Confronted by Black Lives Matter activists at a Pennsylvania campaign event on Thursday, Bill Clinton snapped. Responding to protesters’ condemnations of Clinton’s record on criminal justice as president, as well as Hillary Clinton’s notorious warning about dangerous juvenile “superpredators,” Bill issued a furious rebuke:
This is what’s the matter. 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. She didn’t. You are defending the people who kill the lives you say matter.
As the activists refused to quiet themselves, Clinton became stern. “You listen to me,” he said, calling them “people on the far left screaming things that are not true.” He vigorously defended his record on criminal justice, and went on to cite his implementation of welfare reform as further evidence of his compassion for black lives.
Clinton’s acidic hectoring quickly made the news. He was rapidly criticized for not having any idea what Black Lives Matter actually stands for. Michelle Goldberg of Slate said Bill Clinton had become a liability to Hillary’s campaign and should be fired. Goldberg said it was “baffling” that Bill Clinton, after previously disowning his crime bill, would go back to defending it. This was, after all, the bill that “expanded the scope of the death penalty, enshrined “three-strikes” provisions into federal law, and allocated almost $10 billion in funding for prison construction” and “is now widely seen as contributing to the human catastrophe of mass incarceration.” So, too, with the welfare rollback, in the aftermath of which the percentage of families in extreme poverty increased by 50%. It seemed an insanity for Clinton to justify such measures as being in the interest of black lives. Indeed, Goldberg openly wondered whether he was “slipping, mentally.”
But what happened on Thursday was neither unpredictable or inscrutable, nor was it the product of some senile bewilderment. Rather, it was simply the most blatant expression of a trait that has been present in Bill Clinton’s character since his early political career: his cruel and cynical treatment of black people, and his use of progressive racial rhetoric to mask a willingness to devastatingly harm black communities in the service of self-interested political ends.
Many have criticized the lasting impact that Bill Clinton’s policies have had for black Americans. Michelle Alexander has said that Clinton escalated the War on Drugs “beyond what many conservatives had imagined possible… ultimately doing more harm to black communities than Reagan ever did.” In a comprehensive and nuanced summary of Clinton’s impact on African Americans, Christopher Brian Booker cites criticisms of Clinton’s “central role in the incarceration binge in the black community.”
Despite all of the evidence of the damage he inflicted upon African Americans, however, Bill Clinton has persistently been understood as a friend to the black community, the man who knew all the words to “Lift Every Voice and Sing” who cultivated warm relationships with black leaders, who played the saxophone on Arsenio. Clinton prominently appointed black officials, such as Ron Brown as the Secretary of Commerce and Rodney Slater as the Secretary of Transportation.
Clinton has therefore always seemed somewhat of a paradox on race, a man who connected with black Americans emotionally while introducing policies that devastated them materially. His rhetoric, which acknowledged the trauma of slavery in a way no other president had before, and which treated African Americans as coequal participants in American life, has always made it appear as if Clinton must have been well-intentioned. Even Michelle Alexander, while saying it’s “difficult to overstate the damage” done by Clinton, credits him for “feeling bad” about creating mass incarceration, and points out that black leaders supported “tough on crime” measures too.
But in order to understand Clinton, it is important to set aside the idea that his heart must necessarily have been in the right place. The evidence suggests something different, something far simpler and more logical: Clinton treated black interests with total mercenary cynicism. If cultivating their support helped him, Clinton would go to every length to connect with black voters. But the moment he faced a difficult choice between the politically expedient thing to do and the racially just thing to do, there was quite literally no harm he was unwilling to inflict upon black people in order to secure even minor political victories.
This was most starkly evident in criminal justice. From the very beginning, Clinton made a point of, as Alexander puts it, “signaling to poor and working-class whites that he was willing to be tougher on black communities than Republicans had been.” This is not just speculative interpretation on Alexander’s part; Clinton made it quite clear. During the 1992 election, just before Super Tuesday, Clinton traveled to Stone Mountain Correctional Institution in Stone Mountain, Georgia. There, he stood next to conservative Southern Democrats Sam Nunn and Zell Miller, as well as Dukes of Hazzard star Ben Jones (recently heard prominently defending the Confederate flag), posing for photographers in front of a group of black inmates. (See image above.) Clinton quite literally made a prop out of a group of convicts.
The now rarely-seen photograph becomes even more disturbing given its location. As Christopher Petrella recently noted in the Boston Review, Stone Mountain is notorious as being the place where the modern-day Ku Klux Klan was born in 1915. As Petrella says, it’s a key location in the history of the subjugation of African Americans. He writes:
It is hard to imagine the DLC would not have been aware of Stone Mountain’s significance as a theater of white supremacy when it staged Clinton’s campaign event at the prison there. In fact, the choice of that particular place as a campaign stop—arranging white political leaders in business suits in front of subjugated black male prisoners in jumpsuits—is illegible except in light of this history.
Indeed, others voiced horror at the time. Jerry Brown, then running against Clinton, said the white men in the photos looked “like colonial masters” trying to tell white voters “Don’t worry, we’ll keep them in their place.”
That single image could serve as an iconic representation of Clinton’s entire legacy on race. It belies all of his claims to have stumbled innocently into the creation of mass incarceration. Instead, he intentionally made a campaign issue out of his willingness to lock up as many black people as it took to secure his own political success.
Another 1992 incident displayed that ruthlessness even more starkly: the execution of Ricky Ray Rector. It’s a chapter in Clinton political history that has become moderately infamous, but most accounts fail to convey the full calculating brutality of Clinton’s actions.
Ricky Ray Rector was a black prisoner in Arkansas who had been convicted of murder and was scheduled for execution. But Rector was severely brain damaged, having shot himself in the head after shooting the victim; he was missing one-third of his brain and had been effectively lobotomized. As a result, Ricky Ray Rector’s mental functioning was that of a very young child. The prison chaplain recalls meeting him for the first time:
“He was gripping the bars, howling, jumping like an ape. There were Indians, he thought, in the corner of his cell, who he was busy hunting. In between, he would speak to me.” His sister Stella visited him, to be told about serpents slithering across his bunk, alligators and chickens set loose by the guards, and people shining spotlights into his cell.
The records of the prison “death log” note Rector’s activity in the leadup to his execution:
“6.46am: Inmate Rector began howling. 6.59am: Inmate Rector began dancing in his cell.” Soon after, Rector told a guard that “If you eat grass, lethal injection won’t kill you.”
As Rector’s execution time drew closer, even the prison warden had become uncomfortable with the idea of executing Rector, with one observer saying the warden “seemed to be coming apart the closer the execution got.” Meanwhile, frantic appeals were being made to Governor Clinton to give Rector clemency. Jeff Rosenzweig, Rector’s attorney and an old friend of Clinton’s, begged Clinton not to go allow the execution to proceed. Rosenzweig told Clinton that Rector was “crazy, a zombie – it couldn’t, it shouldn’t be done. He’s a child. It’s like killing a child.” Clinton then “hung up with a non-committal pleasantry.”
Rosenzweig wasn’t alone in his desperate attempt. As The Guardian reported in 1993:
Others, close to Clinton, were making their own appeals to him. Mrs Freddie Nixon, wife of the pastor who had married the Clintons, had even written to Rickey on Death Row, and was particularly distraught. Dr Douglas Brown, the psychiatrist, faxed the governor to say the case had been a “travesty” – far from being “competent,” Rector was the least competent individual he had ever evaluated. He got no reply. Some of Clinton’s staunchest admirers, aware of his compassion and warmth, confidently expected him to intervene. “Nobody could believe that he would go through with it,” says one. “After all, the guy was berserk. You might as well execute a child.”
Clinton refused to grant clemency. Rector was executed on January 24, 1992. It is unlikely he had any idea what was about to happen. When he had his last meal, Rector set the dessert aside for later, even though there wouldn’t be a later. And in a pitiful and poignant detail, the night before his execution, watching Clinton on television, Rector said that he planned to vote for him in November.
There was no mystery as to why Clinton had refused to grant Rector clemency. Earlier in his political career, Clinton had lost a race against a “law and order” candidate, and those around him said he was determined not to make the same mistake twice. And it worked:
Intended or not, in the following months the political value of Rector’s execution became abundantly clear. It knocked the law-and-order issue out of the campaign. One commentator said it showed Clinton was “a different sort of Democrat.” As another put it, “he had someone put to death who only had half a brain. You don’t find them any tougher than that.”
Or, as former prosecutor and Arkansas ACLU director Jay Jacobson said, “You can’t law-and-order Clinton… If you can kill Rector, you can kill anybody.” In the general election, the National Association of Police Organizations endorsed Clinton over Bush, and so did a law enforcement group in Bush’s home state of Texas.
Clinton did not just simply allow Rector to die, however. In fact, he was active in using Rector’s death politically, flying back to Arkansas just so he could be there for the execution. As The Guardian reported:
The same week, Gennifer Flowers came forward with her story of a 12-year affair with the candidate. Beset by crisis, Governor Clinton broke off his campaign in New Hampshire to return to Little Rock for Rector’s execution. There was no legal obligation on him to do so; as the Houston Chronicle remarked, “never – or at least not in the recent history of presidential campaigns – has a contender for the nation’s highest elective office stepped off the campaign trail to ensure the killing of a prisoner.”
The Ricky Ray Rector case has been mentioned from time to time as a controversial Clinton act. But it’s important to be clear about just want Clinton did: he deliberately had a hallucinating disabled man killed, in an execution so callous it made even the warden queasy. He personally ensured the execution of a mental child so as not to appear weak. This is an unthinkably monstrous act. As Derrick Jackson wrote in the Boston Globe: “The killing of human vegetables is an exercise for brutes.”
The Rector case is probably the ultimate moral lowpoint in Clinton’s political career, which has a number of them to choose from. Certainly, it doesn’t get much worse than killing someone. But there are plenty of other, less viscerally appalling instances of the same phenomenon: Clinton shoring up political support by demonstrating that he was more willing than Republicans to inflict harm and suffering on black people, securing the black vote through words and the white vote through deeds.
This is precisely what happened in criminal justice policy. When the United States Sentencing Commission recommended that Clinton close the 100-to-1 disparity in sentencing for crack and powder cocaine, Clinton refused, in a decision Jesse Jackson called “a moral disgrace,” and observing accurately that Clinton was “willing to sacrifice young black youth for white fear.” In his own defense, Clinton said that “I am not going to let anyone who peddles drugs get the idea that the cost of doing business is going down.” Indeed, it didn’t, and the 100-1 crack-powder disparity remained in effect until Barack Obama signed a law changing it to 18-1 in 2010.
In other areas, too, Clinton consistently supported African Americans until the moment doing so incurred a political cost, at which point he would make himself sound more right-wing than the noisiest conservative radio show host. Notoriously, he made a public show of comparing hip hop artist Sister Souljah to Klansman David Duke, in an act that drew ire from black Democrats who felt he was needlessly repudiating the black community to convince white people he was one of them.
Then there was his treatment of black government appointees. Clinton was lauded for appointing the first black surgeon general, Dr. Joycelyn Elders. But he was also perfectly willing to fire her. When Dr. Elders spoke at a United Nations event on AIDS, and responded to the question of whether masturbation should be taught as a way to prevent AIDS by saying that “perhaps” it should, she attracted ire from the right. Clinton instantly demanded she resign.
The same thing occurred in the case of Lani Guinier, the acclaimed legal scholar Clinton appointed to be Assistant Attorney General. When it emerged that Guinier had once written about the possibility of readjusting voting districts to correct prior racial imbalances in representation, Clinton withdrew her nomination, calling her work “anti-democratic” and “difficult to defend.” (Clinton didn’t even tell her he was withdrawing the nomination; she saw it in on the news. He then attempted to make amends by declaring that “I think she’s wonderful. If she came to me and asked for $5,000 I’d go down to the bank and give it to her, no questions asked.”) The Guinier episode “sent shock waves through traditional civil rights groups,” who once again found themselves betrayed by Clinton.
All of this added up to a pattern, which did not go unnoticed at the time. George Mason University professor and civil rights veteran Roger Wilkins observed:
Look at this man’s record… When he wanted to establish himself as a different kind of Democrat . . . in 1992, he broke off campaigning to go preside over the execution of this self-lobotomized black inmate. When he was low in the polls a year ago, he came to Washington and took a swack at Sister Souljah and Jesse Jackson… And I can’t tell you that, as I look at the Lani Guinier episode, that my mind does not run back to all of those other things. That is his record.
A theme therefore runs through Clinton’s entire political career: black lives have never mattered to him, except to the extent that they conferred black political support. One could say that Bill Clinton has made a career of throwing black people under the bus, but what Bill Clinton actually did was throw black people under the bus, drive over them, back up, drive over them again, then get out, pull them from underneath, dust them off and ask them if they were okay and if he could get them a glass of water, then throw them under the bus again.
Bill Clinton’s comments on Thursday were therefore just the latest instance of a career-long repetition of the same tropes. At every turn, he has pulled the same maneuver: rhetorically claim to be acting in the interests of black lives, while spurning any and all efforts to actually improve the substance of black lives; praising the NAACP, then golfing at a segregated all-white country club. Even as he totally dismisses Black Lives Matter’s concerns over the crime bill, Clinton still insists he is looking out for the interests of the black community. As always, every word he speaks insists he serves black people, while every deed he does pitilessly betrays them.
Now, the relevance of all of this to the present election can be debated. It is typical for Hillary Clinton’s supporters to point out that holding Hillary accountable for her husband’s actions is unfair at best and sexist at worst. Hillary Clinton was, of course, a major power in Bill’s administration and his equal partner in a joint political venture. But more importantly, Bill’s recent comments have been made as part of the campaign. Bill was defending this record on behalf of Hillary Clinton, to thousands of her supporters. If Hillary Clinton didn’t have Bill Clinton out front speaking about the Clinton Administration, it might be fair to ask people not to associate them. But since she has chosen him to be an ambassador for her message, we must at least assume that she does not think him as heinous as the record proves he is.
The contemporary political implications can be left to others to dispute. But it is a matter of historical fact that Bill Clinton used black people in the most despicable way possible, doing everything he could to convince them he cared while doing nothing but using their lives to advance himself politically. They trusted him, and he threw them in jail by the millions. As Michael Eric Dyson has explained, Clinton “exploited black sentiment because he knew the rituals of black culture,” then “exploited us like no president before him.” Nobody in the history of American race relations from slavery to the present has ever so cruelly manipulated the aspirations of the black population, has ever so heartlessly tormented them with empty promises while happily destroying their lives.
Thanks to Clinton’s cultivated charm and savvy rhetoric, people have still not quite appreciated just how amoral Clinton’s treatment of race has been. Perhaps, now that his angry attack on Black Lives Matter has provided such a revealing illustration of Clinton’s tactics, the understanding will shift. Perhaps we will finally realize that Bill Clinton’s legacy on race is precisely what the Stone Mountain photograph shows: a man for whom black Americans have always been a prop, to be praised, disparaged, championed, taunted, freed, imprisoned, and sometimes killed, depending on the particular daily political needs of Bill Clinton.