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Clinton Invokes King's Name But Not His Legacy

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

No president in living memory has taken greater delight than Bill Clinton in invoking the name of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s. He did it again the day before the national holiday that honors King's birthday, January 15. Clinton invariably hails the slain civil rights leader when he, A. wants to shore up his credentials as a guy who really cares about civil rights, or B. when he wants to float a racial-tinged policy initiative. This time it was B. In an op-ed piece he urged Congress to ban racial profiling, eliminate the disparity in sentencing guidelines for crack versus powdered cocaine use, expand DNA testing in death penalty cases, and restore ex-felon voting rights.

What Clinton didn't dare say when he invoked King's name is that he must bear much blame for making these the hyper-racially divisive issues they've become. In 1994 Congress passed the Omnibus Federal Crime Bill. While the draconian bill was the brainchild of Reagan and Bush, they could not get it through a mostly Democratic-controlled Congress. But Clinton did. He muscled it through Congress. The bill shelled out $22 billion to the states and feds to hire more police and prosecutors build new prisons, and courts, and establish crime commissions.

It criminalized thousands, mostly blacks and Latinos, for petty crimes and drug possession, ignited the biggest prison-police boom in U.S history, spurred dozens of states to adopt three strikes laws, led to the deadly rash of racial profiling cases, and widened the gaping racial disparities in prison sentencing. The law also added more than 30 new provisions for the death penalty in federal law. The majority of those awaiting execution at the federal penitentiary in Terra Haute, Indiana are black men. When Clinton made his first reference to King his first year in the White House in 1993, there were less than a half million blacks in America's jails. This year as he praises King for the last time as president there are more than 1 million blacks in prison and there's no end in sight to the skyrocketing numbers.

Clinton's anti-crime legislative mania also tacitly encouraged more states to disenfranchise thousands of ex-felons. In 1999 the Sentencing Project, a Washington D.C. prison reform group, found that seven states permanently barred ex-felons from voting. With the colossal racial disparities in prison sentencing, the vote ban has fallen heaviest on black men. One out of four black males are disenfranchised by these laws. This year, as Clinton hails King, it's even worse. Two more states have slapped a permanent ban on ex-felons voting. And the racial disparity is even greater. Black men now account for one out of three ex-felons barred from the polls. At the present rate of black incarceration, the estimate is that in the next few years 40 percent of black men will be permanently barred from the polls in the states with this restriction. The bans smack of the Jim Crow segregation days when Southern states routinely used poll taxes, literacy laws, political gerrymandering, physical harassment, threats and intimidation to bar blacks from the polls.

This terrible, racially-warped policy wreaks much havoc on African-Americans. It drastically cuts down the number of black elected officials, increases cynicism, if not outright loathing, by many young blacks for the criminal justice system, and deprives black communities of vital funds and resources for badly needed services that result from their increased political strength.

Yet the states that stamp them with the legal and social stigma of being a one-time felon deprive them of their basic constitutional right to vote and relegate them to second class citizenship in perpetuity. This cruelly mocks the notion of rehabilitation and gives lie to the fondly repeated line that when criminals pay their debt to society they deserve and will get a second chance. The bitterest irony of all for Clinton and the Democrats is that Clinton's anti-crime policies probably cost Gore the White House. Florida is one of the dozen states that permanently bar ex-felons from voting. One out of three blacks in the state are disenfranchised by the laws. Since blacks in Florida gave Gore 93 percent of their vote, without the ex-felon vote ban Gore almost certainly would have picked up hundreds of additional votes from them. This would have easily put him over the top. But he didn't get them. And he, unlike, Clinton will not get the chance as he would have if he had been elected and years later was preparing to leave the White House to cloak himself in King's legacy, spruce up his image and falsely enhance his legacy as a president who tried to make a difference on civil rights.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of The Disappearance of Black Leadership. email: ehutchi344@aol.com

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