The Clintons' shameful hypocrisy on racism

With Hillary Clinton's campaign claiming African Americans as a main base of support, Paul Heideman reminds us that her record on racism is cynical and scandalous.

Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail, with Bill Clinton accompanying her (Barbara Kinney)Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail, with Bill Clinton accompanying her (Barbara Kinney)

LAST WEEK, the author and blogger Ta-Nahesi Coates secured a considerable amount of media coverage for his criticism of Bernie Sanders for not supporting reparations for African Americans. Coates noted, with some justice, that it was peculiar to see Sanders calling for a "political revolution" at every campaign stop, but then refusing to endorse reparations on the grounds that it is "divisive" and has little chance of getting through Congress.

While Sanders has attempted to give racial justice a more prominent place in his campaign, denouncing police violence and using his platform to keep people like Sandra Bland's name in the news, Coates undoubtedly seized on a persistent weakness in the campaign in pointing out his audacity on economic issues, but his hesitancy on questions of racial justice.

Yet as Sanders supporter Killer Mike insistently pointed out, Coates was strangely silent about Hillary Clinton, who has also declined to support reparations (though with far cagier political language than Sanders used).

The attack on Bernie Sanders as an old white man has become a persistent theme in the Clinton campaign, which, predictably, seized on Coates' article to buttress that portrait. Ironically, this push to portray Sanders as part of "the establishment" comes alongside the Clinton campaign's renewed bout of red-baiting him as a dangerous socialist.

But the attempt by the campaign and its supporters among liberal Democrats to portray Sanders as out of touch on issues of racial justice is particularly galling given Hillary Clinton's wretched record on the subject. While she has proven capable of talking a good game on race, the political empire that she and her husband built for themselves rests on a foundation of Black and Brown bodies crushed under their ambition.

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ONE REASON that Clinton is now able to effectively "talk left" when it comes to race is that her early political career really was characterized by a commitment to racial justice. As a law student, she interned at a left-leaning Oakland law firm then defending Black Panther Huey Newton. In these years, she also began a relationship with the Children's Defense Fund, an organization that advocates for poor and non-white children.

However, this commitment to racial justice, no matter how sincere it was, didn't survive Bill and Hillary's developing political ambitions.

After Bill lost the Arkansas governor's race in 1980, he vowed to become a "New Democrat"--tough on crime and less devoted to "special interest groups" like workers, women, people of color, etc. He began tacking to the right--more and more so as his successful campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992 came into sight. That shift culminated with his despicable decision to leave the presidential campaign trail and return to Arkansas to approve the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a Black man with intellectual disabilities--all to prove just how tough on crime he could be.

Clinton's own shift corresponded to a broader trend in mainstream politics that pulled both parties further to the right, with racism often serving as the catalyst.

During the years before 1992, Hillary Clinton went along with her husband, reconciling herself to the death penalty, which she had previously opposed, and becoming a corporate lawyer. She also took a seat on the board of directors of Walmart, a company hardly known for its racial (or gender) egalitarianism.

By the time of Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign, she had transformed herself from a left-leaning Wellesley graduate who had written a thesis on Saul Alinsky into an avatar of the Democratic Party's shift to the right.

But this ditching of her earlier anti-racism pales in comparison with what came next.

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BILL CLINTON came to the White House after 12 years of Republican occupants convinced that the Democrats' decline had been due to the party being too far to the left. As president, he intended to finish the reorientation he had pushed for as governor of Arkansas.

In the service of this goal, he brought in conservative strategist Dick Morris, notorious for helping veteran race-baiting Republican Sen. Jesse Helms win re-election in 1988 over a Black opponent , thanks in part to a blatantly racist ad encouraging white workers to blame Black workers for their layoffs.

Clinton's push to the right bore fruit in the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. This bill, authored by Joe Biden at the behest of the White House, established draconian three-strikes laws that sent people away to prison for decades for trivial crimes. It also included "truth in sentencing" provisions that eliminated early parole for huge numbers of prisoners.

Though the trend toward the era of mass incarceration had begun earlier and was largely driven on the state level, Clinton's passage of the 1994 law helped entrench the system even further.

As the crime bill was being debated in Congress, Hillary Clinton was a vocal advocate for it, repeating the kinds of racist talking points used to support the "war on crime." At a time when the U.S. prison population was skyrocketing, she declared, "There is something wrong when a crime bill takes six years to work its way through Congress and the average criminal serves only four...We need more police. We need more and tougher prison sentences for repeat offenders. We need more prisons to keep violent offenders for as long as it takes to keep them off the streets."

Bernie Sanders, it should be noted, voted for this bill while serving in the House.

In 1996, the Clintons went further when Bill signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act into law. This legislation ended the federal welfare system that had existed since the Great Depression, replacing it with a program called Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), which was administered through the states. The ideological attack on welfare used to win support for the bill was chock full of racist abuse directed at African Americans, even though a majority of welfare recipients were actually white.

The Republicans, of course, led the way with racist scapegoating. Former drug czar William Bennett testified in 1995 that "any police sergeant in the country will tell you that the day welfare checks go out is a big day for drug buys." Democrats, however, were no less awful, with one governor boasting that welfare reform would "turn off the spigot" of teen pregnancy.

Hillary herself got in on the scapegoating after the fact, defending her husband's law with the same kind of rhetoric used to pass it. In 1999, she claimed that, before welfare reform, "[t]oo many of those on welfare had known nothing but dependency all their lives, and many would have found it difficult to make the transition to work on their own"--as if people on welfare were simply incapable of finding jobs.

Around the same time, she justified welfare reform with an anecdote from a woman whose daughter supposedly told her, "Mommy, I'm tired of seeing you sitting around the house doing nothing." To make sure no one was missing the message, she later said that because of welfare reform, "these people are no longer deadbeats."

All of this language was profoundly racialized. The image of a lazy Black woman on welfare, sitting around the house all day, as in Clinton's little story, was a stock in trade of reactionary opponents of government assistance, going back to Ronald Reagan and beyond.

As political scientist Martin Gilens has shown, this racialization of the welfare debate had profound effects on the politics of reform. Even though a majority of recipients were white, a majority of the images shown in the media of welfare recipients were Black. The drive to dismantle welfare was powered by portraying Black Americans as deadbeats living off the tax dollars of white Americans.

The fact that Hillary Clinton defended welfare reform in such a manner is particularly ugly given the devastating impact it has had on American workers. When the law decentralized control over welfare funding levels to the states, it helped ensure that, in addition to universal federal restrictions like work requirements and an inadequate 60-month lifetime limit, individual governors could cut benefits to the bone.

This is, indeed, what happened. In 16 states, TANF benefits have simply never been adjusted, and remain at the same level they were at nearly 20 years ago, despite two decades of inflation. Even in states that did adjust for inflation, benefits didn't keep up. As result, once inflation is taken into account, benefits are lower than they were in 1996 in 48 states.

At the same time, the onerous requirements and limitations of TANF have meant that even as the number of families with children in poverty has climbed, the number of families receiving TANF benefits have actually declined. Partially as a result of this stinginess, the number of families with children living in extreme poverty--less than $2 a day per person--has doubled since 1996.

The consequences of this planned immiseration have fallen hardest, as always, on African Americans. As welfare reform increased the number of punitive measures taken toward recipients of aid, studies have persistently shown that the harshest sanctions are taken toward Black and Latino clients. The doubling of extreme poverty has also hit African Americans harder--the number of Black households with children in extreme poverty grew by an astounding 182 percent.

This is the system that Hillary Clinton continues to defend in her effort to brand herself a pragmatic, get-things-done politician.

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THE CLINTONS' cynical use of racism to bolster their political careers didn't end when Bill and Hillary left the White House in 2000.

During her 2008 presidential run, the Clinton campaign didn't shrink from deploying vile racism to give their candidate an advantage in trying to stop Barack Obama from becoming the country's first African American president.

Early in the campaign, two staffers were caught forwarding an e-mail that read, "Let us all remain alert concerning Obama's expected presidential Candidacy. Please forward to everyone you know. The Muslims have said they plan on destroying the U.S. from the inside out, what better way to start than at the highest level." Around the same time, supporters and campaign workers began loudly raising the issue of Obama's drug use, with some even posing rhetorical questions about whether Obama had been a drug dealer.

As the campaign heated up and Obama started racking up victories in the primaries, Clinton became even more direct. In one interview, she asserted that Obama lacked support among "hard-working Americans, white Americans." If this kind of race-baiting might have been disgusting to the young Hillary Clinton, her days spent as an advocate for her husband's policies had prepared her well for such insinuations. The racism of the Clinton campaign became so bad that it even drove some Black Clinton supporters over to the Obama camp.

Now, of course, Clinton is singing a different tune. She has even stated that her past support for tough-on-crime policies was wrong and helped contribute to mass incarceration.

Evidently, however, the ruling class that funds her campaign isn't buying it. Private prison lobbyists were busy raising cash for the Clinton campaign through this summer, when pressure by Black Lives Matter activists exposed the link and forced her to return the cash.

If Clinton's political history proves anything, however, it's that she's more than capable of adjusting her stances depending on which way the winds are blowing. When there is political capital to be made by stepping on the necks of Black people, she won't hesitate to do so.

If Hillary Clinton becomes president, she will be tasked with enforcing the racist social order that reigns in the U.S. The efforts of Black Lives Matter activists and others who support racial justice will run smack against the wall of her cynicism and ambition. The sooner Clinton's despicable record of racial scapegoating is recognized, the more prepared our side will be for that fight when it comes.