the ways that economic inequality radiates throughout the lives of African Americans. This is, perhaps, why Black people were so supportive of the Occupy Wall Street movement in the first place. Despite efforts to mischaracterize Occupy as “white,” one poll found that 45 percent of Blacks thought favorably of the anti-Wall Street protests, compared to 32 percent of the rest of Americans.
Black voters are very concerned with racial justice and policing, for example, but those issues cannot be neatly separated from concerns regarding the economic health of their communities. In fact, the absence of good paying jobs and other resources in Black communities directly contribute to higher crime rates that serve as a pretext for the over-policing of Black communities.
But African Americans not only suffer from racial oppression, they are overwhelmingly oppressed as working and poor people. Twenty-six percent of the 46 million poor people in the United States are African American. A shocking 55 percent of Black workers make less than $15 an hour. So please don’t tell me that Black people are not interested in economic issues.
Bernie Sanders does face a major challenge. He is running as a Democrat, and thus must bear the weight of a party that has been directly responsible for the corruption and money that taints all of mainstream politics. Sanders’ campaign may raise expectations among African Americans, and it may even continue to force Clinton to reluctantly tack to the left, but it is nearly impossible to believe that the Democratic Party would spearhead (or Congress would ever pass) a Sanders agenda. This is what Clinton means when she promotes herself as a pragmatist while chastising Sanders for making promises he cannot keep.
Yet I welcome the Sanders campaign and its dogged focus on the growing economic inequality in the U.S. His popularity reflects the anger of the growing number of people left out of American affluence. If Sanders’ candidacy ultimately does not resonate with Black voters, it won't be because they don't care about economic issues. It may have more to do with repeated efforts to discredit Sanders' sincerity on combatting racial discrimination combined with the strategic amnesia concerning the Clintons’ record with African Americans.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is an assistant professor in the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University. She is the author of "From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation," published in January 2016 by Haymarket Books.