Sanders’ debate stumble on race issues and Hillary’s sure-footed answer help explain why she’s getting most of the African-American vote.
When it came to most issues at the Democratic debate in Flint Sunday night, Bernie Sanders was his usual crusty, confident self. But when CNN’s Don Lemon asked a seemingly innocuous question—“What racial blind spot do you have?”—the senator from lily-white Vermont stumbled, reaching for an ancient bromide from his long-ago Brooklyn childhood. “When you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto, you don’t know what it’s like to be poor,” Sanders said.
Social media erupted. “He knows that all Black people don’t live in ghettos, right?” Jonathan Capehart of The Washington Post tweeted. MSNBC’s Joy Reid was also flummoxed. “Of course, many white Americans know exactly what it’s like to ‘live in the ghetto.’ Many, including immigrants have, do and did,” she tweeted. “Most African-Americans are not poor. The AA poverty rate is too high, of course, at about 28%, but that’s not most or all.”
Hillary Clinton, by contrast, responded to the same question with a detailed account of her lifelong journey in racial awareness, pushing most of the right buttons. She invoked “the talk” that African-American parents need to have with their kids and white parents don’t–“scared that your sons or daughters, even, could get in trouble for no good reason whatsoever like Sandra Bland and end up dead in a jail in Texas.” She talked of spending time with Trayvon Martin’s mother, and how it taught her the need “to tear down the barriers of systemic racism that are in the criminal justice system.” She reminisced about her days as a young law student working for her mentor, Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, who had sent her into the Deep South to expose racial discrimination in schools and in jails during the civil rights era.
The different answers somehow encapsulated what has happened so far in this campaign. Clinton has clobbered Sanders in states, mainly in the South, with large African-American populations, propelling her to what may be an insurmountable lead in delegates. Bottom line, Hillary Clinton has street cred on the racial issue that Bernie Sanders lacks.
This outcome has clearly frustrated Sanders. He and his supporters cannot understand how his “democratic socialist” campaign is losing the black vote – and not gaining more traction with his attack on the 1990s, when even the Clintons have repudiated parts of their record in backing a tough-on-crime bill many blame for furthering the epidemic of mass incarceration.
But Hillary Clinton’s support among African-Americans only surprises whites who caricature black politics as blindly radical, and radicals blinded with rage who unfairly blame Bill Clinton for the mass incarceration problem. The Clintons’ relationship with the African-American community has been deep and mutually beneficial, and it’s showing in the election tallies. Distorting the historical record ignores both Clintons’ warm ties to African-Americans and their impressive contributions to racial reconciliation, especially in the 1990s.
One of Sanders’ problems is that while African-Americans vote liberal, they are not white liberals like the ones he’s been mobilizing in his campaign. Black Democrats tend to be more socially conservative, pragmatic, and independent than many white politicians and pundits assume.
As the first Baby Boomers living in the White House, Bill and Hillary Clinton were the first president and First Lady shaped by the civil rights movement. Bill Clinton attributes his faith in government to Dwight Eisenhower’s integration of Little Rock public schools in 1957. During the debate, Hillary Clinton once again thanked her Methodist “church and youth minister,” Don Jones, for shaping her social conscience by exposing her to America’s challenges, “insisting that we go in to inner-city Chicago because I lived in a suburb, and have exchanges with kids in black and Hispanic churches.”
Three decades later, as a presidential contender, Bill Clinton tracked deindustrialization’s impact on the working class and minorities. Professor William Julius Wilson’s analysis that blacks were now more menaced by economic decline than racial prejudice convinced Clinton that mass prosperity would improve race relations. During the 1992 campaign, Wilson praised Clinton in the New York Times for having “destroyed the myth that blacks will only respond if a candidate highlights race-specific issues and programs.” Stricken by “unemployment and concerned about adequate health-care coverage and education,” African-Americans were showing “their political sophistication” by supporting a candidate who addressed their broad needs “without narrowly focusing his message on race.”
Even the current backlash within the black community against Bill Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill, for causing “the mass incarceration machine” is more complicated than it seems. The nearly two million violent crimes committed in 1993, Clinton’s inaugural year, represented a sevenfold increase since 1960. Fear of crime was ubiquitous. Reporters sensationalized some crimes, including the kidnap-murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas from her own slumber party, while many victims no longer bothered reporting others. By 1994, 37 percent of Americans surveyed considered crime America’s biggest problem.
This was especially true in the African-American community, which suffered disproportionately from the problem. Hence at the time blacks and whites were equally enthusiastic about a bill promising 100,000 more police officers patrolling America’s streets. Two-thirds of the Congressional Black Caucus supported the bill, taking pride in the prevention programs and gun ban. In one survey, 64.5 percent of African-Americans supported “passing a law requiring life imprisonment for anyone convicted of three serious crimes.”
As president, while appointing a diverse Cabinet that “looked like America,” while socializing with African-American friends, Clinton also spoke to blacks naturally, directly, candidly, without most white liberals’ self-conscious, self-righteous stiffness. Aware that “law and order” often meant “whites blame blacks,” Clinton framed crime as an all-American moral issue. He addressed African-Americans directly as the Great American Crime Wave’s greatest victims, six times more likely to be murdered. The Great Empath mourned that black children feared going to unsafe schools; some were even picking out their own burial outfits.
As First Lady, Hillary Clinton also recognized the underlying issue as ensuring that the nation “doesn’t just talk about family values, but acts in ways that values families.” She charged that “American children are immersed in a culture of violence.” She criticized television violence that “exacerbates stereotypes” of “African-American and Latino youth.” In her 1995 best-seller It Takes a Village one chapter preached against crime, another against racism. Cherry-picking expressions like “superpredators” that she used back then, to try branding her racist today—as the Sanders campaign has implied–ignores the extensive vocabulary both Clintons deployed against the carnage on the screens and the streets.
Another attack on “the 1990s” that Sanders likes to pursue in order to win black votes is the 1996 welfare reform that created tougher “workfare” programs. Sanders claimed this “scapegoated the poorest people in this country.” But again, two-thirds of the African-American community approved the bill. Clinton himself characterized the Republican-drafted bill as “a decent welfare bill wrapped in a sack of sh-t.” He ultimately approved it as a last chance at welfare reform, because he was sure that subsequent legislation could undo the two most offensive provisions, cutting food stamps drastically and banning federal benefits to immigrants.
As a centrist rooted in the ideology of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council, Bill Clinton understood how much most black welfare recipients hated the welfare system. He often quoted Lillie Harden, a single mother who wanted work rather than a government handout so “When my boy goes to school and they say ‘what does your mama do for a living,’ he can give an answer.” As a more conventional liberal, Hillary Clinton was warier about signing the welfare reform bill, aloofly calling it “the president’s decision” in 1996.
Beyond policy, healing moments in the 1990s like the anniversaries of the Little Rock Nine and the Civil Rights March at Selma forged the Clinton-African-American alliance. Blacks also noticed symbols of natural friendship, such as how African-Americans like Vernon Jordan and Betty Currie were trusted members of the president’s inner circle during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Calling Bill Clinton “the first black president” was silly, but he may have been the first president who reassured blacks he had their backs. When Clinton retired, more than two-thirds of Americans surveyed, black and white, assessed race relations positively. Today, that figure has dropped below 50 percent.
As with their community’s ongoing group hug for the Clintons, African-Americans’ skepticism about Bernie Sanders shows that blacks don’t simply march in lockstep with the Left. In the 1930s, blacks often frustrated white communists by not turning Red en masse. In the 1950s, Martin Luther King, Jr., framed his crusade as a red, white, and blue movement to fulfill traditional American Constitutional ideals. In 2008, millions of “blue” African-Americans surging to vote for Barack Obama in California shocked West Coast liberals by also supporting Proposition 8, the “red” ballot initiative outlawing gay marriage. Today, African-Americans vote Democratic overwhelmingly but are more traditional, less libertine, than most white liberals, among other deviations from PC doctrine.
The most obvious difference between the black community and white liberals has to do with religion. Blacks are more God-fearing and church-going—a fact that Hillary Clinton well understood Sunday night when she invoked her pastor as the first person to raise her racial awareness. Nearly eight-in-ten blacks but less than six-in-ten whites consider religion very important. In Vermont, only 21 percent of Democrats consider religion very important. Their Christian faith has one-third of blacks calling themselves conservative – even if most vote Democratic. Black Democrats are more skeptical about gay marriage and homosexuality in general than white Democrats.
Moreover, as Bill Clinton recognized in the 1990s, as frequent victims of both crime and bureaucratic neglect, blacks are 20 percentage points more likely to ask for more policing in their neighborhoods than whites. Even in the age of Black Lives Matter, many blacks know that policing matters too to save black lives. Similarly 51 percent of blacks and 59 percent of whites fear that local courts do not punish criminals harshly enough, while three-quarters of blacks have at least “some” confidence in the police.
Beyond these historic patterns, African-Americans today are fiercely loyal to Barack Obama and, as a result, tend to be more positive than whites about how well America is doing under Obama. Just as both Clintons discovered that black support for Obama in 2008 trumped the long friendship between most blacks and the Clintons, Sanders has seen that his criticism of President Obama as having “let progressives down” trumps his having been arrested at a Sixties civil rights protest.
Hillary Clinton has also magnified the black-Bernie wedge by embracing Obama more passionately. Ultimately, then, blacks are not standing by their woman by accident. Millions of African-Americans are continuing their historic, ongoing, multi-layered, political alliance with both Bill and Hillary Clinton — because it works for them.