The Clintons and race: A timeline

Hillary Clinton is facing questions about whether she can spark the enthusiastic support from black voters she needs to win the White House next year. 

Clinton has sought to build bridges with the African-American electorate with speeches on voting rights and criminal justice.

But she also has obstacles to overcome, not least the racial tensions that were churned up during her losing 2008 campaign for the Democratic nomination against then-Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.). 

“I have yet to see great excitement among black voters around the possibility of a Clinton presidency. That is not to say that will remain the case, but she has some damage she has to undo,” said Jamilah Lemieux, a New York-based writer and editor who often addresses racial issues.

Clinton has spoken about racism in the United States in the days following the killing of nine African-Americans in a historic black church last week in Charleston, S.C.

Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson praised her “thoughtful reflections” that included an appropriate highlighting of “the folklore of racism and mythology of racist terror.”

Yet Dyson also recalled the “unfortunate racial signals that were being sent in 2008 that need to be addressed  — and atoned for, for that matter.”

On race, attitudes toward Clinton are entangled with the views of her husband. 

Dyson speaks of the “two Bill Clintons: one who is intimately familiar with the rituals, rhythms and reasons of black culture, and moves in and out of them effortlessly. … But that’s the personal. The political remains a mixed bag.” 

The political downside for many black voters includes his backing for a 1994 crime bill that included tougher sentencing measures, and welfare reforms that many on the left criticized as lacking compassion.

The Clintons also have vigorous defenders among the black intelligentsia. California-based author and activist Earl Ofari Hutchinson praised both Hillary and Bill Clinton for their records.

“I know that the thinking on the part of some is that Hillary has some fences to mend, some damage control to do,” he said. “I submit this: She doesn’t. Hillary’s history in terms of engagement and involvement with African-Americans is second to none, so far as presidential candidates go.”

Nine key moments

June 20, 2015

Hillary Clinton speaks about the mass killing in Charleston, S.C., noting that “race remains a deep fault line” in the U.S. 

“It’s tempting to dismiss a tragedy like this into an isolated incident,” she adds, but “our problem is not all kooks and Klansmen. It’s the jokes that go unchallenged. It’s the off-hand comment about not wanting ‘that kind of person’ in the neighborhood.”

April 29, 2015

In the aftermath of unrest in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, a black man, in police custody, Clinton speaks at length about racial disparities in the criminal justice system, saying, “There is something profoundly wrong when African-American men are still far more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charged with crimes and sentenced to longer prison terms than are meted out to their white counterparts.”

In the speech, she also supports the idea of police wearing body cameras and seems to suggest their use should be mandatory.

May 23, 2008

Clinton is in a seemingly hopeless position in her struggle for the Democratic presidential nomination with Obama.

Defending her decision to stay in the race, Clinton tells a newspaper editorial board, “We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California.”

The remark causes an uproar. Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton says it has “no place in this campaign.” The New York Times notes, “privately, aides to Mr. Obama were furious about the remark.” 

Jan. 26, 2008

On the morning of the South Carolina Democratic primary, Bill Clinton makes an unbidden comparison of Obama to civil rights leader Jesse Jackson.

“Jesse Jackson won South Carolina twice, in ’84 and ’88. And he ran a good campaign, and Sen. Obama’s run a good campaign here. He’s run a good campaign everywhere,” he said.

The comparison is widely seen as demeaning toward Obama and a critical moment in the Obama-Clinton battle. Obama trounces Hillary Clinton by almost 30 percentage points.

Jan. 20, 2001

Bill Clinton leaves office, having averaged 81 percent approval from blacks throughout his presidency, according to Gallup, and averaging no lower than 89 percent in the previous three years.

Clinton’s popularity among black Americans is perceived to be the result of a confluence of factors: his appointment of many African-Americans to government offices and judgeships; his perceived personal ease with black culture; broad satisfaction with economic gains during his tenure; and a defensiveness of him amid Republican attacks.

Oct. 5, 1998

African-American novelist Toni Morrison refers to Bill Clinton as “our first black President” in an essay for The New Yorker.

In part, the phrase is meant to connote black empathy for a president who many believed was being pursued unfairly by prosecutors in the Whitewater investigation and Monica Lewinsky scandal. But Morrison also says Clinton is “[b]lacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.”

Sept. 13, 1994

President Clinton signs a new crime bill into law, watched by his wife and others. 

While the bill includes a ban on assault weapons, its critics argue it will hasten the growth of imprisonment rates. The bill includes $9 billion for prison expansions and a federal “three strikes” policy.

In negotiations over the bill, the Congressional Black Caucus tries to insert a provision that would enable people sentenced to death to use statistics to show racial bias.

According to media reports, the White House ultimately walks away from those discussions without agreement. 

Writing a book foreword in April 2015, Clinton acknowledged, “Plainly, our nation has too many people in prison, and for too long — we have overshot the mark.”

June 13, 1992

Then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, running for the presidency, attends a conference hosted by Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition. While speaking, he criticizes another attendee, hip-hop artist Sister Souljah, who had been quoted in The Washington Post a short time before apparently defending the people who rioted in Los Angeles.

Sister Souljah had been quoted as saying, “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?”

Clinton, in his speech, said Sister Souljah’s rhetoric was “filled with a kind of hatred” and a mirror-image of that used by David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader who, at the time, was politically prominent.

The comments — and the venue in which he made them — won Clinton plaudits among some white pundits, though some black observers accused him of pandering. 

Jan. 24, 1992

Rickey Ray Rector, a black man, is executed by the state of Arkansas, where Bill Clinton is serving as governor. Clinton is also a presidential candidate at the time.

Rector had been convicted of two murders, including one of a police officer. Clinton takes time off the campaign trail to return to Arkansas but declines to issue an order of executive clemency.

Rector had shot himself in the head upon his arrest, leading to significant mental impairment. After being served his last meal, he reportedly tells his guards he would save the dessert for later.

Critics, including the late Christopher Hitchens in his book No One Left to Lie To, have long argued that Clinton’s actions in the Rector case were politically opportunistic and designed to burnish a reputation for being “tough on crime.”

Tags Barack Obama Bill Clinton Charleston Hillary Clinton Race racial justice

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