On the eve of Super Tuesday, I should be finishing a paper that is due tomorrow, but I’m preoccupied. I can’t get past the image from last week of UNCC activist Ashley Williams confronting Hillary Clinton in the middle of a private event reminding the candidate about her 1996 statement about “super predators”. I applaud Williams for her highly effective act of awareness-raising. This statement from Clinton was ugly and non-productive language that perpetuated the image of the criminal inner city black person. Granted, it was 20 years ago in a speech that also makes reference to the importance of community policing…but I digress. Overall, I am grateful for this particular action because it highlighted exactly how important it is for Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton to substantially address racial violence and inequity in our country with a much more aggressive and public stance. She needs to do this, fearlessly, with a much clearer understanding of the impact that the 1990’s Clinton administration had on today’s racially biased system of justice. But she is in the unique position of having to manage her direct association with a previous administration in which she had no official political role. This is unknown territory; we’ve never done this as a nation before. We’ve never had to psychologically separate a potential president from their role as First Lady and it is an insult to Hillary Clinton to reduce her candidacy to her marriage. But this is made more complex because Clinton actively took on the job of re-claiming the role “First Lady of the United States” as someone who wasn’t just arm candy to the president (sorry Jackie). She fashioned a new presence for the First Lady much on the lines of her hero Eleanor Roosevelt*. But Hillary is no Eleanor yet. Acknowledgement and accountability for her active support and presence in the previous Clinton administration plus thoughtful public consideration of how she was complicit would go a long way with voters this cycle.
But what has me preoccupied is historical context. I would like to respectfully point out that unlike the 23 year old Williams, Clinton lived through the 90’s as an adult. And unlike both of them, I lived through the 1990s as a black man in his mid/late 20 in New York City. I remember very, very clearly that despite graduating from an elite university, in order to get jobs or housing, I had to distance myself from any kind of image or association with anything even vaguely “urban” (code for black/African-American). It was still the “Huxtable” era and public figures like Oprah Winfrey, Jesse Jackson, Eddie Murphy and Whitney Houston were redefining what black success, marketability, upward mobility and general social acceptability were all about. And we all bought into it. The “Buppy” (Black Urban Professional) was an image that was in stark contrast with that of blacks who were stuck in poverty, struggling with drugs and battling crime first hand.
Shamefully, the dominant solution wasn’t focused in significant ways on restoration or reform. We all spent too little time solving the real reasons why we faced drug problems in black neighborhoods and those of us who could were more focused on achieving financial mobility with the Clinton economic wave. Socially, we were still trying to get past the senseless Reagan era labels like “welfare queens” and the completely out of touch “Just Say No” bullshit to have a baseline of legitimacy in the public discourse on prosperity. From someone who was a 20 something voter at the time, we young blacks of the 1990’s were deeply invested in redefining our mainstream racial identity and we were pretty desperate to see the end of drugs and crimes that were devastating our communities and (in 1990’s language) “keeping us down”. All of which brings me to my historical obsession. In today’s heated and necessary battles over race, we forget that our black congressional leaders were also among the supporters of the “war on drugs”. The legislation that most people are pointing to during this election cycle is the draconian Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. It was handed to President Clinton with approval largely along party lines (Democrats in favor Republicans against.) It also had the “yea” votes of 23 of the 34 black members of the House of Representatives plus Senator Carol Mosely-Braun. I do find it prophetic, however, that key black leaders, Charles Rangel (NY), Maxine Waters (CA), Cleo Fields (LA), and John Lewis (GA) opposed the bill.
Hillary Clinton, as First Lady had no vote.
My goal here is not in any way at all to defend the results of this law, or to say that the “war on drugs” was/is a good or correct thing or to blame our black leaders. I am only trying to point out that we are all getting lost in historical amnesia. I am tired of hearing the national discourse obsess over the political records of both Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders like it is the exact guidebook for how they will govern as President. Barack Obama was not elected based on his political record. He was elected based on his political potential and his plans, which he has lived up to in both good and disappointing ways. What I believe we should be trying to determine this election cycle is who will actually be able to make targeted and lasting changes in our system of government so that the legislators (who are the ones who actually make law based on their constituents) have the negotiating room and tools to make better laws and repeal the ones that hurt us all. Our priority needs to be electing a president who will focus on getting Congress unstuck. If we look only at history, Sanders has never represented black people in any significant number and Clinton was First Lady to the administration that sealed the fate on today’s mass incarceration. On the other hand, Sanders has never wavered from support for LGBTQ issues and Clinton has more national and international experience than any other politician in the history of our country. But, the real question is who are they now and what are their actual plans to be the leader we need today and moving forward. Which one will convince Senate Republicans to stop acting like petulant 6 year olds and actually follow the law of the land? Who has a plan to codify the changes that will end the racial profiling and mass incarceration of black and brown people and what does that plan look like? Who will not tolerate another year without equal pay for equal work?
I have yet to hear a Republican candidate other than John Kasich, speak about race. What is more, most of them have not said a word about women in politics that hasn’t been either demeaning or downright offensive including their terrifying remarks against a woman’s right to choose. If the Democratic party loses this election, it will not be the fault of either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. The responsibility will sit squarely on the shoulders of the voting public that got caught up fighting with themselves over who remembers history better. Meanwhile, the folks on the other side of the aisle who could care less about women or people of color (unless it means votes) will waltz into the Oval Office. The Republican candidates represent a political system that is not yet prepared to see equity in government or in public life. They are determined to normalize hate speech and xenophobia and they falsely claim God as their witness to do so. The entire voting public, regardless of party, has a responsibility to elect a president who will actually govern the entire US population and not just the people who have, as former KKK leader David Duke said endorsing the Trump campaign “the same kind of mindset you have.” Both Clinton and Sanders believe in governing all of the United States, now and in the future. So let’s press them on the details of their policies. I have no interest in electing either 1990’s Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton. And really, were any of us all that great in the 1990’s…except for maybe Oprah or Whoopi Goldberg?
*Eleanor Roosevelt had her own “super predator” moment when she originally supported President Roosevelt’s internment of the Japanese. But she pivoted from this stance. Below is a link to the text of a speech she delivered as part of that evolution. Many would consider her break, though mild, treasonous during a time of war. –http://www.nps.gov/articles/erooseveltinternment.htm