F. Michael Higginbotham
With the Democratic primary season upon us, political pundits have wondered whether Hillary Clinton will enjoy the same enthusiastic support from the African-American community in her presidential bid that President Barack Obama received. Others have wondered whether she actually deserves the same level of allegiance from African-American voters. Based upon her campaign thus far, there can be no doubt that the answer to both questions is a resounding “Yes.”
Hillary Clinton’s focus on racial issues in her presidential campaign began with an April 29th speech at Columbia University in New York City, where she spoke about recent police brutality incidents. Her wide-ranging discussion of the causes of racial unrest and her proposed solutions demonstrate a deep and thoughtful understanding of longstanding racial inequities both in the criminal justice system, and in the broader economic and political arenas throughout America.
Hillary opened by recognizing that while the vast majority of law enforcement officers perform their difficult jobs with respect for those they serve and in compliance with the law, something is seriously wrong in many of the current relationships between police and minority communities. She is absolutely right. Many American cities have had poor police community relations for decades. And with the recent discovery that a white Oklahoma City police officer raped 13 black women, while on duty, over the span of several years, minority perceptions of law enforcement are likely to get worse.
Such perceptions have much basis in fact. During the last two decades, the United States Department of Justice has conducted 67 investigations of civil rights violations by police departments. Of those 67 investigations, 24 departments across the U.S. were found to have serious violations requiring judicial oversight. The Department of Justice has intervened in 16 police departments found to have patterns of excessive or deadly force based on race. Over the last seven years, the Obama administration has intervened in four departments including Ferguson, Missouri, where black teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by a White officer and Baltimore, Maryland, where a young black man mysteriously died in police custody.
Clinton called for body cameras on every police officer in the nation as one step for dealing with this problem. This is an excellent start as bad relations have been exacerbated due to a lack of complete information or conflicting testimony where even implausible police officer versions are accepted as truth. Body cameras are not a cure-all, but they certainly would increase the level and accuracy of information and would likely lead to more indictments and convictions of officers who commit police misconduct. Hopefully, the risk of exposure would also significantly reduce misconduct.
Hillary’s most important observation, though, was that the issues raised by the recent deaths of blacks in the hands of police, concern far more than police practices. She explained that a comprehensive approach is desperately needed to address longstanding problems. She began by focusing on disparities in employment. Unemployment among Blacks nationally is twice as high as that for Whites and, in some cities, like Chicago, nearly half of blacks between 20-24 years old are neither working nor in school. As Clinton said, “There is something wrong when more than one out of every three young black men in Baltimore can’t find a job.”
More recently, in a debate with Bernie Sanders, Clinton enthusiastically embraced President Obama’s agenda, specifically endorsing his policies on health care, education, criminal justice reform, and on the economy. All are policies Hillary knows are popular with the president’s African-American constituency. She closed the debate saying that, “Obama does not get the credit he deserves,” and vowing to build on his legacy of achievement.
Hillary Clinton understands not only that Black lives matter, but that justice requires fundamental reform in the courts, on the streets, and in classrooms, offices, and voting booths. No doubt, as the primary season concludes and the general election begins, Clinton must make her case to Black (and all) voters as Obama did eight years ago. With her performance thus far, as evidenced by receiving 80% of the Black vote in the South Carolina primary – a greater percentage than candidate Obama receiv ed in 2008, Hillary Clinton continues to present a convincing argument.
F. Michael Higginbotham is the author of “Ghosts of Jim Crow: Ending Racism in Post- Racial America” and the Joseph Curtis Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore School of Law.