Jamaican News

The Clintons, the ’90s, African Americans: Race for black votes spurs look back

By Alexander Panetta


(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to former U.S. President Bill Clinton in the East Room at the White House on November 20, 2013 in Washington, DC.

COLUMBIA, United States _ Now that black voters are about to have a major say in a series of Democratic primaries there’s a sudden spurt of scrutiny over how the Clinton era of the 1990s affected African-Americans.

A prominent writer has fuelled a debate with a piece suggesting African-Americans are being duped into helping her get elected, given that their community was deeply damaged by policies she supported.

”It seems we’re eager to get played. Again,” says the ”Nation” piece, titled, ”Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote: From the crime bill to welfare reform, policies Bill Clinton enacted _ and Hillary Clinton supported _ decimated black America.”

It’s written by the author of an influential 2012 book, ”The New Jim Crow,” by Michelle Alexander.

As suggested by the title, she argues that the tough-on-crime movement popular in the last half of the 20th century was a direct descendent of past racist policies: the end of slavery prompted a push for segregation in the 1870s, then a century later when that ended, the worst segregationists turned their attention to order in the streets.

This all happened as black communities were being walloped by the first wave of lost manufacturing jobs, she says, and she points to statistics that suggest justice was far from colour blind: although blacks used and sold drugs in similar numbers to whites, she said they were punished far more severely.

These policies reached their peak in 1994.

In a near-unanimous vote, Congress passed a bill that not only exploded incarceration rates but even worse, she said, also destroyed the potential of rehabilitation by doing things like cutting education programs for inmates and ending social housing for families that included an ex-con.

The law was backed by Democrats, who’d grown tired of being beaten up politically for being soft on crime, and ultimately signed into law by then-president Bill Clinton.

Alexander’s piece quotes then-first-lady Hillary Clinton promoting the law during a 1996 re-election campaign speech. In it, she compared young criminals to animals: ”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 have to bring them to heel.“

The issue is being raised at a timely moment _ Clinton is relying on the support of African-Americans to survive a tough challenge from Sen. Bernie Sanders.

She had a front-page column this week in a South Carolina’s black-community newspaper, ”The Chronicle.” There’s also an ad showing her and President Barack Obama together, smiling.

Clinton and Sanders have also been competing for black-community endorsements. He’s gotten some celebrities, including actor Danny Glover and singer Harry Belafonte.

She’s received the backing of most political heavy-hitters, including congressman and 1960s civil-rights activist John Lewis _ although Lewis had to walk back a scornful statement about her rival. He suggested he’d never seen Sanders in the struggle. In fact, images of Sanders being arrested at a rally in Chicago in 1963 have been circulated.

An expert on African-American voting patterns predicts, however, that the southern primaries are a done deal: “It’s not a question of (Clinton’s) bacon getting saved. She’s going to slaughter Bernie Sanders,” David Bositis said.

She received more than three-quarters of the black vote in last weekend’s Nevada primary. Next up are states like South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama where blacks comprised more than 50 per cent of the Democratic primary electorate in 2008.

Bositis said it’s also unfair to blame the former first lady for the crime bill. He recalls it being overwhelmingly popular, supported by many African-Americans.

Even Sanders voted for it. He supported it on the logic that there were some good provisions in it, including community-sports programs and violence-against women initiatives.

As for that first-lady speech on predators, it was delivered two years after the bill had passed.

Another expert on African-American voters, Todd Shaw of the University of South Carolina, takes a nuanced view.

He says that some of those policies look worse today, through a modern prism.

Now that U.S. incarceration rates are so much higher than the rest of the world, the pendulum has swung: there’s a broad coalition from the White House, to progressive Democrats, to right-leaning libertarians, and small-government conservatives working to loosen penalties for non-violent crime.

The softer approach is favoured by both Democratic candidates, and even to a lesser extent by most of the Republicans _ except Donald Trump who is a rare, unapologetic, tough-on-crime enthusiast.

”Some really wrong-headed decisions were made (in the 1990s),” Shaw said.

”(But) we’re not talking about (1990s-style) new Democrats today. And neither is Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton is being pulled to the old Democrats _ and maybe even further, given the popularity of Bernie Sanders.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *