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The Ghost of Hillary Clinton’s Contribution to the African American Community

I have been chasing the elusive specter of things Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has supposedly and specifically done for the African American community. I’m not finding anything that justifies the amount of support and fervor of championing she is receiving; nothing other than a lingering love of the first black president pro tem, William Jefferson Clinton (President from 1993 – 2001). We seem to have a large segment of the black community who are stuck in a time warp of favoring Bill Clinton as the closest thing to a black president that many of us thought we would ever see in our lifetime. And former President Bill Clinton seems to have cemented his legacy with the African-American community with one action, playing saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show in 1992:

And much like the Holiday Inn Express commercials from a few years back, where people overestimate their knowledge or contribution by virtue of spending the night at a the hotel chain, she has somehow been invited to the cookout solely by being married to Bill Clinton and giving herself extensive credit for minimal input.

Just as some on the right have misremembered the 1960s as the good ole’ days that look like scenes from Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best, despite the civil unrest at the time, just as it seems Secretary Clinton has misremembered the Reagans’ role during the AIDS crisis, despite the mishandling of the situation that contributed greatly to it becoming an epidemic; too many are not correctly remembering what the 1990s were actually like in the African-American communities under President Clinton.

In the 90s, the institution of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families increased the number of the working poor as people were pushed off welfare rolls based on policy imposed use limits, regardless of their financial situation at the time. These policies left many struggling to acquire and hold down jobs that barely met their needs and trying to find suitable, affordable daycare for their children. Struggling families watched the clock wind down on the availability of justified assistance while simultaneously watching calendar time being eaten up by lifetime limits on eligibility. Some could argue that this is the pivot point where corporations like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s were able to take advantage of workers who were desperate to take jobs at a pay rate that was not advantageous to the well-being of their families but necessary for a meager survival as they saw their safety net evaporating before their eyes. As always, these tougher guidelines always affect the most vulnerable and despite the overall economic gains of the Clinton Administration there were and remains a substantive gap in the economic stability of white America and black America.

If we are to see her favorably based on her husband’s perceived positive relationship with the African American Community then we must also equate her with his policies and actions that didn’t work so favorably for that same community. No one can deny that America saw an economic boom during the Clinton Administration. But in 1993, when President Bill Clinton nominated Lani Guinier to be the first black woman to head the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice he quickly withdrew that nomination when the pressure from the right reared its head. Will a President Hillary Clinton be just as quick to withdraw her support from programs for a community that still struggles with gaps in equality, in poverty, in education, and net worth when the partisan pressure, that is sure to come, becomes a political liability?


Now presidential hopeful, Hillary Clinton, can not be solely, nor primarily, blamed for what happened under her husband’s presidency but if she is going to ask us to harken back to what she is claiming as evidence of her support of our community all along, using the title “Children’s Defense Fund” like a mantra, then I’d like to see what those things were and stating that much of her advocacy was “behind the scenes” just doesn’t cut it for me. I see little more than her overselling a couple of days she spent in 1972, undercover as a white parent for Marian Wright Edelman’s Washington Research Project, (which later became the Children’s Defense Fund). A test of her mettle was found in a four-hour drive and a couple days sleeping in a Holiday Inn a few miles outside of the town she was investigating as she did a bit of snooping to see if black and white couples were being treated the same way. This was most certainly noble work that could have been potentially dangerous but the details of how much danger she was actually in and to what extent she was active seem sparse at best.

Secretary Clinton was asked in 1993 to chair the Task Force on National Health Care Reform by her husband and then President and according to the Pew Research website, there was certainly an increase overall in life expectancy during that time but the gap between the life expectancy of white Americans and black Americans was only minimally affected. Poverty for African Americans changed so little during the Clinton Administration that it looks like a straight line, a trend that continued into 2010. Median incomes increased but again the gap between white America and black America stays relatively the same despite the overall increase as a nation.

Now I’m asking what is it specifically that she has done that improved the lives of African Americans to such a degree that we should rally behind her without question? Though mostly her policies seem to be on the right side of history, consistently, her passion for such matters seems to peak in the two to five-year span proceeding her entrance into the political arena. For instance, the Count Every Vote Act of 2007.

For some, asking these questions is tantamount to treason but if I ask the same questions of male candidates, I’m being an informed voter, giving due diligence. In the constant quest for equality, we must hold these standards across the board and we can not avoid asking the tough questions nor avoid delving deeper into the answers given in response just because we would like to see our first female president of the United States. Asking Hillary to show proof of her claims is not demonizing her because she is female, it is, however, holding her to the same standard as the other candidates. If we want to be taken seriously about equality we can not lob the ball in just because she is a girl.


Written by Pamela Getz

Writer and Activist. Follow Pamela on Twitter @goddesspamela.

Pamela Getz is Editor of International Affairs for Progressive Army and a member of its Editorial Board.

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