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An African Americans for Hillary rally in October 2015.
An African Americans for Hillary rally in October 2015.
Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

The Clintons’ long history of pandering to young black voters like me

Sometimes kids just cry. According to my folks, that fact defines my first encounter with a Clinton.

In August 1992, Bill Clinton and Al Gore made a campaign stop in the first city I called home, Cleveland. My dad, who had his own political aspirations, volunteered to work for the local chapter of the Democratic Party. If Clinton was reaching out to the people, my dad was committed to lending a hand. For his service — handing out flyers in City Center — my dad was lucky enough to get a ticket to that day's campaign event with 3-year-old me tagging along.

We managed to make it to the front of the line. This meant we'd not only get to see Clinton, we'd also meet him. One by one, Clinton made his way down the line, shaking hands with folks who believed he belonged in the White House.

Hillary demonstrates little interest in me beyond my capacity to get her into the Oval Office

When it was my dad's turn, they exchanged pleasantries. There was a feeling of familiarity, one Clinton expected to share with me. Strapped to my dad's back, I was cute with nowhere to go, clad in a polka-dot dress, freckle-faced with Afro puffs to match. The only problem was the feelings weren't mutual. Right as he reached out to lay his hand on my head, I screamed, tears rolling down my face. The next second, Clinton ran away.

Whenever my family retells the story, this is the point where they laugh. Not only was I the crying kid at a campaign stop, but I destroyed a photo opportunity with the person who'd become the 42nd president.

But I turn to this story now not to mourn a moment missed. Rather, I remember it because it feels like history is repeating itself. Two and a half decades later, another Clinton is reaching out to me. This time it's Hillary, who, through her shameless pandering to black people in her current presidential campaign, demonstrates little interest in me beyond my capacity to get her into the Oval Office.

On the first day of Kwanzaa this past year, Hillary tweeted well wishes from herself and Bill, accompanied by a logo change of her H into a Kwanzaa kinara.

I, and others, found this upsetting. Black people were being reduced to little more than a stereotypical understanding of who we are. This was not a substantial connection; it was convenient. Clinton was exploiting our culture for her own political gain — not ours.

Users soon started the hashtag #NewHillaryLogo, recreating her H logo with Afros, dashikis, and even chitterlings. The memes were a sign of contempt. But this was more than mockery — we were protesting Clinton's political pandering to black voters, something she's been doing throughout her campaign.

This election season, Hillary has repeatedly embraced our pop culture and iconography. When notable black musical artists began expressing their support for her, her team ripped Run DMC's classic logo for "Run HRC." She's done the Nae Nae. And during December she twice repackaged parts of black history and culture to fit her Twitter avi. For some of us, our discontent with the kinara was less about the image itself than about our frustration with how often moments like this occur.

Yet this co-opting of black culture has always been an essential aspect of the Clintons' political strategy.

Bill Clinton, from Arsenio Hall to Sister Souljah

Bill Clinton on The Arsenio Hall Show in 1992. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, file)

In June 1992, Bill made a now-famous appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show.

At the time, Hall's late-night talk show was a cultural juggernaut. In addition to Hall interviewing some of the most popular acts in entertainment of the early '90s, his "whoop whoop" fist pump was a sensation in itself. The show's success solidified the formidability of Fox as a young network against the longstanding NBC, ABC, and CBS triumvirate. It gave Johnny Caron's longstanding late-night reign on NBC's Tonight Show stiff competition.

But the show also highlighted the undeniable ways African-Americans shape popular culture, something Clinton was well aware of in his pursuit of the presidency.

Clinton hit the show's stage, rocking shades, with a saxophone rendition of "Heartbreak Hotel." The crowd cheered, standing up to groove at their seats. By taking on the persona of a jazz musician, caricaturing the bebop counterculture cool mastered by Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, Clinton was proving a point to the public. He was personable, and with each shake and clap on the backs of African Americans he constructed a new image of himself to appeal to every American.

Soon after his appearance on Arsenio Hall, Clinton showed that his regard for the black community only went so far. His reaction to one activist's controversial remarks on civic unrest was telling. At the end of April 1992, four white Los Angeles Police Department officers were acquitted of charges of assault and using excessive force against black motorist Rodney King. Riots broke out in the city after the verdict, an all-too-familiar expression of justice forsaken. The shock of the verdict came from the fact that, unlike times past, there was video evidence of the officers' actions — and still no accountability.

Rapper and activist Sister Souljah discussed the riots with the Washington Post a few weeks later. While the broader national conversation chose to condemn rioters, she called for empathy. The explosion of anger, she explained, was not random. It was a reaction to institutional racism, manifesting itself again in a criminal justice system that, even with the promises of the civil rights movement, refused to provide justice for black people.

Bill Clinton proved black voters were important, but that our value in his eyes was never secure

Black people looting white businesses, she said, was not just economic protest; it was a way of getting even for the ways black communities have been pillaged through profit-making strategies built on white supremacy.

Her idea was criticized, but more so when she extrapolated her analysis of racist structural violence to a hypothetical situation of actual violence to rectify it.

"I mean, if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?" she said.

Her point: to have white people imagine what it would mean to face the kinds of violence black people experience within and outside of their communities, to see themselves as the potential victims racial violence to show why it is intolerable. Many, however, misinterpreted and misconstrued her point, including Clinton.

A few weeks after his Arsenio appearance, Clinton spoke to the Rainbow Coalition, a social change organization found by Rev. Jesse Jackson. The appearance was another attempt to reach out to black voters. But rather than embrace our concerns, he used the opportunity to dismiss them.

Clinton used Sister Souljah's statement, devoid of context, to condemn not only Souljah, comparing her to white supremacist David Duke, but also the coalition, by association. They gave Souljah a platform to speak and, by Clinton's reasoning, supported what she had said.

Jackson later characterized the move as strategic, not personal, but impersonal inclusion is dehumanizing, especially for those of us Clinton was ready and willing to disregard. His speech gave him just enough leverage to appeal to "white flight Democrats," or those voters prepared to leave the party out of resentment for its growing alignment with the concerns of racial minorities. But at what price?

Here, Clinton made clear that black voters would be considered but our concerns would not be central. He employed dog-whistle politics, a tactic we more commonly associate with Republicans today.

Clinton proved black voters were important, but that our value in his eyes was never secure. To him, we mattered when it suited him, which, from Arsenio Hall to Sister Souljah, changed from one moment to the next.

Bill Clinton addressing the Rainbow Coalition in 1992. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)

Hillary needs to court black votes — but she can't do it the same way Bill did

With Bill Clinton's two successful presidential campaigns, his support from mainstream black American voters, Barack Obama's success in winning the presidency, and the increasing brownness of America, it's clear Hillary Clinton needs to court black voters. But unlike Bill, Hillary has to contend with a new generation of black voters, specifically black millennials like me. And unlike our parents, we are equipped with a lifetime of evidence for why the Clinton's tactics are not inconsequential. For us, hindsight demands the question: How is Hillary any different?

In the first eight months of her push toward the presidency, Hillary has been consistently tone-deaf on our issues on the campaign trail. When African Americans were reeling from the Charleston, South Carolina, shooting this summer, she appeared at a black church in Ferguson, Missouri, to show support. The move was symbolically sound. While my generation and the Black Lives Matter movement remain less bound to the church than our predecessors, we still recognize it as a historically sacred institution for our community.

But in her remarks, Hillary said, carelessly, the contentious phrase, "All lives matter." Her rivals would make similar gaffes, corrected later rhetorically when they each affirmed that black lives matter during the first Democratic debate.

What remains to be seen is if these words will be mobilized into action, and for Hillary those actions are necessary to distinguish herself from her husband.

In 1994, the Clintons championed the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, whose effects we contend with today. In an effort to be "tough on crime," the bill authorized billions of dollars to enforce harsh mandatory sentencing guidelines, pushed for more prisons, expanded the death penalty, and dismantled inmate education.

Hillary has called for an end to mass incarceration. But when confronted about her hand in its proliferation, she deflects.

These "tough on crime" actions came at the expense of African Americans. Over the course of Clinton's tenure, the nation's prison population nearly quadrupled, ushering in the contemporary era of mass incarceration. Through racialized drug-war policies, the incarceration rate of African Americans grew threefold. Even today, we face a disproportionate risk of imprisonment as a consequence of what began on the Clinton's watch.

Hillary has called for an end to mass incarceration. But when confronted about her hand in its proliferation, she deflects. When asked by Black Lives Matter activists about this at a closed meeting in New Hampshire, she responded tasking them to "forge an agenda." She advocated for a common ground built on policy, proclaiming she couldn't change racist attitudes but as president can enact change through policy.

Likewise, when interviewed on BuzzFeed's Another Round podcast in October, she only took partial responsibility. She was not alone, advocating us all to be tough on crime. She was joined by others like Al Sharpton, who in an interview made note of how he and other members of the black community stood behind it.

In neither situation did Clinton take ownership of her and her husband's actions. She shifted accountability to Black Lives Matter protestors to fix their own problems, ignoring that it is a situation they neither created nor have the power to solve. She invoked policy to recognize that black people have been victims, but only insofar as we are also found worthy of blame.

Each time, her remarks have been uncomfortably disingenuous and halfheartedly apologetic. Never have they felt fully accountable.

Clinton at the Brown & Black Democratic Presidential Forum. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Even in the new year, the problem persists. During Fusion's Brown & Black Democratic Presidential Forum in Iowa this week, Clinton was asked explicitly how her administration will prove that black lives matter. Her response was mechanical. She hit the major points of mass incarceration and policing, but only alluded to changes without clearly offering anything concrete. She mentioned there is systemic bias. Yet there was neither mention of policy to rectify it nor an admission of her hand in its proliferation.

Nonetheless, in the episode of Ellen that aired earlier that day, we saw that Hillary had had the time to learn to do the dab.

She, like Bill, reaches out to me at arm's length with no clear evidence that she plans to do otherwise, and again, I see no reason to tolerate it.

I'm a millennial voter, a part of a generation that, as we continue to outnumber baby boomers, is able to exercise increasing power in the electorate. I'm a black voter, whose cultural capital cannot be ignored. But more importantly, I'm a black millennial, empowered with enough historical hindsight to know the weight of my vote, and who, under no uncertain circumstances, will let pandering suffice for any candidate — least of all a Clinton — trying to get it.

Victoria M. Massie is a freelance writer and anthropologist in DC musing on pop culture and politics. Her website is victoriammassie.com.


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