The Black Political Establishment Should Never Have Given Hillary Clinton a Blank Check

The Sanders campaign was an opportunity to put pressure on Clinton, but instead the neoliberal Black elite backed her unconditionally.

James Thindwa August 8, 2016

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) questions Bernie Sanders' civil rights bona fides during CBC PAC's endorsement of Hillary Clinton on February 11. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images)

Ear­ly in his cam­paign for pres­i­dent, Bernie Sanders faced crit­i­cism — much of it valid — from Black Lives Mat­ter activists for not being express­ly attuned to the spe­cif­ic and dis­tinc­tive polit­i­cal griev­ances of African Amer­i­cans. To his cred­it, the Ver­mont sen­a­tor learned quick­ly and began incor­po­rat­ing the demands of the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment in his speech­es and eschew­ing All Lives Mat­ter,” the sac­cha­rine slo­gan favored by those who avoid the top­ic of race. Sanders also pro­duced a racial jus­tice plat­form address­ing issues of mass incar­cer­a­tion and oth­er black griev­ances. Many black activists, includ­ing Eri­ca Gar­ner, the daugh­ter of Eric Gar­ner, praised the plan. Gar­ner wrote that black lives like her father’s mat­tered, adding, That’s why I’m endors­ing Bernie Sanders.”

This rush by black leadership to endorse Clinton was an unforced strategic blunder. Robustly challenging both Clinton and Sanders on racial justice issues—as Black Lives Matter activists did—could have sent a strong message to a party that takes black Americans’ support for granted, fails to deliver real solutions and too often patronizes them.

But it wasn’t just young activists who called out Sanders. Black polit­i­cal lead­ers joined the fray. Dur­ing a Con­gres­sion­al Black Cau­cus Polit­i­cal Action Com­mit­tee (CBC PAC) endorse­ment ses­sion for Hillary Clin­ton, Geor­gia con­gress­man and move­ment vet­er­an John Lewis ques­tioned Sanders’ civ­il rights bona fides, declar­ing, I nev­er saw him. I nev­er met him.”

Why would Lewis take this odd tack, which dis­counts the con­tri­bu­tions of mul­ti­tudes who par­tic­i­pat­ed in the strug­gle with­out hav­ing met him? Because, of course, Lewis and the CBC were not mount­ing a real effort to sub­stan­tive­ly engage Sanders on racial pol­i­tics. They were stump­ing for Clinton.

This rush by black lead­er­ship to endorse Clin­ton was an unforced strate­gic blun­der. Robust­ly chal­leng­ing both Clin­ton and Sanders on racial jus­tice issues — as Black Lives Mat­ter activists did — could have sent a strong mes­sage to a par­ty that takes black Amer­i­cans’ sup­port for grant­ed, fails to deliv­er real solu­tions and too often patron­izes them.

Black lead­ers’ uncrit­i­cal sup­port of Clin­ton may seem mys­ti­fy­ing giv­en the con­temptible record of racial scape­goat­ing that is inte­gral to the Clin­tons’ lega­cy — such as Hillary’s use of the term super­preda­tors” to push her husband’s 1994 crime bill, which caused black incar­cer­a­tion to sky­rock­et. (When chal­lenged by Black Lives Mat­ter activists at a ral­ly this April, Bill Clin­ton defend­ed both the term and the bill.)

But that sup­port is part and par­cel of a decades-long encroach­ment of neolib­er­al­ism and its gospel of mar­ket infal­li­bil­i­ty on black pol­i­tics, and on the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty in gen­er­al. Wit­ness the par­ty establishment’s sup­port of free trade” and its dimin­ished inter­est in labor rights, rein­ing in Wall Street and pro­tect­ing the envi­ron­ment, often with the sup­port of the Clintons.

Not sur­pris­ing­ly, this year the Hillary Clin­ton del­e­ga­tion ensured the par­ty plat­form will not include any lan­guage explic­it­ly oppos­ing the Trans-Pacif­ic Part­ner­ship (TPP), a cor­po­rate-bro­kered trade deal that priv­i­leges prof­it max­i­miza­tion over nation­al law, the envi­ron­ment, labor and human rights. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic plat­form also embraced what it calls pub­lic char­ter schools,” a Tro­jan horse for school privatization.

Neolib­er­al­ism has also neu­tral­ized the pas­sion­ate advo­ca­cy long a fea­ture of black lead­er­ship. Few black lead­ers beat the drum against the Democ­rats’ right­ward drift, even though the party’s aban­don­ment of the work­ing class dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly affects black com­mu­ni­ties. (The CBC did oppose NAF­TA, but with Bill Clin­ton as pres­i­dent, there was not much rab­bler­ous­ing around it.)

And where were black lead­ers as the cri­sis of mass incar­cer­a­tion unfold­ed? Since enact­ment of Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, the bur­den of deal­ing with its dis­as­trous effects large­ly fell on under­re­sourced but deter­mined advo­ca­cy groups, for­mer­ly incar­cer­at­ed peo­ple, affect­ed fam­i­lies and, most recent­ly, Black Lives Mat­ter activists. Although CBC mem­bers gen­er­al­ly opposed the bill, 28 of 38 mem­bers suc­cumbed to pres­sure from Clin­ton and vot­ed for it. The bill had been sweet­ened with social pro­grams and a ban on 19 assault weapons, so that even Bernie Sanders vot­ed yes” after oppos­ing it.

The black polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment has fall­en prey to the same cor­po­rate influ­ence as the rest of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic estab­lish­ment. In 2010, the New York Times report­ed that the CBC Foun­da­tion, the non­prof­it arm of the CBC, raised $53 mil­lion over a five-year peri­od, much of it from cor­po­rate donors — Big Phar­ma, tele­com and finan­cial indus­tries. Most went to finance leisure activ­i­ties such as glitzy con­ven­tions, golf and casi­no jun­kets, and under­writ­ing the foundation’s headquarters.

In a shock­ing May 2014 report, the Huff­in­g­ton Post doc­u­ment­ed how key CBC mem­bers, includ­ing Wis­con­sin Rep. Gwen Moore, New York’s Gre­go­ry Meeks, Georgia’s David Scott, Missouri’s Lacy Clay and Alabama’s Ter­ri Sewell, under­took to under­mine Dodd-Frank’s rules on finan­cial deriv­a­tives, linked to the 2008 eco­nom­ic melt­down. Col­lec­tive­ly, the five had tak­en half a mil­lion dol­lars in cam­paign dona­tions from the finan­cial sec­tor dur­ing the pre­vi­ous elec­tion cycle. It is a trag­ic irony that these CBC mem­bers rep­re­sent major­i­ty-black dis­tricts most dev­as­tat­ed by the home-mort­gage lend­ing crisis.

Rashad Robin­son, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the activist group Col­or of Change and a crit­ic of the CBC, terms such prac­tices civ­il-rights wash­ing”: Cor­po­ra­tions use civ­il-rights groups as a moral cloak to avoid account­abil­i­ty for bad cor­po­rate prac­tices. In recent years, the CBC Foun­da­tion has been among key black insti­tu­tions (the Nation­al Urban League, the nation­al NAACP and var­i­ous local chap­ters and the Unit­ed Negro Col­lege Fund) that received mil­lions of dol­lars from Wal-Mart as part of its urban strat­e­gy” aimed at fend­ing off work­er demands for a liv­ing wage and labor rights. These groups gave Wal-Mart moral cov­er even as its front group, Work­ing Fam­i­lies for Wal-Mart, tried to ral­ly the black com­mu­ni­ty against liv­ing wage laws. In 2006, civ­il rights leader and for­mer U.N. ambas­sador Andrew Young served as its paid spokesperson.

Some lead­ers — reas­sur­ing­ly — turn down devi­ous cor­po­rate largesse. For exam­ple, Rev. Dr. William Bar­ber II, pres­i­dent of the North Car­oli­na State Con­fer­ence of the NAACP, reject­ed a $1,000 check from the meat-pack­ing behe­moth Smith­field Foods and instead lent sup­port to an orga­niz­ing dri­ve by Unit­ed Food and Com­mer­cial Work­ers. Bar­ber con­tin­ued as a reli­able moral voice, fight­ing a series of reac­tionary and anti-labor North Car­oli­na laws through his Moral Mon­days campaign.

Poor and dis­em­pow­ered com­mu­ni­ties, which don’t always have the where­with­al to cham­pi­on their own inter­ests, deserve more lead­ers like Bar­ber. Black politi­cians should heed the dire plea of the moth­er of Phi­lan­do Castile, St. Paul’s lat­est vic­tim of police lynch­ing: I want my lead­ers to step up and hold these peo­ple account­able. … We’re being hunt­ed down by police!”

They have not, how­ev­er, and nowhere has the lack of urgency been more pro­nounced than in the near-uni­ver­sal endorse­ment of Hillary Clin­ton by main­stream black lead­er­ship (with a few notable excep­tions, such as for­mer Ohio state Sen. Nina Turn­er and Min­neso­ta Rep. and Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus co-chair Kei­th Elli­son). They endorsed a can­di­date whose posi­tions on many issues, from free trade to war and pri­va­ti­za­tion — a main call­ing card of neolib­er­al­ism — are inim­i­cal to the inter­ests of their communities.

Instead, the black polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment could have used its moral cap­i­tal to influ­ence the can­di­date, tak­ing a page not only from Black Lives Mat­ter but from the Sanders cam­paign itself, which used pop­u­lar angst to move Clin­ton to adopt a free col­lege” plan that almost resem­bles his own and to embrace a $15-an-hour fed­er­al min­i­mum wage. Clin­ton has now pro­posed let­ting those 55 years and old­er buy into Medicare — an impor­tant nod to Sanders’ sin­gle-pay­er health­care plan. But it is not clear what African-Amer­i­can lead­ers have demand­ed (and will get) from Clinton.

A real debate with­in the black com­mu­ni­ty over whom to sup­port would have sig­naled to Clin­ton and the Demo­c­ra­t­ic estab­lish­ment that the days of tak­ing black folks for grant­ed are over. It might have forced Clin­ton to pur­sue a more aggres­sive racial jus­tice agen­da through the gen­er­al elec­tion and gov­er­nance (should she win), when race” is often sac­ri­ficed at the altar of polit­i­cal expe­di­en­cy — an expe­di­en­cy that Obama’s pres­i­den­cy unfor­tu­nate­ly came to sym­bol­ize. Not insignif­i­cant­ly, it would have aligned Black Amer­i­ca with the glob­al anti-elite polit­i­cal revolt cur­rent­ly under­way. Dat­ing back to anti-colo­nial times, African Amer­i­cans have been inte­gral to such glob­al insurgencies.

Instead of using the Sanders chal­lenge to make the can­di­dates com­pete for black votes, the black estab­lish­ment effec­tive­ly award­ed Clin­ton a no-bid con­tract. Sweet­heart deals are as bad in pol­i­tics as in commerce.

James Thind­wa is a mem­ber of In These Times’ Board of Direc­tors and a labor and com­mu­ni­ty activist.
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