Why Bill Clinton’s Black Lives Matter Comments Were Wrong About Everything

Politics Features Bill Clinton
Why Bill Clinton’s Black Lives Matter Comments Were Wrong About Everything

Holy hell, was Bill Clinton ever wrong about every goddamn thing in a recent widely shared racially tone-deaf whitesplaining meltdown on the campaign trail!

When confronted by Black Lives Matter protesters at a Hillary campaign event, “the first black president” came off sounding like Cliven Bundy, or a deranged comment section on a police union anonymous website forum.

Let’s take a closer look at the former President’s ill-advised remarks and what this whole episode says about white privilege and criminal justice reform!

Actual quotes from Bill Clinton are in bold, followed by my trenchant commentary:

“Here’s the thing. I like protestors, but the ones that won’t let you answer are afraid of the truth.”

OK, Bill – I know that hecklers can be annoying, but are you really sure you want to call Black Lives Matter protesters “afraid of the truth?” Do you – “the first black president,” whose political career has benefited from a seemingly special affinity with black voters – really want to sound this defensive and confrontational, and risk coming down on the side of the people who disparage and distrust the Black Lives Matter movement?

And why is Bill Clinton even arguing with Black Lives Matter in the first place? Bill Clinton himself – in July 2015 – admitted that he regretted his 1994 crime bill because it led to an era of unprecedented mass incarceration and “made the problem worse.” Nothing about this argument makes any sense.

“Hillary spent her time trying to get healthcare for poor kids—and who were they? Their lives matter.”

Good point! We’ve got to keep poor black kids healthy so they can grow up to spend decades in federal prison for nonviolent drug crimes! The Clinton White House worked tirelessly to provide health care for poor black kids – and also to provide them with government-funded housing, food, uniforms, and job training in the fast-growing field of license plate making!

And hey, if there’s one organization that has been an outspoken critic of Obamacare, it is Black Lives Matter. Remember all those protesters in Ferguson carrying signs that said, “Don’t Shoot – and Don’t Make Me Buy Health Insurance?” Or the BLM protesters in New York City chanting “I Can’t Breathe…And I Can’t Afford These Obamacare Premiums?”

“I don’t know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped up on crack and sent them out into the street to murder other African American children. Maybe you thought they were good citizens—she didn’t.”

Bill Clinton gets a lot of credit for being a great debater and orator, but he’s really good at knocking down Straw Men. This statement is so insulting and willfully obtuse, I don’t even know how to make fun of it. No one from Black Lives Matter is advocating for leniency for gang leaders and instigators of violence or suggesting that violent criminals are “good citizens” – they want equal protection under the law for black people, an end to police brutality, sentencing reform to stop sending millions of predominantly black people to prison for nonviolent drug crimes, and a new level of transparency and accountability for the justice system.

And what’s with Bill’s strangely specific, vivid example of “13-year-old kids hopped up on crack” going out to commit murder? That rhetoric sounds a lot like the idea of the “superpredators,” a racist, classist myth from the early 1990s.

This might be hard for you young people to believe, but there once was a time when white America was so afraid of inner-city poor black people, and so hysterical about the specter of gang violence and black urban crime, that they actually made up stories to stigmatize and criminalize young black people. (Can you imagine??) Back in the early 1990s, respectable academics and policy wonks like Princeton University political scientist John J. DiIulio, Jr. predicted that the rising population of poor inner city black children would lead to a grim future of “superpredators” – bloodthirsty, remorseless black teenage killers.

But as it turns out, the superpredator scare never happened In fact, murders committed by young people ages 10 to 17 declined by approximately two-thirds from 1994 to 2011. But even though it wasn’t true, the superpredator myth still did a lot of damage to black lives and black communities, in part because it inspired many states to pass laws making it possible to try children as adults, even at the age of 13 – treating kids (many of whom are – surprise! – black) not as the flawed, growing, learning, still-developing children that they are, but as irredeemable, fully-formed adult criminal offenders who deserve to be mercilessly locked away for years.

(Bonus: Remember back in 1996, when then-First Lady Hillary Clinton said in a speech “They are not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘superpredators.’ No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.” Ouch! Those remarks haven’t aged well at all! In fairness, Hillary has apologized for using those words, and as part of her presidential campaign has pledged to end the school-to-prison pipeline and replace it with a cradle-to-college pipeline. And also, in fairness: Bernie Sanders voted for the 1994 crime bill.)

So anyway: Shame on Bill for using a stupid Straw Man argument, and especially for doubling down on the antiquated, discredited, racist concept of the “superpredators.”

“You are defending the people who killed the lives you say matter. Tell the truth.”

Jesus, Bill! Yikes! Is he trying to be the new spokesperson for the Fraternal Order of Police?

Here, Bill dresses up his Straw Man in the old canard of “black on black crime.” Bill’s basically saying, “Why are you black people complaining about how the system is treating you? Why can’t you just stop killing your own people first?”

This is Bill Cosby’s Pound Cake speech – shaming and blaming the victims of America’s systemic injustices, without even acknowledging their grievances or accepting the possibility that the system itself might be to blame for their suffering.

This is conservative-style victim blaming, from an allegedly “liberal” former president. Who needs Republicans when the Democrats can make the Republicans’ favorite arguments so forcefully and succinctly?

“I’ll tell you another story about a place where black lives matter: Africa.”

Sweet Jesus. What does this even mean? Is Bill telling the protesters to “go back to Africa?” Sounds perilously close. This is such condescending, white daddy boss paternalistic crap – “Hey, if you black folks don’t like the way American democracy has treated you, why don’t you go back to the African countries that your ancestors were kidnapped from!”

Or is he saying that Africa treats black people really badly too, so black people in America should stop complaining, because it could be worse – they could be living in Africa instead??

Either way, this is so damn racist and wrong, especially coming from a rich, powerful, white millionaire, I don’t even know how to debunk it. I’m sitting at my desk right now feeling slack-jawed.

takes coffee break, goes for a walk

OK, I’m back. Let’s do a three-point breakdown of how and why Bill is so, so wrong about this:

1. It’s not OK to tell black people to “go back to Africa,” ever. Because black people – even more than any of the other oppressed minority groups of America – didn’t choose to be here in the first place. Remember a little thing called “The Transatlantic Slave Trade??”
Suggesting to black people that if they don’t like it in America, Africa would be worse is incredibly condescending and borderline threatening – like you’re saying to them, “Watch your mouth, or maybe we’ll ship you back to Africa.”

2. Making black people compare their lives with Africa is insulting and unfair – it places an extra burden on black people that white people are never asked to face. White people in America are always just assumed to be permanently at home here – no one ever tells white people to go back to Europe. No one ever asks white people in America to take the blame for the present-day problems and failings of Europe.

3. Even aside from how wrong it is for a former American president to say this stuff to American citizens, it’s also pretty insulting to Africa. Africa is a complex, dynamic, fast-developing continent that despite its challenges (mostly caused by centuries of Western slave-kidnapping and European colonialist looting and pillaging) is home to many positive trends that go beyond the misery porn that we so often see in media coverage of the African continent. Life in many parts of Africa is getting better all the time. In fact, in some ways, Africa is better than America at racial equality. America today has worse wealth inequality by race than apartheid South Africa – the average white household has a net worth that is 18 times higher than the average black household; in South Africa in 1970, the ratio was only 15 times as much.

Black Lives Matter has nothing to do with Africa – it’s about American citizens demanding to be treated as full equals in the eyes of American law. And, oh by the way, the particular group of people protesting also happen to be some of the most loyal voters and activists for the Democratic Party! Bill Clinton and Hillary and Bernie and all other Democrats should not be making enemies of Black Lives Matter – they should be giving Black Lives Matter whatever the hell they want!

So what the hell was Bill Clinton thinking? Some people assume that these egregiously hamfisted remarks were just a bad mistake – perhaps he was overtired and got irritated at the wrong moment, and said some things that he didn’t really mean. But maybe Bill was making some bigger political calculations with his statements – maybe he’s trying to send a subtle message to disaffected white voters who are afraid of how “uppity” all these black people are getting, and who might be tempted to vote for the Republicans in November. Maybe he’s trying to tell these anxious white people that he and Hillary know how to keep these rowdy Black Lives Matter protesters in line – they know how to “bring them to heel.”

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