Decoding African American Support for Hillary Clinton

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Many Americans seem to be at a loss to explain the apparent popularity of Bill and Hillary Clinton among African-Americans. In the recent Nevada Democratic Presidential Caucus Clinton bested her opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont among Black voters by 76% to  22%, according to entrance polls. Among other racial and ethnic groups in Nevada the voting was more even and favored Bernie Sanders.

Sanders carried non-Hispanic White voters by 49% to 47%; he carried Hispanic/Latino voters by 53% to 45%. The overall vote in the Nevada Caucus was close; Clinton walked away with 52.7% to Sanders’ 47.2%. Had African-Americans merely split their vote more evenly there is a good chance that Sanders would have won the Nevada Caucus, and that would have been a huge blow to Clinton’s attempt to secure her party’s nomination for president.

Hillary Clinton’s strength among African-American voters is likely to be on display, once again, in South Carolina where she leads Sanders among Black voters 65% to 28%. Clinton’s lead among white voters in South Carolina is more even at 54% to 40%, but African-Americans make up 50% of the state’s Democratic Party voters.

Even when she was running against then-Senator Barack Obama, in 2008, Clinton led Obama among African-American voters by 60% against Obama’s 20%, until Obama proved that he could actually win the election when he racked up an impressive victory in the mostly white Iowa Caucus.

For political “progressives” in the United States the intensity of Black support for the Clintons is puzzling, especially since some of the signature legislation from Bill Clinton’s administration, when he was president (1993 – 2001) were policies that gave local police officers military equipment, which many charge is recklessly used against African-American citizens; he introduced mass incarceration policies, which, Civil Rights activist, writer and law professor, Michelle Alexander, has charged has had a devastating effect on Black families and communities; and he introduced welfare “reform”, which ushered in an era of extreme poverty among low-income Blacks.

The progressives, who favor Bernie Sanders, have come up with a number of theories to try to explain Clinton’s enduring appeal among Black voters. Some say that she has been “pandering” by promising Blacks everything in return for their votes, but if making campaign promises is “pandering”, then Bernie Sanders has done the same.

Others say that Hillary Clinton is the beneficiary of Bill Clinton’s popularity among Black voters, and that Blacks want to re-capture the feeling they once had when he was in the White House. Despite Bill Clinton’s record on policing and incarceration he appointed African-Americans to high-profile jobs in the federal government and, as president, visited nearly twice as many African nations as all of his predecessors combined.  But as time has passed, especially following the heady experience of having a chief executive of African-American descent, Clinton’s tenure in the White House has somewhat faded in the eyes of Black voters.

Perhaps the most persuasive explanation for Black support for the Clintons is that Bill and Hillary, having spent so many years in public life in the South, are able to channel the cadences, rhythms and non-verbal language of African-Americans as well as anyone who was born into a Black American household. Black American culture has its roots in the southern states.

Political appeal often has more to do with the ability to feel comfortable with a candidate than it has to do with any concrete policy. Indeed, author Toni Morrison once affectionately referred to Bill Clinton as America’s “first Black president,” and the phrase stuck in the Black community.

While there may be some truth to each of those explanations for the Clintons’ enduring appeal, I think they all miss the main point: Hillary Clinton is doing well among Black voters because she is running as President Obama’s “third term”. Just as significantly, when she is in front of mostly Black audiences she positions herself as an unwavering defender of President Obama against attempts by conservatives and the Republican Party to delegitimize him.

Hillary Clinton is proving herself to be a master at identity politics. During the 2008 primary campaign she first tried to appeal to women by tapping into their legitimate concerns. Many women in America have been passed over for promotion and advancement in the male-dominated workforce, even when those women appeared to be more qualified.

Early in Clinton’s 2008 campaign she defined her candidacy as an effort to undo those injustices. She promoted her candidacy as the embodiment of the efforts of women everywhere to break through the “glass ceiling” in corporate boardrooms and in government. 

When she was faced with a sudden and steep loss in African-American support, following Obama’s victory in Iowa, Clinton adopted the identity of working class white America and tapped into their resentment of well-educated racial minorities moving up the social and economic ladder and holding jobs that used to be reserved for white people only. At one point in the campaign, Clinton said famously, “I represent hard-working … white Americans”.

In Clinton’s most recent play for identity politics she has tapped into African-American resentment over the way that President Obama has been treated during his administration. Blacks see Obama’s treatment, particularly by the Republican congress, as being unprecedented in the level of disrespect he has received, and they see his treatment as being part of a larger pattern among many white Americans, to deny the legitimacy his presidency.

For example, high-profile Republican politicians, such as former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and conservative authors, such as Dinesh D’Souza, have said that Obama, because of his “upbringing”, does not share American values.

The suggestion that the Obama presidency is inauthentic was most visibly on display as Fox News, a major conservative news outlet, and Donald Trump, who is currently the leading contender in the Republican Party for the presidency, insisted that the president had not been born in the United States, even after he repeatedly made copies of his birth certificate available to the media. In the United States it is required that one be a “natural born citizen” in order to be president.

In an example of unusual disrespect shown to a president, a congressman from South Carolina, a former confederate state, broke protocol and shouted “You lie” while the president was delivering a speech during a joint session of congress. The act was unprecedented and showed profound disrespect for the Obama presidency. Protests calling for the impeachment of the president frequently included waving the confederate flag, which has long been a symbol of southern resistance against racial equality, and for white supremacy.

In yet another unprecedented breach of protocol, Speaker of the House John Boehner, a Republican, invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak before a joint session of congress without bothering to consult the president. Adding this breach were the contents of Netanyahu’s speech, which were critical of a treaty the president was negotiating with Iran and other nations at the time. The invitation was widely interpreted, around the world, as a congressional Republican slap at Obama’s right and responsibility, as president, to conduct foreign policy.

Conservative reporters have interrupted the president in the middle of a Rose Garden speech and lectured him during interviews, as if to put him “in his place.” This is an unusual way for journalists to treat a president, and many Black Americans see in it a refusal, because of his race, to give the president the respect and dignity that was customary for anyone else who has held that office.

More recently the Republicans have refused to hear the president’s director of the office of management and budget present the president’s budget before the house and senate budget committees, which is unheard of even when the legislature is opposed to what the president proposes. Not to even allow the president’s representative to present his budget to the congress is a sharp break from conventional behavior in Washington.

Additionally, the leader of the Republican senate majority, Senator Mitch McConnell, announced that he did not intend to hold hearings on whomever President Obama nominates to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court, following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. Filling vacancies on the Supreme Court is one of the powers of the presidency. It is unprecedented that the leader of a political party that has control over the senate would announce that he does not intend to allow the president to fill a vacancy, and to do so even before the president has offered a nominee.

Each of these incidents suggest to many Americans, and especially African-Americans, that President Obama is being treated as though he is not a legitimate president, and the primary factor in treating him this way, they believe, is his race.

Black Americans see, in this treatment, further evidence that Blacks are disliked in America when they fail, and are hated when they excel in areas traditionally occupied by whites. Hillary Clinton has been astute enough to realize this and, in the days leading up to primaries in states with large African-American populations, she stokes these resentments, lumping Sanders’ left-wing criticisms of Obama’s policies along with right-wing critics who seem to challenge the legitimacy of the president himself.

As she campaigns in front of African-American audiences Hillary Clinton presents herself as the president’s most stalwart ally against conservative and Republican efforts to delegitimize him, and she offers herself as the most reliable defender of Obama’s legacy. Black voters, suspecting that many Americans are determined to erase any evidence of the president’s accomplishments once his term is over, believe that electing Hillary will put an exclamation mark at the end of the Obama presidency.

For many older African-American voters, voting for Hillary is a way to vote for Obama one final time. For Hillary Clinton’s strategists, running as Obama’s third term, at least in African-American communities, is a sure way to nail down the nomination of the Democratic Party for president. Thus far, Hillary’s calculation, based on playing to identity politics, seems to be working. 

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