||Earl Ofari Hutchinson
In his last appearance as a sitting president at the NAACP's annual convention in July, Bill Clinton beamed in delight as a parade of black notables back slapped and pumped his hand in rapturous praise for his support of civil rights. Clinton in turn reminded the mostly black audience that Vice President Al Gore deserved as much credit for him in pushing civil rights and that they should do everything they could to elect him president. To back his appeal for Gore Clinton a week later issued a fact sheet touting the civil rights and economic gains blacks made during their administration. He boasted that he and Gore increased funds for urban investment programs, education, health care, HIV/AIDS testing, passed tax cuts for the working poor, and fueled the economic boom that benefited many blacks. This was not just self-congratulatory political puff designed to pump up Gore as a civil rights fighter. These are solid accomplishments that have lifted the social and economic fortunes of many blacks. But even so, the Clinton-Gore scorecard on these big ticket racial issues is far more murky and troubling than the rosy picture Clinton paints.
1. Racial Divide. With much fanfare Clinton-Gore established and hyped a race panel. The goal was to get Americans thinking, talking about and taking action to close America's racial divide. The panel did the first two, but did nothing on the latter. The panel's anemic proposals for continued support of Clinton's watered down affirmative action policies, stronger efforts at preventing police abuse, and the elimination of the gaping racial disparity in the drug sentencing laws went nowhere. Clinton-Gore not only did not put their political muscle behind the panel's proposals they scuttled publication of the panel's full recommendations. Their inaction doomed the panel to be yet another one of the endless commissions on race that make recommendations for reform and are quickly and quietly forgotten.
2. Affirmative Action. Following conservative Republican and media-driven claims that white males were losing ground to minorities, Clinton, with much prodding from Gore, promised to end abuses in federal government affirmative action programs. But there was never any federal mandate that forced contractors to replace white workers with minorities and women, nor compelled employees to impose racial quotas in hiring and promotions. The issue of affirmative action for a time inflamed many whites, and was used by cynical politicians to grab votes. Clinton-Gore pandered to that hysteria.
3. Welfare. Republican Presidents Nixon, Reagan and Bush promised to end welfare as we know it. Clinton-Gore did. They tacitly fanned these racial and sexual myths about welfare: it encourages dependency, cheating, laziness, and out of wedlock births. It is a massive drain on the taxpayers. The recipients are mostly poor black women. Republicans weren't willing to pay for job, skills training, education, health, child care programs to truly end welfare dependency. Clinton-Gore weren't either. Their welfare reform package contained no funding provisions for these programs.
4. Crime: Clinton-Gore rammed the most wasteful, punitive crime bill in American history through Congress. It gutted funds for drug rehabilitation, prevention, social service, youth employment and job training programs. It added scores of new death penalty provisions to federal law. It unleashed the greatest police and prison boom in U.S. history, triggered a nasty rash of race profiling and police abuse cases, and widened the obscene racial disparities in the drug sentencing laws. The more than 1 million black men warehoused in America's jails for mostly non-violent, drug offenses and petty crimes is an enduring testament to Clinton-Gore's lock em' up and throw away the key strategy.
Clinton-Gore boast that they put more blacks in high administration positions than other presidents, supported minority redistricting, took tough action on the spate of church burnings, proposed new hate crimes laws, and increased funds for civil rights enforcement. But their political appointments were to high profile positions with relatively little major policy making power and influence, and Clinton dumped his nominee, Lani Guinier, to head the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division and Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders when they got mild flack from conservative Republicans. Clinton-Gore had to oppose Southern redistricting. It meant the loss of Democratic seats and votes. This would only have benefited Republicans. And it took a massive national outcry by blacks and church groups, and mass media attention on hate crimes and church burnings to prod a laggard Clinton-Gore to take the action they did on hate violence. Clinton-Gore's eight year record on civil rights is a muddled blend of achievement, cautious rhetoric, neglect and political opportunism.
That record offers only shaky hope that Gore without Clinton will do better in the White House. And this is the dilemma that black voters face in giving their unswerving loyalty to Clinton-Gore.
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