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The Clintons’ War on Drugs: When Black Lives Didn’t Matter

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

In August 2015, an uncomfortable encounter between Black Lives Matter (BLM) protestors and Hillary Clinton finally broke the silence of many mainstream press outlets on the Clintons’ shared responsibility for the disastrous policies of mass incarceration, and its catalyst, the War on Drugs. Although a number of prominent academics have written on the subject, little popular discussion of the racial impact of the Clintons’ crime and punishment policies emerged until the opening volleys of the 2016 presidential race.

A grainy cell phone video of the incident showed a handful of young BLM protestors confronting Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail in New Hampshire. After expressing her ardent feminism and pride in meeting a female presidential candidate, BLM’s Daunasia Yancey forcefully confronted Clinton about her shared culpability in America’s destructive War on Drugs: “You and your family have been personally and politically responsible for policies that have caused health and human services disasters in impoverished communities of color through the domestic and international War on Drugs that you championed as First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State.” Yancey continued, “And so I just want to know how you feel about your role in that violence, and how you plan to reverse it?”

Yancey’s question deftly turned Hillary’s use of her husband’s presidency as political qualification on its head: If her deep involvement in policy issues during her term as First Lady qualifies her for the presidency, then she could be held responsible for policies made during those years. The Clintons had used the concept of personal responsibility to shame poor blacks for their economic predicament. Indeed, Bill Clinton titled his notorious welfare to work legislation “The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996.” Yancey’s question forced the Democratic front-runner to accept personal responsibility for mass incarceration policies passed under Bill Clinton’s administration.

Hillary Clinton’s response to the activists was telling. She attributed the policies of mass incarceration and the War on Drugs to “the very real concerns” of communities of color and poor people, who faced a crime wave in the 1980s and 1990s. Echoing an argument that is gaining greater purchase in certain elite circles as the movement against racialized state violence and incarceration sweeps across the US, Clinton deflected the charge of anti-black animus back onto African Americans themselves. It is hard to interpret her explanation as anything more than self-serving revisionism. As I demonstrate in this essay, the rush to incarcerate was fueled by much less generous motives than the ones Clinton presents. With the Clintons at the helm of the “New Democrats,” their strident anti-crime policies, like their assault on welfare, reflected a cynical attempt to win back centrist white voters, especially those from Dixie and the South Central United States.

A true paradox lies at the heart of the Clinton legacy. Both Hillary and Bill continue to enjoy enormous popularity among African Americans despite the devastating legacy of a presidency that resulted in the impoverishment and incarceration of hundreds of thousands of poor and working-class black people. Most shockingly, the total numbers of state and federal inmates grew more rapidly under Bill Clinton than under any other president, including the notorious Republican drug warriors Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush. This fact alone should at least make one pause before granting unquestioning fealty to Hillary, but of course there are many others, including her entry into electoral politics through the 1964 Goldwater campaign, resolute support for the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, race-baiting tactics in the 2008 election, and close ties to lobbyists for the private prison industry. Nevertheless, until the encounter with BLM protestors in August 2015, few publicly called out the Clintons’ shared culpability for our contemporary prison nation that subjects a third of African American men to a form of correctional control in their lifetime.

The United States’s historically unprecedented carceral edifice of policing and prisons has been long in the making. However, in the 1990s the Clintons and their allies, as the quintessential “New Democrats,” played a crucial role in its expansion. Like their Republican predecessors, punishing America’s most vulnerable populations became an important means to repudiate the democratic upheaval of the postwar years that toppled statutory Jim Crow laws and challenged some of the most enduring social inequities of the U.S. In the three decades that followed the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the drug war and its companion legislation of welfare reform criminalized poor and working-class populations of color in huge numbers, subjecting many not only to the “carceral consequences” of voter disfranchisement but also to permanent exclusion from the legal economy.

While this is often understood as the quotidian cruelty of a brave neoliberal world, very specific political motives underlay policies of extreme cruelty and state sanctioned murder in the late twentieth century.

Although they are rarely mentioned in the same breath, the escalation of America’s drug war in the 1990s and the rise of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and its benighted son Bill Clinton are all intimately linked. Understanding why tough on crime policies and welfare reform became so foundational to the vision of the New Democrats requires a look at the sensibilities that undergirded their strategy for regaining the White House and national power. As the Democratic Party reinvented itself in the aftermath of Ronald Reagan’s sweeping electoral victory in 1984, Al From, an aide of Louisiana Representative Gilles Long with abiding ties to big business, Governors Bruce Babbitt (Arizona) and Charles Robb (Virginia) came together with Florida Senator Lawton Chiles and congressional representatives Richard Gephardt (Missouri), Sam Nunn (Georgia), and James R. Jones (Oklahoma) to launch the DLC in February 1985. The DLC’s coterie of conservative and centrist politicians, who hailed overwhelmingly from citadels of white discontent in the Sunbelt and Midwest, sought to wrest the party away from its alleged liberal dominance.

In terms of structural changes, they targeted the 1968 reforms implemented to the Democratic Party’s nomination process establishing interest group-based organization. By 1982 the Democratic National Committee (DNC) recognized seven different intraparty caucuses modeled on specific demographics, including “women, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, gays, liberals and business/professionals.” The DLC founders wanted to abandon this pluralistic party base, elevate the power of national elected officials, and pursue stronger ties with wealthy corporate donors.

To diagnose the precise causes behind the Democrats’ catastrophic loss of every state in the Union to Ronald Reagan in 1984, with the exception of Walter Mondale’s home state of Minnesota, the DNC sponsored several research surveys, including one that has been estimated, at that time, to be the most expensive study commissioned in its history. Chair Paul Kirk paid survey researchers Milton Kotler and Nelson Rosenbaum a quarter of a million dollars to conduct a massive survey of 5,000 voters. In focus groups, whites from the south and northern ethnic enclaves described the Democratic Party as the “give away party, giving white tax money to blacks and poor people.” As political scientist Robert Smith has argued, the explicit racist content of Kotler and Rosenbaum’s report proved so embarrassing to Kirk that he suppressed its release and had nearly all of the existing copies destroyed. Nevertheless, the findings made their way into DLC party policy as New Democrat fellow travelers like Thomas and Mary Edsall and Harry McPherson made similar, if more carefully veiled, arguments. McPherson, a former member of the Johnson administration, published a November 1988 op-ed essay in The New York Times entitled simply “How Race Destroyed the Democrat’s Coalition.”

At the core of this anger about the shift in the Democratic Party was not just “race” as an abstraction, which too often functioned as a polite euphemism, but rather black people themselves. Another DNC commissioned study by Stanley Greenberg, who subsequently became a pollster for Clinton in 1992, cited data from Macomb County, a suburb of Detroit, to make this point even more explicitly. “These white Democratic defectors express a profound distaste for blacks, a sentiment that pervades almost everything they think about government and politics,” explained Greenberg. “Blacks constitute the explanation for their [white defectors] vulnerability and or almost everything that has gone wrong in their lives, not being black is what constitutes being middle class, not being black is what makes a neighborhood a decent place to live.”

Bolstered with polling data and the crisis of the Reagan landslide, the New Democrats searched for ways to aggressively distance themselves from “blacks” and to entice resentful white swing voters back into the fold. To do this, the New Democrats appropriated hot button issues from the Republican Party, later deemed “dog whistle politics,” that invoked the specter of blackness without directly naming it. While the turn from welfare to work and personal responsibility is often discussed in this respect, equally important is the extensive role played by Bill Clinton and his allies in vastly expanding carceral policies, including the War on Drugs, the federal death penalty, and national funding for policing and prisons in the years after the Reagan and Bush presidencies.

Associated with the DLC’s early stirrings, Bill Clinton did not become integrally involved until after Michael Dukakis’s presidential defeat in 1988. In a notorious ad campaign that drew on enduring racist imagery, George H. W. Bush won the election by blaming the Massachusetts governor for the brutal rape of a white woman by Willie Horton, a black prisoner participating in a prison furlough program. Bush advisor Lee Atwater created a vicious media blitz that featured a voice-over description of the assault paired with a menacing black and white mugshot of Horton. After contrasting Dukakis’s opposition to the death penalty with Bush’s ardent support for it, the television spot closed with the words “Weekend Prison Passes—Dukakis on Crime.” Atwater’s race-baiting appeal proved wildly successful. As legal scholar Jonathan Simon has argued, George H. W. Bush’s election “marked the emergence, for the first time, of the war on crime as the primary basis for choosing a president.”

Chastened by Dukakis’s defeat, Bill Clinton emerged as the southern golden boy of the New Democrats by 1990. While serving as governor of Arkansas, he became the DLC’s first chair outside the beltway. Clinton traveled nonstop and worked tirelessly to build a national infrastructure that encompassed over two-dozen state level chapters. Two years later, his rousing speech at the DLC’s national conference in Cleveland, Ohio earned him a direct line to the nomination. New Democrat stalwart Sam Nunn’s early endorsement played a key role, as did that of lesser known members of the DLC fold, among them African American Representatives John Lewis (GA), Mike Espy (MI), William Jefferson (LA), and Floyd Flake (NY). In a depressingly familiar pattern from the Reagan administration, the support of an elite sector of the black political class helped to legitimize hard-line anti-crime policies that proved devastating for low-income populations of color.

Prior to his entrée onto the national stage, Clinton’s governorship of Arkansas demonstrated how embracing the death penalty paved the Democrats’ road back to power. After a comparatively liberal first term in which he granted over 70 separate sentencing commutations, Clinton radically reversed his earlier stance after his Republican opponent won largely by smearing him in the eyes of the electorate as considerate of criminals. Upon returning to the governor’s mansion in 1982, Clinton parsed out a meager seven additional commutations over a ten-year span, and none for the death penalty. Indeed, in 1992 amid massive press coverage, Bill flew back to Arkansas days before the New Hampshire primary to preside over the execution of Rickey Ray Rector, a black man convicted of killing a white police officer. Rector had shot himself through the temple, forcing surgeons to remove over three inches of the frontal lobe of his brain. He was so cognitively impacted as a result of the surgery that he set aside the dessert from his last meal to eat after his lethal injection. Rickey even told a reporter that he planned to vote for Bill Clinton in the fall.

As the governor of a southern state, Clinton’s execution of Rector was a powerful symbolic act that refuted incumbent President George Bush Sr.’s attempt to cast Bill Clinton and his running mate Al Gore as soft on crime. In the words of political kingmaker David Garth, Clinton “had someone put to death who had only part of a brain. You can’t find them any tougher than that.” Far from gratuitous cruelty, Rector’s execution and the virulent and racially discriminatory polices that followed it were the ultimate expression that the post-civil rights Democratic Party had repudiated its marginal commitment not only to black equality, but to black life itself. Between 1994 and 1999, nearly two-thirds of the people sentenced to the federal death penalty were black—a rate nearly seven times that of their representation in the American population.

Today, the death penalty haunts the edges of American politics, but at the height of the country’s rush to mass incarcerate, executions became central to the rightward drift of the Democratic Party. Once in office, Bill Clinton made 60 new crimes eligible for the death penalty and fellow Democrats bragged about their specific additions to the list. Joe Biden mused “someone asleep for the last 20 years might wake up to think that Republicans were represented by Abbie Hoffman” and the Democrats by J. Edgar Hoover. 

As president, Bill Clinton and his allies embarked on a draconian punishment campaign to outflank the Republicans. “I can be nicked a lot, but no one can say that I’m soft on crime,” he bragged. Roughly a year and a half after the 1992 Los Angeles Rebellion—the largest civil disturbance in U.S. history in which demonstrators took to the streets for six straight days to protest the acquittal of the officers involved in the Rodney King beating—Clinton passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. At its core, this legislation was a federal “three strikes” bill that established a $30.2 billion Crime Trust Fund to allocate monies for state and municipal police and prison expansion. Like its predecessors, starting with Johnson’s Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, the federal government provided funding to accelerate punitive policies at all levels of governance. Specific provisions included monies for placing 100,000 new police on the streets, the expansion of death penalty eligible crimes, lifetime imprisonment for people who committed a third violent federal felony offense with two prior state or federal felony convictions, gang “enhancements” in sentencing for federal defendants, allowing children as young as 13 to be prosecuted as adults in special cases, and the Violence Against Women Act.

Hillary strongly supported this legislation and stood resolutely behind her husband’s punishment campaign. “We need more police, we need more and tougher prison sentences for repeat offenders,” Hillary declared in 1994. “The ‘three strikes and you’re out’ for violent offenders has to be part of the plan. We need more prisons to keep violent offenders for as long as it takes to keep them off the streets,” she added. Elsewhere, she remarked, “We will finally be able to say, loudly and clearly, that for repeat, violent, criminal offenders: three strikes and you’re out.”

Like his notorious Republican predecessors, Clinton imposed a toxic mix of punishment and withdrawal of social welfare, but with a difference. The Democratic president actually implemented these policies on a much larger scale than the Republican New Right. According to New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander, “Far from resisting the emergence of the new caste system” that Ronald Reagan had codified into law through the Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988, “Clinton escalated the drug war beyond what conservatives had imagined possible a decade earlier.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, incarceration became de facto urban policy for impoverished communities of color in America’s cities. Legislation was passed to impose mandatory minimums, deny public housing to entire families if any member was even suspected of a drug crime, expand federal death penalty-eligible crimes, and impose draconian restrictions of parole. Ultimately, multiple generations of America’s most vulnerable populations, including drug users, African Americans, Latinos, and the very poor found themselves confined to long-term prison sentences and lifelong social and economic marginality. The carceral effects of the New Democrats’ competition with the Republicans vastly increased the ranks of the incarcerated. State and federal prisons imprisoned more people under Clinton’s watch than under any previous administration. During his two terms, the inmate population grew from roughly 1.3 million to 2 million, and the number of executions to 98 by 1999. Significantly, the Democratic president even refused to support the Congressional Black Caucus’s proposed Racial Justice Act, which would have prevented discriminatory application of the death penalty.

Despite this terrible record of racialized punishment for political gain, the Clintons’ peculiar ability to reinvent themselves has erased memory of many of their past misdeeds. This is nowhere more true than within the African American community, in which a combination of Bill Clinton’s high-profile black political appointments, his obvious comfort in the presence of black people, and the cultural symbolism of his saxophone performance on Arsenio Hall has severely distorted the New Democrats’ true legacy for the black majority. After all, Toni Morrison, African American Nobel Laureate for literature, embraced Bill Clinton as America’s “first black president,” even if only in jest.

At a deeper structural level, the constraints of the two-party system have resulted in the political capture of black Americans inside the Democratic Party, in which no viable electoral alternative exists. Frederick Douglass said of the party of Lincoln during Reconstruction, “The Republican Party is the ship, all else is the sea.” And so it is, with Democrats in the era of mass incarceration. Equally important is the sharp class polarization inside the African American community in which a select group of black elites understands their fate as wholly bound up with the leadership of the Democratic Party. The Clinton presidency is a cautionary tale in this respect. The couple’s close relationships with Vernon Jordan and other black insiders offered an illusion of access that superseded any real concern for how hard-line anti-crime, drug war, and welfare policies affected poor and working class African Americans. As the movement against state sanctioned violence and for black lives grows, it is important to remember that proximity to power rarely equals real power. 

In American politics we so often live in an eternal present. Forgotten are the days of the DLC, which was recently dismantled in 2011 at the close of President Barack Obama’s first term. In many respects, the DLC had become archaic, precisely because contemporary Democrats have so fully incorporated, and even expanded, the bitter fruit of the Reagan revolution. Former Federal Reserve Chairman and Ayn Rand enthusiast Alan Greenspan once described Bill Clinton as “the best Republican president we’ve had in a while.” More recently, Barack Obama praised Ronald Reagan for correcting “the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s.”

As both parties have engaged in a steady march to the right over the past three decades, it is not surprising that the Clintons have done little more than offer half-hearted mea culpas about their role in the drug war and mass incarceration. In July 2015, Bill Clinton went before the National Association for the Advancement of Color People’s 106th annual convention to admit that his federal drug and anti-crime policy made the problem of mass incarceration worse, especially at the state level. Many journalists interpreted his candor cynically as advance preparation for his wife’s presidential campaign of 2016. As in so many things the Clintons have done, even their disavowals appear to be self-serving. Hillary’s explanation that a crime wave inside low income communities and communities of color motivated her husband’s escalation of domestic wars on drugs and crime hides the Clintons’ shared role in capitulating to racist rhetoric and policy in the 1990s. Indeed, they used the drug war, and mass incarceration more broadly, as a powerful political tool to rebuild conservative white support for the Democratic Party. It is only because the experiences of the incarcerated and the poor have been so profoundly erased that the Clintons can be thought of as liberals (racial or otherwise) in any respect.

As we approach the 2016 election, it would be good to remember the human consequences of the Clintons’ “tough on crime” stance, and how Hillary has tried to replicate this strategy of “strength and experience” again and again to prove both her appropriateness as a female presidential contender and blue dog Democrat. Candidate Clinton has embraced hardness as political qualification, as evidenced by her proclamation “We came, we saw, he died,” about the killing of Muammar Gaddafi; her threat to obliterate Iran; or her embellished Bosnian sniper story. As a mainstream feminist icon, Hillary has more in common with Britain’s Irony Lady Margaret Thatcher, or the European Union’s austerity champion Angela Merkel, than her beloved Eleanor Roosevelt. If the history of the War on Drugs is any indicator, however, outstripping Republican belligerence from the Right will not end well for the rest of us.

This essay originally appears in Verso Books’s False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Clinton, forthcoming June 14