Hillary Failed to Apologize to People of Color for Mass Incarceration: I Believe It Cost Her the Election

Nov 11 2016

Hillary Failed to Apologize to People of Color for Mass Incarceration: I Believe It Cost Her the Election

November 11th, 2016

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.

Read more from The Influence:

The Nightmare Scenario: President Donald Trump Dictates US Drug Policy

The Ugly Campaign Against Prop. 64 Showed Why Marijuana Legalization Must Mean Social Justice

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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 bold leadership was her undoing.

And because of that, Michelle Alexander—author of The New Jim Crow, that defining work about race and incarceration—was right to question earlier this year whether Hillary deserved to win at all.


Jerry Otero (aka Mista Oh) is the founder and chief troublemaker at cre8tivetyouthink.org. Trained as a psychologist, he has served as the youth policy manager at Drug Policy Alliance and supervisor of NYC public high school drug education programs. His last piece for The Influence was: “People Who Still Support Marijuana Prohibition Really Should ‘Think of the Children.'”

  • While I agree that Bill & Hillary should have apologized more forthrightly about the super-predator rhetoric, I don’t think that’s what cost her the election. Instead, I actually think it was her promise to provide free healthcare and education. The ‘white supremacist’ people thought, “I don’t want to have to pay for free healthcare and education for everyone else.” I actually agree with that, even though I supported Hillary over Trump primarily because Trump was far worse – he’s a socialist too (remember what “Nazi” stands for) and because TrumPutin will start WW III against North Africa. If she was going against a conventional candidate like Bush or Rubio then I would not have supported her.

    Of course she was thinking “The poor people will support me because I am offering free healthcare and education.” LOL – this is America. We will cheer loudly for free stuff, but when it comes down to it, we want to earn things ourselves. I’m reminded of Harry Reid’s speech at the Dem convention where he says something like, “I worked hard that summer to buy my mother some teeth.”

    I know it seems counter intuitive, but the solutions to these problems is to provide less services and to abolish the minwage. This will improve quality and reduce cost and make people invested in their own development. It will also offer a ladder for the inexperienced, even if they have to share a room for a few years. Raising the minwage will accelerate roboticization and unemployment and institutionalization. Because the prisons will be happy to find beds for people whose skills aren’t yet worth $12/hour.

    • Thanks for your comments. I don’ think that it was the only thing that lost her the election, it was her lack of bold leadership that did it. The pundits now say that #thumps’s win was fueled by a demand for change. But didn’t we want change too? And wouldn’t we have taken to the streets? Like Trump, Bernie had mobilized a populist movement of millions of interested voters who now know that the Dems will never embrace the party’s progressive wing. Sadly, the people that I have spoken to say that they saw no difference between the two candidates. Yes it was her campaign to lose. But an apology would have not only been politically expedient, it also has the advantage of being the right thing to do. She should have tasked her cracker jack staff to draft an original and forward thinking blueprint for social justice. That with an apology would have been a good place to start. #anotherworldisstillpossible

      • Ya know, I hate to say it but I think Trump’s rise can be attributed in part to the dismantling of 12 Step doctrine. Because many of the Trumpkins a decade ago would have just gotten drunk or high and joined AA and plundered the lower classes there. But now that’s been discredited, so supporting Trump was their best option. It will get really bad – against poor and minorities. I think at this point it’s up to the younger generation to take a stand against the middle age Frumpkins. But on the other hand they are so brainwashed by socialism that they may prefer servitude. (Yes, I am a Libertarian – sue me.)

        • 3PacBieber

          > I think at this point it’s up to the younger generation to take a stand against the middle age Frumpkins

          I would like it if we, those alienated by Trump and his supporters, distanced ourselves from them and do whatever we can to support each other—pooling to fund our own endeavors and relocating to another state when necessary.

          • We need our own political party! Thanks for your comments.

    • We could squabble over some of the finer points. There were many things Hillary could have done differently. But, this one cost her election. Look at the numbers. Specifically Mich. Penn. & FLA. Hillary lost 65 electoral votes in states that Obama won on the shoulders of Black and Brown voters who came out in record numbers to support him.

  • Knog Knebronson

    Yo Mista Oh, Hillary was so deep in her work and support while a Senator and Secratary of State, in the War on Drugs and the criminalization of folks, especially our black and brown communities. Also, her history and body of work shows great support, funding and more funding of USA governments resources in the War on Drugs and the on going mass Slaughters in USA, Mexico, Central, South America. Her actions have spoken. Any apology she could have given, I feel would have been hollow and phony, like so much of what she does and says.But, maybe you are correct, maybe even a hollow and phony apology would have gotten her elected?

    • Thanks for your response. You bring up a good point. It needs to be an apology with an action backing it up.

      • Knog Knebronson

        Yo Mists Oh, I`’ll be looking for more of your articles on influence.org. Thanks

  • janet goree

    Not just apologize. My son is serving 30mm for a crime where he physically touched no one yet the man who killed my granddaughter got probation.