At a campaign event in Philadelphia on Thursday in support of his wife’s presidential bid, Bill Clinton responded to protesters in a way that has since been described as “peak white mansplain.”
Several protesters had shown up carrying signs with slogans like “Black youth are not super predators,” referring to language that Hillary Clinton used in support of the major crime bill signed into law by her husband in 1994.
Hillary Clinton has since said she “shouldn’t have used those words” and “wouldn’t use them today,” and both Clintons have acknowledged major problems with the bill, including its role in a subsequent wave of mass incarceration that critics say “decimated” black communities and imposed harsh sentences on many nonviolent offenders.
Bill Clinton’s response to Thursday’s protesters was peppered with uncomfortable moments. He began by defending the bill and his wife’s use of the term “superpredator.”
“I don’t know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped up on crack and sent them out into the street to murder other African-American children,” he began. “You are defending the people who kill the people whose lives you say matter.”
Here’s a video of the exchange:
Reactions started piling up right away on social media. Some critics expressed visceral discomfort over both the tone and the content of the former president’s comments:
Soon after, more in-depth analyses poured in. Slate’s Michelle Goldberg wondered whether Bill’s comments indicate a (possibly) subconscious desire to sabotage Hillary’s shot at the presidency, calling his comments “a mess, but…not the first mess he’s caused for his wife’s campaign.”
“At a time when Hillary Clinton is dependent on black voters and campaigning with mothers who’ve lost sons to police violence, Bill Clinton yoked her to his own discredited policies. He reminded everyone that, in defense of his bill, she’d once spoken about underage ‘superpredators,’ language she has since apologized for. Then, Bill Clinton aped the maddening right-wing tendency to derail conversations about criminal justice abuses by invoking black-on-black crime. He might as well have said, ‘All lives matter!’ “
Vann R. Newkirk II, Atlantic writer and leading Black Twitter voice, acknowledged that Hillary Clinton’s relationship with the 1994 crime bill is “complex” but noted that Bill’s comments are going to have resoundingly negative effects throughout the black community:
“Bill’s response certainly won’t do Hillary any favors. In an 11-minute answer that wandered along a path of condescension, through tone-deaf comments, and into a difficult digression about Black Lives Matter and Africa, Clinton attempted to provide a defense for the bill and give context to the reasons why it had such broad support. He talked over protesters and attempted to play up the crowd to shout them down. His tone and talking points play especially poorly given Hillary’s early struggles in engaging with young black protesters.”
Over at Vox, German Lopez was less interested in how the comments might affect Hillary’s campaign and more concerned with what they said about her actual views. Noting that while the ’90s “were different times” and that Hillary, of course, is not her husband, he writes that, nonetheless:
“… the Clintons were very much cognizant of fears of black crime in the 1990s, and they exploited it in their presidential campaigns. …
“Bill’s comments at Thursday’s press conference speak to this kind of politicking: He was ready with off-the-cuff remarks to condemn criminals harshly — to defend comments his wife made to justify policies that perpetuated mass incarceration. When it was politically opportune, Bill had no problem switching back to the tough-on-crime mode. …
“Because the Clintons are partners and have a history of jointly supporting tough-on-crime policies, there’s genuine concern about how a Clinton White House would react to another crime wave. What if the 2020s look like the 1990s in terms of crime, instead of the 2010s? Would a President Clinton still push for criminal justice reform? Based on the Clintons’ history, there’s reason for doubt — and Bill’s comments did nothing to assuage those concerns.”
At the Huffington Post, Antonio Moore reminds readers what the 1994 Crime Bill actually meant for black communities and calls on Bill Clinton to “own” that as part of his political legacy:
“Mass incarceration has largely been the type of stain on the Clinton legacy with Black Americans that doesn’t wash out with words. Clinton’s bill has left in its wake a trail of devastated African American families cut off from loved ones that have served sentences for nonviolent drug offenses that were decades too long. For former President Bill Clinton to now insinuate that Black Lives Matter protestors are defending murderers and gang leaders, is offensive to a people that have been through so much due to his legislative actions. Yet, here we stand in 2016 hearing the same rhetoric espoused to create the Crime Bill, now being used to justify its abhorrent results.”
Not everyone was critical of Bill Clinton’s reaction to the protesters. Paul Mirengoff of Powerline saw the exchange as evidence that the former president “doesn’t take crap from anyone.” And James Hohmann of The Washington Post described Clinton’s response as “a spirited defense of his record on civil rights, his signature crime bill, and his wife.” Here’s more from Hohmann:
“The 69-year-old went on an extended riff about why he and his wife are the ones who have really fought to make black lives matter. …
“He also highlighted the Democratic front-runner’s work for the Children’s Defense Fund as a young attorney in Alabama and her work to stop the spread of HIV in Africa as secretary of state. ‘I’ll tell you another story about a place where black lives matter: Africa,’ he said.”
Bill Clinton himself reflected on the exchange Friday, offering up an explanation for how things played out the way they did. Here’s part of what he said, and you can watch the full video on MSNBC:
“I rather vigorously defended my wife, as I am wont to do. And I realized finally I was talking past [a protester] the way she was talking past me. We gotta stop that in this country. We gotta listen to each other. Look, you’re living in a country where young African-Americans think their No. 1 threat now is from police officers. When I signed that crime bill, they knew what their No. 1 threat was. It was from gangs making money out of cocaine, taking teenage kids, huffing them up, giving them guns, and telling them to go kill other teenagers. To prove their bones.”
Ultimately, it all comes down to how — and whether — voters will remember this incident come election time. Erica Mines, one of the protesters at the rally, spoke to Philadelphia magazine’s Dan McQuade about why all this matters to her. Here’s some of what she had to say:
“People forget that the three strikes law put more people — specifically black people — in jail because they had a drug habit. But now it’s a ‘heroin epidemic’ because there’s more white people affected by it. Now there’s this outcry for drug rehabilitation, but we were criminalized for it. Poverty, lack of jobs, poor education: All these things contribute to the use of drugs. When you live in a society that does nothing but beat you down and tell you that you’re worthless and they don’t create the spaces that allow you to better yourself, you should not be criminalized.
“I’m not here to say Bill Clinton or Hillary Clinton is not a good person. This is not about whether I like them. Their politics have hurt the black community, and that’s all that there is. They don’t deserve the black vote.”
April 8, 4 p.m. EST: This post has been updated to reflect ongoing discussion about this topic, including former President Clinton’s remarks on the subject.