Hillary Clinton has a race problem -- and it's resurfacing at a dangerous time

A brittle reaction to Black Lives Matter protester on eve of South Carolina refocuses voters on problematic record

Published February 26, 2016 10:59AM (EST)

Ashley Williams, Hillary Clinton (CNN)
Ashley Williams, Hillary Clinton (CNN)

According to a Feb. 16 CNN/ORC poll, a whopping 65 percent of South Carolinian black voters are planning to support Hillary Clinton in Saturday’s primary, while only 28 percent are planning to support Bernie Sanders.

The furor that broke out last night, however, may just shift the political winds.

In the middle of a $500-per-person Clinton fundraising event in Charleston on Wednesday evening, a young Black Lives Matter activist stepped out in front of the former secretary of state, turned toward the small audience, and held aloft a banner emblazoned with the phrase, “We need to bring them to heel.”

The protester, as she later explained, “wanted to make sure that black people are paying attention to [Clinton’s] record” by drawing attention to the racist rhetoric Clinton used in 1996, when she, as first lady, strongly supported the “tough on crime” method of governance, and successfully lobbied for a bill based on that method to be passed into law.

“They are not just gangs of kids anymore,” Clinton warned the public at the time. “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 need to bring them to heel.”

The crime bill that Clinton advocated for is now widely regarded as a “terrible mistake,” and the demonizing language that she used to describe young people who belong to gangs (a group that, because of institutionalized racism and oppression, is majority black and Latino/a) would now be political suicide.

Since the '90s, the Democratic Party — and Hillary Clinton along with it — has morphed from voicing demagogic, dangerous ideas about black children and supporting catastrophic crime policies to, today, speaking of how “we have allowed our criminal justice system to get out of balance,” and promising an end to the decades-long era of mass incarceration, which, of course, they hold much responsibility for creating.

But, despite Clinton’s sudden populist transformation, the memory of the American people isn’t quite so short and fleeting.

Americans remember that Hillary Clinton’s ‘90s policy stances punished those born into systemic racism and poverty by instituting mandatory minimums, eliminating rehabilitative programs for inmates addicted to drugs, implementing the three-strikes law (which Bill now admits “made the problem worse”), expanding the death penalty (which Hillary still supports), and building more prisons countrywide.

Indeed, the ‘94 legislation threw millions of black women and men into prison; in fact, throughout Bill Clinton’s presidency, the black prison population increased by 50 percent.

All of this spelled mass incarceration and mass disenfranchisement for the black Americans of South Carolina.

Today, due to felonies, one out of every 27 black voters in South Carolina is disenfranchised, and, although black people make up just 28 percent of the state’s population, they account for a devastating 62 percent of the prison and jail population, in no small part because of the draconian measures the Clinton administration, along with the strong support of its first lady, took in the name of being “tough on crime.”

And now, 20 years later, at the end of February 2016, Clinton finds herself being directly challenged by a young Black protester named Ashley Williams on her past rhetoric and role in creating America’s stringent criminal justice system, under which people are still being penalized today, including those in South Carolina.

With the state’s primary looming, a respectful and honest response to this confrontation was vitally important for Clinton — and she fell dismally short.

“We want you to apologize for mass incarceration,” Williams said last night, facing the former secretary of state head-on.

“OK fine, we’ll talk about it,” Clinton answered.

“I’m not a super-predator, Hillary Clinton.”

Hisses and grumbles emanated from the audience.

“OK, fine, we’ll talk about it.”

“Can you apologize to black people for mass incarceration?”

“Well, can I talk, and then maybe you can listen to what I say?” Clinton responded.

Following Clinton's lead, the hissing from the audience amplified.

“Yes, yes, absolutely,” Williams answered.

“OK, fine, thank you very much. There are a lot of issues, a lot issues in this campaign. The very first speech that I gave back in April was about criminal justice reform—“

“You called black people ‘super-predators,’” Williams said, interrupting Clinton to bring the focus back to the words Clinton spoke and the positions she held as first lady.

“Whoa, you’re being rude,” came voices from the audience. “This is not appropriate.”

“Calling people super-predators — that’s what’s rude,” Williams shot back.

Clinton cut her off: “Do you want to hear the facts, or do you just want to talk?”

“You’re trespassing,” a man’s voice rang out.

“Please explain your record to us,” Williams asked Clinton. “You owe black people an apology. You owe people of color an apology.”

“Let her talk, let her talk.” The audience grew louder and angrier on Clinton’s behalf.

“I’ll tell you what, if you will give me a chance to talk, I’ll approach your subject — you know what, nobody’s ever asked me that before,” Clinton said, as Williams was physically removed by a white security guard.

The former secretary of state then turned to her remaining audience and said, “OK, back to the issues.”

The crowd let out a huge sigh, and one woman said, “Thank you!”


(Later Thursday, Clinton sent a statement to the Washington Post apologizing for her '90s remarks):

In a written response to The Washington Post's on the issue Thursday, Clinton said: “Looking back, I shouldn’t have used those words, and I wouldn’t use them today."

"My life’s work has been about lifting up children and young people who’ve been let down by the system or by society, kids who never got the chance they deserved," Clinton continued in the statement. "And unfortunately today, there are way too many of those kids, especially in African-American communities.  We haven’t done right by them.  We need to.  We need to end the school to prison pipeline and replace it with a cradle-to-college pipeline."

And indeed, three days ago, Clinton stated that, “White Americans need to do a better job at listening when African-Americans talk about the seen and unseen barriers they face every day. Practice humility rather than assume that our experience is everyone’s experience.”

In South Carolina last night, Clinton blew right past that doctrine.

While the virtually all-white crowd hissed and verbally attacked Williams, Clinton did nothing to quiet them. She did not wield her privilege and position of power to demand those following her show respect to a young woman understandably and rightfully upset by racial injustice.

Instead, she repeatedly snapped at Williams — “Do you want to hear the facts, or do you just want to talk?” — and tried to quickly answer Williams’ call for an apology by discussing the speech she made 10 months ago, instead of the language she used in the ‘90s.

When Williams pressed her to be more specific, Clinton grew even more visibly annoyed and her tone further sharpened — a bad “job [of] listening” with “humility” and giving credit to Williams’ experiences and concerns.

It was a poor showing of Clinton’s comprehension of the severity of the issues facing black Americans. Despite the institutional racism and mass incarceration drowning black Americans today, Clinton acted as though Williams’ emotionally charged protest was completely out of line.

Then, when a white, male security guard put his hands on the young, black, female protester, and forcibly coaxed her away from Clinton, Clinton’s response was, “OK, back to the issues,” not only allowing a young activist to be physically removed from Clinton’s presence, but problematically implying that Clinton’s trustworthiness on black rights and black lives to black voters is not, somehow, one of “the issues.”

Let’s be real: Clinton helped create the mass incarceration state, period.

If she cannot swiftly and straightforwardly apologize to a young black woman for what she did in the ‘90s, Clinton reveals herself to have never thought about her actions, to have never unpacked her white privilege, and to be largely incapable of “practic[ing] [the] humility” she is now calling upon her fellow white Americans to employ.

Williams' concerns before her protest were in no way dispelled by Clinton’s actions, but rather intensified:

“Hillary Clinton has a pattern of throwing the Black community under the bus when it serves her politically. She called our boys ‘super-predators’ in ’96, then she race-baited when running against Obama in ‘08, now she’s a lifelong civil rights activist. I just want to know which Hillary is running for President, the one from ’96, ’08, or the new Hillary?"

Additionally, Clinton’s record and response last night do not contrast well with Bernie Sanders’, who had this to say in the ‘90s while Clinton was calling young black children “super-predators”:

“We have the highest percentage of people in jail per capita of any nation on earth — what do we have to do, put half the country behind bars?

Mr. Speaker, instead of talking about punishment and vengeance, let us have the courage to talk about the real issue — how do we get to the root causes of crime?

…And, Mr. Speaker, I’ve got a problem! I’ve got a problem with a president and a Congress that allows five million people to go hungry, two million people to sleep out on the street, cities to become breeding grounds for drugs and violence — and they say we’re getting tough on crime.

If you want to get tough on crime, let’s deal with the causes of crime. Let’s demand that every man, woman, and child in this country have a decent opportunity and a decent standard of living.

Let’s not keep putting more people into jail and disproportionately punishing Blacks.”

In comparison to Sanders’ positions in the ‘90s, and in light of how Clinton responded last night to questions about her past —over which there is already a growing controversy — South Carolinian black voters may very well shift their support to the candidate who has never depicted their children as having “no conscience, no empathy” or being “super-predators,” but called for “every man, woman, and child in this country [to] have a decent opportunity” since the ‘90s.

Either way, the entire country will find out the day after tomorrow.

By Eliza Webb

Eliza Webb is a writer based in Detroit. Her work has appeared in the Hill, Truthout, CounterPunch, Alternet and the Michigan Journal of International Affairs. You can contact her at lizawebb@umich.edu and follow her on Twitter @ElizaAWebb.

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