Just one sentence in Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention has ended up sticking out for racial justice activists: “If you are a young African American disillusioned and afraid, we saw in Dallas how great our police officers can be. Help us build a future where nobody is afraid to walk outside, including the people who wear blue to protect our future.”
This amounts to a sort of pseudo-gaffe for Clinton. He looked like he was about to acknowledge the deep distrust in police that many black Americans feel under the banner of “Black Lives Matter” — only to go into an aside about making America safer and “Blue Lives Matter.”
Great speech from @billclinton, but it is interesting that his only ad-lib mistake came when addressing African Americans. #DemsInPhilly— Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith) July 27, 2016
For racial justice activists, this feels like a bait and switch — just when they’re about to have their moment in Clinton’s speech, he goes into praising the policing system they want to reform. Worse, the disappointment is further compounded by the widespread feeling among activists that Clinton is partly to blame for how the system is today.
Clinton didn’t acknowledge his “tough-on-crime” legacy in his speech
To understand why people are upset about this, it’s important to understand some of the expectations that people went into the speech with. As Zach Carter reported for the Huffington Post, many Democrats and racial justice activists hoped that Clinton would fully address his presidential “tough-on-crime” legacy that contributed to the current, punitive justice system.
Perhaps the defining moment of this legacy is the 1994 crime bill. The law ultimately boosted prison funding, the number of police officers on the streets, and even harsher prison sentences. Although research shows the bill itself contributed little toward mass incarceration, it has become a symbol of the “tough-on-crime” policies of the era that racial justice activists and criminal justice reformers blame for the punitive, aggressive, and racially disparate justice system we have today.
It’s also an image Clinton actively cultivated as he ran for president. In 1992, at a press conference in Stone Mountain, Georgia, Clinton stood in front of a crowd of predominantly black inmates — in a photo op that would run in newspapers across the country to show he was “tough on crime” and ready to keep America safe.
Bill Clinton hosts campaign event on Stone Mountain, the birthplace of the KKK, with Black inmates in background. pic.twitter.com/kyQkDt5zhM— sean. (@SeanMcElwee) April 1, 2016
Many people hoped Clinton would address this legacy in his speech — given that it’s particularly awkward for a party that has now embraced the Black Lives Matter movement. Instead, Clinton gave them an aside that amounted to a pseudo-gaffe.
If Clinton acknowledged his “tough-on-crime” legacy, it could make the speech about him
There’s good reason Clinton didn’t bring up his legacy, though: It would have made the speech about him — not his wife, the actual nominee for president.
Many people, perhaps primed by previous Clinton speeches, expected the speech to focus a lot on Clinton himself. So some watching Clinton expected him to bring up his policy accomplishments and perhaps his presidential fumbles.
But this would have ultimately detracted from the overall theme and structure of the speech, which focused largely on Hillary Clinton’s accomplishments. So while Hillary supported the 1994 crime law and Bill’s tough-on-crime policies in general, it’s not an issue that she was closely involved in. Instead, she was largely focused on health care reforms, which is why Bill touted her health care efforts but nothing on criminal justice policy.
The Clintons also likely feel like they have done all they can to address Bill’s “tough-on-crime” legacy. Both, for example, apologized for the 1994 law.
Still, Bill has cast doubt over whether these apologies were sincere — such as when he defended his record to Black Lives Matter protesters at a campaign rally in April. This has kept tensions somewhat high between Bill and racial justice activists ever since — leading many to hope he would put such doubts to rest in his speech.
But again, perhaps that could have made the speech too much about him. It also, of course, conveniently left out one of the big parts of Bill’s legacy that Hillary is now running away from.