Hillary Clinton appears to be playing cynical racial politics again, as she did in 2008. It’s just got a different look and feel.
Today, Clinton is wrapping herself in the flag of Obama to appeal to Black voters, arguing that she’s the candidate who will address the needs of Black people. She’s got her surrogates attacking her opponent’s civil rights bonafides, and she’s built a large stable of Black establishment players to support her. Clinton is proclaiming that Black Lives Matter and offering bold promises to fight systemic racism and inequality.
But it’s hard to believe she’s serious about fighting for racial justice unless you pretend her 2008 campaign against Obama never happened. If you remember that period, there’s good reason to believe today’s promises are nothing more than lip-service to a community she sees as key to winning the nomination.
Clinton is now attacking Bernie Sanders for having criticized Obama, trying to take advantage of Black folks’ desire to defend the president. But it was Clinton herself who waged an incredibly nasty campaign of attacks and smears against Obama, going far beyond mere policy disagreements. A quick trip down memory lane reveals that Clinton has a history of employing race in a divisive, cynical manner.
Based on what happened the last time Hillary Clinton ran for President, we should expect that at some point Black people will get thrown under the bus again, especially if it helps Clinton gain or maintain power.
Painting Obama As Not ‘Fundamentally American’
Throughout the 2008 election season, racist and bigoted smears about Barack Obama circulated online, and bubbled up into mainstream conversation about the campaign in the traditional news media. Two of the most prominent lies about Obama, which persist to this day, were that he is secretly a Muslim (playing on fear-mongering and bigotry about Islam), and that he was not really born in America. Both of these ideas paint Obama as “other” and outside the mainstream, drawing their potency from fears about Black people gaining power. People generally associate these memes with the right wing. But the truth is that for the entire Democratic primary, not only did Hillary Clinton’s campaign do nothing to push back against the racist fear-mongering about Obama, it actually fed this atmosphere and helped it grow. It was a part of their strategy from early in the campaign.
Back in March of 2007, Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist Mark Penn wrote a campaign memo that proposed painting Barack Obama as un-American or “other”:
“His roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited. I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and in his values ... Every speech should contain the line you were born in the middle of America to the middle class in the middle of the last century ... Let's explicitly own 'American' in our programs, the speeches and the values. He doesn't.“
In December of 2007, Billy Shaheen, the co-chair of Clinton’s New Hampshire campaign, raised the issue of Obama’s drug use as a young man, and the possibility that Obama could be attacked as a drug dealer. He said he was talking about how Republicans would attack Obama, but his statements had the effect of injecting racist stereotypes into the campaign: “It’ll be, ‘When was the last time? Did you ever give drugs to anyone? Did you sell them to anyone?’ There are so many openings for Republican dirty tricks.” It is a tried and true tactic: floating an idea to which you claim to not personally ascribe, with the effect of getting the idea to circulate.
The next day, Clinton privately apologized to Obama for Shaheen’s comments and claimed she had nothing to do with them. Obama didn’t accept the apology because he believed Clinton’s campaign was circulating emails claiming he was a Muslim. According to Reggie Love, Obama’s personal assistant at the time: “The candidate [Obama] very respectfully told her the apology was kind, but largely meaningless, given the emails it was rumored her camp had been sending out labeling him as a Muslim.”
In February 2008, the Drudge Report posted a picture of Obama in traditional Kenyan/Somali clothes (including a turban, which helped reinforce the “secret Muslim” smear). Drudge said the picture was circulated by the Clinton campaign. David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager called it “the most shameful, offensive fear-mongering we've seen from either party in this election.” Initially, the Clinton campaign did not deny having sent the photo, instead playing dumb about the possible impact of the photo and attacking Obama over it: “If Barack Obama's campaign wants to suggest that a photo of him wearing traditional Somali clothing is divisive, they should be ashamed. Hillary Clinton has worn the traditional clothing of countries she has visited and had those photos published widely.”
Stephanie Tubbs Jones, a member of Congress and Clinton surrogate, when asked about the circulation of the photo, implied that Barack Obama is native to Kenya: “I have no shame, or no problem, with people looking at Barack Obama in his native clothing, the clothing of his country … if we’re supporting a woman or an African American for president, we ought to be able to support their ability to wear the clothing of their nation.”
Then there’s Hillary Clinton, herself, more subtly doing the same. In March 2008, in an interview on 60 Minutes, instead of defending Obama against the “secret Muslim” smear, Clinton carefully and strategically left room open for doubt, saying “I take him on the basis of what he says,” and then when pressed, saying he’s not Muslim “as far as I know.” Clinton could have clearly and unequivocally denounced the smears against Obama, but she didn’t.
In contrast, when presented with a similar question, the Republican front-runner John McCain unequivocally dismissed such claims, rebuking and taking the microphone away from a participant in a town hall who asserted she couldn’t trust Obama because he is an Arab.
“He Would Not Have Been My Pastor”
Barack Obama’s connection with his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, became a major controversy in the 2008 presidential campaign because of his strong, controversial, and sometimes radical statements on America and U.S. policy. Tapes were obtained showing the reverend saying “God Damn America” instead of the expected “God Bless America,” and speaking frankly about the treatment of Black people in America. Jeremiah Wright’s sermons were reflective of what you’d hear in a Black church anywhere in America, and despite the caricature perpetuated at the time, Wright was neither a separatist nor anti-white.
While there is reason to believe that the Jeremiah Wright tapes may have come from those associated with the Clinton campaign, what’s certain is that Hillary Clinton used guilt by association to further “other” Obama as un-American and downright scary to white people. It was also a way to attack the legitimacy of Obama’s church and faith, working in conjunction with the “secret Muslim” smear.
Hillary Clinton used the selective view of Reverend Wright’s message to go in on Obama (watching the totality of Wright’s sermon leading up to “God Damn America” paints a very different picture of the man and his message – a raw, but truthful account of America’s failures on race, foreign policy, and much more, and not dissimilar from what you’d hear today from Black Lives Matter activists).
Clinton claimed that Wright blames America for 9/11. She went on to say that leaders have a choice of minister and that she would not have chosen to be a part of Rev. Wright’s church. Further, she used the opportunity to try to link Obama to Louis Farrakhan, as well as Hamas.
She attacked Obama’s association with Rev. Wright not once, but on several occasions. And she launched these attacks after Obama’s deeply moving “A More Perfect Union” speech, where he both denounces some of Wright’s rhetoric, while speaking to the reality of race in America and Black Liberation Theology.
As Obama tried to move on from the manufactured controversy around Jeremiah Wright, the Reverend was thrust into the spotlight again with a highly publicized appearance at the National Press Club – which, it turns out, was organized by a longtime Clinton ally.
Hillary Clinton didn’t mention that Jeremiah Wright had been Bill Clinton’s guest at the White House, at an event where Hillary Clinton was present.
Appealing to Whites
In 2008, Clinton had been counting on Black voters, much as she is now, as the primaries move to states with more diverse electorates. But after Barack Obama’s victory in South Carolina in 2008 made it clear that most Black voters were supporting him, the Clinton campaign began making the argument that Obama was not electable because he was not winning enough support from white voters. The Clinton campaign implied, over and over again that, as a Black man, Obama could not attract the support of the white people (many of them racists, apparently) supporting Clinton’s campaign.
Just as South Carolina’s polls were closing, Bill Clinton made the following statement when asked about the strength of Obama’s campaign: “Jesse Jackson won South Carolina twice in ’84 and ’88, and he ran a good campaign. And Senator Obama’s run a good campaign.” The implication was clear. Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns succeeded in garnering many Black votes, but never secured enough support from white voters to win the nomination or the presidency. By comparing Obama’s campaign to Jesse Jackson’s campaigns from 20 years earlier, Bill Clinton was dismissing Obama as “the Black candidate” who was perhaps running a good protest candidacy but could not possibly expect to win the nomination. It turns out this wasn’t just an off-the-cuff comment – it was an attack that Clinton’s chief strategist Mark Penn had suggested in a strategy memo earlier that day.
Speaking in West Virginia (a state that is 94% white), Bill Clinton said: “Florida won, and won anyway, because of people like you, in places like this. So don’t let anybody tell you she can’t win. They want you to vote in low numbers, so she doesn’t get ahead in the popular vote. If you vote in high numbers, we’re gonna roll through this thing.”
Discussing this clip on MSNBC, David Sirota asks Pat Buchanan (who is notorious for pushing white supremacist ideas into the mainstream): “Hey Pat, when he says ‘people like you,’ and he’s in West Virginia, what is he talking about?” Buchanan: “You mean that’s directed at me? … He’s talking about – frankly – he’s talking about the white working class, the silent majority, the middle Americans.”
Governor Ed Rendell, a Clinton supporter and surrogate, said: "You've got conservative whites here, and I think there are some whites who are probably not ready to vote for an African-American candidate."
By May, after most observers had already concluded that Barack Obama had clinched the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton was still trying to undermine his candidacy by arguing that he wasn’t getting enough support from white voters. She put that argument in the most explicit terms yet: “There was just an AP article posted that found how Senator Obama’s support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans is weakening again, and how the, you know, whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me … I have a much broader base to build a winning coalition on.” Clinton’s comments not only made the case that a Black candidate could not appeal to white voters; they also played on nasty stereotypes about Black people and other people of color by equating “white Americans” with “hard-working Americans.”
Even after being widely criticized for these comments, Hillary Clinton continued to make the argument a few days later to voters in West Virginia. “I’m winning Catholic voters, and Hispanic voters, and blue collar workers, and seniors, the kind of people that Senator McCain will be fighting for in the general election. Now, some call you swing voters, I call you Americans.” Did you notice which group of voters was missing from Clinton’s list?
The Clinton strategy in West Virginia appears to have paid off. Clinton won West Virginia, and 21% of the voters were white people who said race was a factor in their voting, with that group supporting Clinton overwhelmingly, 84% to 9%.
Media Outlets and Political Leaders Called Clinton Out
This pattern did not go unnoticed at the time. While many who might have otherwise spoken out likely limited their criticism – not wanting to anger a powerful political dynasty – many prominent Democratic and Black commentators and politicians did call it out.
When Hillary Clinton attacked Obama for having weak support among white people in May 2008, her comments were denounced in no uncertain terms by many prominent Democrats and media commentators. Here is a sampling:
The New York Times (which also endorsed both Clinton’s 2008 and 2016 campaigns):
“Mrs. Clinton will be making a terrible mistake — for herself, her party and for the nation — if she continues to press her candidacy through negative campaigning with disturbing racial undertones … We endorsed Mrs. Clinton, and we know that she has a major contribution to make. But instead of discussing her strong ideas, Mrs. Clinton claimed in an interview with USA Today that she would be the better nominee because a recent poll showed that “Senator Obama’s support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again.” She added: “There’s a pattern emerging here.” Yes, there is a pattern — a familiar and unpleasant one. It is up to Mrs. Clinton to change it if she hopes to have any shot at winning the nomination or preserving her integrity and her influence if she loses.”
"Racists should decide the Democratic nomination," Issac J. Bailey wrote Friday in the Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Sun News. "Sen. Hillary Clinton didn't use those words in an interview with USA Today, but she came close."
On Salon.com, Joe Conason asked "Was Hillary channeling George Wallace? Hillary's reckless exploitation of racial division could split the Democratic Party over race — a tragic legacy for the Clintons."
From the NY Post:
Muriel Offerman, a North Carolina superdelegate who has not disclosed her choice, said, “That should not have been said. I think it drives a wedge, a racial wedge, and that’s not what the Democratic Party’s about.”
In isolation, many of these moments could be explained away as an innocent slip-up or a Clinton surrogate or supporter going off-message. But together, they form an overwhelming and unmistakable pattern (and I haven’t even mentioned some of Bill Clinton’s divisive remarks and many of the divisive and racially inflammatory statements made by Clinton supporters and surrogates like Andrew Cuomo, Bob Kerrey, Geraldine Ferraro, Harriet Christian, Bob Johnson, Lanny Davis, and others).
Fast Forward Eight Years: Has Anything Changed?
I can’t easily forget this history. I’ve spent 13 years working in progressive politics and have seen first-hand the strange dance between the so-called Black vote and the Democratic establishment. Black people are sold a promising bill of goods by a candidate who claims to be concerned about our interests. After the election, attention on our communities’ needs largely disappears until the next election comes around.
Hillary Clinton’s decision to use race-based attacks to undermine Obama says something about who she is. It’s one thing to miss the mark on policy – to not foresee consequences of a policy you support 20 years into the future (Michelle Alexander and others have covered how Secretary Clinton's policy positions have been quite damaging to Black America). It’s another to actively play upon prejudice and fear in the pursuit of power, and in the course of doing so help to perpetuate a destructive status quo that continues to wreak havoc on people’s lives.
In 2008, Secretary Clinton damaged Obama’s candidacy by validating right-wing racist memes and smears, and she could have cost him victory against Republicans in the general election. She also helped hamstring the President’s ability to battle racism by supporting and legitimizing the right-wing fear-mongering that Obama would have an agenda to work for Black people at the expense of everyone else.
If we support Clinton in the primary now, without confronting this history, it excuses and rewards this behavior, affirming that there is no political cost to throwing Black people under the bus, and making it more likely that Hillary Clinton and other Democrats will continue to use racism for political gain.
A Chance to Walk the Talk
Over the last few months, Black activists took the streets among a chorus of people calling for Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, to resign. After Emanuel was implicated in the coverup of the brutal killing of Laquan McDonald (against a backdrop of his overseeing predatory and unaccountable policing in his city for years), Hillary Clinton had a decision to make. Would she stay out of the fray, support the push to hold Emanuel accountable, or use her credibility to validate him? She chose the final option, claiming she had confidence in Emanuel to handle the situation, saying “He loves Chicago and I'm confident that he's going to do everything he can to get to the bottom of these issues and take whatever measures are necessary to remedy them.” This move, which undermined the efforts of those working as a part of the Movement for Black Lives, came after Clinton embraced “Black Lives Matter” and claimed that she would work to increase police accountability.
Of course, what Clinton did is what those in power too often do – they protect those who are connected to them, who can help them maintain power. Acting otherwise is difficult, but it’s absolutely necessary if we are serious about addressing systemic racism and other ills in our society. It’s necessary if we’re going to act according to a moral compass rather than that which is politically expedient. And it’s definitely the kind of leadership that Black America needs.
Should Hillary Clinton be the Democratic nominee, I would of course choose her over any of the Republicans running. But I would be doing so understanding who she is, with no illusions about her record and past actions. And today, while we’re in the context of the primaries, I don’t know how Black Americans – or those who care about resolving the scourge of racism in this country – can cast a vote for Clinton, without an honest discussion of this history.
James Rucker is a civil rights leader, progressive activist, and entrepreneur. He’s co-founder and former director of ColorOfChange.org and Citizen Engagement Laboratory (CEL) and serves on the boards of MoveOn.org, ColorOfChange.org, and the Southern Poverty Law Center. His views reflect his own perspective, and not that of any of the aforementioned organizations.