Failing to win white voters in New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton needs her black firewall like never before. Her speech yesterday in Harlem touched on criminal justice and economic opportunity. Those remarks follow a stop in majority-black Flint, Mich., to decry its lead-water crisis, and a debate in segregated Milwaukee, where she pledged to “tackle” discrimination. She also took a shot at Bernie Sanders’ criticism of Wall Street with the question: “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow, would that end racism?”
Never mind that Wall Street investors and bankers play a huge role in discriminatory redlining, predatory lending, and foreclosures. Clinton, who earned an estimated $1.8 million in big-bank speaking fees in 2013 and 2014, shamelessly counts on blacks for support while she is engaged with the system that holds back the aspirations of too many black people. She is hoping that no one remembers how husband Bill put the black poor before the criminal-justice firing squad and how she is in bed with the big banks that stole the American dream from black homeowners.
The first big test of Clinton’s firewall will be the Feb. 27 Democratic primary in South Carolina, where 54 percent of the electorate in 2008 was African-American. While Sanders certainly has his own challenge to show how he would tackle discrimination, the history of the Clintons should cause blacks to press her much harder before automatically supporting her. It must not be forgotten that amid the relative prosperity of the 1990s, which did benefit more well-off African-Americans, Bill Clinton sacrificed the poor to conservative welfare policies and the black poor to racist crime laws that Hillary now condemns.
According to the Justice Policy Institute, the Clinton administration oversaw the largest rise in inmates in American history. In 1995, aided by federal crime-bill funding, states spent more on prisons than on universities. By the end of the Clinton years, more people worked in the criminal justice system than in social services. According to the Sentencing Project, 13 percent of black men could not vote because of criminal records.
Yet when Clinton was at his most embarrassing hour, during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, his firewall was the Congressional Black Caucus and black churches. The Clintons’ popularity with the black elite translated into a massive advantage early in Hillary’s 2008 campaign. One CNN poll had Clinton ahead of Barack Obama among black women 68 percent to 25 percent. The moment the race tightened, Clinton’s team racially choked. Her campaign publicly attacked Obama’s youthful cocaine use and his appeal to more conservative white voters. When her lead evaporated in South Carolina, Bill famously flipped the racial switch to whine that Hillary couldn’t win because she’s white. Little remembered is that she failed to win outright any age category of non-black women in South Carolina.
Eight years later, she is again watching a coronation become a conundrum of her own centrist making. Sanders has begun to campaign seriously in black communities, with a brand of democratic socialism that is starting to earn black endorsements, including from writer Ta-Nehisi Coates.
That is not yet enough to suggest that Clinton will lose South Carolina. But she is running on a fundamental and untenable racial contradiction. She claims she will fight “systemic racism” at a time when the system and Bill’s role in it is under a fresh microscope from a new generation represented by the Black Lives Matter movement. At some point, the firewall cannot hold back the flames the Clintons fanned.
Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.