Some may blame the likes of me for this country’s imminent nightmare, but I am proud to be a dyed-in-the-wool Bernie Sanders supporter. That said, once Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination I always intended to cast my vote for her.
But though I appreciated her many qualities, I was hugely disappointed by one aspect of her campaign—one that I believe cost her the election.
Issues critically important to black and brown communities jumped squarely in her lap several times, yet she failed to adequately demonstrate a commitment to them beyond lip-service and some proposals that were too little, too late. I’m talking mass incarceration, her previous complicity in it, and how to begin rebuilding the communities devastated by it.
As a Latino, I did vote for her, but I did so grudgingly. She missed a unique opportunity to galvanize support in our communities, in an election against a racist opponent in which low turnout by Democratic voters turned out to be the clincher.
Hillary’s first big chance came when Bill addressed the NACCP last year. He admitted then that the omnibus crime bill he signed in 1994 “made the problem worse.”
That notorious bill exacerbated the punitive policies built up during the Reagan era—lengthening sentences, establishing a federal “three strikes” law for violent offenses and driving up prison populations—with a hugely disproportionate impact on people of color.
Hillary advocated for that crime bill. During that period, she also employed the racially charged “super-predator” concept, saying: “They are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘super-predators.’ No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way but first we have to bring them to heel.”
Yet since Bill’s NACCP apology speech, she has failed to fully recognize her role in exacerbating the marginalization and persecution of people of color. Nor has she presented an original cogent blueprint for social justice.
Even months later, when pressed during her primary debates with Bernie Sanders, she couched her language cautiously, saying: “There were some aspects of it that worked well, the Violence Against Women provisions have worked well, for example, but other aspects of it were a mistake and I agree.”
She needed to instead apologize unreservedly for the travesty of mass incarceration and the damage it did, to commit emphatically to dismantling the brutal system that survives by feeding generations of black and brown children into the prison-industrial complex.
Honest acknowledgements of this issue matter so much. Because the whole period between 1968 and the early 2000s represents a low point in the history of US criminal justice. Decades of oppressive policies swelled the prison population tenfold, turning incarceration into a booming, profitable industry.
An emphasis on criminal justice solutions to social problems—and an under-emphasis on health, education and other human services—resulted in the criminal justice system emerging as the predominant social institution in certain communities.
Look at some of the numbers. The State of California has built 10 penitentiaries and only one university during the last 30 years. New York State, meanwhile, spends a smaller proportion of its budget on education than anywhere else in the US. (The national average is approximately 36 percent of each state’s annual budget; New York spends less than 28 percent).
In real dollars, New York spends $56,000 per incarcerated person vs. $16,000 per student—a 3.5:1 ratio that prioritizes the criminalization of an entire generation over providing support for our children to achieve adulthood, employment and responsible citizenship.
And of course, the US has become by far the most incarcerated nation on earth, with well over 2 million people behind bars at any one time.
Hillary Clinton was not one of the main drivers of this situation—nowhere near, or I would never have voted for her. But she insulted us by playing down both the enormity of the problem and her own level of involvement.
When Black Lives Matter supporters protested against her in the summer, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise; it should have acted as a warning.
What Hillary seems not to have done is wonder what real change would look like.
Initiatives aimed at reducing the number of misdemeanor arrests, disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline, sentencing reforms and revamping the bail system are all welcome harbingers of progress. But criminal justice reforms are not enough! Just as ending legal slavery did not equate to black freedom, ending mass incarceration is not the same as removing the economic, social and political shackles of black and brown people.
Communities most impacted by mass incarceration are also mired in unemployment and poverty, poor-quality housing and low-performing schools. Mass incarceration disrupts social networks and relationships and limits long-term life chances. In many neighborhoods most impacted, like those managed by NYCHA, we see up to 70 percent of the community living in poverty, with unemployment rates twice the national average. There, over half of children live in single-parent homes. Eighty-five percent of adults do not have a HS diploma. Eighty-three percent of third grade students are already behind in reading, with 67 percent behind in math.
Real reform acknowledges that ending mass incarceration is necessary but not sufficient. Real reform acknowledges that white supremacy is a shape-shifter—it adapts to different times and situations, using different vehicles to exert itself. Real reform will dismantle all of the rigged systems designed to oppress people of color.
Real reform also acknowledges that we all need to heal—some from the harms inflicted upon them, others from the harms inflicted in their name. The time to start rebuilding communities most impacted by mass incarceration is now. And an apology is a good place to start.
Over these past months, my progressive friends have grown increasingly impatient with me, defensive and even hostile when I criticized Hillary despite intending to vote for her. Now, we are reeling from this bitter wake-up call. I am, too. But it didn’t have to be this way.
The city of Chicago recently apologized to the victims of torture and other abuse committed on CPD Commander Jon Burge’s watch. Its statement read: “we wish to acknowledge what happened and formally express regret for any and all shameful treatment…” and it added, “… action speaks louder than words.”
It went on to detail a list of comprehensive reparations owed to the hundreds of victims. One of them was later quoted as saying, tearfully, that the acknowledgement of what happened to him was more important than the millions in compensation the city paid.
People of color and our allies could have carried Hillary across the finish line to a sure victory. In the end, her lack of courage was her undoing.
And because of that, Michelle Alexander—author of The New Jim Crow, that defining work about race and incarceration—may have been right when she wrote earlier this year that Hillary didn’t deserve to win.
This piece originally appeared in the November 11 issue of The Influence