2008 Presidential Election, Race and Racism
Professor Vernellia Randall
Speaking Truth to Power!

Hillary, African Americans & The Myth of Bill Clinton


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Cassandra R Veney


The last couple of weeks were filled with excitement and euphoria, disappointment, bitterness, and frustration on the part of some African Americans after Barack Obama came in first in the Iowa caucuses, but lost to Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire primary. Determined to win more primaries and to get the Democratic nomination for the 2008 presidential elections, the knives were sharpened, the gloves came off, and both Hillary Clinton and former president Bill Clinton went on the attack. The net was cast widely as it went beyond Obama to include disparaging comments about Nelson Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Many African Americans including civil rights leaders, politicians, media personalities, and ordinary citizens were outraged and shocked while others were not. They included everyday Africans Americans and even Bob Johnson—the founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET) and whose company RLJ owns the Charlotte Bobcats. Why were some African Americans caught off guard by Bill Clinton's behavior and comments as if he had suddenly turned against the African American community? Why did some African Americans believe that Clinton did nothing wrong and that his comments were fair—after all he was the first 'Black' president, was good for Black people, and was an FOB (Friend of Blacks)? This is because there is myth around Bill Clinton concerning his love affair with Black America. There was never a love affair and if one existed, it was one-sided. African Americans loved him while he fervently worked to make the lives of working class and poor African Americans a living hell. However, it was not just the lives of the descendents of the four million slaves who were affected by Clinton's wrath. Africans, West Indians, Latin Americans, and South Americans who were also a part of the African diaspora in this country were also affected—citizen, non-citizen, documented, and undocumented. Clinton's reach was long and he reached out and touched the lives of millions of Africans on the continent. Unfortunately, the effects of his negative actions are still with them as I write this blog.

Let me begin to unravel and dismantle the myth that Bill Clinton was good for and to African Americans by addressing his domestic record. First, an analysis of welfare reform is needed because not only did it adversely affect a lot of African Americans, it had a disproportionate negative effect on African American women who according to lawmakers and the media, would be the main beneficiaries of welfare reform. I clearly remember the day in 1996 when Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act on the White House lawn because the scenario was so racist. Clinton smiled widely as he signed the legislation, took questions from the media, and praised Congress for passing such an important and historic piece of legislation while two large African American women stood by his side. Although white women made up a larger share of the welfare rolls, the media, politicians, and white Americans were convinced that African American women followed by Latinas were the main recipients of welfare and this merely reinforced the stereotype. Therefore, the legislation was overdue; these women needed to stop having children out of wedlock for the taxpayer to support and they needed to join the workforce. Clinton's policy was a long way from the Great Society and War on Poverty programs associated with President Lyndon Johnson who according to Hillary Clinton was responsible for passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Clinton's policy was workfare and not welfare.

The welfare reform legislation was part and parcel of a neo-liberal economic agenda that called for a retrenchment of the state from its social welfare responsibilities. We often read, write, and talk about the rolling back of the African state as a result of structural adjustment programs (SAPs) superimposed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, but we do not situate these same policies within the context of the United States and its poor and working classes. The federal government has offloaded and downloaded a number of social responsibilities to the states including some very important welfare programs as a result of the 1996 welfare reform legislation. The legislation called for a drastic reduction in the welfare rolls and states were responsible for kicking off as many people as they could through their efforts to move people from welfare to workfare. African American women and others on welfare now had the options of working, attending school, or getting off welfare and they were given time limits depending on where they lived. Some women were given more time if they had children under a certain age or they suffered from disabilities and illnesses, but the bottom line was that the cycle of welfare dependency would no longer pass from one generation to the next. The results were mixed. There were some African American women who received educational and vocational training that allowed them to find gainful employment and to take care of themselves and their families. However, many women were not so fortunate. They were trapped in a never-ending cycle of dead-end, low paying jobs often in the service sector away from their places of residence with very few benefits including health and childcare. They ended up in a lose-lose situation. Once they began to work and to earn an income, they ran the risk of losing some of their benefits. At the same time, the jobs did not pay enough to cover transportation to work as they jobs were often located in suburban areas away from urban centers. If the women resided in rural or small towns, the jobs often required having a car and some women could not afford to purchase and maintain one. To makes matters worst, under the new legislation, women did not qualify for some benefits once they began to earn a certain income. Finally, some women were caught between the devil and the deep blue sea concerning childcare. They were forced to work or to attend school, but some of them did not have adequate childcare or they could not afford to pay for it. Women traveled long distances to work at this minimum wage jobs with few or no benefits while their children were often left alone, with older siblings, neighbors, or relatives. These jobs were not always nine to five. These were the hospital, nursing home, restaurant, Wal-Mart jobs where women often worked the night and overnight shifts.

Again, both citizens and non-citizens were affected by welfare reform policies. Initially, the legislation denied federal welfare benefits to legal permanent residents. These benefits included Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI), food stamps, Medicaid, child health insurance, public housing, and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). After much outcry from immigration advocacy groups, Congress lessened the draconian policy, but the damage had already been done. Many African and Black immigrants, especially single women, women with children, children, the elderly, and the physically challenged found it difficult to survive without these benefits. Those who were undocumented were not entitled to receive any benefits under the new legislation. Although the media portrays the undocumented as "illegal aliens" from Mexico, the reality is quite different. There were thousands of undocumented men and women from various African countries, the Caribbean, Latin America, and South American who were Black. If this constituted friendship on the part of Clinton, both citizen and non-citizen Black people did not need enemies. In reality, all poor and working class people regardless of their race and ethnicity who depended on welfare in any form now had to fend for themselves as Clinton's policies moved more and more to the right.

Clinton signed into law another two bills in 1996 that did not bode well for African immigrants and immigrants from the diaspora—the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) and the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act that resulted in thousands of individuals being detained and finally deported. In the war on crime, that was often associated with the Republicans and not the very progressive Democratic Clinton, this act expanded the categories of aggravated assaults. As a result, documented immigrants even permanent legal residents or "green card" holders were automatically detained and some were deported after being convicted and sentenced for crimes that included shoplifting, drunk driving, vandalism, assault, and selling marijuana. Some of the convictions did not result in a prison or jail sentence. To add insult to injury, the law was retroactive which meant that individuals who committed crimes years ago that were not considered aggravated felonies at the time, completed their sentences or served no jail time due to suspended sentences, did community service or completed their time on probation were still detained and deported. This meant that hundreds of Jamaicans, Trinidadians, Haitians, Guyanese, Brazilians, Nigerians, and Ghanaians were removed, oftentimes permanently, from this country. Many of them grew up in the United States, had relatives and children here, and did not had familial and cultural ties to those countries where they were deported. These ties to the community were not taken into consideration when the orders of deportation were issued. In other words, the effects of the deportation on children, spouses, and other family members had no weight in the decision to deport. Many children were separated from their parents; marriages did not survive the separation; some of the deportees lost property and businesses while the parents and relatives who remained here struggled to meet the needs of the family.

The legislation also violated the human rights of asylum seekers who were increasingly turned away at airports and other ports of entry if the government believed that they entered the country with falsified documents. They often were not given the opportunity to present their cases to an immigration judge, but rather, the legislation called for mandatory detention that lasted for months and years for some followed by expedited removals. As stated above, persons who were convicted of crimes were subjected to these actions, but what crime had the asylum seeker committed? While in detention, many women and men had their human rights violated by the state. Human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch, Women's Commission on Refugee Women and Children, and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights reported that detainees were sexually, physically, verbally, and psychologically abused. Again, with a friend like Bill Clinton who signed legislation to enact these policies, who needed enemies?

Although African Americans cannot be deported, they can be permanently removed from society or at least for long periods of time through the court system and Clinton saw to that with the enactment of mandatory minimum sentencing, three strikes, and truth in sentencing—all interconnected and intertwined with the war on crime and drugs. These also coincided with the reduction of the state in welfare expenditures and in increase in state and local funding for the construction of new prisons that fueled the prison industrial complex. There may not have been money for public schools, job training program, healthcare, and food, but there was money for prisons and jails. Again, these are associated with Reagan-Bush presidencies, but they were carried over and made harsher under the Clinton Administration. As the crack epidemic heated up in many African American communities throughout the United States, the arrests, convictions, and sentences for drug-related offenses increased. Under new drug sentencing laws, judges now had little discretion in the sentencing of drug offenders. The rates of African American men and women who were charged, convicted, and sentenced for drug offenses increased under the Clinton Administration as judges were given little discretion in sentencing due to strict, statutory federal sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum sentences for crimes that were committed three times. Similar to the situation of deportees, community ties and family relations should have been helpful in obtaining a reduced sentence or keeping the person out of prison. This was not the case even for women who were pregnant, had small children, or were responsible for other family members. States also adopted truth in sentencing (TIS) guidelines that gave way to the construction of more prisons. Prior to the enactment of TISs, parole boards could determine the actual amount of time one spent in jail. A convict could be released early for good behavior while in prison and placed on parole. This changed with the war on crime and drugs and now both violent and non-violent criminals including drug offenders must spend a larger proportion of their sentences behind bars and parole is often restricted. A federal TIS law passed during Clinton's administration in 1994 sweetened the pot for states to adopt truth in sentencing. They were now entitled to receive federal funding if convicted criminals served eighty-five percent of their sentences.

It is obvious that Clinton was not a friend of Black people nor was he good for Black people in the United States, but can a case to be made for Africa and Africans. Let us turn our attention toward Clinton's foreign policy with Africa by first discussing the Rwandan genocide. The Clinton administration was advised in 1993 that the conditions on the ground in Rwanda made genocide a real possibility. After a while in 1994, it was obvious that genocide was taking place in Rwanda according to the United Nations' definition of genocide—there was a concerted effort on the part of the Hutu-dominated government and its supporters to annihilate the Tutsi minority. Instead of the Clinton administration recognizing this fact and putting pressure on the international community to intervene and to place peacekeepers in the country, it refused to recognize it as such. Rather, Madeleine Albright, whom we saw standing behind Hillary Clinton after the Iowa caucuses, argued against this. She was the Clinton administration's ambassador to the United Nations during the height of the genocide. Given the standing of the United States in the world and in the United Nations, the recognition of the killings as genocide may have helped to stop the bloodletting earlier. However, the recognition of genocide means that the United States was obligated to intervene and it did not believe this small, land-locked, resource-poor country was worth the effort and sacrifice by its military or other countries' military. This was demonstrated when the United States pushed in the United Nations Security Council to reduce the amount of peacekeeping troops from 2,500 to 250. This was before and not after the killings had stopped. A true friend of Africa and Africans would have done the opposite to ensure that additional innocent lives were not lost.

The next example of Nigeria may present a better case for the claim that Clinton is good for Black people regardless of where they live. We all knew that Nigeria exercised hegemony in West Africa and served as major supplier of oil to the United States during Clinton's two terms as president. However, it remains puzzling that the Clinton administration would turn blind eye or at least not open them widely to human rights violations carried out by the military government of Sani Abacha from 1993-1998. The stage was set for the execution of human rights violations following the annulment of the 1993 presidential elections. The apparent winner, Moshood K.O. Abiola, was quickly imprisoned where he remained until his death in 1998. Nigeria had had military governments before, but under Abacha, it was different in terms of all segments of the population who felt the brunt of his crackdowns on civil and political freedoms. Students, trade union members, journalists, lawyers, human rights activists, and ordinary Nigerians were imprisoned if they called for an end to military rule and for a transition to multi-party democratic elections. At best the convictions and executions of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other human rights and environmental activists in 1995 should have signaled to the Administration that something had gone terribly awry concerning the human rights situation in Nigeria. Many within the African American community, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) strongly urged Clinton to take strong actions against the Abacha regime including economic sanctions. Their voices fell on death ears. The Administration used very mild weapons in its diplomatic arsenal. It was clearly not willing to pull out the big gun—an economic embargo that would have hit the Nigerian government and U.S. oil companies where it would have hurt—in their pocketbooks and wallets. If tougher sanctions including an economic embargo had been used against Nigeria, they would have illustrated that Clinton was serious about human rights violations in that country and the lives of Nigerians were worth protecting. In other words, Clinton had the opportunity to prove that he was a friend of millions of Black people and not just the ones in the United States.

The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) also exposes the myth of Bill Clinton. Clinton pushed for and signed this bill into law in 2000. As stated above, one of Clinton's domestic policies was to transform welfare to workfare. In terms of Africa, his policy was to move from aid to trade as if the U.S. government ever gave a large percentage of its foreign assistance budget to Africa. It appeared to have a welfare to workfare ring to it. African governments would no longer be able to sit on the dole and collect aid; they would now have to work to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and earn their assistance. The Administration argued that the legislation would put Africa on a more level economic playing field with the United States. African governments with the exception of North African (they were excluded from participating) that met the conditions set forth by the legislation would be able to participate in certain trade areas with the United States—mainly the textile and apparel industries. However, the conditions were stringent and on its face the legislation appeared to be an American version of structural adjustment programs. In order to participate, the legislation required African governments to basically open their economies to free trade with the United States. It required African governments to expand and improve their infrastructure to allow huge companies such as the Gap and Levi Strauss to operate. The legislation also required African government to recognize workers' rights, uphold the rule of law, recognize human rights, reduce poverty and corruption, and to help the U.S. government in its fight against global terrorism. If this legislation was an indication of how Bill Clinton felt about Africans, he turned out to be no friend at all. This legislation called for the president to decide what countries were eligible to participate and under what conditions. It was condescending to say the least. It did not put these countries on an equal footing with the United States if they had very little or any input in terms of eligibility to participate, beneficiaries, and what sectors were included. It was an excuse to claim that the Administration had strong ties to the continent and was committed to helping Africa to achieve economic, political, and social development. In reality, Africa's significance and importance to the United States underwent few changes for the better.

From Bill Clinton's domestic policies on welfare reform and the war on crime, drugs, and terrorism, it is obvious that he was bad for a lot of Black people regardless of their citizenship and immigration status. Clinton's most damaging policies that affected Black people occurred before his troubles with Monica Lewinsky. After they were revealed, all segments of the American public were preoccupied with Clinton's moral misbehavior while in office to the extent that they did not pay particular attention to the interconnection between the war on crime, drugs, and terror and it contributed to the expanding prison industrial complex. There were many Black people both citizens and non-citizens who benefited economically during Clinton's eight years in the White House. However, for people who found themselves a victim of the retrenched state, especially African American women, they found it nearly impossible to advance economically as the state retreated from public education that used to serve as a standard vehicle for social and economic advancement. For those thousands of African Americans who found themselves caught up in the war against drugs in various ways, Clinton could not have possibly been the first 'Black' president. African American women were involved when they were arrested, convicted, and sentenced for the sale and possession of drugs in increasingly larger numbers. They were separated from their children. Some of the children were turned over to the state to live with foster parents. Mothers, wives, sisters, grandmothers, etc. were involved when African American men and women went to prison as local, state and federal governments cracked down on drug sellers and offenders because they now had to be responsible for raising the children of the detained. There were many stories of grandmothers who had raised their own children and should have been enjoying their golden years in peace and quiet who struggled to take care of their grandchildren whose mother or father was in prison. Some of them still worked while others lived on a fixed income that was not sufficient to cover the expenses of children and teenagers. We also know that there was a class dimension to the new prison population. They were disproportionately poor, did not have a college degree, and were unemployed at the time of their arrest for drug-related offenses. In terms of drug users, their behavior was attributed to a flaw in their character—they were too weak to resist the temptation. There was very little discussion on the part of lawmakers and policymakers concerning the fact that drug addiction is a medical condition regardless of the drug of choice and its legality. Middle class and upper middle class people who had drug addictions could afford to quietly check themselves into treatment and detoxification centers while African American drug users publicly checked into jails and prisons where there were no funds to treat their illnesses. As new mandatory federal sentencing laws went into effect, both African American men and women could not have seen Clinton as a friend to Black people. This was evident in the different sentencing laws for crack cocaine and cocaine. It was an open secret that African Americans used and sold more crack cocaine than cocaine because it was cheaper. Instead of crafting federal sentencing laws that gave equal punishment for the sale and use of both drugs, they were made harsher for crack cocaine. Following the federal government's lead, many states adopted similar mandatory sentencing laws. To make matters worse, the federal sentencing guidelines did not take into consideration that the women often had children and the drug offenders were responsible for their welfare. These laws have shaken many African Americans communities and families to their core and some may never recover.

In sum, the myth that Clinton was good to and good for African Americans needs to be dismantled and placed on the dustbins of history but not before the 2008 primary elections. With a record like Bill Clinton's, he truly is an albatross around Hillary Clinton's neck. If Hillary Clinton (who stood by her man) is using her eight years as First Lady in the White House as part of her experience and this is an indication of her civil rights record, African Americans need to think long and hard before casting their votes for her. Still more alarming is the fact that she was chairwoman of the Children's Defense Fund and has touted her work with this organization for years. It seems like such a contradiction. She argued that she defended the rights of children and that it took a village to raise a child. I suppose it does when parents were put in prison, parole was made more restrictive, kicked off welfare, and as a last resort to rid the country of its undesirables, deported.


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