On February 24, less than a week before the Super Tuesday primary elections, a young black organizer named Ashley Williams scrounged together $500 and bought her way into a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton in Charleston, South Carolina. In video footage from the event, Williams can be seen standing before Clinton in the foyer of a ritzy, white-columned house, holding a sign that reads, "We have to bring them to heel."
"I'm not a superpredator, Hillary Clinton," Williams says, interrupting the former secretary of state's speech. "Can you apologize to black people for mass incarceration?"
Williams was referring to comments Clinton had made 20 years earlier. After former President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in 1994, Hillary Clinton, the first lady at the time, gave a controversial talk at Keene State College in New Hampshire in 1996.
"They are often the kinds of kids that are called 'superpredators,'" Clinton told her audience, referring to youth gang members who, she suggested, were responsible for much of the United States' violent crime. "No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way but first we have to bring them to heel."
The statement was viewed as dehumanizing and fear-mongering toward black youth, a fact that has grown more pronounced in light of the crime bill's disproportionate impact on people of color. While the bill drew bipartisan support when it passed, history has not been kind to it. It is now seen as having exacerbated the problem of mass incarceration by establishing a "three strikes" sentencing rule — which increased prison sentences for people who had been convicted of previous violent crimes — providing more funding to build prisons, gutting education grants for inmates and expanding police departments.
As Clinton vies for the presidency of the United States, these statements, and her support of neoliberal policies on immigration and crime, have come back to haunt her. For many critics, they encapsulate the Democratic Party's hypocrisy around advocacy for people of color — that no matter how much they may outpace the GOP in terms of party diversity and support for legislation that helps black and brown communities, the Democrats have also pushed policies that battered and devastated them.
Which raises the question: Can people of color trust Democrats to save us in the streets the way we are so often expected to save them at the polls?
Over the past year, black activists have disrupted Clinton's campaign events multiple times with protests citing the 1994 crime bill and Clinton's role in selling it to the American people. The impact on Democrats has been clear. Fueled by popular backlash against a string of police shootings of black people, the Democratic Party has been forced to take young people of color's concerns more seriously than ever before.
But the Democratic National Convention was the party's chance to prove to the nation it was more than just a fair-weather ally. The party's plan was simple: If the Republican National Convention was the most flagrant display of racism and white ethno-nationalism to hit mainstream American politics in a generation, the DNC — fueled by a groundswell of bourgeoning progressivism within the party's rank and file — would be its opposite.
"I'm not a superpredator, Hillary Clinton. Can you apologize to black people for mass incarceration?" — Ashley Williams, addressing Hillary Clinton at a fundraiser in Charleston, South Carolina, in February 2016
This wasn't hard to do, considering the precedent Republicans had set. Where the RNC featured racially-coded appeals to "law and order" and an Iowa congressman, Steve King, openly disputing the cultural worth of non-white people, the DNC countered by featuring indigenous delegates from South Dakota casting votes in Lakota; an 11-year-old child of undocumented Guatemalan immigrants, Karla Ortiz, shouting, "Soy Americana!" from the stage; testimony from black mothers who had lost their children to police and vigilante violence; and a speech from Nevada state Senator Pat Spearman, who exhibits more diversity, on her own, than perhaps any five Republicans combined:
"I am a veteran, I'm a minister, I'm an African-American," Spearman told the crowd gathered at the Wells Fargo Center Monday, "and I am a proud member of the LGBTQ community."
By the time it ended Thursday, the DNC had emerged as a notable achievement in product differentiation. The Democrats proved themselves undeniably more advanced in terms of diversity than their GOP rivals, a party that remains blindingly white from top to bottom. According to recent figures, 35.9% of DNC employees are racial minorities, and people of color — black, Asian, Latino and Native American — overwhelmingly vote Democratic. Meanwhile, the GOP's voting base is 89% white. This selfie posted by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, which shows this year's crop of Republican congressional interns, further illustrates the problem:
At the same time, the optics of racial diversity are a poor substitute for concrete support. It's a dilemma that's cast a shadow over the primary season thus far, laying bare an unenviable dilemma faced by black, Native American and Latino voters. There are two major political parties in the U.S., but many people of color feel there's only one real choice. The GOP has enshrined racism as one of its core values. This leaves the Democrats as the only major party that even remotely represents people of color's interests.
The problem is, Democratic politicians have been complicit in remarkable violence against black, brown and indigenous communities. The crime bill is just one part of it. Bill Clinton's 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which introduced prohibitive new restrictions on poor people hoping to receive public assistance, is another. Most recently, the Obama administration, headed by the first black president in U.S. history, has overseen the deportation of 2.5 million undocumented immigrants — more than any administration in U.S. history — including thousands of unaccompanied minors who came to the U.S. fleeing gang violence in Central America.
To say that Democrats have spearheaded the only real attempts at immigration reform that gives paths to citizenship for undocumented people — which is true, though their efforts have been repeatedly scuttled by the GOP and the U.S. Supreme Court — is hardly consolation to immigrants who've been forced out of the country. And increasingly, claims that Democrats are "the best we've got," or the "lesser of two evils," is proving an unsatisfactory answer. A robust conversation is happening across black millennial circles right now questioning the very efficacy of voting for a Clinton presidency at all.
As all of this unfolds, the pressure was high when Hillary Clinton took the stage Thursday night to close the convention. For the most part, she delivered: The former secretary painted a unifying, progressive vision for the United States, buttressed by the platform the Democrats released on July 21, which articulates perhaps the most racially, socially and economically progressive policy agenda in American history.
At one point in the speech, Clinton promised to create paths to citizenship for undocumented people. She even paid lip service to fighting systemic racism and reforming the criminal justice system.
"[Let's] put ourselves in the shoes of young black and Latino men and women who face the effects of systemic racism," Clinton said, "and are made to feel like their lives are disposable. ... We will reform our criminal justice system from end-to-end, and rebuild trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve."
Her rhetoric was some of the most encouraging people of color had heard from a mainstream politician in 2016. Whether her potential presidency brings them to fruition, staring, as it would be, down the barrel of a hostile and obstructionist Republican-run Congress, is yet to be seen. History has taught people of color they should tread cautiously with their expectations of the Democratic Party — to hold their applause, no matter how pretty the music sounds.