As the Democratic race in South Carolina draws closer to Saturday's primary election, both Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders have ramped up their appeals to African American voters, a significant portion of South Carolina’s population. Protesters at one Clinton event, however, brought back bad memories for the Clinton campaign.
One young woman stood up at a campaign event in Charleston to ask the former secretary of State a question. Ashley Williams confronted Ms. Clinton not on her present-day rhetoric, but on her past support for policies that harmed the African American population.
"Will you apologize to black people for mass incarceration?" asked Ms. Williams.
Her question referred to former President Bill Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill. Even the former president has admitted that the bill “made the problem worse.”
The young woman, who is currently a Masters candidate at the University of North Carolina, also confronted Clinton about a 1996 speech the candidate made about “super predators.”
The “super predator” theory is a long-discredited theory proposed by political scientist John DeIulio in the 1990s. Dr. DeIulio predicted that hoards of young people with no conscience or empathy would contribute to already growing crime rates in the 1990s.
“That was her pathologizing black youth as these criminal, animal people,” Williams told The Washington Post, “we know that’s not right and we know that’s really racist." She confronted Clinton over the 20-year-old speech during the event.
Eventually, Clinton told Williams with annoyance that her actions were “rude.”
"As a black queer person, I understand how I don’t always get to be in control of how I’m perceived in spaces," Williams told The Washington Post. "I’m especially not always in control of the way I'm perceived when I'm raising my voice to speak out against injustices. So I’m not surprised that I was told that I was being rude."
A video of the confrontation was later posted on YouTube.
Although several news outlets have reported that the protesters were part of Black Lives Matter, Williams told the Post that they were not affiliated with the larger group.
Clinton has been confronted before by Black Lives Matter protesters. A group of activists attempted to crash a Clinton forum on substance abuse last year. Instead of throwing them out, Clinton arranged to meet with them after the event.
Clinton told those protesters, who spoke to her about the issues of mass incarceration and racism, that their evaluation of the racist policies of the 1990s was “fair.” Clinton said, “It’s historically fair. It’s psychologically fair. It’s economically fair. But … there was a different set of concerns back in the 80s and the early 90s. We have to look at the world as it is today and try and figure out what will work now.”
Matt Dickinson, professor of political science at Middlebury College in Vermont, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview that, because the Clinton family has a longer and deeper reputation for working on behalf of the African American community, they have come under less scrutiny, later, than Senator Sanders.
“It has taken a while for people to start pulling back the layers of the Clinton campaign,” says Dr. Dickinson.
Harvard professor Timothy McCarthy tells the Monitor in a phone interview that Clinton is likely having many conversations about race in more private settings.
Just this week, a number of African American mothers who have lost children to violence came out in support of Clinton. The candidate first met with this group of mothers a year ago.
Sanders, Clinton’s fellow 2016 Democratic candidate, also voted for the 1994 Crime Bill.
Just a few days before Clinton’s August sit-down with members of the Black Lives Matter movement, protesters interrupted a Bernie Sanders event in Seattle.
In response, Sanders met with Black Lives Matter leaders in September. Although Sanders has publicly condemned disproportionately high incarceration rates in the African American community, the Huffington Post reports that at least one of the meeting’s attendees expressed dissatisfaction with his action, or lack thereof.
“I also made it very clear that he has not won over a large demographic of black people in this country no matter how progressive he seems and that his policy platform,” said Black Lives Matter leader Johnetta Elzie, “that his past history of dealing with black people, from his place of power in VT is also a concern in our community."
According to Dickinson, as the primary race moves away from predominantly white states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, and toward states such as South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, voters will likely be increasingly concerned about issues with racial implications. Race will therefore become a greater part of the political dialogue.
“We shouldn’t be surprised to see more of these incidents,” said Dickinson, “where activists confront both [Democratic] candidates on issues of race.”
“Actually, what is most striking to me,” said Dr. McCarthy, “is not that the Democratic candidates are talking too little about race, but the Republicans aren’t really talking about it at all.”