This week, former President Bill Clinton spoke at rally in Philadelphia to offer his wife Hillary Clinton support towards her campaign. Clinton speech was interrupted by protesters of anti-crime bills he pushed for during his presidency; laws that disproportionately affected African Americans. To many African American citizens, voters, and activists, the former President's response illuminated why many are skeptical of casting their ballot for Hillary Clinton, who supported his policies as First Lady.
The former president said:
"I don't know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped up on crack and sent them out on the street to murder other African-American children. Maybe you thought they were good citizens. She didn't. You are defending the people who killed the lives you say matter. Tell the truth."
With these comments, Clinton insinuates that protesting against mass incarceration that disproportionately affects African American citizens is analogous to defending gang leaders and drug dealers. This is a form of indirect political gas-lighting, perpetuating the idea that Black communities get what they ask for (whether it's the crime or the punishment) and that their protests against systematic injustice is ultimately hypocritical. A different contemporary example of this is the "What about black-on-black crime?" derailment of critique of police brutality.
The Clintons and their supporters often mention that many of Clinton's anti-crime policies were supported by leaders in the Black community. However, that point is a misportrayal of their actions and intent. It wouldn't be much to surmise that Black leaders were asking for drug and violence free, safer communities, not a mass incarceration state that sees more African-American men imprisoned, on probation, or parole than were enslaved in 1850.
Before, during, and after Clinton's presidency, the Black community has been asking for justice, accountability, and equal due-process. It's disingenuous, stereotypical, condescending, and misleading to suggest that the Black community's stance on crime swung from "throw em' all in jail if you have to!" to now protesting for permanent get-out-of-jail-free-cards.
Ironically, this type of rhetoric is seen as exclusive to the right. But while the anti-crime arguments of Conservatives may seem more covertly (or overtly) racist and classist , Clinton's words show how Democrats and liberals' response to Black protesters critiques can be just as apathetic, defensive, and sometimes hostile. His words are reminiscent of Hillary's "Ok, back to the issues" dismissal of the young, Black protester who brought her to task on her "1996 super-predator" comment:
"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 why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel."
While criminal justice reform may not be the biggest issue for most of her constituency, going "back to the issues" is a dismissal of one of the most important concerns many African American voters have. And that episode further increased skepticism of Black voters towards Hillary's accountability.
The Clintons are beloved by many African American citizens, many who jokingly call Bill "the first Black president". Hillary benefits from this affection. But his legacy has deteriorated over recent years, as prominent activists in the #BlackLivesMatter movement and works like "The New Jim Crow" by professor Michelle Alexander illuminate the Clinton era's destructive effect on the Black community.
However, America's mass incarceration is an incredibly large problem beyond Black people. The International Centre for Prison Studies estimates that the U.S. prison population is over 2.2 million (China is the only other country with more than one million. India has about 940 million more citizens than the U.S., yet we have 1.8 million more people in jail.) To put it in further context, if America's prison population was a city, it would be the size of Houston. And though the United States only amounts for five percent of the world's population, it accounts for 25 percent of the world's prison population. Bill Clinton's anti-crime agenda and perpetuation of the "War On Drugs" greatly added to these disparaging statistics. Between 1980 and 2012, the U.S. federal prison population increased by 790 percent.
It is fair to note that Hillary wasn't in the position to vote on her husband's tough-on-crime bills. But her association to his policies is hard to dismiss.
Hillary's doubling down on her husband presidential record, and refusals to address her hand in the demonization of poor and Black citizens has fueled the distrust of many Black voters who see her appeals to African Americans as disingenuous pandering. Both Clintons have apologized for the damage Bill's policies caused, but Hillary hasn't given specific reforms to end systematic discrimination against Blacks in the criminal justice system (though many Black voters see apology and reform as mute points, since the substantial harm inflicted on Black and poor communities can only be reversed by a total systemic overhaul, something Hillary Clinton isn't promising).
While the majority of Black voters don't see the Republican Party as a viable alternative, the tide of dissatisfaction with establishment Democrats is rising. They feel Democrats take the African American vote for granted, issuing promises during the campaign that they don't make good on once elected, implicitly (sometimes explicitly) appealing as "the lesser of two evils" of the two political parties, and are just as dismissive to critique from Black protesters as right-wing conservatives. Bill's comments were a great example of where this disdain comes from.
Bill sought to support his wife and defend himself, but he may have increased the divide between Black voters and Hillary Clinton.