Unlike scores of my disillusioned relatives and friends, I’ve only recently come to the conclusion that African Americans should not vote for U.S. Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton. The other day, I tore up my invitation to celebrate Mrs. Clinton’s 53rd birthday at an October 25 “Show at Roseland Ballroom to benefit New York Senate 2000.” My $1000 contribution would have entitled me to a gold ticket and given me entrée to a cocktail reception and preferred seating at a “celebrity cabaret” featuring “Hillary players” such as Whoopi Goldberg, Robert De Niro, and Cher. I know that some of you are saying, “This Uncle Tom done lost his god-damn mind.” Indeed, I’ve joined the anti-Clinton campaign, but not the vast conspiracist subculture found in right-wing populism. I still believe, as essayist Ralph Melcher put it, that “the right wing has succeeded in doing what it set out to do . . . make Bill and Hillary into political monsters.”
For me, it’s all about Mrs. Clinton’s brand of racial politics. For the past week, I’ve been mad thinking about the stranglehold that both liberal and conservative Jews have on her campaign. And I am now firmly convinced that we as black people cannot trust her with our lives. Last Thursday, the flip-flop artist all but warned us she would sell us out like she sold out the martyrs of the current Palestinian intifada. Mrs. Clinton’s remarks at the pro-Israel rally—”I believe it is imperative that we stand clearly with Israel” and her description of the UN resolution condemning Israel’s use of force against the Palestinians as “shameful,” adding that it “ignores the reality of the situation”—conjured memories of those awful battles between New York’s blacks and Jews. I argued to some of my skeptical black activist friends who are supporting Mrs. Clinton that it is not impossible that violence similar to that in Israel—sniper shootings of protesters, rocket attacks by helicopter gunships against high-profile targets—could happen here.
I likened the controversial visit to the Temple Mount by Ariel Sharon (the “butcher of Shabra and Shatila”), which touched off the violence that so far has killed more than 100 people—nearly all of them Palestinian—to a hypothetical foray into Crown Heights by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who called Hitler “a very great man,” Judaism a “dirty religion,” and Jews “bloodsuckers” of the black community. Although Farrakhan is no Ariel Sharon, outrage erupts. The cry goes out: “Every Jew, a .22!” Former mayor Ed Koch—who still refers to the 1991 riots as a pogrom against Jews and blames then mayor David Dinkins for allowing blacks to vent—asks Mrs. Clinton, “How can you ignore the reality of this situation?” Mrs. Clinton rallies to the side of Hasidic Jews.
I suspect, owing to Mrs. Clinton’s fragile alliance with Jews, that she lobbied feverishly behind the scenes to assure her role in last week’s anti-PLO rally. But isn’t it odd that Mrs. Clinton has never participated in a grassroots demonstration in support of victims of police brutality? What is her excuse for not showing up at the recent “Redeem the Dream” rally in Washington, D.C., to protest racial profiling? While Mrs. Clinton grabs every chance she gets to atone to Jews (no more calls for a Palestinian state, no more hugs and kisses for Suha Arafat), she always seems to confound African Americans. First, she described the killing of Amadou Diallo as a “murder,” then pulled back after a barrage of criticism from the mayor and the white media, and in the face of mounting evidence that the NYPD is out of control, she has refused to join the call for a federal monitor of the department. She supports the release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard, who gave America’s top secrets to Israel, but she won’t question the conviction of Mumia Abu Jamal, who is on death row in Pennsylvania for killing a white cop.
Her appearance at St. Luke AME Church in Harlem on October 7 is a glaring example of the chicanery black voters have become accustomed to. As booming gospel music dies away, a jam-packed audience focuses its attention on Mrs. Clinton standing in the pulpit. She’s talking about Harriet Tubman in a narrative she’s perfected in visits to black churches after initially confusing Tubman with Sojourner Truth, then correcting the error after Our Time Press, a black monthly, demanded an apology. It’s the story of a runaway slave who returns to the South to lead others to freedom, but in Mrs. Clinton’s telling, it becomes a metaphor for how she views herself: Hillary the persecuted woman who won’t back down. It’s a theme her campaign can’t get enough of, and it’s a message that plays well today. “If you hear the dogs, keep on going. If you hear gunfire, keep on going. If you hear shouts and footsteps, keep on going,” intones Mrs. Clinton, evoking Tubman urging on the slaves. Then, as cries of “Yes!” fill the church, the first lady reverts to politics.
“I will not turn back no matter who’s behind me, or what they’re saying, or what they’re doing!” she declares, her voice rising and falling with a preacher’s cadence. She pauses, then adds emphatically: “There is one thing you know about me: When I tell you, ‘I’ll stick with you,’ I’ll stick with you!” Like other audiences in churches and union rallies that have heard Mrs. Clinton use this line from her stump speech, this one explodes with applause.
But think about it: This Al Jolson act could have been left on the cutting room floor of Spike Lee’s latest movie, Bamboozled. Couldn’t Mrs. Clinton have applied the allusions to “gunfire,” “shouts,” and “footsteps” to a more relevant period in modern black history—like “Giuliani time”? Had she invoked the names of Amadou Diallo, Patrick Dorismond, and Abner Louima, her message might truly have resonated with all African Americans. But apparently Mrs. Clinton did not feel it was imperative to point out that reality and stand clearly with the black community on that crucial dispute.
The very next day, during a televised debate with her rival, Rick Lazio, Mrs. Clinton passes up the opportunity to point the finger of blame for police misconduct at Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who is sitting in a front-row seat. In her response to a question about racial profiling, she never mentions Giuliani, whose police force has been found by the U.S. attorney in Manhattan to have engaged in the often deadly practice. Instead, Mrs. Clinton, replying to a question about Giuliani’s plan to build a stadium on Manhattan’s West Side, chuckles softly as she acknowledges the mayor, while declaring that she will not support it. Giuliani laughs. She has let him off the hook. At least, I think, Mrs. Clinton could have parodied Giuliani’s trademark tantrums, dredging up his divisive rhetoric to illustrate his lack of compassion. “As far as I am concerned,” I fantasize her laying into him in her bully pulpit mode, using the mayor’s own words, “Rudy Giuliani is a ‘despicable, horrible human being, and you should always make that point every time you get a chance to make that point.’ ” And if calling Giuliani a “murderer” (the word the mayor used to describe Fidel Castro) is too extremist in her view, “I’m more than willing to make the point” (Giuliani’s words again) that based on the lives his cops have stolen, Rudy Giuliani is a murderer.
Since coming to New York, Mrs. Clinton has learned to play the game of divide and conquer, especially when it involves blacks and Jews. After her historic visit to Al Sharpton’s House of Justice last January, she has not been seen with one of the nation’s most influential civil rights leaders.
Advisers may have cautioned her against getting too chummy with people like the reverend. She took a lot of heat for kissing his ring. The backlash was across the board, but it was the Hasidic communities in Crown Heights and Boro Park, along with some liberal Jews, who accused Mrs. Clinton of sucking up to an “anti-Semite.” Some African Americans contend that if Mrs. Clinton starts sinking in the polls, she will turn on Sharpton with the same fierceness with which she denounced Suha Arafat—a move that right-wing Jews would gleefully applaud. Sharpton becomes Mr. Untouchable.
It is insulting how some Jewish supporters of Mrs. Clinton—such as Ed Koch—treat black leaders like Sharpton, who has been striving to do the right thing. Koch, while standing foursquare behind Mrs. Clinton, won’t allow Sharpton to put his controversial past behind him.
Koch rejected an invitation to attend Sharpton’s 46th birthday party in Harlem on October 3 on the ground that Sharpton had reneged on a promise to apologize for his role in the Tawana Brawley case. “As you know, I have publicly stated that I think you are very smart and could one day be a broadly accepted leader,” Koch wrote to Sharpton in a letter dated October 2. “I have also said I have urged you to publicly state you are sorry for participating in the Tawana Brawley fiasco, and that I have urged you to ask forgiveness for using language that was anti-Semitic and anti-White. I have told people that I don’t think you are either, but that what you did was demagogic, which, of course, is reprehensible even if not motivated by anti-Semitism or racism.”
According to Koch, “on innumerable occasions” Sharpton had said he would “make such an apology” and would do so “in a church with a black congregation.” Koch was miffed when Sharpton “not long ago . . . reaffirmed [his] support for the Tawana Brawley claims of rape” and received no assurances that the activist would come clean during this year’s celebration at Canaan Baptist Church. ” . . . I would lose my credibility if I participated in extolling your virtues, as your birthday friends will undoubtedly do . . . ,” he wrote.
Sharpton, who insists he never made any such promise to Koch, absorbs Koch’s blows like a tar baby. It’s like he’s afraid to brawl with Koch, who some say helped make him kosher. Sharpton, who paved the way for Koch’s redemption in the black community (ensuring that he was warmly received by a forgiving crowd at the preacher’s birthday celebration last year), ought to remind the former mayor of his own tarnished legacy. Catch him the next time on NY1, Rev. Ask him: Remember Eleanor Bumpurs? Two congressional hearings on police brutality? Kochville?
“The mayor was a complicated man, and not always a kind one,” John Jiler wrote in his 1997 book, Sleeping With the Mayor. “Homelessness was his Waterloo. When he took office in 1978, there was only Skid Row, the timeless cluster of Bowery drunks. Now, ten years later, New York was the Calcutta of the modern world. According to the mayor’s enemies, it was all his fault. He had allowed cronies like Harry Helmsley to build their glittering towers with no thought to the dispossessed. The streets were now full of them. Here was a village of fifteen, right outside his window—his own chickens come home to roost.”
Although Hillary Clinton was a no-show at Al Sharpton’s birthday party, in the larger African American community hinting that one is even considering not voting for her is taboo. Based on her background as a brilliant Yale Law student, attorney, and chair of the Children’s Defense Fund, along with a political agenda seemingly to the left of her husband, the choice between her candidacy and that of former Newt Gingrich deputy Rick Lazio should be a no-brainer for the progressive black voter. But it is that stark contrast between her background and her conduct in the current Senate race that provokes questions for black voters about Mrs. Clinton.
The serious observer watches with profound disquiet as this woman of activist pretensions morphs into a political hack. In her first debate with Lazio, the deference paid to the Jewish electorate was in sharp contrast to the contempt she demonstrated toward issues that are at the top of the black agenda in America. While acknowledging her role in the Jewish movement for restitution of assets stolen during World War II and expressing great pride in the honors accorded her by the World Jewish Congress, Mrs. Clinton’s statements about compensation for 400 years of slavery, segregation, discrimination, and dehumanization suffered by African Americans boiled down to a simple forget the past and let’s move on.
Mrs. Clinton’s tale about how moved she was by a visit to Goree Island is the kind of patronizing claptrap that infuriates any black person possessed of an ability to think critically. Her position on the so-called war on drugs is equally contemptuous. Every thoughtful African American is aware that this “war” is, in reality, a murderous war on black youth, as is evidenced by the proliferation of the slave labor camps we call prisons. The “war on drugs” is part and parcel of the oppression aimed at the destruction of an entire race, both in its conception and in its implementation. During her blackface pulpit appearances, not a word was heard from Mrs. Clinton about the unfair and disproportionate sentencing guidelines that characterize the treatment of black and Latino crackheads, as opposed to the white cocaine junkies.
Perhaps, black New Yorkers will vote for this two-faced political hack, who has taken them for granted on the “lesser of two evils” theory of Negro politics. Don’t be fooled! Maybe the time has come to gain respect for ourselves and from our patronizing oppressors in the Democratic Party by withholding our vote and acting, for once in our political lives, on the basis of principle and racial pride.
Additional reporting by Amanda Ward, Louis Clayton Jones, and Associated Press
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 17, 2000