Democrats, Amnesia, and the Value of Black and Brown Life

Supporters of U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders hold signs at the New Hampshire Democratic Party State Convention in Manchester

Photo Credit: Brian Snyder/Reuters

Brandon McKoy is a policy analyst from New Jersey. He graduated with a Masters in City and Regional Planning from the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. If he could have dinner with anyone, it would be Huey Freeman of The Boondocks.

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A year ago, few would have predicted that the Democratic primary would turn into a contentious battle. Even fewer would have bet that Senator Bernie Sanders would be the one giving Secretary Hillary Clinton a run for her money. While many anticipated a coronation for the former first lady, US senator from New York, and former secretary of state, the Democratic Party is better off for undertaking the debate of priorities and ideas it currently finds itself in. No matter who the nominee is, they will be better prepared for the trials ahead as a result of this pitched primary.

Unfortunately, a strain of uncritical thinking and factual whitewashing has taken hold of many on the left, and it is damaging whatever historical conscience remains in the party itself. A remarkably intense and aggressive battle is taking place between the supporters of each Democratic candidate; even some undecided voters have joined in on the fun. In the course of this passionate debate, there’s been a penchant by many – on both sides – to at best sweep each candidate’s sins of the past under the rug, and at worst deny their existence them completely. To have a debate that is short on intellectual honesty does significant harm to what is an incredibly important process.

Frequently in America, the ugly political and legal history regarding the poor and people of color is given short shrift. While the Democratic Party is generally presumed to prioritize issues of racial and social justice – at least more than the Republican Party – their importance is often denied in the interest of political expediency and victory. Before this election began, members of the left shared many commonly understood opinions of the damaging impact that past laws advocated by Democrats have wrecked, including welfare reform and criminal justice policies from the mid-1990s. Now, because we’re in the middle of a heated Presidential contest, there seems no shortage of people willing to suddenly reverse their attitudes on the harmful Democratic policies of the past, placing the chances of their chosen candidate before recognition of unfortunate truths.

For all of his supposed good intentions, Senator Sanders’ efforts on issues of race and racial justice in this campaign are lacking. While some may find it unfair that he has received unique criticism for his shortcomings in this area, it is his self-description as a democratic socialist and his advocacy for radical policy that has earned him the attention. He has certainly made progress since the start of his campaign, thanks in no small part to pressure applied by the Black Lives Matter movement and others, but his penchant to pivot to economic issues when discussing race gives pause to many while inflaming concerns about his ability to successfully tackle uniquely racial problems.

While the senator himself struggles to assuage fears about his economics as catch-all approach to issues of racial strife, his supporters aren’t doing him any favors either. The so-called “Bernie Bros,” a term applied to the most ardent and exuberant supporters of the Sanders campaign, have often overstepped their bounds when trying to recruit undecided voters to their side. Many of the headlines dealing with this group of supporters have focused on instances of sexist behavior and language, but they have had their troubles when it comes to engaging with people of color too. Just a week ago, columnist Charles M. Blow of The New York Times published an article titled, “Stop Bernie-Splaining to Black Voters,” wherein he asserts:

It is not black folks who need to come to a new understanding, but those whose privileged gaze prevents them from seeing that black thought and consciousness is informed by a bitter history, a mountain of disappointment and an ocean of tears…This is not to say that Clinton or Sanders is the better choice for Democrats this season, but simply that the way some of Sanders’s supporters have talked down to black voters does him a disservice, and makes clear their insensitivity to the cultural and experiential political knowledge that has accrued to the black electorate.

It is exhausting, as a minority in America, to have to constantly defend the legitimacy and complexity of your experience. Having a bunch of cheerleaders for a white, elderly socialist from Vermont insist that you need to “do some research” is insulting. Having them harp on his connections to the Civil Rights Movement while engaging in racist and sexist behavior themselves is nothing less than infuriating.

Equally concerning is the level of selective amnesia that Clinton supporters seem to have, particularly when it comes to her record on issues of racial and social justice. Last week, the widely respected professor Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow” and expert in criminal justice policy and politics, published an article in The Nation called, “Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote.” It’s not hard to see why it caused quite the stir. In it, Professor Alexander takes Secretary Clinton to task for her advocacy and support of damaging criminal justice and welfare reform policies. Part of her critique is the candidate’s advocacy on behalf of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, commonly known as the 1994 crime bill. The law, easily one of the most consequential pieces of legislation of the past 25 years, is generally held to be responsible for drastically increasing prison populations and sentencing terms  across the country, especially among communities of color. In one of her more damning excerpts, Professor Alexander states:

Hillary wasn’t picking out china while she was first lady. She bravely broke the mold and redefined that job in ways no woman ever had before. She not only campaigned for Bill; she also wielded power and significant influence once he was elected, lobbying for legislation and other measures. That record, and her statements from that era, should be scrutinized. In her support for the 1994 crime bill, for example, she used racially coded rhetoric to cast black children as animals. “They are not just gangs of kids anymore,” she said. “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.

It is this use of the term “super-predator” that has been so unforgivable for some. Ta-Nehisi Coates, a preeminent writer on issues of racial justice in America, and Benjamin Jealous, former President and CEO of the NAACP, have both cited this language and advocacy as significant to their concerns about Secretary Clinton’s policy priorities. Beyond this one issue, Professor Alexander examines each Clinton’s role in pushing for and enacting welfare reform policies that severely damaged poor and minority communities, eventually remarking:

It is difficult to overstate the damage that’s been done. Generations have been lost to the prison system; countless families have been torn apart or rendered homeless; and a school-to-prison pipeline has been born that shuttles young people from their decrepit, underfunded schools to brand-new high-tech prisons.

Unsurprisingly, many response pieces were penned downplaying the impact of the actions taken by President Clinton and Secretary Clinton. Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum’s defense contends that “the 1994 crime bill was supported by most black leaders at the time,” so why hold the primary architects and advocates responsible? Vox’s German Lopez states that the bill did not have a significant effect on mass incarceration as it was a federal law, and state policy is primarily responsible for the rise in incarceration rates; as though advocacy and rhetoric around federal policy have no influence whatsoever on the policy priorities that states pursue. On my own social media timelines, I’ve seen many argue in the same breath that Secretary Clinton didn’t actually have all that much influence over President Clinton’s agenda, and in the next, heap mountains of praise on her for pushing the universal health care policy affectionately known as HillaryCare while serving as First Lady. The Clintons, while not exactly Frank and Claire Underwood, have been the most powerful couple of the Democratic Party for nearly three decades, and to suggest otherwise is to engage in yet another bit of convenient amnesia.

Disappointingly,  black political leaders have exhibited an all-too-eager willingness to come to the aid of Secretary Clinton when she calls upon them. Just recently, in an event that took place at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters, the Congressional Black Caucus Political Action Committee (an entity separate from the CBC itself) jumped to her aid with uncommon vigor, endorsing her candidacy for President. Congressman John Lewis (a civil rights giant in his own right) went so far as to state that Secretary Clinton is a civil rights stalwart just because many members are familiar with her, and in the process suggested that Senator Sanders hasn’t been an active supporter of civil rights issues just because he “never saw him.” Making this assertion, concerning a movement that spanned the entire country and succeeded thanks to thousands of unsung heroes, is intellectually dishonest. Recognizing as much does not undermine the stellar reputation of and significant respect due to Congressman Lewis, nor other members of the CBCPAC who made questionable statements of their own. (Author’s Note: Congressman Lewis has since clarified his comments, insisting he did not mean to disparage Senator Sanders’ contributions to civil rights efforts.)

All of this taken together is supremely frustrating and indicative of a political party that continues to take black and brown votes for granted while pushing the opinions and concerns of people of color to the side. Time and time again, despite there being many people of color – ranging from the average voter to widely regarded experts and scholars – expressing legitimate concerns about a candidate who has pushed policies that have damaged black and brown communities, they are consistently told to stop being so upset and just deal with it. When Professor Alexander published “The New Jim Crow,” it was hailed as the most comprehensive text on the topic, and the author was universally admired for her exhaustive research and understanding of the issue. Now that she fairly identifies Secretary Clinton’s responsibility in the advocacy for and passage of the 1994 crime bill (and Senator Sanders’ culpability in voting for it), people all of a sudden want to claim that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

Regardless of her activity on criminal justice policy, Secretary Clinton’s advocacy for welfare reform (which was incredibly damaging not only to poor people, but to the topic and language of how we now discuss poverty), her remarks on “super-predators,” and her stance on retroactive sentencing reform of crack convictions are, for many, indicative enough of her views on racial justice issues. Furthermore, others have expressed concern over Secretary Clinton’s record concerning issues unique to hispanic, Latino, and immigrant communities – one piece even follows Professor Alexander’s precedent, carrying the title, “Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Latino Vote.”

Considering the great lengths to which so many have gone to deny what is plain as day, what conclusion is there to come to other than that, for many in the Democratic Party, black and brown life is cheap? Cheap enough that the benefits given to immigrants dissipate as their skin darkens. Cheap enough that the poisoning of an American city only became nationally remarkable during an election year. Cheap enough that downplaying justifiable fears about a candidate’s history and judgment takes precedence over a frank and forthright reckoning with the past.

Here’s the deal. I respect people’s varying opinions of the candidates. Picking a President is not a simple task, nor is it a responsibility to be taken lightly. Neither of the Democratic Presidential candidates are perfect. Senator Sanders’ over-reliance on economic policy to address racial strife is wearing thin, and his missteps earlier in the campaign regarding the Black Lives Matter movement and other issues of racial justice remain fixed in the back of many minds. No matter how much his supporters may wish otherwise, making fantastical promises is no substitute for having actionable plans. Secretary Clinton, for all of the reasons cited above and many more, has a long way to go before her racial justice policy priorities catch up to her regrets about the past. Conciliatory words are important, but many continue to wait impatiently for stated intentions to turn into real, fruitful legislation. Still, being glib about historical facts and actions isn’t helpful to anyone. Each candidate has a long and comprehensive history, much of it sterling and much of it not. Trying to convince people otherwise does no favors to the candidates themselves.

Ultimately, I really don’t care if  you’re #WithHer or if you #FeelTheBern. What I do care about is truth and honesty when assessing the strengths and weaknesses of each Presidential candidate. Don’t try to convince me that the sky is blue when the dark clouds of systemic racism are hanging over my head; certainly don’t insist that these two candidates – one of whom has been one of the most powerful politicians in the country for some time –  have no liability for it. Democrats should be grateful that they get to have this debate of ideas and priorities regarding the future of their party. If the Republican party wasn’t such a circus, it’s likely that this opportunity for self-auditing would not be afforded to those on the left. People want authenticity from their representatives and part of that is admitting your flaws. In the process, you just might win over an undecided voter or two.

At the end of this long and drawn out campaign, the Democratic party will have to unify and coalesce around the primary winner if it has any hope of being victorious in the general election; a truth made ever more apparent in light of US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death. Pursing a fair and honest assessment of each candidate is vital to securing future reconciliation amongst all voters. If you do not choose to make either candidate’s failures and complicated history on issues of racial justice a part of your evaluation, while unfortunate, that is your prerogative, but do not dare assert that others have no right to make it a part of theirs.

While the extremely high stakes may incentivize us to act in a manner that is convenient for our chosen candidate or issue, the resulting damage to our conscience and morality is not worth it. We must pursue difficult debates and conversations if we ever wish to become better as a nation, so let’s be sure that we do so with clear eyes, honest hearts, and critical minds.