In a recent defence of ‘lesser evil’ voting, Noam Chomsky argued, unassailably enough, that ‘voting should not be viewed as a form of personal self-expression or moral judgement’, but simply as ‘an act to be judged on its likely consequences’.1 Professor Chomsky was of course taking aim at the swing-state-dwelling leftists who are intent on refusing to cast a vote for the Democrats this autumn, but it would seem that his words apply also to those members of the liberal class who remain positively enamoured of Bill and Hillary Clinton.
In fairness to liberals en bloc, they have been as appalled as anyone over the past year by Donald Trump’s racist and Islamophobic remarks, and they are right to say that he must not become president. But their zealous faith in Democracy Incorporated and its most venal functionaries is a major obstacle on the path to radical change, and so it’s surely worth attempting to remind them that — among other things — the Clintons have themselves played starring roles in the perpetuation of racism in the United States.
In 1944, the sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox wrote that ‘race-prejudice is only a symptom of a materialistic social fact’, namely the system of white supremacy, which crystallised a few hundred years ago as the most appalling aspect of the expansionist designs of European capital, and which retains as its principal feature the socio-economic stratification of Western societies along racial lines. While the filthy racist excretions of Donald Trump, his supporters and others flow from and reinforce such stratification — such oppression — they cannot reasonably be called its ultimate cause. In other words — as one decolonial thinker has put it — ‘we are not oppressed and colonised because they hate us; they hate us because we are oppressed and colonised.’2
After all, racism in the West is fundamentally structural by nature, and in the case of the United States has its twisted roots deep in a history of theft and dislocation, genocide and slavery, Jim Crow laws and deadly political repression. Since all of these depredations have yet to be adequately remedied, and in fact live on in different forms, we can say that white supremacy is regnant still, and that together, the wholesale immiseration and dehumanisation of people of colour remain both its essence and its upshot.
Nowadays, perhaps the most prominent dimension of structural racism in the Land of the Free is a criminal justice [sic] system characterised by the systematic harassment, terrorisation and incarceration of blacks and Latinos. Bill Clinton enjoys a reputation for racial progressivism that is utterly undermined by the hand he had in passing the legislation which served to multiply all these horrors. His Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act 1994 was nothing more than a squalid escalation of Ronald Reagan’s racist War on Drugs, which had begun to be waged with a vengeance at precisely the same time as the likes of the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) were spearheading the privatisation of U.S. prisons.
Among other things, the omnibus crime bill made available billions of dollars for the construction of new jails; introduced the three-strikes law and equally punitive mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent crimes; targeted poor black communities in particular through disparities in sentencing between offences involving crack and powder cocaine; expanded the surveillance and occupation of black neighbourhoods by putting tens of thousands more police officers on the streets; denied public housing to people — overwhelmingly those of colour — whose cohabitees were suspected of any criminal activity whatsoever; withdrew funding for prison education, which is widely seen as a bulwark against recidivism; and ultimately secured for “Bubba” the distinction of having overseen the imprisonment of more African Americans than any previous president.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton — as the courageous Colin Kaepernick well knows3 — was without question complicit in this programme of racialised state violence, particularly when she suggested that black teenagers were ‘super-predators’ who needed — like dogs — to be ‘brought to heel’. And it’s worth noting that her husband’s fealty whilst in office to the prison-industrial complex has paid dividends for her own inevitable tilt at the presidency; she’s accepted sizeable campaign donations from the CCA — still the ‘largest private prison company’ in the United States — as well as from other corporations specialised in the provision of correctional services and immigrant detention centres.4
Mass incarceration and police brutality may represent the most visible features of racism in the United States, but no analysis of the criminalisation of black America or the Latino population can ignore the underlying inequalities of wealth and income which divide whites and people of colour across the country. Such inequalities are of course a legacy of centuries of exploitation and legal discrimination, but they are wider now than they were 50 years ago, and it wouldn’t be at all far-fetched to suggest that the Clinton-led evisceration of welfare played a crucial part in the opening up of those chasms.
It’s true enough that Donald Trump once outrageously claimed that ‘laziness is a trait in blacks’, but it’s less well known among liberals that the scheme of welfare reform embarked upon by Bill Clinton seemed to take Trump’s statement for an organising principle, in as much as it ‘used the concept of personal responsibility to shame poor blacks for their economic predicament’.5 Ostensibly enacted to tackle ‘welfare dependency’, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act 1996 (PRWORA) was built around and legitimised the racist trope of the ‘welfare queen’ and had the (entirely foreseeable) effect of pressing African Americans even deeper into urban poverty by ripping apart the safety net of public aid that had hitherto cushioned their immiseration.
PRWORA imposed an absolute time limit on benefits claims as well as stringent work-participation requirements; introduced federal block grants that did away with the guarantee of state assistance to needy families and were responsible for a shrinkage of the overall welfare budget; ‘[barred] hundreds of thousands of legal immigrants… from receiving disability and old-age assistance and food stamps’; and reduced ‘food-stamp assistance for millions of children in working families’.6 The legislation helped in particular to quicken the redistribution of wealth away from communities that had already been crushed by generations of institutional racism, and yet liberals seldom if ever seem to dwell on it. Indeed, it does not occur to liberals that enactment of both PRWORA and the crime bill represented deliberate attempts by Clinton to appease and capture the votes of the same white racists that are now congealing around Trump.
To illuminate the continuity of structural racism under Bill Clinton is not to forgive or overlook the racist remarks and policy positions of Donald Trump, or to encourage voting against HRC in states where a vote is ‘potentially consequential’.7 It is simply to attack the (white) liberal mind, which — owing, perhaps, to its smallness or fragility or frequent abdications to the herd instinct — is seemingly incapable of identifying all but the vilest verbal manifestations of racism and other oppressions.
None of us should think twice about excoriating Trump for his plans to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, but nor must we gloss over the fact that construction of such a barrier began under Bill Clinton’s watch and was supercharged by the Secure Fence Act 2006, which Senator Hillary Clinton proudly voted for.8 It cannot be disputed that the Republican nominee has a history of misogyny that extends far beyond his disturbing attacks on women over the past few months, but it is equally certain that his iniquity in this regard does not approach that of “Bubba”, an alleged rapist whose many victims defy enumeration. And we caught a highly unnerving glimpse into Trump’s ableism last year when he mocked an arthrogrypotic journalist, but Clinton’s cynical determination to execute a brain-damaged black man, Ricky Ray Rector, seems to have disappeared down the memory hole.
If radical societal change entails ‘pursuing goals which are not timed to the national electoral cycle’, then it becomes extremely important to liberate ourselves from the wacky belief that another Clinton presidency will represent a positive development in itself.9 We can begin to embark upon such a process by scrutinising the Clintons’ records, which give the lie to the comparative — and of course calculated — agreeability of their rhetoric.
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