(Cross posted at Crime and Punishment–thanks to Michael Corbin)
With the end of both political conventions we’re a little more than two months away before the 2012 elections. In gaming the likelihood of a Romney election or an Obama re-election, pundits have largely focused on the economy. And have been more forthcoming about race than they’ve been at any other time–at least on MSNBC Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow, and Melissa Harris-Perry among others have been clear and forthright on how the GOP has used race to drive a wedge between white working class voters and an increasingly multicultural DNC.
But the one thing no one’s talked about is crime.
Watching Bill Clinton’s towering fifty minute speech (most likely the best prime-time speech of both national conventions only matched by Michelle Obama’s speech the evening before) you’d most likely forget Clinton stopped his 1992 campaign in midstride in order to execute a mentally retarded African American (Ricky Ray Rector). And you probably forgot that he used the Rodney King rebellion as an opportunity to condemn the Reverend Jesse Jackson through rapper Sistah Souljah. Jesse Jackson had invited Souljah and Clinton to speak to his Rainbow Push conference–Souljah to speak on the conditions that sparked the Rodney King riots, Clinton to speak about his presidential aspirations. Previously responding to a journalist’s query about the violence committed against whites (like Reginald Denny) after the rebellion, Souljah, (knowing South Central Los Angeles homicide rates) simply asked why young blacks who were already engaging in gang violence against each other, wouldn’t do the same thing to whites (“If Black people kill Black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?”).
Clinton spoke to Rainbow Push the day after Souljah did, and used his speech to condemn her presence, noting that if we simply changed her race (and the racial background of the people she referred to), we’d think we were listening to David Duke. Given that Souljah wasn’t suggesting that black people take a week to kill white people, but rather was commenting on the fact that journalists appeared to place more value on white life than on black life, and given how brilliant Clinton is, it’s likely that Clinton didn’t misunderstand Souljah, but rather used her in order to make the Democratic Party more palatable to the conservative white voters who left the Democratic Party in droves during the eighties.
Finally while you may have remembered Clinton’s signature welfare
repeal reform bill–Romney has resurrected it in order to go after the same voters Clinton did when he passed the bill, the same voters Clinton went after when he first ran for office–you may not remember that Clinton signed into legislation what was then the largest piece of crime legislation in American history. The Crime Control Act of 1994 not only added 10,000 police to the street–not necessarily a bad thing–he increased the number of death penalty crimes, increased the number of federal offenses (including making gang membership a criminal act), and eliminated the ability of federal prisoners to pursue education while in prison.
Now there are a couple of reasons why your memory may be short here. In economic terms, we tend to remember the nineties as a time of great economic opportunity. Those of us interested in progressive racial relations tend to remember Clinton’s relatively integrated cabinet–in appointing Alexis Herman, Ron Brown, Mike Espy, and four others–Clinton named more African Americans to positions of real political power than any prior President. Along these lines, Clinton himself was so comfortable around African Americans that when Toni Morrison penned her famous editorial calling Clinton the first black President few batted an eye, even now when we’ve a “real one”.
But I’d suggest there’s a third reason.
Our country faces three very very critical intra-racial divides.
We face a divide between whites who are urban, college educated, and young…and whites who are a bit more rural, less college educated, and old. Take a look at the map below:
There is a red state/blue state divide. But note that with a few exceptions what we’re looking at is a divide between US metropolitan regions, and everywhere else. Whites on the “wrong” side of this divide–whites who live in rural areas with no reasonable hope of economic or social advancement, whites who are priced out of the ability to send their children to the types of schools that will allow them to even think about college–are increasingly lending their political support to the Republican Party. Whites on the “right” side of this divide will do the opposite.
The second divide is between Latinos. Now Latinos aren’t a racial group as much as they are a multi-ethnic group. I’m including them here because they’re the fastest growing group in the country, but Cubans aren’t Mexicans aren’t Dominicans aren’t Puerto Ricans. With that said though there is a divide between citizens and undocumented workers. Latino citizens were far more likely to support California’s 1994 Prop 187 than their simple racial allegiance would admit. This divide may have dwindled over time in the face of regressive Republican policy at the local, state, and federal level, and progressive Democratic policy at the local, state, and federal level.
But the third divide is between African Americans. This divide does not have quite the same electoral consequences as the other divides. Blacks will never give anymore than %12 percent of their electoral support to the Republican Party at the national level. But it does have consequences. Blacks have become increasingly conservative on crime control–black support for the death penalty has increased over the past couple of decades. Black mayors of big cities routinely run on tough crime platforms. And public opinion polls show that blacks increasingly believe the economic divide between black “haves” and “have-nots” is the result of cultural failure.
Bill Clinton was the first modern national politician to understand and take advantage of this last divide in order to smooth over the first divide. Combining increasingly punitive approaches on crime and welfare–approaches that routinely victimize poor urban African Americans–with progressive approaches on high level black political appointments. And we’re still living in his political shadow.
(Over ten years ago Salon interviewed Dewayne Wickham (now Chair of the Department of Communication at Morgan State University) about his book Bill Clinton and Black America. The title of the interview? Why Blacks Love Bill Clinton.)