by Michelle Alexander
Bill Clinton says that he “almost” wants to apologize for his remarkable episode yesterday (Thursday, April 7) — you know, when he embraced long-debunked, racially coded “super-predator” rhetoric, compared Black Lives Matter protesters to Republicans and insisted that they support murderers, and blamed his crime bill on Black politicians.
Personally, I am not demanding an apology from Bill Clinton. Instead, I would like to say thank you. Thank you, Bill, for giving the nation a 10-minute tutorial on everything that was wrong – and apparently remains wrong – with the “New Democrats” and their approach to racial politics.
Unfortunately, much of the mainstream media seems to be buying – yet again – much of what Bill was selling yesterday. So to recap what should be obvious by now: Black politicians and activists were not asking for “get tough” measures and nothing else back in the 1990s.
Some Black politicians opposed the Clinton crime bill, and those who supported it weren’t seeking punishment and nothing more; they desperately wanted massive investment in jobs and schools so the young people trapped in communities where work had suddenly disappeared would have some hope of survival. It is a gross distortion to suggest that Black people wanted billions of dollars slashed from child welfare, housing and other public benefits in order to fund an unprecedented prison building boom.
It was Bill Clinton’s deliberate political strategy – one he championed along with the “New Democrats” – to appeal to white swing voters by being tougher on struggling Black communities than the Republicans had been, ramping up the drug war and gutting welfare. That strategy of “getting tough” while at the same time eviscerating the federal social safety net was NOT supported by many of the Black politicians he seeks to use as cover.
Rep. John Lewis – who Clinton referred to yesterday as the “last remaining hero of the civil rights movement” – fiercely opposed welfare reform, accurately predicting that it would thrust more than a million more kids into severe poverty.
John Lewis said back then: “How can any person of faith, of conscience, vote for a bill that puts a million more kids into poverty? What does it profit a great nation to conquer the world, only to lose its soul?”
The young people challenging Bill Clinton yesterday were asking these very same questions. You may not agree with their tactics, but they were, in their own way, fighting for the soul of the Democratic Party and American democracy itself. Whether our nation can be redeemed in the long run remains to be seen.
Michelle Alexander is the author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness“ (The New Press, 2010). The former director of the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU in Northern California, she also served as a law clerk to Justice Harry Blackmun on the U.S. Supreme Court. Currently, she holds a joint appointment with the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University.This story first appeared on her Facebook page.