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News :: Politics
Did Black lives ever matter to the Democrats?
30 Jul 2015
some important lessons of history about the Democratic Party and the struggle against racism and injustice.
H. Clinton 33.jpg
July 29, 2015

PROTESTS AGAINST racist police murder--from Mike Brown in Missouri a year ago to Sandra Bland in Texas just weeks ago--have helped sound the alarm about the systematic abuse and violence that Black Americas face at the hands of law enforcement on a day-to-day basis.

But not everyone has been listening.

Bernie Sanders, the self-identified socialist senator from Vermont and candidate for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, demonstrated as much at the liberal Netroots Nation conference, a showcase for progressive Democrats held in Phoenix in July.

When confronted by Black Lives Matters protesters who wanted the presidential campaigns to begin addressing the issue of racism and police brutality, Sanders kept right on talking--acting as if the activists were hecklers.

This was an opportunity for Sanders--who took part in civil rights protests against segregation in the 1960s, but has yet to say much about racism during his Democratic primary campaign half a century later--to finally address the concerns and questions of African Americans and anti-racists. Instead, Sanders stuck to his script.

The protest at least seems to have made an impression on Sanders. A few days later, he made a statement about Sandra Bland, the Black woman who died in custody in a Texas jail, where she was held for three days after her brutal arrest for a minor traffic violation, which was caught on video. "This video highlights once again why we need real police reform," Sanders said. "People should not die for a minor traffic infraction."

The Sanders affair illustrates a lesson that anti-racists should keep in mind: Racism may be one of the most important issues in American society, but it won't take its proper place at center stage in the 2016 election because the Democratic Party candidates put it there. It will be because activists forced them to take it up.

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ANOTHER LESSON from the early days of the Democratic primary season: Talk is cheap.

After Sanders was confronted in Phoenix, Hillary Clinton's handlers were quick to make sure she didn't make the same mistake she did a month before at an appearance at a Black church near Ferguson when she proclaimed, "All lives matter"--an insult to Black Lives Matter activists who have worked so hard to put the epidemic of racist violence against African Americans in the spotlight.

Clinton sought to cast herself as more engaged on race issues than Sanders, telling a Washington Post reporter, "We need to acknowledge some hard truths about race and justice in this country, and one of those hard truths is that racial inequality is not merely a symptom of economic inequality. Black people across America still experience racism every day."

But no matter what Hillary Clinton says about racism in America today, what she actually represents can be found in the record of Democratic Party and its decades of taking Black supporters for granted while never making good on its promises.

The Democratic Party's problem goes deeper than just being out of touch with the concerns of Black America today. The party has no interest in waging a struggle for racial equality, and it never has.

A look at President Bill Clinton's record on issues that impact Black America reveals just how little the Democrats have done in exchange for the overwhelming support they get from African Americans at every election. In fact, Clinton--hailed as the "first Black president" by novelist Toni Morrison--made everyday life for Blacks significantly worse.

Provisions in the two Clinton-era crime bills--which Hillary Clinton actively campaigned for--put more cops on the street and enforced tougher mandatory sentencing for nonviolent offenses like drug possession, among other things. This kicked the era of mass incarceration, as author Michelle Alexander calls it, into high gear. Larger and larger numbers of poor and working-class people, disproportionately Black and Brown, found themselves under the control of the criminal justice system.

"Democrats began competing with Republicans to prove that they could be even tougher on the dark-skinned pariahs," Alexander wrote in 2010. "In President Bill Clinton's boastful words, 'I can be nicked a lot, but no one can say I'm soft on crime.' The facts bear him out. Clinton's 'tough on crime' policies resulted in the largest increase in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history."

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THE CLINTON administration capitalized on racialized hysteria about crime to push the crime bills, but it also exploited stereotypes to rationalize gutting government spending on social services, like welfare. Using rhetoric about "personal responsibility," Clinton got legislation passed that imposed strict time limits and work rules on welfare recipients--and threw untold numbers of poor people off the rolls.

Similarly, when the right wing went on the attack against affirmative action programs intended to level the playing field for minorities and women in hiring and college admissions, Clinton "defended" affirmative action with the slogan "mend it, don't end it"--and claimed that programs which produced "reverse discrimination" had to be ended.

In fact, the problem wasn't that affirmative action had gone too far, as the Clinton administration claimed, but it hadn't gone far enough. Predictably, affirmative action programs were decimated during the Clinton years, and Black college enrollment plummeted at universities where the programs were banned.

This didn't stop Clinton from posing as a "racial healer" in his second term--though, once again, the reality proved that talk is cheap. His Presidential Initiative on Race initiated little in the form of concrete proposals. As Philip Klinkner put it in an essay for the book Without Justice for All, it "provided an ineffective but benign way for Clinton to play the role of therapist in chief."

Rather than putting forward policies to deal with racial discrimination, Klinkner wrote:

the initiative allowed Clinton a low-cost way to create the impression of concern and action. Yet the costs may not be so low. At worst, the president's race initiative offered a distraction from the fact that he, the Democratic Party and the nation in general have sounded an end to the modern era of civil rights reform.

Clinton repeated in speech after speech that the answer to racial discrimination was in our "hearts," not in government intervention--effectively placing the blame on individuals and their views, not the systemic racism running through U.S. institutions, from the police to the courts to schools and housing.

The policies of the Clinton administration and the "New Democrats" were widely viewed as an attempt to shift the party away from traditional bases of support--or, in conservative-speak, "special interests"--such as African Americans, women, immigrants and union members.

In the process, Democratic politicians helped shred many of the programs and policies that, over the previous century, had won mass Black support for the one-time party of slavery. From proudly championing the New Deal reforms of the 1930s and civil rights legislation of the 1960s, Democratic leaders now talked about putting welfare recipients to work and a "post-racial" America.

But the Democrats never lost Black support in any significant way, since the Republicans alternative always looked much worse.

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ONE MORE lesson from history: Neither the New Deal nor the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were the product of Democratic politicians in power. They were won through masses of people organizing and struggling--demanding change during unemployed marches and sit-downs strikes, at lunch-counter sit-ins and bus boycotts.

That explains why the current Democrat occupying the White House has accomplished so little on the issue of race.

The election of the first Black president in a country founded on slavery was a real advance. But over the last seven years, Obama's administration has done precious little to improve the lives of working people, and Blacks in particular. The Democrats controlled both the White House and Congress in Obama's first two years in office, and they failed to use the opportunity to enact meaningful change of any kind.

Now that Obama is entering his final time in office--and faced with a Republican majority in Congress guaranteed to obstruct anything he proposes--the president is finally talking more about issues like mass incarceration and mandatory minimum sentences.

That's a testament to the power of protest to affect the mainstream political discussion. But it's also a testament to the true nature of the Democratic Party that Obama waited to speak out until it was too late to do anything about it.

Anti-racists have to continue organizing to make their demands heard, even when the pressure is on at election time to let the Democrats off the hook. The Black revolutionary Malcolm X had it right in a 1964 speech. "You put them first," he said, "and they put you last."
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