Thursday, February 11, 2016

Michelle Alexander, the Black Community & the Hillary Clinton Campaign


Author and historian Michelle Alexander (source)

by Gaius Publius

Though I've written about this myself, I don't want to advocate, but present. So consider this a horse race post. Clinton's self-admitted "firewall" is South Carolina in particular and the southern states in general, states with large numbers of minority voters. Words like "less diverse" when used about New Hampshire and Iowa are code for "white," or "too white" to lead to a Democratic primary victory.

The Clinton campaign is clearly and openly putting its Sanders-stopping eggs in the minority basket; in particular, counting that victory will come from the hands of the African-American voters. Recent polls show her far ahead of Sanders among those voters, with two contests with a more "diverse" electorate, Nevada and South Carolina, up next.

For example, from a recent PPP poll (pdf) of the national races (my emphasis):
On the Democratic side Hillary Clinton leads Bernie Sanders 53/32. Sanders does keep gradually moving closer- our previous couple polls had her leading 56/28 in December and 59/26 in November. But he still has some weaknesses that may make it hard for him to catch up. Primary among these is African American voters- Clinton leads 82/8 with them and has a 79/9 favorability compared to 27/23 for Sanders. That does suggest some possibility for Sanders to improve his position- part of his problem is just that black voters don’t really know him yet- but he’s starting at a tremendous disadvantage that will make the upcoming run of Southern primaries very difficult for him.
Other polls show her losing by less, but by any measure the difference in support is considerable. So the horse race question — can Sanders make up that difference in the time left to do it? The Nevada caucus is February 20. The South Carolina primary is February 27. Super Tuesday is March 1. Each will occur in just a few weeks.

Hillary Clinton & the Black Vote

Enter widely respected author and academic, Michelle Alexander, writing in The Nation. Alexander is best known for her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, so she has special expertise in the recent history of black America. She starts by detailing the relationship that both Clintons have enjoyed with African-American voters:
Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote
From the crime bill to welfare reform, policies Bill Clinton enacted—and Hillary Clinton supported—decimated black America.

Hillary Clinton loves black people. And black people love Hillary—or so it seems. Black politicians have lined up in droves to endorse her, eager to prove their loyalty to the Clintons in the hopes that their faithfulness will be remembered and rewarded. Black pastors are opening their church doors, and the Clintons are making themselves comfortably at home once again, engaging effortlessly in all the usual rituals associated with “courting the black vote,” a pursuit that typically begins and ends with Democratic politicians making black people feel liked and taken seriously. Doing something concrete to improve the conditions under which most black people live is generally not required.

Hillary is looking to gain momentum on the campaign trail as the primaries move out of Iowa and New Hampshire and into states like South Carolina, where large pockets of black voters can be found. According to some polls, she leads Bernie Sanders by as much as 60 percent among African Americans. It seems that we—black people—are her winning card, one that Hillary is eager to play.
Which sets up her punch line: "And it seems we’re eager to get played. Again."

The rest of the piece walks through the troubled Clinton legacy — again, both of them, since Hillary strongly and vocally supported the Clinton era policies — and the horrific effect those policies have had on the black community. The overview (my emphasis):
When Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, urban black communities across America were suffering from economic collapse. Hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs had vanished as factories moved overseas in search of cheaper labor, a new plantation. Globalization and deindustrialization affected workers of all colors but hit African Americans particularly hard. Unemployment rates among young black men had quadrupled as the rate of industrial employment plummeted. Crime rates spiked in inner-city communities that had been dependent on factory jobs, while hopelessness, despair, and crack addiction swept neighborhoods that had once been solidly working-class. Millions of black folks—many of whom had fled Jim Crow segregation in the South with the hope of obtaining decent work in Northern factories—were suddenly trapped in racially segregated, jobless ghettos.

On the campaign trail, Bill Clinton made the economy his top priority and argued persuasively that conservatives were using race to divide the nation and divert attention from the failed economy. In practice, however, he capitulated entirely to the right-wing backlash against the civil-rights movement and embraced former president Ronald Reagan’s agenda on race, crime, welfare, and taxes—ultimately doing more harm to black communities than Reagan ever did. 
Alexander discusses the reasons that black voters "should have seen it coming," including this chilling detail:
Reagan had won the presidency by dog-whistling to poor and working-class whites with coded racial appeals: railing against “welfare queens” and criminal “predators” and condemning “big government.” Clinton aimed to win them back, vowing that he would never permit any Republican to be perceived as tougher on crime than he.

Just weeks before the critical New Hampshire primary, Clinton proved his toughness by flying back to Arkansas to oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a mentally impaired black man who had so little conception of what was about to happen to him that he asked for the dessert from his last meal to be saved for him for later. After the execution, Clinton remarked, “I can be nicked a lot, but no one can say I’m soft on crime.”
As I said, these are policies that Hillary fully supported at the time. For example, this is Hillary Clinton talking about the 1994 crime bill: "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." Note the code word "predators" echoing the Reagan-era racist depiction of black criminals.

Both Clintons have since recanted. Alexander notes:
To be fair, the Clintons now feel bad about how their politics and policies have worked out for black people. Bill says that he “overshot the mark” with his crime policies; and Hillary has put forth a plan to ban racial profiling, eliminate the sentencing disparities between crack and cocaine, and abolish private prisons, among other measures.
But is that enough? she asks. It's a valid question, whether you consider the answer to be yes or no.

Mass Incarceration: The New Housing Program for the Urban Poor

The section on mass incarceration is particularly chilling, especially since many of the non-violent men and women are still in prison. A very small taste of this painful-to-contemplate section of the article:
[T]he Clinton administration didn’t reduce the amount of money devoted to the management of the urban poor; it changed what the funds would be used for. ... Billions of dollars were slashed from public-housing and child-welfare budgets and transferred to the mass-incarceration machine. By 1996, the penal budget was twice the amount that had been allocated to food stamps. During Clinton’s tenure, funding for public housing was slashed by $17 billion (a reduction of 61 percent), while funding for corrections was boosted by $19 billion (an increase of 171 percent), according to sociologist Loïc Wacquant “effectively making the construction of prisons the nation’s main housing program for the urban poor.”
Alexander also notes how government statistics, which don't count the incarcerated in the unemployment rate, hid the true unemployment rate among young black men. "When Clinton left office in 2001, the true jobless rate for young, non-college-educated black men (including those behind bars) was 42 percent." This section is more than chilling; it's horrifying.

Sanders Is Not Blameless

Alexander brings Sanders to task as well, and includes many of the offsets to her anti-Clinton argument, such as the fact that black community leaders were similarly concerned with crime in their neighborhoods. She notes: "This is not an endorsement for Bernie Sanders, who after all voted for the 1994 crime bill. I also tend to agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates that the way the Sanders campaign handled the question of reparations is one of many signs that Bernie doesn’t quite get what’s at stake in serious dialogues about racial justice. He was wrong to dismiss reparations as “divisive,” as though centuries of slavery, segregation, discrimination, ghettoization, and stigmatization aren’t worthy of any specific acknowledgement or remedy. But recognizing that Bernie, like Hillary, has blurred vision when it comes to race is not the same thing as saying their views are equally problematic."

Which leads Alexander to this indictment: "In short, there is such a thing as a lesser evil, and Hillary is not it."

Moving the Needle?

There's much more in the article — please do read it through. Whatever position you take, notice first that the argument is nuanced — it acknowledges all of the "yes, but"s that can reasonably be raised — and second, that it's incredibly well written. (I'm officially jealous of her talent in this regard.)

But this not about Clinton and the arguments for and against her vis-à-vis the African-American community; that's a question primarily for them to decide. Nor is it about Sanders and what can be said for or against his racial policies and awareness. There's a lot of "that was then and this is now" one can offer in this discussion.

My real interest in bringing this to your attention is this. The South Carolina primary is February 27. Super Tuesday is three days later, with its cluster of southern and other "more diverse" states. Conventional (and Clinton campaign) wisdom holds that these states are out of Sanders' reach, that he can never make up the difference in support that the polls, exemplified by the one cited above, show to be great.

Losing 82-8 with African-American voters is the largest differential we've seen in this Democratic primary. It's almost a no-brainer to call the next rounds hers, and it's not too unreasonable to imagine that the next four weeks or so could be do-or-die for Sanders, regardless of your preference. Still, this is a Black Lives Matter moment — thank god for that; it's been needed since forever, meaning 1619 — so the electoral outcome could be far from certain.

Given my belief that this election will be the most important in any of our lifetimes, for a variety of reasons, I'm watching the coming contests with great interest. Sanders has promised to take it to the convention, and I'm glad to hear that. What he takes to the convention could be decided very soon, as I see it.

Will thought-leaders in the African-American community, people like Michelle Alexander and former NAACP head Ben Jealous, be able to move the needle sufficiently and in time? We're clearly into popcorn territory. Stay tuned.

(Blue America has endorsed Bernie Sanders for president. If you'd like to help out, go here; you can adjust the split any way you like at the link. If you'd like to "phone-bank for Bernie," go here. You can volunteer in other ways by going here. And thanks!)


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