They just want us to leave him alone because there’s this deep feeling in the black community that this president has been there for us.–-Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) on President Bill Clinton
Artfully dodging the question of whether he was personally responsible for the most dramatic increase in mass imprisonment in human history, President William Jefferson Clinton left his interviewers momentarily flustered. The interviewers, prominent members of the African American journalist organization, the Trotter Group, pressed the president on what he had done to address the problem of disproportionate African American incarceration—a problem that has devastated African American communities across the nation. Of immediate concern was his policies vis-a-vis the disparate sentences meted out for those convicted of crack cocaine, who tended to be African American, and powder cocaine, who were overwhelmingly white.
When the Trotter Group interviewed the president on November 1, 1995, shortly after the Million Man March, this issue was uppermost in their minds. Their first question addressed the issue of the disparity and Clinton’s rejection of both recommendations of the United States Sentencing Commission and his own attorney general that the sentencing “be equalized.” Clinton stressed that the provision that led to his rejecting the bill would have reduced penalties for money laundering impairing the government’s efforts to combat international drug trafficking and organized crime. He took a tough stand against reducing the disparity by citing statistics that led him to conclude that practically all those convicted under the crack trafficking provisions were older “repeat serious offenders” who had been caught with large quantities of crack.
Asked by journalist Dwayne Wickham about this disparity in sentencing between cocaine that whites tended to use more, and crack used more by blacks, Clinton said that he was opposed to the existing disparity and had urged Congress “to reduce it.” “They said,” Clinton stated, “well there’s more violence associated with crack than with powder cocaine. So we said okay, then don’t eliminate it, just reduce it. It doesn’t have to be ten to one. Cut it down to two to one....”
President Clinton, whose rise to power relied on black votes, refused to take any personal responsibility for the wildly disproportionate imprisonment of African Americans. He explained that “[b]y the time we got to this issue, the Republicans were in majority and we just couldn’t do it.” Yet, blaming Republicans cannot hide his own signing of the Violent Crime Control Act and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 which provided funds for the accelerated construction of prisons by individual states. This increase of funds meant that by 1995 states were spending more on prison construction that on building universities despite Clinton’s lauding and celebration of the role education plays in American society. His priorities, as expressed in policies and annual budgets, relied on the fear and terror of incarceration as a deterrent to crime, even non-violent crime.
President Clinton’s policies accelerated the process of criminalizing African Americans, especially males, as the number of federal prisoners during his two terms exceeded those of the three terms of the preceding Republican administrations of Reagan and Bush. He chose not to prioritize rolling back the 1986 and 1988 sentencing laws that made the penalty for crack cocaine distribution 100 times longer than that applied to powder cocaine. Throughout the Clinton administration protests were lodged against this injustice and the president himself said in an October 2000 Rolling Stone magazine interview that mandatory minimum sentences were “unconscionable.” Notably, it is at this point, at the tail end of his administration, he found the need for a “reexamination of our entire prison policy.” This came after twice campaigning on “getting tough” on crime, and two terms of social policy that resulted one of the greatest incarceration upsurges in history.
Eric Schlosser wrote in The Atlantic Monthly: “The Clinton Administration. . . has done far more than its Republican predecessors to legitimize private prisons. It has encouraged the Justice Department to place illegal aliens and minimum-security inmates in private correctional facilities, as part of the drive to reduce the federal work force.” Under policies prioritizing privatization, a private operator is able to run a penal institution while working to lengthen prison sentences by several methods. Lobbying for longer sentences handed out more offenses; finding prisoners under its supervision guilty of more sentence-lengthening offenses; and by other means ensuring that profits will be maximized. Indeed, captive people provide ample reason for pervasive abuses to occur. The California Department of Corrections contracted with the MCI corporation to install its special inmate phone service, “Maximum Security,” promising the department thirty-two percent of the take from the inmates’ phone calls.8 Many have made fortunes from the confinement of hundreds of thousands of prisoners. Schlosser wrote:
The prison-industrial complex now includes some of the nation’s largest architecture and construction firms, Wall Street investment banks that handle prison bond issues and invest in private prisons, plumbing-supply companies, food-service companies, health-care companies, companies that sell everything from bullet-resistant security cameras to padded cells available in a ‘vast color selection.’. . .
Prominent legal scholar Charles Ogletree expressed disappointment with President Clinton’s central role in the incarceration binge in the black community. “I think it is shocking and regrettable that more African Americans were incarcerated on Bill Clinton’s watch than any other president’s in the history of the United States.” To his credit, Clinton himself has admitted that his greatest failure in terms of African Americans “was in the criminal justice area,” namely the disproportionate numbers of blacks incarcerated. It is an honest admission, underlining the fact that Clinton, like almost every American president, failed to take political risks in supporting the principles and interests dear to blacks.
The popular notion that dramatic economic gains by African Americans were an important aspect of the Clinton legacy rest on shaky ground. By 1999, the U.S. economy had benefitted from eight consecutive years of economic expansion as the unemployment rate had fallen from 5.7 percent in September 1995 to 4.5 percent in September 1998 while inflation was minimal. Despite the creation of over 12 million new jobs since the beginning of the Clinton administration, only 700,000 of those went to the half of the population that is non-college educated. During the expansion of the United States’ economy the employment of high school graduates actually fell by 95,000 nationally. The rise of the employment rate for those who dropped out of high school was due sheerly to their dropping out of the labor force. The jobs created, 94 percent of them, went to those who had at least one year of college. Underlining the limited nature of the national prosperity, in 1997 34.7 percent of all non-elderly black families reported themselves as having experienced food hardship during the past year. Overall 22.8 percent of non-elderly families reported food hardship conditions for the year prior to 1997. 21.4 percent of all black non-elderly families reported experiencing housing hardship in the previous year. For all American non-elderly families, 13.4 percent reported housing hardship for the previous year in 1997.
During the Clinton era income differentials grew dramatically as the income for moderate and low-income people of all ethnicities stagnated. Wages for four fifths of American men were lower in 1997 than in 1989 when the situation could hardly be described as rosy. The median worker's real wage fell 6.7% during this period. These declines hit people earning entry level wages hardest—another important factor in the deteriorating lifetime opportunities for young black workers. Even young college graduates with less than five years experience saw their wages fall 6.5% in the case of males and 7.4% for females between 1989 and 1997. In 1997 the median hourly wage for all African Americans was $12.92 compared to $18.20 for whites and $11.53 for Hispanics. Black high school graduates had a median hourly wage in 1997 of $10.56 compared to $13.12 for white high school graduates. Those blacks with college degrees had a median hourly wage of $16.53 compared to $21.45 for whites and $17.37 for Hispanics.
These figures underline the fact that under the Clinton presidency the rush toward class and race inequality that had shifted into accelerated mode under Reagan and Bush continued unabated. Indeed, more than one analyst has concluded that the Clinton presidency finished the work of the conservative revolution initiated by Reagan and continued by George H. W. Bush. Michael Meeropol argues that by continuing his predecessor’s policies of free trade, deregulation, union-busting, and tax cuts Clinton dealt a death blow to what remained of the New Deal. Clinton’s victory in winning the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) signified the triumph of the New Democrats over the Old Democrats while weakening the overall power of the nation’s workers. Yet, Clinton’s presidency was, to a considerable extent, shaped by its clash with the rising Republicans led by Newt Gingrich and structured by its Contract With American program. The limited progressive objectives were further pared down following the rise of the congressional Republicans, and even more so after the revelation of the Monica Lewinsky affair.
Some such as columnist Clarence Page have asserted that the Sista Souljah incident proved to be the most significant moment of the campaign–a turning point that saw Clinton leap from third in the polls, trailing Ross Perot and President Bush, to take the lead. Clinton and his circle felt that Mondale had been doomed in large part because of the perception and reality of him bending to accommodate Jesse Jackson and African Americans. Clinton’s campaign felt that Jackson, while mobilizing blacks, frightened away some whites who would be attracted to the Democratic Party and served as motivation for other non-voting whites to register Republican. They were determined to correct what they perceived as mistakes Mondale and Dukakis had made in dealing with the threat of Jesse Jackson and problem of African American demands. Mondale as well as Dukakis not only seemed intimidated when in Jackson’s presence but overshadowed, a fact emphasized by Jackson’s dominating performance in the presidential debates. Clinton was determined, and better equipped, to avoid such a fate.
The ambush and public mutilation of the remarks made by Sister Souljah in an interview was apparently the result of a patient wait on the part of the Clinton campaign for some opportunity to display toughness on what was perceived as black excesses. Some felt that the mere display of a generalized toughness vis-a-vis African Americans and their demands would impress a significant proportion of the white electorate. This would make clear that Clinton was not just another “tax-and-spend liberal” kowtowing to the often ridiculous demands of blacks for “racial preferences” playing on white guilt. What the young rap artist said hardly advocating killing whites rather it suggested that for some blacks, alienated gang members, who have engaged in gang banging against other blacks, killing whites would not be a difficult transition. It was a statement of what she depicted as the social psychology of a typical gang member who had regularly engaged in violent conflicts with other blacks. It was hardly an invitation or exhortation to racial violence.
Clinton and his campaign staff, laying in ambush for such an opportunity, used it to distinguish Clinton from earlier wimpish Democratic hopefuls and to illustrate his future racial policies and postures. If Clinton succeeded in winning the nomination, African Americans, with no political alternative, would be forced to support him at any rate. Clinton didn’t leave this to chance, however, and actively wooed the support of black elected officials while at the same time, attempting to limit and narrowly define Jesse Jackson’s influence. Using the issue of health care to unite the party, Clinton won the nomination and crafted a Democratic platform that was the most conservative on race in over fifty years. Distancing itself from blacks, while fully expecting their vote, the platform failed to mention racial issues and Clinton’s manifesto “Putting People First” again stressed his opposition to racial “quotas.”
Blacks had no where else to turn, and with Clinton trying to demonstrate his support for black policy interests, he won seventy percent of the African American vote in the 1992 primaries. By the general election in November 1992 Clinton won some 89 percent of the black votes cast for Democrats or Republicans and 82 percent overall.
The withdrawal of the nomination of University of Pennsylvania professor Lani Guinier was regarded as a personal and political setback by President Clinton. Facing unexpected hostility from the right as they derided his nominee to head the Civil Rights Division as a “quota queen” Clinton retreated after articles by Guinier on voting remedies were revealed to him. Reading the articles, Clinton agreed with the right that she had violated the principles of “one man, one vote” in her specially crafted suggested policies to resolve widespread black vote dilution problems. Clinton, worried that this would impact his legislative priorities, hastily retreated maintaining that he did not have the votes for confirmation.
When initially proposed the Clinton welfare reform measures promised a social service net to aid the forcible entry of former welfare recipients into the workforce. However, as was predictable, these child care, education, and job training provisions were lopped off the legislation leaving a basically punitive measure. We will not do for you” apparently accepting the popular myth of the welfare recipient as shiftless, lacking ambition, and immersed in a “culture of poverty” that expected “handouts.” He vowed to “end welfare as we know it,” warning recipients that “we will do with you. Most significantly, the legislation ended the entitlement of basic support that had been in place since the New Deal. Uniting with right-wing Republicans fresh from the congressional victories that resulting in their Contract With America, President Clinton pushed hard for the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 that would “end welfare as we know it.”
Clinton stressed the problem of crime and indicated he would follow the trend of tougher sentences and less rehabilitation, often connected to slashing progressive programs and contracting with prison-industry firms. Buttressing the most right-wing policy thrusts of the Clinton administration was the Democratic Leadership Council. Launched followed the traumatic defeat of Walter Mondale’s 1984 presidential candidacy, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) was shaped largely in opposition to the movement propelling Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition presidential campaign. One prominent Democrat then complained, “Blacks own the Democratic Party . . . White Protestant male Democrats are an endangered species.” The notion that the Democratic Party was too heavily identified with African American and other “special interests” proved especially attractive to key corporate backers. Shedding support for expanded social services, civil rights, women’s issues, and equality in general would expand the Democratic Party’s constituency to include greater proportion of white males who were increasingly defecting to the Republican Party. Like their conservative counterparts in the GOP the New Liberals of the Democratic Party were willing to give priority to the “magic” of the free market. Not surprisingly, corporate backers included the insurance, health care, pharmaceutical, retail, and tobacco industries. Departing from the New Deal liberalism, they advocated the wholesale privatizing virtually every governmental function and the taming of the organized working class. Their primary concerns in transforming the Democratic Party, however, centered around race and the African American influence on organization and its policies.
Like most post-World War Two Democratic politicians seeking the presidency Clinton tried to woo both southern whites and African Americans–two groups polarized by opposing views of society and justice but united uneasily within the Democratic Party. For example, during the 1992 campaign Clinton was criticized by Jerry Brown for a photograph that featured him and Georgia Senator Sam Nunn at an overwhelmingly African American boot camp for first-time offenders. Brown accused Clinton of an Willie Horton-like campaign stunt reeking of racism as he and Nunn resembled “colonial masters” presiding over the camp. Clinton was ultimately successful in convincing black voters that he was the best candidate as he won some seventy percent of the black vote in the primaries and eighty-two percent in the general election.
President Clinton, was indisputably the best chief executive in terms of the numbers and importance of his black appointments. Not only were fourteen percent of Clinton's first-term presidential appointments African American, but blacks enjoyed an unprecedented prominence in the cabinet and among senior staff. This made a deep and lasting impression on the black political elite of the nation. Appointing people such as Ron Brown as the Secretary of Commerce and Rodney Slater as the Secretary of Transportation created a positive impression blunting any criticism of his policies.
Former Civil Rights Commission head Mary Frances Berry, a lawyer and historian, notes that blacks were not overly fond of Clinton initially especially after his well-planned and timely “dissing” of Sista Souljah. Clinton’s image subsequently improved through repeated and timely visits to black churches, appointments, and his warm friendships with both Vernon Jordan and Marian Wright Edelman. President William Jefferson Clinton, Novelist Toni Morrison wrote in her now-classic 1998 New Yorker essay, “displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.” It was during the depths of the Clinton Monica Lewinsky scandal that Morrison termed Clinton the nation’s “first black President”. Almost invariably this quote has been taken out of context and cut off before Morrison got to the heart of the matter. The key parts of the quote, in the middle of an essay of which she initially described her disdain and suspicion of the mass media, are more serious and also represent an indictment of the nation’s criminal justice system:
African-American men seemed to understand it right away. Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas. And when virtually all the African-American Clinton appointees began, one by one, to disappear, when the President’s body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution, when he was metaphorically seized and bodysearched, who could gainsay these black men who knew whereof they spoke? The message was clear “No matter how smart you are, how hard you work, how much coin you earn for us, we will put you in your place or put you out of the place you have somehow, albeit with our permission, achieved. You will be fired from your job, sent away in disgrace, and--who knows?--maybe sentenced and jailed to boot. In short, unless you do as we say (i.e., assimilate at once), your expletives belong to us.
The key characteristic of Clinton’s blackness for Morrison was the fact that in the end he was being criminalized and in danger of being robbed of his potential embodied in his once-promising presidency. Almost all observers have ignored this for the juicy part of the quote, “. . . After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.” Not mentioning Morrison’s description of Clinton-as-victim pacifies this quote and doesn’t trouble us with the bothersome problem of the millions of black males imprisoned for essentially economic crimes or crimes stemming directly and indirectly from poverty.
Another aspect of the quote the assertion that Clinton was “[B]lacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime” expressed pre-Obama pessimism with regard to the prospects of an African American being elected president in the foreseeable future. It also makes it clear that for Morrison, Clinton’s “blackness” is a relative cultural blackness. The fallout from the fierce competition between Illinois Senator Barack Obama, born of Kenyan father and white American mother, and Hillary Clinton in late 2007 and early 2008 in effect detroned her husband from his throne as “the first black president.” His popularity plummeted, for the most part temporarily, following remarks perceived as abrasive by a large portion of the African American national community.
Born William Jefferson Blythe, III, August 19, 1946 in the Julia Chester Hospital in Hope, Arkansas, population six thousand, thirty-three miles from Texarkana. Clinton was named after his father William Jefferson Blythe, Jr. but later adopted the last name of his stepfather in a move to foster family unity. His father was the son of a farmer from Sherman, Texas who had nine children. Soon after he and Clinton’s mother, Virginia Cassidy married and he was shipped off to fight in World War Two. Following the war Blythe returned to his old job as a salesman and made plans to move his young family to the Forest Park suburb of Chicago having purchased a house. Before he could move the his wife and young baby boy tragedy struck. After having moved the furniture into the new home, Blythe had an accident on the drive back to Hope as his 1942 Buick blew a tire, ran off the rain-slick road ejecting him into a ditch where he died. Raised by his mother and grandparents, Clinton, in his speech launching his Race Initiative, praised his grandfather who “with just a grade school education but the heart of a true American, who taught me that it [racial prejudice] was wrong.”
The greatest achievement of Bill Clinton as a youth was meeting and being photographed shaking hands with President John F. Kennedy as an Arkansas representative of the American Legion Boys Nation gathering in Washington, D. C. Years later Clinton recalled that trip when speaking at the 30th anniversary reunion of that gathering on July 24, 1993:
Our Boys Nation group passed a resolution against racial discrimination. Many of us had grown up in segregated societies. We understood the pain, the cost, the incredible waste in human potential that that had caused. And so we voted for it. The Nation’s Governors had just met that week, and they broke up their resolution conference so they wouldn’t have to deal with civil rights. So when we showed up here, President Kennedy said that we had shown more initiative than the Nation’s Governors. Now, we loved it, but the Governors didn’t like it very much. And it got him in a lot of hot water with them.
Clinton graduated spent the years of the late 1960s at Georgetown graduating in 1968 benefitting from the experienced he acquired working on Arkansas Senator William Fulbright’s committee staff. Later he ventured to Oxford where as a Rhodes Scholar he famously “didn’t inhale” marijuana and participated in anti-war demonstrations. By 1973 he was back in the United States and graduating from Yale Law School, his future path being set. Clinton wrote of his aid to black students when he was teaching in law school as a young professor. He writes sympathetically of what he perceived to be the plight of that first large generation of black law students at universities across the nation:
Almost all of them were working very hard. They wanted to succeed and several of them lived under enormous emotional pressure because they were afraid they couldn’t make it. Sometimes their fears were justified.
Clinton gave an example of a student with poor spelling and grammar blaming the segregated school system he had attended while highlighting the underlying quality of the student’s work. By 1976 he was elected the Attorney General of Arkansas and was a rising political star. Clinton became chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) in March 1990 which greatly enhanced his ability to connect with politicians throughout the nation, while at the same time, locking him into a well-financed grouping with a more conservative outlook than the traditional “Old Democrats.” He was also aided by the lack of nationally prominent Democrats willing to challenge a Republican president who was, for a period, riding high in the early polls, leaving an open field to newcomers to presidential politics.
Placed in historical context, Clinton’s position on criminal justice, welfare and other social problems facing the black community nationally sounds similar to the old “I would like to help but I can’t” line that was used both during the era of slavery and that of segregation. During the antebellum era, this “I-would-like-to-help-but-I-can’t” posture took the form of claiming that it would be unconstitutional for the federal government to intervene to protect blacks lives or otherwise “interfere” with slavery. This was despite the fact that they granted it the power to suppress slave insurrections and capture runaways from slavery. During the long decades of the Jim Crow era, the same reasoning applied as black-supported Republicans in the White House contended that they were constitutionally unable to intervene to prevent lynching due to the principle of “states’ rights.”
In large part, Clinton’s perceived intimacy with blacks helped smooth over his policy moves that harmed black interests. Betty Baye cited the number of blacks at Clinton’s inaugural while several other commentators mentioned the moving remarks that Clinton made at the funeral of his Secretary of the Commerce, Ron Brown who died in a plane crash in 1996. The importance of Clinton’s role during some trying emotional moments for African American leadership and civil society should not be underestimated. Radio personality Tom Joyner holds that Clinton “reached out to Black America in ways no U.S. president had before” and was successful in connecting emotionally with the millions of descendants of slaves. Joyner and colleague Tavis Smiley later traveled to South Africa with Clinton and witnessed him term Africa “the cradle of civilization” and apologize for slavery. They and others were amazed to see Clinton sing the words to the Negro National Anthem by heart on that and on other occasions. Personal behavior and symbolic gestures including the ambitious yet ultimately unsatisfying Race Initiative launched late in Clinton’s second administration went a long way in convincing much of black America that he was on their side. Sapiro and Canon note that Clinton brought African Americans and women to the table yet on key issues related to these two important constituencies proposed relatively conservative policies.
Given Clinton’s weak commitment in many areas of racial justice, it was not surprising that he withered under the assault on his Surgeon General, Dr. Joycelyn Elders. While Elders took the position of a principled professional, Clinton bowed to the pressure from the right to dismiss her because of her forthright statements on masturbation, condoms, and other matters involving the nation’s health. The withdrawal of the nomination of Lani Guinier for assistant attorney general for civil rights was a similar display of a lack of fortitude on the part of President Clinton when faced with determined campaigns sponsored by the right. Other than pressure from the right, there was no imperative to abandon her nomination since her previous articles did not necessarily imply future administration policies would be shaped on the basis on their theories.
Despite the glaring shortcomings of the Clinton administration in satisfying baseline black interests, African Americans registered strong approval of it. 77 percent of blacks judged Clinton’s performance as “extremely favorable” compared to only 31 percent of whites. 30 percent of blacks rated Clinton as “one of the great presidents” compared to only 7 percent of whites. African Americans then felt that he paid attention to the issues meaningful to their daily lives.
Columnist Deborah Mathis accurately described Clinton’s popularity with blacks “a victory of personality over policy.” Similarly, University of Maryland political scientist, Ronald Walters attributes Clinton’s phenomenal success in winning black support to his adroit use of “symbolic politics.” Yet, some policy moves by Clinton resonated with blacks, notably his mild defense of affirmative action summed up in the slogan “mend it, don’t end it.” While many criticized Clinton’s criminal justice policies that, for the sake of a powerful prison industry, allowed or encouraged the arrest, jailing and incarceration of millions of African Americans, especially males, it never seriously damaged Clinton’s popularity among blacks. After the scandals held the Clinton presidency in its grip, African Americans maintained their support of the president. A September 1998 poll by CBS found that blacks overwhelmingly blamed Clinton’s adversaries for his troubles while whites felt the opposite blaming the president himself for his woes.
There seems be a consensus that Clinton had an unusual “comfort zone” around blacks. This was variously attributed to his southern background, childhood black friends and commitment to equality. Playing the sax on national TV, being called the first black president by Toni Morrison and eating chitlin’s sealed his appeal to black America according some commentators. Appointing a commission to examine America’s racial problems, however, while at the same time reversing himself on his promise to halt the practice of returning Haitian refugees is illustrative of a marked pattern featuring progressive but small and largely symbolic moves being countered by major negative policy measures. These factors and others lead Professor Michael Eric Dyson to speak unsparingly of Clinton’s shortcomings. “He exploited black sentiment because he knew the rituals of black culture,” concluding that the former president “exploited us like no president before him.”
Prior to the fierce primary battles pitting the former First Lady, Hillary Clinton against the relative newcomer to presidential politics, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, Bill Clinton’s image had shown teflon-like qualities among African Americans. It is ironic that the first black front-runner’s battles resulted in the former “first black president” losing his unique and lofty status among African Americans.
©Christopher Brian Booker, 2014.