In a seemingly fear-fuelled attempt to halt the rapidly growing popularity of Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton has once more turned to her husband – her “secret weapon” – to move along the discussion. Except it’s all gone terribly wrong.
At a rally in Memphis on Friday, Bill Clinton demonstrated his ineptitude in offering any meaningful contribution to political debates about racial equality when he argued that “we are all mixed-race people”.
This comment – an attempt to downplay the significance of race – represents a lack of respect towards, and disregard for, the lives of people of colour living in the United States.
Bill Clinton has had a lot of opportunities to think about race. He might have thought about the centrality of race to prejudice in US society when his “tough on crime” stance saw him introduce the 1994 crime bill. When this bill supported a burgeoning prison-industrial complex that disproportionately incarcerates African Americans, often for non-violent and petty crimes, he might have stopped to think about race.
He might also have listened to the NAACP and African American activists when they warned that the 100:1 sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine disproportionately impacts upon African Americans. It was a golden opportunity. However, despite a plethora of evidence, he did not.
Or, when his economic policies saw the unemployment rate of non-university educated African American males reach 42 percent, he might have stopped to think about the shocking correlation between race and rates of employment. He might also have thought about the way his attacks on welfare would disproportionately affect Black and Latino communities – but he didn’t.
To deny race – to state blithely that “we are all mixed race” and therefore seen as and treated as equals – is to be complicit in the maintenance of the racial hierarchies that operate at all levels of US society. These racial hierarchies provide immeasurable advantages to white Americans like Bill Clinton.
It is unsurprising, then, that he might want to draw upon the kind of “colour-blind” ideas that let white people get away with ignoring what happens to others.
Of course, Bill Clinton is not alone in his line of thought. Just last week at the Berlin film festival, Meryl Streep caused controversy when she argued that “we’re all Africans, really” when asked about diversity in the film industry. These comments come in the wake of a number of high-profile black stars boycotting the Oscars.
While two consecutive years of all-white nominations indicates a considerable problem with the industry, Streep’s comments undermine and delegitimise black voices asking to put race higher up the agenda.
Bill Clinton’s administration maintained and perpetuated racial inequality. Hillary Clinton – who advocated for the controversial 1994 crime bill now so widely criticised – can only be assumed to care as little as her husband did.
On the other side, Bernie Sanders is a candidate is not afraid to say that Black Lives Matter. This demonstrates that, at the very least, he’s prepared to face up to the reality of race in modern America – explaining endorsements from the likes of Cornel West, Erica Garner and Killer Mike.
For meaningful change, America must face up to the racist underpinnings of its present, as well as its past.
And most importantly, these underpinnings must not characterise its future. Admitting you have a problem is the beginning of the solution – which is why claiming that we’re all mixed race in times of racial conflict is a terrible place to start.
This piece originally appeared on the independent, and was written by RJN’s trustee Remi Joseph Salisbury