Break the Silence: Hillary Clinton's Role in Decimating Black America

By Ellin Jimmerson

I will not ask you not to vote for Hillary Clinton.

In this most bizarre and troublesome of all American elections in which the stakes are both high and unpredictable, it would be foolish on my part. What I will ask Clinton supporters to do is look clearly at who she is. One can both vote for her and acknowledge the terrible damage she has inflicted on women and children both in the United States and abroad. Which is to say, she has inflicted terrible damage on human beings around the globe because, as she declared in Beijing in 1995, “human rights are women’s rights and women’s right are human rights, once and for all”.

It is contrary to the principles of better strains of feminism than Clinton has promoted to proclaim that breaking the glass ceiling is somehow a dazzling victory.

A strong strain of feminism in the 1960s, for example, included opposing the war. In 1965, following the example of Vietnamese Buddhist monks, after the United States began its B52 bombing mission in Vietnam, Holocaust survivor and founding member of Women’s Strike for Peace, Alice Herz, set herself on fire on a street corner in Detroit. She left behind a letter in which she challenged Americans to “decide if this world shall be a good place to live for all human beings or if it should blow itself up into oblivion”. While the words of the two feminists, Herz and Clinton, may appear to reveal similar world views, they are miles apart.

In Haiti, Honduras, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen, the United States and elsewhere, Clinton has undermined human rights which, as she said, necessarily are women’s rights.

Among the issues for which she needs to be held accountable in the United States are promoting the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Enforcement Act and the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act while she was First Lady.

During Bill Clinton’s bid for the presidency, Hillary Clinton famously claimed she would not stay home and bake cookies and host teas. And she did not. She supported and lobbied for the very policies that damaged Black people and poor people with the purpose of delivering political gain to Bill Clinton and the Democrat party.

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, 1994

Even the title is a dog whistle, i.e. coded language designed to appeal to white racial fears. But Hillary Clinton issued her own dog whistle when she depicted black children as vicious animals. “They are not just gangs of kids anymore,” she said. “They are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘super-predators.’ No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.”

The legislative package was the largest crime bill in the history of the United States. Among other things, it created 60 new death penalty offenses, eliminated higher education Pell Grants for inmates, instituted community oriented policing, and created “boot camps” for delinquent children. It provided for 100,000 new police officers and $9.7 billion in funding for prisons in a $30 billion crime package. And we know who filled those prisons – primarily Black men and poor people.

How was it paid for? In part by slashing billions of dollars from public housing and child welfare budgets and transferring that money to the mass incarceration behemoth. According to the University of California, Berkley’s sociologist Loïc Wacquant, the bill succeeded in “effectively making the construction of prisons the nation’s main housing program for the urban poor.” As a result, African-Americans now live “in the first prison society in history”.

Michelle Alexander, African American lawyer, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and new member of the faculty at Union Theological Seminary wrote “Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote” for The Nation. Clinton, she wrote, supported the bill which mandated the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity for crack versus powder cocaine, life sentences for 3-time offenders, mandatory minimums, severe restrictions on parole, and created dozens of new federal capital crimes.

Among the consequences: the jobless rate among Black men in their 20s without a college degree rose to the highest level ever, according to Alexander, and was accompanied by a skyrocketing incarceration rate which meant they were no longer counted among the poverty and unemployment statistics.

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act [PRWORA], 1996

This “reform” package savaged poor America by dismantling Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Liza Featherstone is the editor of False Choices: The Faux Feminism Of Hillary Rodham Clinton. She maintains that Clinton was “no mere bystander” to welfare reform. She advocated “harsher policies like ending traditional welfare” and “took credit” for pushing a welfare bill that would “monitor and punish women’s ‘poor parenting behavior’.” 

Clinton’s was a point of view that is both racist, because of the supposed racial profile of women on welfare, and offensively sexist in its suggestion that poor women need disciplining and punishment. So seemed the package to three Clinton administration officials at the Department of Health and Human Services who resigned in protest – Mary Jo Bane, Wendell Primus, and Peter Edelman.

The PRWORA instituted Temporary Assistance for Needy Families [TANF]. Most states required those who received assistance to accept the first job they were offered, regardless of the pay or working conditions. Most were low-paying, dirty, and short-term jobs which, in essence, were being assigned to women and poor people of color. TANF, again according to Featherstone, also nullified the counting of pursuing a four year college degree as a work-related activity which could aid in making women and poor people of color eligible for benefits. Thus, while in 1995, 649,000 student parents were receiving cash assistance while enrolled full-time in education programs, only 35,000 full-time students received TANF aid in 2004.

If this is not both institutional racism and institutional sexism, I don’t know what is.

As late as 2002, when Clinton was Senator, she continued to champion PRWORA, according to Alexander Marchevsky and Jeanne Theoharis. In yet another dog whistle statement, she referred to people who had been on welfare as “deadbeats” and exclaimed that because of PRWORA “they’re actually out there being productive.”

Yet, in 2011, sociologists Kathryn Edin of Johns Hopkins University and H. Luke Shaefer of the University of Michigan concluded that data on poor Americans showed a “sharp spike in families living in extreme poverty” between 1996 and 2011. They reported that approximately 20% of poor households with children, or about 1.46 million, were having to survive on $2.00 or less per person. They concluded that the growth in poverty was concentrated among those most affected by the 1996 welfare reform legislation, especially black families, but also among Latino and white families as well. Black families experienced a 183 percent increase during this period while Latinos experienced a 132 percent increase and whites a 100 percent increase.

That is structural racism by almost any definition.

As Marchevsky and Theoharis put it, Clinton “betrayed” poor people and women, consequently many of them are poorer than they were prior to PRWORA. The reformed welfare system “provides little safety net and no hand-up. Instead, it traps poor mothers into exploitative, poverty-wage jobs and dangerous personal situations, deters them from college, and contributes to the growing trend of poor mothers who can neither find a job nor access public assistance.”

Or, as Michelle Alexander concluded, “From the crime bill to welfare reform”, Bill and Hillary Clinton “decimated black America.” It is difficult, she writes, “to overstate the damage that’s been done. Generations have been lost to the prison system; countless families have been torn apart or rendered homeless; and a school-to-prison pipeline has been born that shuttles young people from their decrepit, underfunded schools to brand-new high-tech prisons.”

I am not especially interested in whether Hillary Clinton was or is “racist in her heart.” What I am interested in is whether in their dog whistling, purposes, and consequences, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Acts are aspects of violent structural racism and that she actively supported them.

Dismantling welfare, criminalizing poverty, and creating a mass incarceration state for African Americans in particular and others generally is not something I can simply overlook nor feel is somehow equalized by Hillary Clinton’s shattering of political glass ceilings for middle class women.

Ellin Jimmerson is an award-winning documentary film maker and an advocate for migrants in the US illegally or legally with an H2 guest worker visa. Her film, The Second Cooler, narrated by Martin Sheen, won three top awards in eight film festivals: Best Feature Documentary at Chicago's Peace on Earth Film Festival, the Film4Change award at the AMFM Film Festival in Palm Springs, California, and the Film Heals Award at the Manhattan Film Festival. She was Minister to the Community at Weatherly Heights Baptist Church in Huntsville, Alabama from 2006-2015 but resigned after she officiated at the first same sex wedding in Madison County, Alabama.

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