His policies of the ’90s are losing her black support today
June 16, 2016 12:00 AM
Hillary and Bill Clinton
By Robert Hill
In the days when William Jefferson Clinton was the “first black president,” a love affair between the Clintons and the African-American community had been ignited. Favorably disposed toward the Democratic Party since the first presidential candidacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, black Americans have parted company with Bill and Hillary Clinton only rarely in presidential and Senate primaries and in general elections. Of course, Barack Obama occasioned the biggest and most jarring of those interrupti.
The Clintons launched their ascendancy after the greatest gains of the mighty civil rights movement had been won. In the 21st century, the actual and spiritual offspring of the 20th-century nonviolent warriors, white and black, who made possible this domestic progress are emerging into leadership. With their fine Ivy League degrees and prestigious graduate and professional educations at distinguished private and public research universities that their elders obtained for them, some of the younger black intellectuals are parting with the Clintons as the Democratic presidential nomination war of 2016 builds to its anticlimactic conclusion at the Democratic convention in July.
While Democratic would-be spoiler Mr. Sanders, with the hoarseness befitting his advancing age, has spent the last few weeks berating delegate-rich opponent Hillary Clinton for her financial success in Wall Street speechifying, two ghosts of the more distant past are being stirred by 50-something and younger black intellectuals.
President Clinton’s 1990s welfare reform and crime laws are being disparagingly revisited this presidential election season. But they have not soured the Congressional Black Caucus on Ms. Clinton; led by 69-year-old B.K. Butterfield, it has endorsed her. Much younger caucus member Keith Ellison, 53, endorsed Mr. Sanders, however, and even more strongly did former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, 48, and former NAACP President Benjamin Jealous, 43. Forty-year old MacArthur Foundation “genius” Ta-Nehisi Coates declined to describe himself as a supporter of Mr. Sanders, but announced he would vote for the Vermont senator.
Writing in the Atlantic magazine last fall, even before Mr. Sanders was regarded as a serious threat to Ms. Clinton’s presidential candidacy, Mr. Coates detailed his analysis of the social, economic and familial devastation visited upon black America by the 1994 crime bill that Mr. Clinton signed into law.
Legal scholar Michelle Alexander, 48, also was tough on the candidate who would be the nation’s first woman president, with a February article in The Nation titled “Why Hillary Clinton Does Not Deserve to Be President.”
Here at home, political intellectual Michael Tillotson, a University of Pittsburgh Africana studies professor, does not exactly dismiss the Coates and Alexander arguments or their conclusions about the Clintons. He does believe, however, that he substantiated the case against the Clinton welfare reform program more solidly by anchoring it in meticulous research and scholarship in his 2011 book “Invisible Jim Crow: Contemporary Ideological Threats to the Internal Security of African-Americans.” And he can claim foresight and foreshadowing here, because his examination of the economic impact of Clinton policies on African-Americans began more than five years ago — before the current presidential political season was launched.
Mr. Tillotson sees little difference between the conservatives and the so-called liberals who embraced the dismantling of the federal role in protecting impoverished black children and their families by establishing block grants that allowed governors to control disbursements to the poor previously dispensed through the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, the decades-old federal safety net.
Invoking the voluminous pronouncements and writings of fellow Afrocentricity devotees, such as Temple University’s Molefi Asante, the founder of Afro-Centrism, and Temple’s Lewis Gordon, as well as many other distinguished researchers, Mr. Tillotson argues that the racist history of America enabled President Ronald Reagan to racialize public welfare in the 1980s. Mr. Reagan’s public denunciations of black women as archetypal “welfare queens,” the Pitt scholar notes, was designed to present to Americans a fake picture of disproportionate public assistance being synonymous with irresponsible single black women, and vice versa.
Enter President Clinton, who signed into law the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, because his “conservative ideological leanings urged him” to do so, Mr. Tillotson writes, thereby empowering “rogue states” — now free of federal supervision — to dole out support benefits in a fashion that has unfairly “led to disparities in allocations between white and black people.”
Not tying Mr. Clinton’s welfare-reform bill directly to Ms. Clinton’s presidential suitability — or lack thereof — Mr. Tillotson nonetheless declared to me, in a recent conversation about the interracial love affair between the former first lady and black voters, that her African-American constituents would fall out of love with her “if they read even the first two chapters of my book.”
As young Afro-intelligentsia deconstruct the Clintons, the bulk of black America returns to the jilted couple, Bill and Hillary, both chastened, even apologetic for the 1990s handling of welfare and crime, unable to retroactively unring the awful bell.
At the same time, Ms. Clinton does move forward with the endorsement of the most powerful 54-year-old on the planet, black intellectual-in-chief Barack Obama.
Robert Hill is a Pittsburgh-based communications consultant.
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