The Racial Justice Failures That Hillary Clinton Can't Ignore

Election '16

While the Black Lives Matter movement has focused attention on Bernie Sanders for his perceived racial justice deficiencies, no one seems to be giving much scrutiny to the civil rights record of Bill and Hillary Clinton and the impact their political work has had on the black community.

History has not been kind to the Clintons' record and it is possible that Bill Clinton while president, with no public objections and often with enthusiastic support from Hillary, did more damage to the black community than any modern American president.

Let's take a look at the Clintons' record, in particular the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, the 1994 Violent Crime Act, repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, and the support and passage of NAFTA and NAFTA-style trade agreements.

1996 Welfare Reform Act: Any consideration of Bill Clinton's impact on the black community must include the 1996 Welfare Reform Act that had been put forward by Republicans Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole as a cornerstone of the Republican Contract for America and signed into law by Clinton, fulfilling his 1992 campaign pledge to "end welfare as we know it."  

The bill ended the federal guarantee of cash assistance to the poor, limited welfare payments and turned welfare programs over to the states. Civil rights and women's groups strongly opposed this legislation, which has proved to be a disaster for poor people. Three of Clinton's assistant secretaries at the Department of Health and Human Services resigned to protest the law. According to one of them, Peter Edelman, the 1996 welfare reform law destroyed the safety net for poor people, increased poverty, lowered income for single mothers, put people into homeless shelters and left states free to eliminate welfare entirely.

Clinton's welfare reform did "not offer benefits sufficient to lift recipients out of poverty, and despite a strong economy, the majority of families who have moved off the [welfare] rolls have remained in poverty," according to the book Success Stories, by Joe Soss. Jason DeParle of the New York Times, after interviews with single mothers, said that they have been left without means to survive, and have turned to desperate and sometimes illegal ways to survive, including shoplifting, selling blood, scavenging trash bins, moving in with friends, and returning to violent domestic partners.

Feminist critics such as Barbara Ehrenreich said Clinton's welfare reform was motivated by racism and misogyny, using stereotypes of "endlessly fecund" African-American welfare recipients.

On the face of it, devolving welfare programs to the states was racially neutral, but it didn't work out that way. Joe Soss, who co-wrote the book, Disciplining the Poor: Neoliberal Paternalism and the Persistent Power of Race, explains how race became the defining characteristic of Clinton's welfare reform:

[P]eople had become so focused on racial issues that race really drove the patterning....[A]ll of the states with more African-Americans on the welfare rolls chose tougher rules.  And when you add those different rules up, what we found was that even though the Civil Act prevents the government from creating different programs for black and white recipients, when states choose according to this pattern, it ends up that large numbers of African Americans get concentrated in the states with the toughest rules, and large numbers of white recipients get concentrated in the states with the more lenient rules.

So state freedom to make these different choices became the mechanism for recreating a racially biased system across the states, where the toughness of the rules you confronted really on your racial characteristics.

Despite the human costs of welfare reform, Bill Clinton is still bragging about knocking people off welfare and Hillary has neither repudiated nor disavowed the 1996 Clinton welfare legislation, which has been a catastrophe for the black community. Hillary Clinton not only supported the 1996 legislation, but as recently as her 2008 presidential campaign, publicly supported it, expressing no regret about how it turned out and telling the New York Times she thought the act was necessary and enormously successful.

1994 Violent Crime Control Act: Another Bill Clinton legacy that has had catastrophic impacts on the black community is the 1994 Violent Crime Control Act, which, among other things, expanded the death penalty, provided funds to hire 100,000 more police, imposed tougher prison sentences, eliminated funds for inmate education and provided money to build extra prisons. Clinton, who had a history of pandering to racist, anti-crime sentiments (witness his 1992 flight back to Arkansas to personally oversee the execution of a mentally retarded African-American murderer which helped his poll numbers in the New Hampshire primary), pandered to tough-on-crime voters and described the Violent Crime Control Act in stark terms: "Gangs and drugs have taken over our streets and undermined our schools," he said. "Every day we read about somebody else who has literally gotten away with murder."

Bill Clinton wasn't the only one using tough language to sell this tough crime bill; Hillary, in selling this punitive bill to the public, added her own red-meat rhetoric, calling kids in gangs "super-predators" without conscience or empathy:

"[W]e also have to have an organized effort against gangs, just as in the previous generation we had an organized effort against the mob. We need to take these people on. They are often connected to drug cartels. They are not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called 'super-predators.' No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about how they got that way but first we have to bring them to heel...."

As a result of this legislation, 28 states and the District of Columbia followed the federal money and enacted stricter sentencing laws and built more prisons. Jeremy Travis, a former member of the Clinton Justice Department and now president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says there was a basic problem with the Clinton crime legislation: There is only a small relationship between high levels of imprisonment and lower crime rates. "We know with the fullness of time that we made some terrible mistakes," Travis has said. "And those mistakes were to ramp up the use of prison. And that big mistake is the one that we now, 20 years later, come to grips with. We have to look in the mirror and say, 'look what we have done.'"

What we have done is incarcerate a lot of minorities. There are more than 2.3 million people in U.S. state and federal prisons and nearly one million are black men. "If you're a black baby born today, you have a 1 in 3 chance of spending some time in prison or jail," says Nick Turner of the Vera Institute. "If you're Latino, it's a 1 in 6 chance. And if you're white, it's 1 in 17....[C]oming to terms with these disparities and reversing a matter of fairness and justice."  

When we speak about justice and fairness, we need to consider not just the prisoners, but the families who are devastated by the imprisonment of a parent and the stigma and loss of job opportunities that endure forever. And when people are in prison, they are not earning pensions or building Social Security accounts, so their futures are permanently diminished.

Recently, the New York Times published an article about the disappearance of 1.5 million black men from daily American life. The reasons were premature death, foreign military deployments and prison.

The 1994 Clinton Crime bill has been a huge failure, at great cost to the black community, as well as many state budgets, and there has been a big public policy debate shift away from excessive incarceration policies. Even the arch-conservative Koch brothers and some Senate Republicans like Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio are promoting a re-evaluation of incarceration policies.

To Bill and Hillary's credit, they have acknowledged some of the damage their policies caused. In her meeting with three members of the Black Lives Matter movement, Hillary Clinton tried to explain her policy reversals as the result of different times demanding different policies. Yet the over-reliance on incarceration, particularly for non-violent crimes, made no sense in 1994, and it is equally bad policy today.

The 1994 Act spawned the "era of mass incarceration" that Hillary now questions. The Act supported "truth in sentencing" laws that dramatically increased the amount of time criminals served and over the course of the Clinton presidency, the number of Americans in prison rose an astounding 60 percent. This might have been justified if it led to large reductions of crime, but very little crime reduction is caused by mass incarceration. The Brennan Center for Justice, after spending two years studying 14 different causes of the reduction of crime, concluded that "incarceration was responsible for approximately five percent of the drop in crime in the 1990s" and an even lower percentage since then.

Hillary deserves credit for rethinking the damage the Clinton crime bill caused, but how much credit should that be, since she is now moving on this issue with a herd that includes right-wing Republicans and arch-conservatives like the Koch brothers? Her change of position does not help the millions of people, including hundreds of thousands of African Americans, whose lives were devastated by the hysteria for mass incarceration.

Repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act: After the 1920-'21 Depression, the United States began the decade known as the Roaring Twenties, characterized by new forms of consumer credit and bank expansion. Banks sold securities side-by-side with traditional bank services like loans and deposits. The stock market boomed and reached bubble territory and along with the bubble came market manipulation in which banks and other financial entities would hype the value of stocks, then dump them on less-informed buyers right before the stocks collapsed. Banks offered holding company stocks, many of which were little more than heavily leveraged pyramid schemes backed by dubious assets as prudent investments.

In October 1929, the bubble burst, the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began. In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president and in 1933, a Democratic Congress passed the Glass-Steagall Act in response to bank abuses. Because of Glass-Steagall, banks were prohibited from engaging in banking and investing activities simultaneously. Banks could take deposits and make loans. Brokers could underwrite and sell securities, but no firm could do both due to conflicts of interest and risks to insured deposits. From 1933 to 1999, the system worked well. There were very few large bank failures and no large financial collapses.

In 1999, Democrats led by President Bill Clinton and his Wall Street supporters and joined by Republican Senator Phil Gramm, succeeded in repealing Glass-Steagall at the urging of the big Wall Street banks. As they did in the Roaring Twenties, banks began to originate fraudulent loans and sold securities backed by toxic, worthless assets, to their customers, often while simultaneously "shorting" or betting against the same securities themselves. The bubble peaked in 2007 and collapsed in 2008, causing Wall Street to run to Presidents Bush and Obama and Congress for a financial bail-out, which ultimately cost the federal government $1 trillion in cash and $11 trillion in guarantees. Millions of people lost their homes in foreclosure, unemployment spiked, the average American family lost 40 percent of its net worth and 52 percent of black families and 47 percent of Latino families were left with zero net worth. 

Joseph Stiglitz, a Noble Prize-winning American economist has written: 

Commercial banks are not supposed to be high-risk ventures; they are supposed to manage other people’s money very conservatively…Investment banks, on the other hand, have traditionally managed rich people’s money — people who can take bigger risks in order to get bigger returns.

When repeal of Glass-Steagall brought investment and commercial banks together, the investment-bank culture came out on top. There was a demand for the kind of high returns that could be obtained only through high leverage and big risk-taking.

Although American taxpayers bailed out the banks, Wall Street, with the support of President Obama, vigorously and successfully fought the re-institution of Glass-Steagall and the United States today remains just as vulnerable today to bank speculation and financial melt-down as it was in 2007.  

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have called for the re-legislation of Glass-Steagall; by contrast, a spokesperson for Hillary Clinton recently said she did not support legislation reinstating Glass-Steagall rules. The banks remain free to run wild, while the U.S. economy continues to limp along, apparently with Clinton's approval. 

NAFTA: In 1993, President Clinton strongly lobbied for and passed NAFTA, which he and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce promised would create an export boom with Mexico that would create 200,000 high-paying jobs in America within two years and millions of jobs within five years. Instead, trade deficits with Mexico eliminated 682,000 good-paying jobs in the United States, 61 percent of which were manufacturing jobs, many held by African Americans.  

When China entered the World Trade Organization in 2001, according to Robert Scott, director of Trade and Manufacturing Policy Research at the Economic Policy Institute, black workers lost 281,000 high-paying manufacturing jobs from 2001-'11 and tens of billions in wages. The U.S. trade deficit with China is $318 billion per year and Celeste Drake, globalization policy specialist for the AFL-CIO, has written that, "The displacement of manufacturing jobs by growing U.S. trade deficits with China has been particularly hard on minority workers: 958,800 were displaced, with wage-related losses in 2011 of $10,485 per worker and $10.1 billion overall."  

The NAFTA-style trade agreement with Korea (KORUS) has resulted in the net loss of 75,000 jobs for African Americans and other workers, U.S. imports from Korea surged to more than $12 billion, while U.S. imports to Korea increased by less than $1 billion, said Robert Scott.

Once African Americans and other non-white workers lose their jobs, they have a difficult time finding new ones, wrote author Lori Keltzer in the book Job Loss from Imports: Measuring the Costs. "Minority workers face reemployment rates almost 11 percentage points lower than white workers," Keltzer wrote. "For less skilled manufacturing workers, the male minority's employment rate is 20 percent lower than the average. Female minority's reemployment rate is 24 percent lower."

NAFTA  and NAFTA-style trade agreements have been described as a "little discussed triple whammy in the black community that has hit black Americans financially hard over the past two decades," wrote Frederick H. Lowe in, "Will the proposed trade agreement be another bad deal for black workers?"

You can thank Bill Clinton for NAFTA. But the story of bad trade deals is not over. In fact, the worst may be yet-to-come — the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which has been described by the AFL-CIO as "NAFTA on steroids."

The TPP, which has been negotiated in secret, involves the U.S., Japan, Canada, Australia, Mexico, Malaysia, Singapore, Chile, Peru, New Zealand, Vietnam and Brunei — almost 40 percent of the world economy. If passed, it would reduce tariffs and allow capital to move more freely among these nations. NAFTA and other NAFTA-style agreements have encouraged capital to flee to the lowest-wage countries, a "race to the bottom," wrote William Greider in his seminal work on globalization, One World, Ready or Not.  

If the TPP passes, the race not only will accelerate to the great profit of U.S. corporations, which already are sitting on $2+ trillion of retained earnings they have not repatriated to the U.S. or paid U.S. taxes on, but it will further gut the already-weak U.S. manufacturing base and further damage jobs for the black community. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have publicly opposed the TPP, while Hillary Clinton has refused to take an identifiable position on it. 

The Clinton administration, with policies Hillary Clinton supported at the time and in most respects still supports, pushed millions of African Americans off welfare; over-incarcerated hundreds of thousands of African Americans while devastating hundreds of thousands of black families and careers; supported Wall Street-friendly legislation that helped to melt down the economy, leaving millions homeless and 52 percent of black families with zero net worth; and promoted trade policies like NAFTA which cost African Americans hundreds of thousands of jobs and tens of billions in salaries and income. Is this the track record and set of policies African Americans and racial justice advocates really want to endorse for 2016?  

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