“We need to take these people on. They are often connected to drug cartels. They are not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘super-predators.’ No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about how they got that way but first we have to bring them to heel.”
They are not gangs of kids anymore. Superpredators. This is the kind of dehumanizing language that former New York Senator and Democrat Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton used to describe gangs of kids in 1994, while stumping for her husband Bill Clinton’s pet Violent Crime Control Act. In modern media parlance, we’d describe that as “dog whistle,” the kind of clearly racially coded language meant to stir up and evoke that most effective form of American political currency: the fear of black people.
Today we’d expect to ascribe that kind of dog whistle language to Conservative lawmakers of the Trump, Cruz, and Carson ilk. However, here it is a counterpoint against efforts to sell Clinton as a racially progressive candidate, especially as in a recent essay by Michael Eric Dyson at The New Republic, which claims that Clinton will surpass President Obama’s contributions to the black community.
Dyson is right to scrutinize President Obama’s “accomplishments on race” as a way of supporting this claim. However, the kind of reasoned policy or political analysis that could ground such a comparison is missing, save for a few very broad paragraphs addressing Dyson’s personal disillusionment with Obama. Dyson writes:
But I grew disillusioned with his timid responses to racial crisis, with how willing he was to disclaim his racial affiliation, and more grievously, his shirking of his political duty—“I’m not the president of black America,” he has said. Obama will undoubtedly go down as one of the most important presidents in our nation’s history. But his accomplishments on race will not be what gain him that distinction. tweet
These are certainly valid critiques. Even including a recent uptick in language more amenable to the Black Lives Matter movement, including a speech defending the slogan and acknowledging the “legitimate problem” it addresses, the President’s track record on racial rhetoric has remained frustratingly lukewarm.
Even in places where political capital was likely not at risk, Obama’s professorial tendency to present both sides of an issue–in this case anti-racism and racism–as equally legitimate morally or logically can be maddening. Obama’s five-year dabbling in respectability politics and admonishment of black fathers as a go-to move have also cost him more than a few points among the young black voter base. This has bled into a political woodenness, as Obama has been slow to address some of the pressing concerns of protesters in the realm of criminal justice.
However, an analysis must also factor in what President Obama has done for black folks–the actual accomplishments–as well. For one, the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) could very well double as a racial and socioeconomic stimulus, providing the equivalent of tax breaks to those in the American medical underclass, increasing access to care and reducing economic and health burdens to disease, and hopefully expanding lifespans and helping people of color live longer, more productive lives that have more likelihood of cashing in on pension and Medicare benefits.
The DOJ under President Obama has relaxed mandatory minimums, relaxed drug enforcement, released thousands of incarcerated people and granted clemency to almost a hundred others, and has adopted new guidelines for drug sentencing that may make nearly half of all remaining federal prisoners eligible for early release. They are phasing in new education programs for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people alike. Shortly after protests in Ferguson were met with police in tanks, Executive Order 13688 reduced the torrent of military surplus armaments to local police. The administration has been in contact with at least some of the many groups operating under the broad Black Lives Matter umbrella, and the Presidential Task Force on Policing’s report was used in Campaign Zero’s framework.
Again, these do not a flawless policy resume make. Inasmuch as the kinds of very conservative “community policing”-style reforms can actually bring the broad sea changes that black activists are looking for, Dyson is on-base with his assertion that Obama’s work could stand to be much more robust. However, a comparison of Obama’s policies with the actual policies that Hillary Clinton has elucidated on the trail does not reveal Obama to be a laggard. The New Republic reports:
[T]he former secretary of state eventually advocated for a number of key racial justice reforms: A long-overdue overhaul of drug sentencing laws, legislation to prohibit racial profiling, and “banning the box,” a federal ban on employers asking applicants about their criminal history—a proven barrier to readjustment after prison. She also came out against the private sector’s encroachment of the prison system. tweet
These policies, save the language about prison privatization, are mere extensions of policy that the Obama administration has already committed to or implemented. So just what gives Dyson confidence that Clinton will take leaps and bounds beyond Obama?
In an interview portion with Clinton, she reveals some new policy plot points. According to Dyson:
In New York, when I asked Clinton what policies her administration would put forth to help black folk, she effortlessly rattled them off: She spoke of redirecting federal resources to local and state law enforcement. She spoke about black unemployment, a subject Obama has hardly acknowledged, the school-to-prison pipeline, which, she said, “often starts because black kids get suspended and expelled at a much higher rate.” She talked about creating “real alternatives to incarceration” for black people, adding that “we don’t want them being put into the prison system for nonviolent, low-level offenses, but we also don’t want them just thrown out on the street. There’s got to be a much better array of services that is available for people to try to get their own lives on the right track.” She touted community empowerment and “the use of the federal dollar to try to support small businesses, which are still the backbone of most African American communities”; she advocated job-training programs, addiction services, mental health treatment: the meat, the substance. tweet
Are these really meat and substance? Do police departments with armored personnel carriers and three or four expensive guns per officer need redirection of taxpayer money–or a complete repurposing? What would she do about black unemployment? How could the school-to-prison pipeline be fixed? What about addiction or mental health or job training for would-be incarcerated people has Clinton stated that has not actually been mentioned or attempted by the sitting President?
These are questions that I and many other deliberating voters have that could have been addressed in such an exclusive interview. However, I believe they are missed in the pursuit of Clinton’s coronation and a full-throated refutation of Obama. Here, as in other places, Clinton also receives the relative calorie-free benefit of race talk that other white progressives enjoy relative to Obama. In this primary, white candidates have been lauded merely for acknowledging that Black Lives Matter, while Obama (even as he states otherwise) is considered the Father of Black America in assessing both policy responsibility and policy outcomes. Dyson grades Obama and Hillary on this curve, although the results imply a fair fight.
Dyson uses the perspective of other prominent black leaders as further evidence that black America is indeed ready for Hillary. However, this body of evidence is lacking. A long aside about Jesse Jackson’s reconciliation with the Clintons is presented as the heart of the essay. However, the claim that Jackson still “serves as proxy for huge swaths of black America” is deserving of scrutiny. Half of the black population now is under 35. Does he represent their wants and needs?
All of the other voices interviewed or sourced in Dyson’s essay save Clinton and one unnamed woman are men–largely men older than this under-35 demographic. This is troublesome in an essay that does rightfully concern itself with Black Lives Matter, which is largely led by young women and LGBTQ people. The criminal justice elements of most policy platforms, Clinton’s included, do not touch some of the key issues facing this demographic. Black women and transgender people are likely to suffer sexual assault in addition to physical assault from arresting officers. Police and prosecutors often refuse to fully investigate sexual assaults and those within departments who commit assaults are unlikely to be disciplined, even when complaints are sustained. Every interaction with police–even traffic stops and routine conversations–for black women carries with it the danger of sexual assault. How does Clinton endeavor to fix this?
Above all, there’s still the issue of Clinton’s policy past. While her rhetoric has certainly changed, it’s still not stronger than say Bernie Sanders’ platform backed by a long history of work. In 2008, Barack Obama traded on his long history of work. These things matter, deeply, more so than rhetoric, especially in what has become an increasingly cynical primary environment.
Dyson paints Clinton with her husband’s brush. This is both fair and unfair to a point. Hillary Clinton has always been a strong political figure in her own right, and her work was much more involved than that of most other presidential spouses. Attribution to Clinton of the 1996 Welfare Reform bill, which knocked thousands of black citizens off welfare and contributed to the stubborn joblessness we see today, is maybe a bit unfair, as she was not a key player although she endorsed the bill as recently as 2008.
However, the Violent Crime Control Act is another thing entirely. Other presidential spouses might not have given a speech as politically charged as the “super-predators” speech, which played on a debunked racist meme of the time. But Clinton was an active policy partner with her husband on both the crafting and passing of that 1994 bill, and it was her inflammatory speech that is most well-known for pushing it and for building the easiest bridge to bipartisan success–that same old-fashioned racial angst.
The language on “superpredators” which exploited white fears on both sides of the political aisle was the glue that held a bill together. That crime bill added to the morass that animates Black Lives Matter and from which Obama has been charged with extracting us. It helped establish the mandatory minimums and draconian drug laws that sent a generation to prison. It injected $10 billion into the prison system, added thousands of police officers, expanded police latitude, and militarized police forces across the country. Of any pieces of legislation in the past twenty years, that Act and the Welfare Act are probably the two most directly traceable to the current manifestation of the issues that Black Lives Matter activists fight.
Of course things can change. Clinton’s about-face could certainly be genuine and a result of her work in the Obama presidency, as Dyson believes. There is time between now and the primaries to continue to win over black voters and elucidate a forward-thinking race plan. There is also room for forgiveness. But given the magnitude of Clinton’s prior anti-black work, which Dyson does touch on, activists are justified in their skepticism. An incomplete comparison to Obama does neither Clinton nor Obama justice and does not truly answer the questions about Clinton’s platform for black America. And the original sin is still egregious and working against us. Can Hillary Clinton really be called a racial progressive for simply pledging to undo her work?