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February 27, 2008

Cracked history: How Hillary Clinton really "played the race card" and Sean Wilentz failed to notice

Writing at length in the New Republic, historian Sean Wilentz throws strong charges at the Obama campaign in this piece titled, "Race Man: How Barack Obama played the race card and blamed Hillary Clinton."  Though the interesting piece should be read in full, I find most telling that Wilentz does not even mention the most seeming racialized decision that Hillary Clinton has made during the campaign, namely her remarkable decision in December to oppose retroactive application of the new crack guidelines.

As I highlighted in this first post, the only prominent opponents to retroactivity for the new USSC guidelines have been President Bush's Justice Department (noted here), Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee (noted here), and Senator Hillary Clinton.  I was so disappointed by Senator Clinton's position --- and have blogged about it so much --- because it seemed to be a racialized decision that echoed her husband's tendency to talk a good game about racial justice, but then actively support criminal justice laws that have well-known and pernicious racial inequities.

To the extent that anyone has justifiable complaints about race in the campaign and the media's coverage, I think the complaints should be focused on the media's failure (and perhaps also the Obama campaign's failure) to demand that Senator Clinton explain the basis for her position on this and other racialized criminal justice issues.

Some related prior posts of mine on race, sentencing and the 2008 campaign:

February 27, 2008 at 08:13 PM | Permalink


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Tracked on May 5, 2008 4:53:53 PM


Doug, I think you are way over the top. Just because you don't support releasing a bunch of criminals doesn't mean that you are making a "racialized" decision. So why would Willentz have made that point?

Barack Obama has shown himself not to be above racial pandering, given his complaints about the "just-us" system at the Howard University Dem debate. (Apart from being a blatant racial appeal, it's also laughable. Given Barry-O's upbringing, he really has no business talking about "us".) Moreoever, his pandering over Jena, with zero sympathy for the victim of nasty racially-motivated violence, was despicable. One wonders where Obama thinks he gets any moral high ground to complain about racial politics.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 27, 2008 9:05:27 PM

My guess is that Obama has decided this is a battle he doesn't want. Would he really benefit in the primary (let alone the general election) from appearing to take a stand on behalf of convicted drug dealers? Few people appreciate the extreme harshness the crack guidelines. After all, there is a reason why Clinton is opposing retroactivity - it is politically expedient.

Obama's personal history might also play a part in his reluctance to address this issue. So far his admitted drug use hasn't been a big problem for him. I'm hopeful that it won't be - after all, I'm sure he used far less cocaine than the current president and has been more honest about his youthful indiscretions than 'I didn't inhale' Clinton. Just the same, I bet his advisers are recommending that he not do anything to open the door.

Posted by: barksdale | Feb 27, 2008 9:23:51 PM

federalist, given that Hillary Clinton on virtually every other issues disagrees strongly with the Bush Administration and the House Republicans, can you provide a clear non-racial justification for why she is the only prominent Democrat on record to oppose a proposal that the (Bush-appointed) USSC said unanimously is a critical decision to achieve fairer and more equal justice.

Posted by: Doug B. | Feb 27, 2008 10:37:32 PM

I imagine Hillary thought that that was the most politically advantageous position to take.

As for Sean Wilintz's New Republic article - The tone of the article is exactly what makes people recoil at the thought of another Clinton Presidency. I had to blog it there. We're entitled to more from candidates running for the presidency (and their friends and supporters). This article is nonsense and nauseating. The parsing and whining is not what I want to hear from a Presidential candidate.

Thanks for calling attention to it. I also would like to hear more discussion of actual important issues.

Posted by: beth curtis | Feb 27, 2008 10:41:30 PM

Has anyone compared the rock moral panic with the current meth moral panic? Since meth is predominantly a "white" - and a "white middle class" - drug at that, maybe a comparison is in order.

Posted by: George | Feb 27, 2008 11:09:20 PM

George, meth is vigorously prosecuted. Vigorously.

Doug, first of all, opposing the release of crack felons is simply different from doing what Willentz is accusing the Obama campaign of. So if he had stcuk that in, it would have been awkward and would have detracted from his point--people would have been scratching their heads saying "Huh".

Second of all, my guess is that Hillary opposes the Bush Administration on far less than her campaign would indicate. So on issues where there is not much daylight, she's likely not going to make a big deal about it if there is no political benefit to making a big deal. She is merely taking a position that we don't want a bunch of crack felons released into society. And Doug, let's not forget that the race of the criminal is not the only issue--since most crime is intra-racial, letting this predominantly black criminal population hit the streets will likely result in the increased victimization of law-abiding black people.

Hillary doesn't seem to be pandering, as she is not making a big deal out of this--maybe she gets it that Dems have shot themselves in the foot over criminals and she thinks that she only has so much political capital and doesn't want to waste it on crackheads.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 28, 2008 1:46:56 AM

federalist, not only is it funny to see you come to Hillary's defense so vigorously in an attempt to deny racialized realities, it is telling that you are eager to suggest that only you and Hillary and the Rs opposing retroactivity are the true champions of "law-abiding black people."

Wilentz asserts that the Clintons have not "played the race card," and my point is that it is hard to understand Hillary's decision here (and the likely concerns of some folks on the Obama team) except in political, racialized terms. Hillary does not want to use any political capital on a certain group of mostly BLACK offenders. That was the same choice her husband made in various ways in the 1992 campaign and throughout his Presidency, and to seek to dispute the racial component of all of this is to deny reality and/or to fail to understand the demographics of the federal prison population.

And that's may point: Wilentz is so eager to attack the Obama camp, he is blinded to the reality that the most racially significant campaign moment for Hillary was one he does not even understand and one that the media failed to cover in any serious way. But, apparently even some historians like to leave out historical details that do not fit their chosen narrative.

Posted by: Doug B. | Feb 28, 2008 6:15:58 AM

That Wilentz piece struck me as bizarre and strained. Beth is right that "The tone of the article is exactly what makes people recoil at the thought of another Clinton Presidency."

Doug, you're dead on that federalist rushing to Hillary's support is an hilarious and odd twist. "Strange bedfellows," indeed! I see the dynamics Wilentz is describing as mere comeuppance for the Clinton's taking a core constituency for granted. Maybe if she or her husband hadn't demagogued criminal justice issues over the years, backing bad laws like the crack disparity for crass political advantage, that portion of the Democratic base wouldn't be leaving her in droves at the ballot box.

Instead, Clinton's positions have lost her support in the black community and gained an alliance with federalist! Seems like a bad tradeoff, to me.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Feb 28, 2008 7:09:03 AM

Right. Crack sentencing isn't about drugs or crime--it's about black people.

Being addicted to crack and having friends in prison for crack is part of the "black" identity--it's right up there with jazz and Martin Luther King. If you're unwilling to let crack dealers out of prison early, that's like saying that Martin Luther King was a bad person with a worthless cause.

Did I miss something, or is this just the latest version of the "everything's about sentencing" joke? Because, of course, every politician should be judged according to the relative importance s/he places on sentencing issues. Health care, education, tax, defense... don't bother with those things. If a politician can't tell you the difference between Gall and Kimbrough or can't name the members of the USSC, that person should drop out of the race in shame.

Posted by: | Feb 28, 2008 8:10:25 AM

8:10:25 AM, I have never suggested that sentencing should be a sole or even central issue for judging candidates. Rather, my point in this context is always to highlight how eager politicans and pundits and the media are to COMPLETELY IGNORE sentencing and criminal justice issues, despite the fact that (a) many states spend more on prisons than schools, and (b) most states provide "free universal health care" only for people in prison, (c) minorities, the mentally ill and addicted, and the under-educated are disproportionately impacted by sentencing and criminal justice realities, and (d) tax cuts might be funded by smarter sentencing laws.

In other words, sentencing and crmiinal justice have a lot to do with ALL the big domestic issues in the 2008 campaign --- (a) education, (b) health care, (c) race, (d) taxes --- and yet we have had 20 debates and no serious discussion of these issues. Why? What does that say about who benefits and who gets hurt by ignoring these issues?

Posted by: Doug B. | Feb 28, 2008 8:34:05 AM

I don't see how I've denied "racial realitites". Pointing out that a group of black felons released on the street will likely disproportionately victimize black people, I don't think, opens me up to the snark about being protectors of "law-abiding black people".

Most people agree that the cocaine/crack sentencing disparity needs to be reviewed (if I am a GOP Congressman, I say fine, but in exchange for tightening up habeas standards and eliminating stays for method of execution claims). Fine. But accusing Hillary Clinton, whom I loathe by the way, of playing racial politics because she doesn't want to release criminals from lawful sentences is over the top.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 28, 2008 9:42:02 AM

Yes federalist,


Posted by: | Feb 28, 2008 10:07:37 AM

I think the professor is misusing the "playing the race card" euphemism. When one "plays the race card," they deliberately make race an issue when it in has no relevancy to the discussion, or will garner sympathy/votes. In other words, the card is played for an advantage. Hillary Clinton opposing the retroactivity of the crack guidelines can be argued to be racist (i.e., no other explanation as to why this is the only GOP position she supports), but I think that's distinct from "playing the race card."

Posted by: JustClerk | Feb 28, 2008 1:05:40 PM

If the mere fact that something "can be argued to be racist" is sufficient to exclude it from "playing the race card," then nothing is included.

Accusations of racism have the same place in public affairs today that accusations of communism did in the McCarthy era. Yes, there are some real ones. But the accusation is made routinely, loosely, recklessly and often for the purpose of smearing people who have legitimate differences of opinion on questions of policy.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Feb 28, 2008 4:59:33 PM

Smearing people . . . . and also shouting them down.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 28, 2008 6:10:58 PM

I can't understand JustClerk how is it "playing the race card" only when it appeals to Black people? Last time I checked, White is a race as well. So given the situation, it is totally fair to infer that in opposing crack retroactivity Hillary is trying to appeal to White voters in the Democratic primary using the fear of crime, which anyone who knows their history knows that using "fear of crime" as racial code originated with Nixon's "Southern Strategy" in 1968 (and was ultimately motivated by the fear of losing Republican votes to George Wallace's American Indepedent Party).

The fact that puts Hillary in the same position with Bush and federalist speaks for itself. Of course, given the Clinton history, hardly a surprise (see Bill Clinton in 1992).

Posted by: Zack | Feb 29, 2008 10:06:42 AM

So, Zack, what are you accusing me of?

Posted by: federalist | Feb 29, 2008 11:35:50 AM

Nothing federalist - I'm saying that Clinton is pandering to voters' "fear of crime" (which may or may not be racist, but given the history of the use of "fear of crime" and "law and order" in campaigns are suspect) and that such a position is not really a good one, since the voters that position appeal to are not going to vote for Hillary Clinton.

Posted by: Zack | Mar 3, 2008 11:42:44 AM

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