For nearly 25-years, the African American population of the United States has been squarely on the side of the Clinton political dynasty. Bill’s famous saxophone-and-shades performance on The Aresenio Hall Show and Toni Morrison dubbing him the first black president (Ah the 90’s; how cringe-worthy do both of those seem with the benefit of hindsight?) helped usher in a belief that has now become the norm: The Clintons are the black populace’s best political bet. Hillary built her early lead over Bernie Sanders in this year’s primaries due in large part to her large lead among black voters, and exit polls showed that her final advantage over Sanders among this demographic—a 50-point win—was the single biggest victory margin enjoyed by either candidate in any demographic. More than Sanders’ lead among independents and young people, more than Clinton’s lead among women or older voters.
The problem with the goodwill the Clintons have earned is that it’s almost totally undeserved.
In a bid to win back Southern Democrats who had defected in large numbers during the Reagan presidency, Bill Clinton enacted polices that many now see as being historically worse for blacks than even Reagan’s—no small feat. Clinton presided over the largest increase in federal and state prisoners in American history, supported the draconian 100-to-1 sentencing disparity for crack and powder cocaine (crack was far more prevalent in black communities at the time, something our president was surely aware of) and created a now-infamous $30 billion crime bill that acted as gasoline on the already raging Prison Industrial Complex fire. Clinton’s policies would prove so “effective” that prison admissions for drug offenses among African Americans in 2000 reached a level 26 times higher than in 1983.
Let that sink in for a moment: 26 times higher.
And yet Hillary Clinton dominated the black vote in a contest with Bernie Sanders, a man who was literally on the front lines of the civil rights movement. A man whose main agendas constitute a complete overhaul of the corrupt social and economic policies that have long stacked the deck against blacks and other minorities, and who has been a vehemently outspoken opponent of racial inequality in the criminal justice system for over five decades.
So how did we get here? How did a man who has very clearly dedicated his entire career to causes near and dear to America’s black population trailing in his bid for the highest office in the land?
A large part of the answer to these questions is also a large part of the reason why Sanders trails Clinton overall: Hillary is far, far better at playing the political game—something that either endears her or alienates her from voters. That’s not to say there is some vast, shadowy conspiracy at play here—after all, we’re not talking about the corporate whores that constitute the mainstream media or the Las Vegas Democratic convention—the Clinton campaign has simply done a better job at knocking on doors, mobilizing their African American supporters and altering the reality they present to black voters.
Take the Clinton’s presence in African American churches around the country as an example. Although predominately Democratic for obvious reasons, black liberals tend to be more socially conservative and church-going than their white counterparts, and preachers traditionally hold a great deal of sway in black communities. The Clinton machine knows the value of winning over these community leaders from experience, and have been reminding them of all the “good” the Clintons have done for well over a year.
A Gallup poll back in February showed a whopping 31 percent of black Democrats polled didn’t even have an opinion of Sanders yet, while only eight percent had no opinion in regards to Clinton. Obviously Clinton had much more name recognition than Sanders, but 1/3 of the voters of an entire race is a staggering number—and one that could clearly cost a candidate dearly.
Sanders didn’t trail Clinton across the board amongst black voters—his main group of supporters, Millennials, favor him to Clinton by 7 percent, according to another Gallop poll. That 7 percent is mere peanuts when compared to the ocean that separates Sanders and Clinton amongst black voters older than 36 however, where Clinton enjoys an 81 percent “favorable” rating.
When speaking with director Spike Lee in an interview the two conducted for The Hollywood Reporter, Sanders called his lack of support among older black and Latino voters “the strangest thing in the world,” and stated:
“What really bothers me is I spent half my life in Congress helping to lead the effort for senior citizens: We led the effort against cuts to Social Security — we want to expand Social Security; we took on the drug companies who are doing terrible things to elderly people. You know seniors are cutting their prescription drugs in half. So we have a lot of work to do in terms of reaching out to seniors, not just African-Americans, but seniors all across the board. We’re figuring out how you get the message out there.”
The Sanders campaign should have probably figured that out months ago, and Sanders seems perplexed by the fact that just being honest and right isn’t enough—as he has at other times during this campaign. Despite running what has been a by and large a wildly successful campaign, Bernie and his advisors should have learned that what’s right and good doesn’t always triumph—especially in American politics. Despite his disdain for “the game”, it’s something he had to play if he planned on winning the White House and changing the system from the inside.
During my preparation for this piece I spoke to African Americans of wildly varying backgrounds and stations in life and asked how they thought the Clintons have retained such a stranglehold on the black vote. Their answers included much of what has been discussed in this article, but many brought one particularly illuminating—if depressing—fact to light. Hillary Clinton has done exceptionally well with non-Millennial women, and since such a disproportionately tremendous number of black men languish in jails, have felonies, or worse, are dead, the older generations of females make of the majority of the African American voting base.
I wonder how that came to be?