Column: Clinton’s patronizing attempts to win the black vote

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton is seen during a campaign stop at the Union Diner, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015, in Laconia, N.H. (Jim Cole/AP)

Political violence against black people has become a tradition as American as baseball. While conservative candidates offer blatantly racist sentiment or simply do not engage with black voters, liberal candidates are notorious for their symbolic and patronizing strategies to win the black vote. Hillary Clinton has made herself visible while participating in black culture, but not the liberation of black people. 

A week after the June 17 terrorist attack by Dylann Roof on a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, the Huffington Post reported that Clinton spoke at a church about five miles away from Ferguson, Missouri, where she assured a community of black activists, along with their white allies, that “all lives matter.” This easy dismissal of the unique, institutional, and race-based violence against black people in America is just the tip of the iceberg.

In the months of campaigning before the primary, the Clinton campaign’s approach to black voters can be represented by two videos. The first, released mid-August by Black Lives Matter organizers, is of a conversation between activists and the candidate, where she suggests that activists focus on changing policy instead of hearts. Black Lives Matter has been vocal throughout the movement about tangible policy changes they would like to see in response to institutionalized racism. 

The second is a video that surfaced just last week of Clinton on the Ellen Show. She learns the popular dance done to the song “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)” by Silento. This imagery of Clinton buying into what is seen as the cool parts of black culture is troubling to the activist communities she insults and patronizes. 

When presidential candidates engage with popular culture, they do so with the intention of passing themselves off as relatable, relevant and progressive. The growing notion in black culture amongst black activists is that white America loves black culture, but not black people. Within the context of Clinton’s political violence against black people, her participation in black culture on national television raises significant questions about motive and intentionality. 

Clinton’s actions are evidence of an intention to engage with black voters, but only through popular culture. An old white woman dancing to a hip hop song on national television is not progressive or meaningful. The physical and sociopolitical violence against black people is in no way hindered by Clinton’s willingness to participate in their culture.

Why would the Clinton camp think this was a smart way to reach out to black voters?  The tradition of superficial engagement with black voters is widely justified with claims that black and brown activist communities don’t know what to ask of politicians. This is evident in Clinton’s patronizing suggestion that Black Lives Matter needs to “come together as a movement and say here’s what we want done about it.”

Campaign Zero, a website launched by activists of the Black Lives Matter community suggests policy changes to be adopted by candidates. While candidates like Bernie Sanders choose to engage with the policy, by directing his campaign to participate with activists and launching a racial justice platform, Clinton lacks in these areas. 

Black voters should be extremely wary of Clinton’s attempt to embody the relevant and relatable aspects of black culture without making racial justice a priority. We have seen a Clinton try this tactic before, and we have paid the price.

In the early ‘90s, while former President Bill Clinton was running for office, he played the saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show. He engaged black America with rhetoric about being a dirt-poor country boy from rural Arkansas. Our parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins of voting age all rushed to the polls to elect the man who scholar Toni Morrison would eventually dub the “first black president.”

Although he was given this title in response to the way he was treated after scandal started knocking on his door, black America ate it up – so much so that a historically black fraternity, Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc., inducted Clinton as an honorary brother.

Bill Clinton rewarded our efforts by passing the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act that would incarcerate an entire generation of black men and give birth to today’s prison industrial complex. Hillary “All Lives Matter” Clinton’s failure to adequately acknowledge the depths of the violence against black and brown bodies, coupled with her patronizing attempts to minimize the policy suggestions presented by Black Lives Matter activists, paints a troubling picture of what life would be like with another Clinton in office.


Haddiyyah Ali is a contributor to The Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at haddiyyah.ali@uconn.edu.