What Having A White Feminist Nominee Means To Me
I'm a twenty-something feminist millennial. This should be a wildly exciting time for me, knowing we're this much closer to having a woman be our president for the first time ever. But I'm also a woman of color. One of my parents is an immigrant, and I lived most of my childhood in a working class family. The world I know is very different from that of a white, middle-to-upper class, educated people of privilege, and it's always been of the utmost importance that the candidate I support in any presidential election is the kind of feminist who understands that.
Hillary Clinton is not that candidate for me. Looking at her entire career in politics, I don't think she has done enough for people of color in America to make her the kind of president who will fight for their equality and wellbeing in the long run.
Though she was not yet in office, in 1994, she supported a crime bill put forth by President Bill Clinton, which added numerous federal capital crimes and beefed up police forces around the country. This exacerbated the War on Drugs, causing incarceration rates to rise significantly and unemployment rates in the black community to skyrocket. She may not have been an elected official yet, but she certainly did her part to actively and openly support these policies, and that matters. She made a speech in 1994 to lobby for the cause, and she cast offensive racial stereotypes on young black men by publicly calling them "super-predators" with "no conscience, no empathy." She also insisted, "...we have to bring them to heel."
Two years later, in 1996, she supported a Republican piece of welfare reform legislation called the PRWORA, which imposed a short five-year lifetime limit of welfare benefits, restricted eligibility for people to receive cash welfare, and prohibited legal immigrants from receiving basic federal benefits such as Social Security and food stamps. People of color living in poverty were left vulnerable and neglected and single mothers were especially affected. They were left with more low-wage jobs and even less public assistance, making it even harder to care for their families. In various interviews about the PRWORA, Clinton used problematic language to discuss mothers of color, saying they must make "the transition from dependency to dignity."
These tough-on-crime and welfare reform policies she supported had real impact on the poor in our country. There was a sharp rise in poverty from 1996 to 2001, in part due to the welfare reform bill, resulting in 20 percent of households with children living on just $2 a day. In that time period, black families saw an 183 percent increase in extreme poverty, compared with 110 percent for whites. The consequences have carried on through today. A disproportionate number of people of color still live in poverty in the United States. Ten percent of whites live below the poverty line, while 23 to 38 percent of Latinos, blacks, Native Americans, and Southeast Asians are in the same demographic.
Fast forward to today, and you have a Hillary Clinton who talks about criminal justice reform quite a bit. In public forums and debates she often refers to the systemic racism that exists in this country and she has admitted that her charged words in the past about "super-predator" black teens were inappropriate. In February, at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, Clinton announced, "We have to begin by facing up to the reality of systemic racism, because these are not only problems of economic inequality. These are problems of racial inequality. And we have got to say that loudly and clearly."
The fact that she is being upfront about race issues in America is certainly welcomed, but she hasn't offered many specific policy commitments that prove her desire to boost racial equality. She merely says vague things like, "I am focused and have a very comprehensive approach towards fixing the criminal justice system." To say that isn't enough. As Lauren Victoria Burke writes for The Root, "Clinton’s current problem is also that so much of what she says now is not backed up by legislation she worked on while she was a member of the U.S. Senate." She may talk about her commitment to improving life for people of color, particularly the ones living in poverty, but she doesn't have much to show for it from her time in office.
That's why the hashtag #WhichHillary surfaced a few months ago. People were getting confused at which Hillary Clinton to believe, which one would come forward if she were elected president. Over 100,000 tweets featured this hashtag. Like me, many people were trying to make sense of her change(s) of heart. For example, she's recently called for a $2 billion plan to shut down the school-to-prison pipeline that was a result of the 1994 crime bill she previously supported. She claims today that she wants to see the big banks break apart, despite her cozy relationship in the past with Wall Street, the same Wall Street that was responsible for the horrendous subprime lending that disproportionately affected women of color. She says she wants to stop racial profiling and reduce the disparity between crack and cocaine sentencing, but she supported tough on crime bills in the past that exacerbated the racial profiling we're facing today.
You'll have to forgive me if I can't help but narrow my eyes in skepticism and wonder how much of this is for show and for gaining supporters, and how much of it Clinton will actually try to put into place if she finds herself in the Oval office. Just because she talks a lot about systemic racism, poverty, and the criminal justice system, doesn't mean she will do anything to inspire real change.
In my eyes, Sanders cares more about intersectionality, even if he doesn't quite hit the mark every time. Like many other millennial women, I think Sanders' progressivism is more inclusive, and I especially appreciate his crusade against the big banks. The most passionate I've ever been about the state of our country and its ignored citizens (even more than when President Obama was sworn into office) has been when he speaks on our behalf, insisting that the wealth and income inequality is a moral issue that's destroying communities of color and their chances of living a happy, healthy life.
Of course, Bernie Sanders isn't perfect either when it comes to race issues. He actually voted for the 1994 crime bill (as did two-thirds of Congressional Black Caucus members). But overall, I think Sanders has been much more consistent with his stance on racial inequality. For starters, Sanders doesn't have famous quotes spouting offensive racial stereotypes in reference to teenagers of color and single moms. That actually means a great deal for me, as I think that the words we say are a good representation of what we truly believe. He was a member of the Congress of Racial Equality and was arrested in 1963 for civil rights demonstrations. Although his primary platform is income inequality, Sanders does participate in useful conversation about the intersection of poverty and race, and he opposed the welfare reform bill Clinton was a supporter of.
But where Sanders truly shines for me is his commitment to universal healthcare, where Clinton has insisted that truly universal healthcare is unattainable. As Michelle Alexander, civil rights advocate and author of The New Jim Crow, wrote for the Nation,"When politicians start telling you that it is 'unrealistic' to support candidates who want to build a movement for greater equality, fair wages, universal healthcare, and an end to corporate control of our political system, it’s probably best to leave the room." Alexander also points out that while Sanders' vision of racial equality may have been "blurred" a few times throughout the years, that doesn't mean his political views have been as problematic as Clinton's.
Strangely enough, Clinton beats Sanders in the polls when it comes to the votes of people of color. Clinton snagged 90 percent of the black vote in Alabama and Arkansas, and she won more than 80 percent of Georgia, Texas, Tennessee, and Virginia. She also took 70 percent of the Latino vote in Texas. Part of this popularity may simply come from Bill Clinton and his ability to win over the black vote.
But Hillary Clinton has done her own part to gain the votes, too. She speaks specifically about race relations in a way that excites many. "White Americans need to do a better job of listening when African Americans talk about the seen and unseen barriers that you face every day," she said in Harlem during her speech at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. "We need to recognize our privilege and practice humility, rather than assume that our experiences are everyone’s experiences." Jonathan Capehart, a reporter for the Washington Post, says we should not underestimate how much this means to black communities. "For generations, blacks have chafed at the notion that unpacking our nation’s racial baggage is a chore solely for them," he writes. "For a potential president of the United States to acknowledge this and to do so from a knowing place... will elicit a ready chorus of 'amen.'"
But this brings me straight back to my central worry: Clinton has become a pro at saying meaningful things about racial equality, but her past actions tell a different story. I can't help but feel nervous that people of color will feel inspired now, only to be wildly disappointed when she doesn't follow through later.
Perhaps the thing that upsets me the most is how vehemently we as women are scolded and judged if we don't support Clinton, because apparently women should support other women no matter what. A couple months ago, at a rally in New Hampshire, Madeleine Albright spoke to the crowd about Clinton and her path to the presidency." There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!" she yelled. Clinton smiled and nodded alongside her. My skin crawled and I felt like my heart was stuck in my throat. I was a Bernie girl, which meant I was a bad feminist.
This kind of dialogue is a manipulative way to silence the marginalized and it's an example of tone-policing. If Clinton becomes president, I'm afraid we'll hear more harmful rhetoric like this, and more women will come forward to chastise women of color for not cheering on Clinton. They'll accuse us of breaking women apart, when in fact they are the ones perpetuating the division.
Because while Clinton's feminist platform focuses on popular headliners, like reproductive rights and more funding for Planned Parenthood, she fails to acknowledge how women of color in urban, poverty-stricken areas (particularly in the South) have the worst access to reproductive care, and that black women in America are three to four times more likely to die during childbirth than white women. Promising better healthcare for women isn't enough. There are serious racial disparities here that aren't being acknowledged. She also talks passionately about equal pay for both genders, yet she's written off Sanders' proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15, also calling it unrealistic, rather than acknowledging how much women of color could benefit from it, as they're often the ones stuck with low-paying hourly jobs without benefits.
Clinton's potential reign as president makes me wildly nervous, not only because of the hawkish policies she may implement (although you can tell I'm not stoked about those either), but also because of what she represents. Her presence is a somber reminder that our country is still gravely missing out on the true meaning of intersectional feminism. Astoundingly, we're still managing to leave behind marginalized groups of women — women of color, women with disabilities, LGBTQ women — while women of privilege get the space to lobby for the matters that affect them. A victory for a white woman is falsely painted to be a victory on all our behalves. The fact that she's up against Trump doesn't make her look any better to me. It infuriates me that we've come to this point, where we're forced to choose between the lesser of two evils.
Clinton likes to talk about her humble beginnings, and how she chased the American Dream by pulling herself up by her bootstraps. It's a message I've been falsely taught since I was a kid — that you can do anything you put your mind to if you work hard enough. I think about young girls from low-income communities who have been given a fraction of the opportunities as the rest of the country. Their American Dream looks very different than hers did. How will Clinton help them, if at all? Will she even notice them?
I still have hopes that she will, and that she will put as much time and energy into their health and happiness as she has for the women who look like her.