I don’t know if Hillary Clinton deserves the black vote, but I know she doesn’t deserve to be held accountable for Bill Clinton’s behavior.
I have some heuristics for helping me check if what I am thinking is sexist. One of them is “am I holding a woman accountable for a man’s behavior?” I’ve been practicing this for a while, but it was a bit difficult when I got started. One easy place to screw up is politics, where rarely does anyone want to be accountable at all, so it is difficult not to get sloppy when trying to figure it all out for oneself. If you’ve been making the mistake of holding Hillary Clinton accountable for Bill Clinton’s behavior, don’t be too hard on yourself. It is an easy, even popular, thing to do. I forgive you.
But anyway, you need to stop now. Case in point: Michelle Alexander’s recent editorial in The Nation, “Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote.”
Before I get started, please (a) read the article, all the way through, at least once and (b) understand, please, that I am not arguing that Hillary Clinton does or does not deserve the black vote. Instead, I am arguing that the article only makes the case that Bill Clinton does not (and did not) deserve the black vote and that it is problematic to extend that judgment to Hillary.
The problem with Alexander’s argument starts right at the beginning, in the third sentence:
Hillary Clinton loves black people. And black people love Hillary—or so it seems. Black politicians have lined up in droves to endorse her, eager to prove their loyalty to the Clintons in the hopes that their faithfulness will be remembered and rewarded.
“The Clintons” – there it is. The idea that Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, because they have a family, foundation, and career together, are basically politically and behaviorally inseparable. The nice thing about rhetoric is that I don’t have to prove that Bill and Hillary aren’t the same person – Ms. Alexander is responsible for proving that they are the same person. She does not do this. There is only even a brief nod to the problem, about halfway through the piece:
Some might argue that it’s unfair to judge Hillary Clinton for the policies her husband championed years ago. But Hillary wasn’t picking out china while she was first lady. She bravely broke the mold and redefined that job in ways no woman ever had before. She not only campaigned for Bill; she also wielded power and significant influence once he was elected, lobbying for legislation and other measures.
Some might argue! Not enough, apparently. It’s true – Hillary Clinton wasn’t picking out china. And Alexander provides a damning, racist-as-hell quote to back up the idea that Hillary was on board with the worst, most white supremacist policies enacted during the Clinton administration.
That record, and her statements from that era, should be scrutinized. In her support for the 1994 crime bill, for example, she used racially coded rhetoric to cast black children as animals. “They are not just gangs of kids anymore,” she said. “They are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘super-predators.’ No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.”
I’m not going to try to defend that quote, it is abominable. Still, it does not exist in a vacuum. That fetid microscreed is related to something the Bill Clinton administration was doing. Hillary’s mold-breaking redefinition of the job of first lady was not only about what she said, it was about what she did. Her legislative efforts as First Lady centered around a push for universal health care for all Americans, which would have greatly benefitted disproportionately uninsured black families. When it failed, she salvaged at least some of the effort by compromising with lawmakers on a bill for children’s health insurance. It became the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), which is now just called CHIP, and it has had a very real, positive impact on a lot of American families, including a lot of black families. I say “families” instead of “children” because anybody – anybody – that has kids and has struggled knows that in those times, material help for a child is also of direct mental benefit to any parent.
And it is not as though that 1994 remark, during Bill Clinton’s presidency, is Hillary Clinton’s last quote on the subject. In March of 2000, while she was running for a Senate seat in New York, Hillary Clinton spoke out about the murder of Amadou Diallo (from the NYPost):
Hillary Rodham Clinton yesterday assailed Mayor Giuliani for ignoring serious racial problems with the NYPD — saying Amadou Diallo’s death must spark reforms.
“The leadership in this city refuses to reach out to work with a community that is in pain, to even acknowledge there is a problem,” Clinton told more than 2,000 worshipers at a packed Riverside Church.
Speaking from the pulpit, the first lady used words nearly identical to President Clinton’s own comments on Diallo on Friday night. She said many New Yorkers believe that “if Amadou had been a young white man in an all-white neighborhood, he would still be alive.”
Another instance of Hillary and Bill sharing their messaging, but not personhood. She would later be publicly booed and cat-called in public for her stance and public statements about the NYPD and Diallo. Senator Clinton even had cops and fire fighters at Ground Zero refuse to shake her hand. Not that that really matters, but just wanting to be clear that winning some of the New York black vote was not the only consequence of her stance regarding Diallo’s murder.
So there is at least one time when she said some racist shit to support Bill’s political operations and at least one time when she said some anti-racist shit to support her own political operations. One quote does not a case make, either way, but after the 1994 quote Alexander makes no more effort to demonstrate why Hillary’s potential should be evaluated based on Bill’s performance.
The other problem with Alexander’s article is that she describes the events of the (Bill!) Clinton administration without any substantial reference to Congress, which you know, was a pretty big part of the 90s. The burdens on, and limits of, the office of President of the United States is a topic of critical importance to progressives who are trying to decide between Bernie and Hillary, or to folks wondering if they can support the other candidate in the event that their own favorite loses. But I digress.
Alexander’s piece is a really great argument for why black voters – and any anti-racist voter, for that matter – should eschew the false nostalgia for the Bill Clinton years by remembering that they were at least as racist and corrupt as the Bush years on either side of them:
An oft-repeated myth about the Clinton administration is that although it was overly tough on crime back in the 1990s, at least its policies were good for the economy and for black unemployment rates. The truth is more troubling. As unemployment rates sank to historically low levels for white Americans in the 1990s, the jobless rate among black men in their 20s who didn’t have a college degree rose to its highest level ever. This increase in joblessness was propelled by the skyrocketing incarceration rate.
Why is this not common knowledge? Because government statistics like poverty and unemployment rates do not include incarcerated people. As Harvard sociologist Bruce Western explains: “Much of the optimism about declines in racial inequality and the power of the US model of economic growth is misplaced once we account for the invisible poor, behind the walls of America’s prisons and jails.” When Clinton left office in 2001, the true jobless rate for young, non-college-educated black men (including those behind bars) was 42 percent. This figure was never reported. Instead, the media claimed that unemployment rates for African Americans had fallen to record lows, neglecting to mention that this miracle was possible only because incarceration rates were now at record highs.
This is great, this is an important conversation for progressives and/or Democrats to have. Behold the violence inherent in the system! A man who used to be referred to affectionately as “our first black President” and is credited with a great economy was actually a disaster for black America and the poor. This is a really important conversation for us to be having. But it is not a conversation about Hillary Clinton, in just the same way that if Michelle Obama decides to run for UN Secretary General, that would not be the time to debate the merits of President Barack Obama’s drone strike program.
There are three common byproducts of the American right-wing’s 30ish years of attacks on Hillary Clinton – and these effect people of all ages and political persuasions: Assuming that Hillary is a liar; holding her responsible for Bill Clinton’s personal or political behavior; failing to remember that “the Clintons” is a legal fiction that is actually made up of two distinct human beings. This is a good time to remember that there isn’t anything the American right-wing has been promoting in the last 30 years that you want to get behind. After all, when the attacks on Hillary Clinton’s honesty started, they were just another version of the all-too-common “you can’t trust that woman.” And you know what? They still are just that. They only seem credible because they’ve been piling up for a long time. I am opposed to rewarding that particular form of persistence, whether it is the “liar” charge or the idea that Clinton is somehow metaphysically bound to her husband because they choose to work closely together, sometimes.
There is a great debate on in the American left, between radical and moderate progressivism, and it is one of the most important political developments of my adult life. The outcome will be of great consequence to all of us and our children. Seriously! This is a big deal. And I really hope none of the salient voices in this important dialogue allow themselves to become an echo of a decades-long smear campaign by reactionaries.
All that said, I am grateful to Michelle Alexander & The Nation both for getting out a lot of much needed info on the reality of the Bill (!) Clinton years and for finally giving me material to write about the Bubba-shaming of Hillary without it having to be about sex scandals.