Hillary Clinton: “I Will Talk Only to White People …”

Black Lives Matter activists push edges that need pushing

After listening awhile, Hillary Clinton pettishly told a quintet of respectful Black Lives Matter activists that, “Yeah, well, respectfully, if that is your position, then I will talk only to white people about how we are going to deal with a very real problem.” More than being nonsensical, she was actually trying to avoid the reality that white violence against black people is an offense that only white people can stop. And she was also avoiding her own, very real role in promoting federal policies that have made black lives matter less and less over the past two decades.

Hillary Clinton’s meeting with Daunasia Yancey, Julius Jones, and others of Black Lives Matter began well enough on August 11 in Keene, New Hampshire, after an early glitch. The Secret Service kept the activists out of the room where Clinton was speaking because the room was full (they heard her speak with others in an overflow room). But then the Clinton campaign arranged the after-event meeting at which cordiality and calm were the rule.

This was in sharp contrast to the Social Security rally in Seattle on August 9, where Bernie Sanders was interrupted by other Black Lives Matter activists. There, two women took over the podium as the candidate began to speak. They waved their arms and shouted, silencing Sanders. Bernie held out his hand to shake one of theirs. Then came the tip-off: no one took his hand. As Sanders gave way, these Black Lives Matter women took over the event and shut it down. On their website they had posted a comment echoing Malcolm X in 1964, who had echoed Jean-Paul Sartre:

There is no business as usual while Black lives are lost.

We will ensure this by any means necessary.

After the event, Sanders issued a statement expressing his disappointment “that two people disrupted a rally attended by thousands” in support of Social Security. He added that “on criminal justice reform and the need to fight racism, there is no other candidate who will fight harder than me.” The next day, Sanders published his detailed racial justice platform.

The question for Hillary Clinton: Have you changed? 

The echo of revolutionary rhetoric was absent from the 16-minute exchange with Hillary Clinton in Keene (the full videotape was released August 19). Both Yancey and Jones spoke quietly and coherently, but they were substantively much more militant than the sloganeers of Seattle. After a friendly-looking handshake and some shoulder-touching from the candidate, Daunasia Yancey of Black Lives Matter in Boston read from her iPhone as she asked about the difference, if any, between the Hillary Clinton of twenty years ago and the Hillary now:

… you and your family have been personally and politically responsible for policies that have caused health and human services disasters in impoverished communities of color through the domestic and international war on drugs that you championed as First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State. And so I just want to know how you feel about your role in that violence and how you plan to reverse it?

For the next fifteen minutes, Clinton ignored the question and refused to offer any plan to ameliorate the suffering caused by US drug policy, or any other policy. Her body language was stiff, leaning back, “listening hard” but appearing unreceptive. Everything she had to say was contained in her empty and opaque first sentence in irrelevant response:

Well, you know, I feel strongly, which is why I had this town hall today.

Clinton never came close to addressing her own actions. She filibustered, in effect, for a minute or so about “concern” and “re-thinking” and “different circumstances” and “looking at the world as it is today,” without actually saying anything specific or meaningful. She was talking down to her listener, almost lecturing, without content. Hillary Clinton seemed to be suggesting that the policy she and her husband supported in the 1990s was good then, but maybe, just maybe, it needed to be re-thought in some ways now.

Yancey replied politely, with Clinton interrupting: “Yeah, and I would offer that it didn’t work then, either, and that those policies were actually extensions of white supremacist violence against communities of color. And so, I just think I want to hear a little bit about that, about the fact that actually while … those policies were being enacted, they were ripping apart families … and actually causing death.

“Yeah, I’m not sure I agree with you,” Clinton replied. She’s not sure? She’s had twenty years to think about race in America and she’s not sure whether she helped or hurt? She running for president and she’s not sure what she thinks is real? Next she said, “I’m not sure I disagree that any kind of government action often has consequences,” which means nothing and is unresponsive. That was Clinton’s choice, to be unresponsive, rather than admit she’d been wrong twenty years ago, when “there was a very serious crime wave that was impacting primarily communities of color and poor people.”

Hillary argues: all we’ve ever done is try to help you people

From there, Clinton slid into a meandering but empty defense of Clinton administration actions as a response to real community concerns. Doing so, she evaded the reality that the Clinton response was a top-down answer, that community involvement in solving its own problems was something to be tolerated as little as possible. She continued in the same vein in addressing the present, mentioning “systemic issues of race and justice that go deeper than any particular law” without particularity. Clinton seemed at a loss for anything to say until she seemed to stumble on the old pat-on-the-head, patronizing flattery for the critic who objects to cops killing black people:

What you’re doing, as activists and as people who are constantly raising these issues, is really important. So I applaud and thank you for that, I really do, because we can’t get change unless there’s constant pressure. But now the next step, so, you know – part of you need to keep the pressure on and part of you need to help figure out what do we do now, how are we gonna do it? [emphasis in original]

Slick moves. Praise the victims for objecting to their victimhood. Compliment them on their efforts to end victimization. Tell them it’s up to them to bring authority to heel, and to heal. And put the responsibility on the victims to figure out what the victimizers should do differently. And be extra careful not to come close to even implying that the president or the cops or anyone in between has any personal or institutional responsibility for victimizing people in the first place. Good job, Hillary Clinton.

Six minutes into the empty rhetoric, Clinton has answered no questions and offered no solutions, but bloviated “sympathetically” to get to this:

We need a whole comprehensive plan that I am more than happy to work with you guys on, to try to figure out, OK, we know black lives matter, we need to keep saying it so that people accept it, what do we do next?

Julius Jones tried to get Hillary Clinton to address specifics

As Clinton began to ramble on along this track, Julius Jones, founder of Black Lives Matter in Worcester, Massachusetts, gently, almost tentatively, intervened to say how honored he was to have Hillary Clinton talking to him, and such, but mass incarceration hasn’t worked, like so much else:

The truth is that there’s an extremely long history of unfortunate government practices that don’t work, that particularly affect black people and black families. And until we, as a country, and then the person who’s in the seat that you seek, actually addresses the anti-blackness current that is America’s first drug – we’re in a meeting about drugs, right?

America’s first drug is free black labor and turning black bodies into profit, and the mass incarceration system mirrors an awful lot like the prison plantation system. It’s a similar thread, right? And until someone takes that message and speaks that truth to white people in this country, so that we can actually take on anti-blackness as a founding problem in this country, I don’t believe that there is going to be a solution….

Jones pointed out that there’s a lot of money in prisons, that the US spends more money on prisons than it spends on schools. Throughout, Clinton was keeping a sober face and going “Mmmm” as if agreeing to his points. She seemed to agree when he said that African-American people were suffering more than others. And Jones expressed the fear that the plantation evolving into the prison system would evolve into new horrors unless something changed. So he returned to Yancey’s original question in a different form:

You know, I genuinely want to know – you and your family have been, in no uncertain way, partially responsible for this, more than most, right? Now, there may have been unintended consequences. But now that you understand the consequences, what in your heart has changed that’s going to change the direction in this country? Like, what in you – like, not your platform, not what you’re supposed to say – like, how do you actually feel that’s different than you did before? Like, what were the mistakes? And how can those mistakes that you made be lessons for all of America for a moment of reflection on how we treat black people in this country? [emphasis added]

How does Hillary Clinton “actually feel that’s different” from before?

This is a potentially devastating moment for candidate Clinton. Without missing a beat, a staff member interrupts, breaks the flow, and says something about keeping on schedule. Jones objected to the interruption and the staffer even said, “I’m not interrupting,” but he’d given the candidate another 20 seconds to frame her answer: “Well, obviously it’s a very thoughtful question that deserves a thoughtful answer.”

Then Clinton vamped on her “commitment” to make things better, going into a long riff on how she had spent much of her life trying to make things better for kids, all kinds of kids. She agreed that “there has to be a reckoning,” but also a “positive vision.” Once you face the truth of racial history, she said, then most people will say: so what am I supposed to do about it?

That’s what I’m trying to put together in a way that I can explain it and I can sell it ­– because in politics, you can’t explain it and you can’t sell it, it stays on the shelf.

Clinton then referred to other movements – civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights – and started a mini-lecture on how these movements had plans in place so that, once they had raised consciousness, they could get laws passed. Her spiel was self-servingly ahistorical, comparing the year-old Black Lives Matter to other movements that took decades to evolve. Her point was that Black Lives Matter needed a plan, which is undeniable. The point she didn’t make clear was that she had nothing to contribute. She covered that absence by saying:

Your analysis is totally fair. It’s historically fair. It’s psychologically fair. It’s economically fair. But you’re going to have to come together as a movement and say, “Here’s what we want done about it,” because you can get lip service from as many white people as you can pack into Yankee Stadium and a million more like it, who are going to say, “Oh, we get it. We get it. We’re going to be nicer.” OK? That’s not enough, at least in my book. That’s not how I see politics.

So, the consciousness raising, the advocacy, the passion, the youth of your movement is so critical. But now all I’m suggesting is, even for us sinners, find some common ground on agendas that can make a difference right here and now in people’s lives. And that’s what I would love to, you know, have your thoughts about, because that’s what I’m trying to figure out how to do….” [emphasis added]

If the “analysis is totally fair,” why is Clinton’s response so pallid?

Clinton spent another minute or so making the same point in another way, once again absolving herself of commitment to any particular goal, or strategy, and once more laying it on the victims to deal with their victimization by the white culture she represents and helped shape in its present form. They had been talking about 14 minutes by then and Hillary Clinton had answered no questions and had offered nothing. A staffer interrupted, saying it was time to go.

But Julius Jones quietly refused to accept the patronizing pat on the head with the implied promise of a bone to be tossed at some indefinite time in the future. With quiet patience he opened up the only meaningful dialogue of the encounter, as reported on Democracy NOW!:

JULIUS JONES: Respectfully, the piece that’s most important – and I stand here in your space, and I say this as respectfully as I can – but if you don’t tell black people what we need to do, then we won’t tell you all what you need to do. Right?

HILLARY CLINTON: I’m not telling you; I’m just telling you to tell me.

JULIUS JONES: What I mean to say is that this is, and has always been, a white problem of violence. It’s not– there’s not much that we can do to stop the violence against us. [emphasis added throughout]

That is the moment of truth. Blacks are almost powerless to stop white people from killing them. Blacks have always been almost powerless to stop white people from killing them. White people need to decide that killing black people is wrong and will no longer be allowed by the white power structure. Clinton must know this, it’s so obvious. She said, “I understand what you’re saying,” but she gave no evidence that she understands. And when Jones tried to pursue his argument, she cut him off, her voice rising peevishly, sarcastically echoing “respectfully” with no respect:

JULIUS JONES: And then, we are also, respectfully, respectfully—

HILLARY CLINTON: Yeah, well, respectfully, if that is your position, then I will talk only to white people about how we are going to deal with a very real problem.

JULIUS JONES: That’s not what I mean. That’s not what I mean. That’s not what I mean.

HILLARY CLINTON: Well—

JULIUS JONES: But like, what I’m saying is you –what you just said was a form of victim blaming. Right? You were saying that what the Black Lives Matter movement … needs to do to change white hearts is to come up with a policy change.

HILLARY CLINTON: No, I’m not talking about—look, I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate. You’re not going to change every heart….

In the end, Clinton promised nothing – so you know what to expect

Clinton creates a straw man argument – Jones didn’t say “change every heart.” Then she uses that falsehood to say again what she’s been saying all along, to say what Jones said she said. Once again Clinton puts the responsibility for creating change on the people with the least power to create change. This is nothing but bad faith. (Even Bill Clinton has apologized, at the N.A.A.C.P. convention, for increasing the mass incarceration of black young men: “I signed a bill that made the problem worse.”)

Ironically, Hillary Clinton’s nasty suggestion that “I will talk only to white people” actually implies a more relevant tactic. She has no intention of doing anything like that, it seems. But it would be a start for Hillary Clinton to talk to her 1990s self and say, out loud, that mass incarceration for profit was a morally and economically corrupt idea and today I reject it. Then today’s Hillary Clinton might have more credibility when she expressed sympathy for people oppressed in part by her own past policies. (A sometimes hilarious pro-Hillary version of this event by Maggie Haberman appeared on page one of the August 20 New York Times.)

What happened in Keene was that she concluded with her voice reaching an almost angry intensity, with her finger pointing at the black man’s chest, and with her message reiterated that, if America fails to change, it’s the victims’ fault.

So maybe she really is talking only to white people. Hillary Clinton has been in public life for decades. How can she possibly be so unaware of racial reality as she presents herself. How can she possibly know at least some of the things that need to be done to improve Black lives and all lives? Her message – or really, her lack of message – is certainly what a whole lot of white people want to hear.

In that respect, she’s little different from Scott Walker, who responded to a reporter asking him if he would meet with Black Lives Matter by calling the question “ridiculous.” Walker added: “I’m here to talk to voters in New Hampshire about things that matter.”

Does Black Lives Matter matter enough to enough people?

For Scott Walker, suggesting that Black Lives Matter is something that doesn’t matter is designed to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or one could say that Walker continues the grand old tradition of marginalizing the marginalized. And no wonder, since Black Lives Matter is a conscious, conscientious threat to Walker and all his ilk. Black Lives Matter describes itself as:

… an ideological and political intervention; we are not controlled by the same political machine we are attempting to hold accountable. In the year leading up to the elections, we are committed to holding all candidates for Office accountable to the needs and dreams of Black people. We embrace a diversity of tactics. We are a decentralized network aiming to build the leadership and power of black people….

Historically, all political parties have participated in the systematic disenfranchisement of Black people. Anti-black racism, especially that sanctioned by the state, has resulted in the loss of healthy and thriving Black life and well-being. Given that, we will continue to hold politicians and political parties accountable for their policies and platforms. We will also continue to demand the intentional dismantling of structural racism.

So far, Hillary Clinton only pretends to be interested in thinking about that. She has better rhetoric and a more flexible and subtle approach to racial issues than Walker and his fellow Republicans. She seems to offer more sympathy to victims of the American system, but it’s hard to see how she’s offering a presidency that would deliver very much better results than any of theirs.

The official position of the Sanders campaign on racial justice (9 pages) is unequivocal in principle:

We must pursue policies that transform this country into a nation that affirms the value of its people of color. That starts with addressing the four central types of violence waged against black and brown Americans: physical, political, legal and economic….

It is an outrage that in these early years of the 21st century we are seeing intolerable acts of violence being perpetuated by police, and racist terrorism by white supremacists.

Hillary Clinton, face-to-face with Black Lives Matter people speaking truth to would-be power, offered nothing better than equivocation and victim blaming.

William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. This article was first published in Reader Supported News. Read other articles by William.