By Linwood F Tauheed, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Missouri — Kansas City. Originally published at New Economic Perspectives
Bill and Hillary Clinton used a pragmatic, practical, realistic, racist ‘southern strategy’ to win the White House in 1992. Hillary Clinton tried unsuccessfully to use the same strategy in 2008 against Barack Obama. This is history, what’s changed?
Hillary Clinton’s pragmatic, practical, ‘realistic’ mantra about how she would operate as president can be boiled down to: ‘Take what you can get’. In today’s political climate this means the same thing it meant in the political climate of Bill Clinton’s presidency, it means: ‘Take what Republicans give’.
The Clinton’s have made a religion of being ‘pragmatic’, a virtue of taking what Republicans give; of embracing Republican positions and making them their own.
This is not about how a Hillary Clinton presidency would be a disaster for Black and Brown communities because of what her husband has already done to destroy those communities. That past is prologue. No, it goes far beyond that. This is about how Hillary Clinton would operate on her own as president; with the same pragmatic, ‘take what you can get’ devotion as Bill Clinton.
Since those who ignore history are destined to repeat it, and we have history as a record; let’s see what we’ve got! From the Clintons. From the record. On just two issues; welfare reform and mass incarceration.
Hillary Clinton often refers to her work with the Children’s Defense Fund saying how she has long worked for children’s welfare. But, in 1996 President Bill Clinton, with wholehearted support from the First Lady, signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRWORA), also known as ‘welfare reform’ [i].
The problem with Clinton’s claims, however, is that she betrayed children as First Lady. Under the guise of welfare reform, the Clinton administration worked with Republicans to gut social services, ignoring their own senior officials’ warnings that, by doing so, they would be plunging over a million children into poverty.[ii]
Bill Clinton’s signing welfare reform wasn’t just an unfortunate mistake. The Clinton’s ‘southern strategy’, promising to “end welfare as we know it”, echoed racist ‘welfare queen’ ‘dog whistles’ put into play by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
Bill Clinton ran in 1992 on the campaign promise to “end welfare as we know it.” In 1996, he — with the wholehearted support of Hillary — succeeded, passing the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRWORA). PRWORA was based on legislation first proposed by Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. [iii]
Marion Wright Edelman, President and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund had these things to say in 2007 during Clinton’s presidential campaign against Barack Obama, about her former employee’s support for welfare reform.
Hillary Clinton is an old friend, but they are not friends in politics [and]
Welfare reform is what Republicans gave in 1996, and the pragmatic Clinton’s ‘took what they could get’. In fact, the very name – Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act – partly comes from House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America”, often referred to as the ‘Contract ON Black America’.
It was made clear in 2007 that Hillary Clinton’s boast about helping children was only a cynical campaign tactic. What’s changed … the Republicans have become even more committed to destroying Black and Brown families!
Twenty years later, the current Republican Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, a sponsor of the ‘Contract With America II[v]‘, makes Newt Gingrich look like a ‘compassionate conservative’. Among other conservative policies ‘The Contract With America II’ would repeal Obamacare.
Ryan also wants to privatize social security and Medicare, two of George W Bush’s pet projects, and to eliminate what’s left of the ‘social safety net’, meaning eliminating any and all support for poor families in general, and poor Black and Brown families in particular; that is, whatever Brown families are allowed to remain in this country. This includes eliminating the food stamp program and turning the safety net over to local charities, charities that in hard times would be hard pressed to give life-saving support to families in need. And as the 2000 recession and 2008 Great Recession demonstrates, hard times hit Black and Brown communities especially hard[vi]. Black and Brown communities should expect to again be hit the hardest when it happens again.
Imagine what the repeal of Obamacare, or even modification of subsidies for the poor would mean; with privatized Medicare. Think about mom and dad, or grandma or grandpa, or yourself, living on what Goldman Sachs, sees fit to leave them you in their privatized social security investment funds, after fees; without food stamps.
Goldman Sachs is delighted to “take what it can get”, and for them and other “too big to fail” financial institutions, ‘the gettin’ is good’. Black and Brown families can’t afford to ‘take what we can get’; that is, be ‘got’ again.
The “wars” on crime and drugs were campaign tactics, later enacted into laws starting with the Omnibus Crime Control Act of 1970, as part of Richard Nixon’s and later Ronald Reagan’s ‘southern strategy’. Nixon’s ‘southern strategy’ was developed by Nixon political analyst Kevin Phillips who said in 1970:
Phillips’ southern strategy was a success. Replace “Negrophobe” by “racist” and the reason for the mass movement of former Democratic southern white voters to the Republican party becomes clear.
And, Bill Clinton wanted those “Negrophobe whites” back in the Democratic party. This meant out-doing Republicans in playing on racist fears; promising to ‘end welfare as we know it’, and being ‘tough on crime’. And so Bill Clinton began ‘dog-whistling’ to racist whites that he was a “New Democrat” who would no longer take a back seat to any Republican when it came to standing up to Black and Brown people.
In 1992, Bill Clinton campaigned on a platform of being “tough on crime”, stealing Richard Nixon’s tag-line. Fulfilling his promise in 1994, Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act; not incidentally the major Senate sponsor was then Senator Joe Biden.
The bill was a disaster for the Black and Brown community. Michelle Alexander, the author of “The New Jim Crow” writes that:
Bill Clinton presided over the largest increase in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history. Clinton did not declare the War on Crime or the War on Drugs—those wars were declared before Reagan was elected and long before crack hit the streets—but he escalated it beyond what many conservatives had imagined possible. He supported the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity for crack versus powder cocaine, which produced staggering racial injustice in sentencing and boosted funding for drug-law enforcement. [viii]
Bill Clinton has since apologized for his part in escalating the rate of incarceration of Black and Brown men and women. Before an NAACP meeting in Philadelphia, in July 2015; just in time for Hillary’s presidential campaign. He confessed:
I signed a bill that made the problem worse, and I want to admit it.[ix]
Bill Clinton did not start the mass incarceration bandwagon rolling,[x] no that was Richard Nixon. But, he “made it worst” by jumping on-board, playing racial politics and taking advantage of the fears of racist whites to win the presidency. And, he did not simply ‘sign a bill’, language that attempts to avoid responsibility for the “tough on crime” bill he had campaigned on, lobbied for as president, which had been sponsored by a Senator of the party he was the head of, and which continued the Nixon appeal to racist white voters.
What Bill Clinton should really be apologizing for is his pragmatic political calculation of riding the wave of his own racist ‘southern strategy’ to win back racist whites, while throwing Blacks and Brown communities under the bus; all the while pretending to ‘feel the pain’ of Black and Brown communities. Black Lives didn’t Matter [xi]
But, we are not judging Hillary Clinton by the disastrous pragmatic calculations of her husband, she has her own history. It’s no secret that Hillary Clinton as First Lady strongly supported President Clinton’s embrace of the “wars” on crime and drugs. She herself raised the use of subtle racist code-words to new heights by embracing the “super-predator” dog-whistle.
In support of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, she said this in 1996.
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 and the President has asked the FBI to launch a very concerted effort against gangs everywhere.” [xii]
Notice that Hillary Clinton dismissed any ‘action’ directed to preventing the problem or rehabilitation, saying we could ‘talk’ about it. Bill Clinton in apology at least says:
And we wound up … putting so many people in prison that there wasn’t enough money left to educate them, train them for new jobs and increase the chances when they came out so they could live productive lives[xiii]
But, the fact is the 1994 crime bill eliminated funding for prison education programs.
It eliminated education funding for incarcerated students, effectively gutting prison education programs. Despite a wealth of research showing education increases post-release employment, reduces recidivism, and improves outcomes for the formerly incarcerated and their families, this change has not been reversed.[xiv]
And so, we didn’t ‘wind up’ with not enough money to educate and train inmates, it happened by design.
During her 2007 presidential campaign against Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton showed it wasn’t practical to switch her ‘tough on crime’ stance as she condemned Barack Obama for being ‘soft on crime’ for advocating the end of mandatory minimum sentences enacted by the 1994 crime bill.[xv] Certainly, by 2007 Hillary Clinton was well aware of the damage done to Black and Brown communities by the 1994 crime bill.
Now, in 2016, Hillary Clinton wants to distance herself from her 1992 and 2007 record, saying:
Decisions were made in the ’80s and ’90s to deal with what was at that time a very high crime rate that was particularly affecting poor people, people of color in the cities, [and]
I think that a lot was done that went further than it needed to go and so now we are facing problems with mass incarceration. [xvi]
So in 2016 Hillary Clinton makes a pragmatic apology for her previous ‘tough on crime’ stance; well … almost. Saying “decisions were made” and “a lot was done” places responsibility on no one; certainly not on her, for her ‘dog-whistling’ support of bringing ‘super-predator’ animals to “heel”. It’s a non-apology apology.
In 1992 and 2007 Hillary Clinton was ‘tough on crime’, but in 2015 she is seemingly apologetic for having been ‘tough on crime’. This change in position seems reasonable, a change that can come to anyone who looks back at bad ‘decisions made’, but viewed pragmatically Hillary Clinton is simply, doing what [she hopes] will work?
In 1992, employing a ‘southern strategy’ Hillary Clinton is ‘tough on crime’. In 2007, running to the right of Barack Obama and pragmatically calculating that she could not win the Black and Brown vote, her 2008 target voters were racist whites, a continuation of the 1992 ‘southern strategy’. Hillary Clinton campaigned on being “tough on crime” by making Barack Obama seem too liberal and “soft on crime”.
But in 2015 the Clinton pragmatic calculation is, as always, that she has to “take what she can get”, and, since the Republicans want their “Negrophobe whites” back, and Trump has them sewn-up, she calculates that she must ‘get’ her “firewall” of Black and Brown voters. Black and Brown voters are simply ‘flavors of the month’.
The idea that Black and Brown voters serve as a “firewall” for any candidate is racist[xvii] in itself, Black and Brown voters must ask themselves ‘can we afford to be ‘got’ again?’
This is also Bernie Sander’s position. In fact, there is very little difference between the Clinton and Sanders criminal justice platforms, as written.[xix] And so, the Clinton campaign, needing to find a difference, insists that Sanders’ promise to ‘end’ mass incarceration is not possible, while also insisting that her promise to ‘end’ mass incarceration is possible. Maybe it depends on what the meaning of the word “end” is.
Clinton daughter Chelsea, as a surrogate for the campaign, says that the Sanders plan to end mass incarceration is “worrying”[xx] and implied that the 35 year US Congressman and Senator doesn’t know ‘how a Bill becomes a Law‘ saying “My mother understands how the government works”. Condescendingly Chelsea also points out that “We are not electing a king, we are electing a president”, and “We need someone who understands what they have to do in the job [as president] but also in partnership with congress, governors and mayors.” That is, a president has to understand that they have to “take what they can get”.
Arguing that Senator Sanders doesn’t know that a president must work “in partnership with congress, governors and mayors” is absurd. Since, the Clinton campaign talking points are based on data that clearly shows that among the 2.2 million US inmates, roughly 90 percent are in state prisons and local jails, not federal prison, the argument is that a president can’t do anything substantial about mass incarceration without state and local agreement.
Apparently, the Hillary Clinton campaign doesn’t know what Bill Clinton knows:
What every US President, and US Congressman and Senator knows is that the federal government sets the trend. By providing or denying funding for state programs the federal government has tremendous leverage on state policy.
In fact,the 1994 federal crime law kept the mass incarceration bandwagon rolling, providing funding for new state prisons. That these new state prisons were overwhelmingly in poor rural areas made them a favorite and much used economic development tool, serving the double purpose of providing employment for mostly conservative white rural voters and incarcerating mostly Black and Brown men and women from urban areas; all courtesy of “New Democrat” Bill Clinton. Not only was this a win-win for the Clinton ‘southern strategy’, it also promoted the rise of the private prison industry.
That Hillary Clinton is disagreeing with Sanders over the meaning of the word “end”, is a tell. An observation from Daily Kos writer Th0rn:
Maybe it’s just me, but is seems like someone like Bernie Sanders, who relies on small donors instead of corporate lobbyists for funding, especially not lobbyists for private prison corporations, and who has been speaking out against the abuses of private prison corporations for quite a while, is the person who’s more likely to actually bring about real change on this terribly important issue. [xxii]
Any plan to reduce the prison population and ‘end’ mass incarceration must include plans to support inmates with education and training, before they return to their communities. To not do so guarantees hopelessness leading to recidivism. Given that in the current political climate, Republicans are loath to give funding for inmate education and training, to take what Republicans will give would be a continuing disaster for Black and Brown communities. The pragmatic excuse for not doing so will be, to quote Bill Clinton again, ‘we let so many people out of prison’:
there wasn’t enough money left to educate them, train them for new jobs and increase the chances when they came out so they could live productive lives[xxiii]
What is Needed?.
Black and Brown communities cannot afford to take what the Republicans are willing to give; they are only willing to give us their contempt. We cannot wait to be pragmatic, to go slow, while we are – like frogs in a pot – slowly ‘boiled to death’. Such a disaster can be avoided. A Democratic president who is willing and able, supported by the Democratic electorate, to stand up for more than ‘take what you can get’; a leader who is willing to ‘struggle for what we want’, can, with our struggle, get what we need.
To those who say we must be practical, and pragmatic and “take what you can get’, Frederick Douglass is known to have said.
If there is no struggle, there is no progress. … Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them[xxiv]
And, to those who say – that believing that big change is possible is ‘unrealistic’ dreaming – Langston Hughes is known to have written:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?[xxv]