Hillary Clinton Suggested Breaking Up the Big Banks Won’t End Racism and Sexism. Is She Right?

Clinton’s remark prompted a furious debate. Is there any truth to it—and why did she say it? Moe Tkacik and Amanda Marcotte debate.

Amanda Marcotte and Moe Tkacik

(David Calvert/Getty Images)

On February 13, ABC reporter Liz Kreutz tweeted a snippet of a Hillary Clinton speech and promptly sent the Internet into a frenzy of debate:

'When the going gets tough, Hillary falls back on the old New Dem coalition strategy: getting the black community leaders and abortion lobby to get out the vote, the bank lobby to pay for the ad buys and the eternal GOP majority to prevent anything from transpiring that might alienate the bank lobbyists.'

Clinton: If we broke up the big banks tomorrow….would that end racism? Would that end sexism?” No!” crowd yells out

NBC later supplied a lengthier version:

Not everything is about an economic theory, right?” Clinton said, kicking off a long, interactive riff with the crowd at a union hall this afternoon. 

If we broke up the big banks tomorrow — and I will if they deserve it, if they pose a systemic risk, I will — would that end racism?”

No!” the audience yelled back.

Clinton continued to list scenarios, asking: Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community? Would that make people feel more welcoming to immigrants overnight?”

To discuss the quote and its context, In These Times invited Moe Tkacik, a former Wall Street Journal writer and the author of an essay in the forthcoming collection False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton; and Amanda Marcotte, who writes for Salon on politics, feminism and culture, and in November 2015 wrote a column titled, Let’s get excited about Hillary Clinton: She’s not a savior — but she is exactly what we need.”

MOE: When I saw this quote on Twitter, I just stared for a few minutes, as if into the abyss or at a really gross zit under a magnifying glass. I didn’t want to know the context” because the statement itself defecated all over the very idea of context.

Obviously, no one ever promised a piece of legislation would end” hate and injustice. Anyone even notionally sincere about battling the prejudices and cognitive dissonances that oligarchs and overlords have forever promulgated to divide and conquer humanity understands that racism” and sexism” are not forces you can arrest with a pen. 

Then there are the banks, the biggest and rottenest of which have been with us for more than two centuries. To want to see them curtailed is to have absorbed more than enough history to understand that such things don’t happen tomorrow.”

When I finally caved and read the full speech, I found a veritable orgy of straw men, each catering to some crucial segment of the Democratic coalition. It wasn’t just racism and sexism that would persist in a landscape of smaller banks, according to Hillary Clinton. Gerrymandering and redistricting” would also persist, as would discrimination against immigrants and gays.

Something about the line just screamed Bill.” Not shit-eating-grin President Bill Clinton at the height of his virility/​virulence, but the Clinton of today who is occasionally given to weirdly bitter rants that are simultaneously nonsensical and illuminating, like a warped decoder ring for understanding how the Democratic Party could maintain its monopoly on self-righteous rhetoric while selling short the New Deal and Great Society constituencies that got out the vote all those years: Just remind Democratic voters that Republicans want to outlaw affirmative action and abortion and quarantine everyone diagnosed with AIDS.

The thing is, we were never dumb enough to sign on to this gutted, soulless, leveraged-buyout version of the Democratic platform. Bill Clinton eked out a White House win with only 43 percent of the popular vote. His triumphant job performance as president is a fiction in which Democrats have been inculcated because his surrogates have so effectively marginalized anyone who dares acknowledge history.

But when the going gets tough, as it conspicuously has, Hillary (like Obama in 2009, alas) falls back on what worked for Bill, the old New Dem coalition strategy: getting the black community leaders and abortion lobby to get out the vote, the bank lobby to pay for the ad buys and the eternal GOP majority to prevent anything from transpiring that might alienate the bank lobbyists. 

Today, as in 1992, this strategy only works by sacrificing a thing that Hillary now maligns as eggheaded economic theory” but what Sanders supporters see as coherence.

AMANDA: We’re in the thick of primary silliness when a supporter of Bernie Sanders — Bernie Sanders! — feels entitled to accuse anyone of hyperbole. Not picking on the Bern, to be clear. Like his fellow career politicians, Bernie has a shtick that works for him. But glass houses, stones, all that.

And poor Hillary Clinton! Dinged repeatedly for an uninspiring nutsand-bolts approach, only to get dinged again when she tries her hand at the same grandiose rhetoric her opponent is applauded for. She can’t win. And we wonder why so many women see their lives in hers.

Setting aside the debate over whether Hillary Clinton should be permitted the use of the over-simplified, revolutionary rhetoric her opponent is allowed by birthright, it’s quite clear to me that Clinton is arguing that Sanders’ single-minded focus on Wall Street isn’t going to be enough to deal with the nuanced problems of racism, sexism — all the -isms, really.

No need to blame Bill Clinton, or to treat Hillary like she’s an extension of her husband. (Though the way she’s treated as her husband’s puppet is a nice reminder to me why I will never get married.) Clinton picked this talking point up from anti-racism activists who have been critical of Sanders for his dodgyness on any race issue that can’t be reduced to income inequality.”

David Freedlander of the Daily Beast interviewed black leaders from Sanders’ home state of Vermont and found that Sanders had a habit of benign neglect” on any race-based issue that wasn’t about generic income inequality.” Curtiss Reed Jr. of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity told Freedlander that Sanders was just really dismissive of anything that had to do with race and racism, saying that they didn’t have anything to do with the issues of income inequality.”

Under pressure from anti-racism activists, Sanders has gotten smarter about this sort of thing, but he still does things like dismiss reparations as a pipe dream. The fact that Sanders loves pipe dreams — like free college — when white voters are in the imagined group of recipients is not something that is unnoticed. Clinton, a politician, pounces. If Sanders wins the nomination, his supporters, as David Roberts of Vox said, should get a thicker skin, quick,” because the Republicans aren’t going to be as gentle as Clinton.

MOE: If it felt a bit hyperbolic to identify Hillary’s true nemesis as coherence,” well, it wasn’t. The Clintonists don’t want the electorate to make sense of the world — or to link cause and effect.

If they did, they might begin to see breaking up massive unaccountable money syndicates as a vital step toward achieving racial tolerance and gender equality.

At some point between the financial crisis of 2008 and the rise of Occupy in 2011, Americans began to understand that predatory lending was the cornerstone of modern finance. Usurious interest rates, extortionate fees and vicious cycles of ever-inflating indebtedness were a phenomenon that united black retirees in Detroit with Mexican day laborers in Hollister, Calif.; underemployed Vassar grads with underemployed University of Phoenix grads; the evaporating coffers of Jefferson County, Ala., and Harvard’s $36 billion endowment. The mechanics and fine print might differ case to case, but the business model was identical, needing two critical ingredients to thrive: a culture efficient at dehumanizing victims, and legal impunity.

First, at Washington Mutual — picked off for pennies on the dollar in 2008 by TBTF bank JPMorgan — subprime mortgage salesmen who didn’t sell enough predatory negative-amortization mortgages were assigned trainers” whose first words were, Do not feel sorry for these’ people.” At Wells Fargo, where mortgage executives called minorities mud people” and niggers,” salesmen were directed to solicit new customers at African-American churches. Sexual harassment was indisputably rampant in the industry. Mortgage sluts” peopled a 2008 Business Week cover story. Is there a more vivid embodiment of rape culture than the photos of the 2010 Halloween party held by staffers of the Steven J. Baum foreclosure mill?

Second, no major financial institution is as singly responsible for the mainstreaming” of predatory lending as Citigroup. No other institution has employed as many veterans of the Clinton administration. Merely listing the relevant names could fill the better part of a book, but here are three: Peter Orszag, Jack Lew and Michael Froman. By 2007, Citi’s balance sheet was the biggest on Wall Street — when you included all its off-the-books assets, in any case — and in 2008 Citi became the recipient of the single biggest bailout.

If any corporate monstrosity was worthy of a breakup, it was Citi. Celebrated analyst Meredith Whitney said so, FDIC chairman Sheila Bair said so, TARP overseer Elizabeth Warren said so and former Citi exec Sallie Krawcheck said as much after she was fired by (serial sex-discrimination lawsuit defendant) Vikram Pandit.

No one listened. Warren and Bair were marginalized — dismissed for failure to be seen as team players” by the Clinton/​Citi alums who infested the Obama White House. Nevertheless, a lot of powerful men came around, including Larry Summers and then (unbelievably) former Citi CEOs Sandy Weill and John Reed, both of whom wrote op-eds arguing that Glass-Steagall needed to be reinstated and their old bank broken up.

Hillary thinks otherwise — that we have not yet reached the hypothetical in which they deserve it.” Could that be because Citi, in its current and apparently invincible state, is the second biggest donor to her campaign?

AMANDA: I was just sitting around thinking about how I’m going to miss Jeb Bush and his desire to convince us that Bill Clinton was president on 9/11, but I shouldn’t have worried! Now I get to enjoy Sanders’ supporters telling me that Hillary Clinton was president from 2000 to 2008, during which time I was under the impression she was the queen of Fillory. Why shouldn’t I vote for her now, seeing as she was the power behind Bush all that time? She is clearly a witch and she won’t just know that you voted against her, but will secretly curse you with her sorceress powers. 

The efforts to lull Clinton supporters into defending the big banks” have failed, for good reason. There’s no evidence of a semi-secret conspiracy of Democrats that fucked up our economy out of the evilness of their traitorous hearts. Do they listen too much to people who are inside the industry? Sure. Is Larry Summers a dick? Absolutely. Do I think that Democrats got lulled into believing they could win over some Republican votes by embracing conservative deregulation schemes? The record shows they did. 

But I also think the Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, have embraced reining in Wall Street and protecting financial consumers. Read the White House summary of how effective the Dodd-Frank bill has been, which has included creating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in order to protect consumers from predatory banking practices. (Sanders fans might look into the role Elizabeth Warren played in that, because I’ve been assured that they really like her.) If Clinton had some secret agenda to undo all that, I doubt Barney Frank would be advising her on this front.

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Amanda Marcotte is a politics writer for Salon. She has previously written for Slate Rolling Stone, LA Times, and USA Today.

Moe Tkacik is a freelance writer; read her other stories for In These Times here. She is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and was a founding editor of Jezebel.

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