When Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, South Central Los Angeles was ablaze in response to the acquittal of four white police officers who had viciously beaten a black man named Rodney King.
As Hillary Clinton embarks on her campaign for the 2016 presidential election, the country is again unsettled by unrest, this time in Baltimore, where Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, died of a spinal injury suffered while in police custody.
Bill Clinton, whose popularity with black voters is legendary, went to black churches and promised to work for racial healing and equal opportunity if elected. Then, as president, he went on to sign into law some of the most stringent anti-crime measures in the country's history.
On Wednesday — coincidentally the 23rd anniversary of the start of the L.A. riots — Hillary Clinton, speaking at a public policy forum at Columbia University, said that the recent string of fatal encounters between police officers and unarmed black males suggests that the criminal justice system is “out of balance.”
She did not mention that the racial disparities are partly the result of policies embraced by her husband, who at the time was proselytizing a brand of centrist-Democratic politics in an effort to retain the support of right-tilting Democrats. But her passionate argument for acknowledging and addressing the anger of African Americans over aggressive policing tactics, mass incarceration and economic inequality reflects the political reality she faces today.
“We have to come to terms with some hard truths about race and justice in America,” she said during remarks at a public policy forum at Columbia University in New York City. “There is something profoundly wrong when African American men are still far more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charged with crimes and sentenced to longer prison terms than are meted out to their white counterparts.”
By embracing criminal justice reform, Clinton is taking up a cause that has energized young people of color. Even some white conservatives have joined the push for criminal justice reform, citing the strain of incarceration costs on budgets and infringement on civil liberties.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who is campaigning for the GOP presidential nomination, has long championed criminal justice reform, a subject he has talked about during visits to black college campuses. In a statement responding to Clinton's speech, he offered faint praise, suggesting she was trying to distance herself from her husband's policies that have contributed to the United States having one of the world's highest incarceration rates, but added: “We welcome her to the fight.”
Several other top GOP presidential hopefuls, including Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, Govs. Chris Christie and Scott Walker, of New Jersey and Wisconsin respectively, and former governors Jeb Bush (Florida) and Rick Perry (Texas), also are talking up reform measures that would scale back mandatory sentencing laws and seek alternatives to locking up nonviolent offenders.
During Hillary Clinton’s speech, Twitter was abuzz with progressive activists who noted that the system she criticized as being in need of urgent reform was put in place by her husband. Bill Clinton came into office as crack cocaine was ravishing many inner cities and while the war on drugs was still in full swing. In 1994, he signed an omnibus crime bill that included some popular measures, such as a ban on assault weapons and stronger laws against domestic violence. But it also provided money for more police officers and prison cells, as well as tougher sentencing laws, policies that have disproportionately affected black and Latino men and boys.
Even Bill Clinton now says it's time to revisit those laws and policies. In the foreward to a new book on criminal justice reform, the former president concedes that " ... plainly, our nation has too many people in prison and for too long — we have overshot the mark."
Bill Clinton was still able to win reelection with the strong support of black voters. Virginia Sapiro and David Canon, in their book “Race, Gender and the Clinton Presidency,” cite the former president’s cultural fluency with African Americans, as well as his having appointed a record number of black cabinet members and vocally defending affirmative action, for his ability to keep that important bloc of Democratic voters. They also said that he counted on “structural dependence” – the notion that black voters were unlikely to vote for the GOP candidate anyway, to allow him leeway to take positions that would signal to white voters that he could stand up to black leaders. One such instance was his condemnation of the rapper Sister Souljah over comments she made two months after the L.A. riots that seemed to dismiss the slayings of some white people during the six days of violence.
In her remarks Wednesday, Hillary Clinton scolded "those who are instigating further violence in Baltimore ... setting back the cause of justice." But she seemed to stand with protesters who, during the past several months, have demanded action on dismantling mass incarceration, building trust and respect between police and citizens and better education and economic opportunities for poor communities.
Peniel E. Joseph, a history professor and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University, wrote an op-ed for Reuters calling Clinton's speech her "reverse 'Sister Souljah' moment." On Wednesday he used Twitter to offer a running, and generally positive critique of Clinton's speech.
“What’s going on is the fact that the criminal justice system has become a gateway to racial and economic oppression,” Joseph said in an interview with The Post, citing not only higher arrest and incarceration rates, but policies that got people tossed out of schools and public housing, and limits their access to the job market. “All of these are obstacles that Bill Clinton himself put in the crime bill in the 90s.”
Still, Joseph applauded her for speaking out on the issue. “I think it’s important if somebody who may be the next president says we need to end mass incarceration,” he said.
Hillary Clinton, who is seen as the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, would need not only the overwhelming support of black, Latino, Asian, young and female voters voters, but the high turnout rate among those groups responsible for President Obama’s wins. In 2008, 65 percent of black voters, the Democratic Party's most loyal constituency, cast ballots. In 2012, the turnout rate for black voters surpassed that of white voters – 66 percent to 64 percent for the first time.
Political scientists are not sure whether that level of participation will continue once Obama’s name is no longer on the ballot, but the challenge for Clinton will be to minimize any drop-off.