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An Open Letter to Hillary Clinton because #BlackLivesMatter
Written by <a href="index.php?option=com_comprofiler&task=userProfile&user=36597"><span class="small">Stephanie Glass Solomon</span></a>   
Thursday, 03 September 2015 10:59
An Open Letter to Hillary Clinton because #BlackLivesMatter

Dear Candidate Clinton,

We are, as you acknowledge, once again at a crucial moment in the history of race relations in the US. I believe that the #BlackLivesMatter speaker, Julius Jones, who approached you on August 11, in New Hampshire, began a vital conversation that many of us in the country ought to be having. So I am chiming in. I am writing to you, and not to Mr. Jones, as my aim is to be supportive of his claims, and add a white voice to his very urgent message. Right now, many white Americans like me, across the nation, feel horror and shame having seen so many unarmed black men and women killed. And the numerous uprisings against racism and police abuse that have occurred in Ferguson, Baltimore, and so many other American cities, have brought the pain and suffering in our black communities to the nation’s attention. This means that it is a moment when politicians such as you have the power to use the bully pulpit to make a difference. I am writing you directly in the hopes you will do just that.

First, let me say that I think it took a lot of courage for Mr. Jones to approach you as he did—you the First Lady, the Senator, the Secretary of State, and now the Presidential Candidate. And I imagine you must have felt somewhat guarded knowing that there are many out there who want to vilify you any way they can, and would happily use any candid comments you make to do so. I respect that you both tried to achieve some semblance of mutual recognition under these circumstances. Perhaps, by my being on the outside, I have more freedom to expand and comment on the important conversation you started. At least, I will try to do so. And I urge others to join in.

Importantly, Mr. Jones asked you to go beyond the legislative, judicial, and policy approaches we, as a nation, have emphasized in the past to eliminate racial injustice, and to directly take on “antiblackness” as he calls it. While the term barely captures the brutality and indignity that blacks have suffered, I think he is right. We as a nation need to start a national conversation about antiblackness as it is the structural, economic, cultural, and psychological phenomenon that continually undermines the laws we initiate that are meant to eradicate racial discrimination and inhumanity in the US. While I can’t speak for Mr. Jones and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, I think Mr. Jones is suggesting that the approach to change society, through law alone, has proven insufficient. And I agree.

Realistically I know that, as a candidate, you may think that starting a national conversation on antiblackness that, of necessity, includes issues of white privilege and social class will not help get you elected. I am not so sure. It may be just the problem that will light some fire under your campaign because it is so much on the forefront of what needs to be done now. And not one of the politicians in the running seems to have the courage to take this on. Think of it as a “ truth and reconciliation” project that is needed in our country. I will try to explain how I understand truth and reconciliation as I go forward. However, I urge you to read Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson from the Equal Justice Initiative, as he is the expert in this area and most eloquent.

My method here is to review some of the conversation you had with Mr. Jones and make comments, as well as suggestions. I am sure the details of what was actually said may have escaped you, given all that’s on your agenda, so this approach should refresh your memory. You were generous at the end of your conversation with Mr. Jones in asking to be told what to do. You said you are ready to help. I believe you.

The Conversation

Jones begins by acknowledging that . . . “you’ve offered a recognition that mass incarceration has not worked and that it is an unfortunate consequence of government practices that just didn’t work.” He later mentions you were partially responsible for the growing numbers in our prisons. No doubt he is referring to the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, written by Senator Joe Biden. As you may recall, in 1993, when President Clinton became the President, he made passage of the Act a priority. You supported the bill, as well. Among other detrimental government approaches to crime, the Act jump-started prison expansion, earmarking nearly $10 million to their construction. President Clinton has since reconsidered the outcomes of the Act and said to the NAACP, "I signed a bill that made the problem worse. And I want to admit that." What it made worse, in terms of recent history, was the War on Drugs started under Nixon that was mainly responsible for the horrific uptake in incarceration in this country, especially amongst blacks. To your credit, in a speech you recently said, "We don't want to create another incarceration generation."

Jones goes on, “ . . . the truth is that there is an extremely long history of unfortunate government practices that don’t work that particularly effect black people and black families.” And then he is most heartfelt, though somewhat awkward, about what must be done—addressing antiblackness, especially amongst whites, he says:

. . . until we as a country, and a person who is in the seat that you seek, actually addresses the antiblackness current that is America’s first drug - we’re in a meeting about drugs, right? America’s first drug is free black labor and turning black bodies into profit. And the mass incarceration system mirrors an awful lot like the prison-plantation system. It’s a similar thread, right? And until someone takes that message and speaks that truth to white people in this country so we can actually take on antiblackness as a founding problem in this country, I don’t believe that there is going to be a solution . . . it’s not going to go away. It’s just going to morph into something new and evolved.

Let me pause to say a little something about antiblackness as a problem that goes back to the founding. Bryan Stevenson, founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, says that the Criminal Justice System, as it exists today, has evolved from US slavery where blacks were first vilified and discriminated against, and then held in bondage. Stevenson describes how blacks, especially men, are stigmatized as dangerous and to be feared, then presumed to be guilty, and finally incarcerated or killed. It is an argument the scholar Michele Alexander also makes in her classic work, The New Jim Crow. We can and should acknowledge that the current issues of black incarceration and police abuse are actually part of this larger legacy of slavery. Today’s incarceration of nearly 1 million African Americans, and the horrifying estimate, by the Sentencing Project, that 1 in 4 black males can expect to become incarcerated, means that the vilification and bondage of blacks from our founding has not been eliminated, but merely transformed, or as Mr. Jones put it—morphed.

Mr. Jones then asks you for a personal reflection on this, asking how you have changed given the mistakes of the past, and hoping you will share what you have learned with the nation. These kinds of questions are the same we would ask ourselves if each of us were engaged in a truth and reconciliation process, questions about our personal responsibility, our mistakes, our new insights, and the changes we want to make in ourselves and the nation, about race.

“ . . . Now that you understand the consequences, what in your heart has changed that’s gonna change the direction of this country? And what in you . . . not your platform, not what you’re supposed to say, like, how do you actually feel that’s different than you did before? . . . what were the mistakes, and how can those mistakes that you made be lessons for all of America, for a moment of reflection on how we treat black people in this country?”

You begin respectfully. “Well, obviously it’s a very thoughtful question and it deserves a thoughtful answer.” You then speak personally about your commitment and work, and about your focus in the Children’s Defense Fund, especially with poor kids. Your record here is very impressive. Importantly, you say, “There has to be a reckoning. I agree with that. ” But here you start to part ways from what Mr. Jones is asking. Maybe this happened because it is difficult to stick with the themes of white complicity in antiblackness. As I agree with you that a “thoughtful answer” is appropriate, permit me to try to give one.

When we start to speak about the legacy of slavery, antiblackness sentiments and behavior cannot be separated from issues of white privilege and social class. As we know, since the founding of this nation, whites, especially in the lower classes, are propagandized with notions of their extreme self-reliance and racial difference. Whites are told over and over again that we need to pull ourselves up by our boot- straps, and that our failures are own fault, and that we are separate, autonomous individuals responsible for our own destiny. These ideas become major aspects of our identity. We are then separated out from our vulnerable selves and, as importantly, from our communal selves. This is a distortion of our white humanity.

Ideas about extreme self-reliance account, in part, for why whites turn against government supports, and against people needing these supports. Think of how many whites, today, not only rail against government aid for people of color, but also against programs that would benefit whites themselves, like the Affordable Care Act or Medicare for All. By thinking we are and must be extremely self-reliant, whites differentiate themselves from blacks. Blacks are then stereotyped with lacking initiative, needing containment, and requiring supports. In earlier times, slaveholders did this. Today, it is wardens. In this way, white identity comes to include notions of superiority, while black identity constellates around inferiority. Broadly speaking, blacks and whites, especially those in the lower classes, are controlled differently in society. And this is where antiblackness ties into the current concerns about the Criminal Justice System. Lower class blacks end up managed by the Criminal Justice System, while lower class whites are managed by an ideological system about white supremacy and privilege. Therefore, to truly address the Criminal Justice System, we need to expose the antiblackness that supports it. It is a narrative that blacks and whites need to openly discuss. As Stevenson says, this is a conversation about truth and reconciliation.

You try to get into white complicity, using religious terms. But then you steer away:

But I also think there has to be some positive vision and plan that you can move people toward. Once you say you know this country has still not recovered from its original sin, which is true. . . Once you say that, then the next question by people who are on the sidelines, which is the vast majority of Americans . . . is well, “ So what am I supposed to do about it?” That’s what I’m trying to put together in a way that I can explain it and I can sell it . . . This is now a time, a moment in time, just like the Civil Rights Movement . . . Your analysis is totally fair. It’s historically fair, it’s psychologically fair, it’s economically fair . . .

I fully agree with you about fairness and, as fairness is a big part of this country’s ideals about equality and opportunity, thank you for raising it. The history of antiblackness shows the nation has not been fair. As part of a truth and reconciliation process, we need include a discussion about our ideals and what prevents us from reaching them. Once acknowledging Mr. Jones’s analysis is fair, you move back to your main point, emphasizing the need for #BlackLivesMatter to have plan. Perhaps you did not know that the #BlackLivesMatter movement has a specific plan, with demands, that are about policies, etc. You can find this on their website.

You then mention something about lip service from white people and about their being “nicer.” But Mr. Jones is not asking about “nice,” and you yourself share with him that whites being nicer is not enough. However, frankly, I think Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, and Oscar Grant would have appreciated being treated nicer. They might be alive today if they were.

Then again, you use religious, moral terminology and bring up “sinners.” Indeed, antiblackness is a moral issue about our mistreatment of one another in this society. But while briefly stopping on moral issues, you quickly go back to where you and most politicians are most comfortable—legislative agendas:

So the consciousness raising, the advocacy, the passion, the youth of your movement, is so critical. But now, all I’m suggesting is, even for us sinners, find some common ground on agendas that can make a difference right here and now in people’s lives and that’s what I would love to have your thoughts about because that’s what I’m trying to figure out how to do . . . let’s get an agenda that addresses as much of the problem as we can because then you can be for something, in addition to getting people to admit they are part of a long history in our country of either proposing, supporting, condoning segregation, discrimination, etc. Now what do we do next. That’s what I’m trying to figure out in my campaign . . .

Mr. Jones comes back saying, “This is and has always been a white problem of violence . . . There is not much that we can do to stop the violence.” You reply by defensively saying, “If that is your position then I will talk only to white people about how we are going to deal with the very real problems.”

Now maybe, inadvertently, when you said you should talk to white people, you were on to something. Because you and all of us white people need to do just that--speak to white people about our role in this, about racial difference and how it plays into black degradation, and what this has done to our white humanity. For instance, the notion of white supremacy covers up that 19 million white people are in poverty. Many poor whites are in the same class situation as poor blacks. They live in poor and violent neighborhoods; their schools are terrible; drugs are at epidemic levels; they are hopeless. We always talk about the black problems, but they begin with our white conflicts about social class, our identity, the competitive and unemployment economy we all face, and other issues.

I want to suggest that perhaps you and Mr. Jones end up on separate tracks because the issue of speaking directing to whites about the violence that white privilege has wrought, and the shame we should feel, and the reparations we may want to make, may be too hard for you to discuss. It may be as hard, or even harder for you to take all this on than proposing new legislation. Who, after all, as a politician, speaks openly about the intersection of class and race when it comes to the white poor? About whiteness and how racial difference has been constructed since the founding of this nation? And how this construction of whiteness works against both blacks and whites?

Mr. Jones then tries to speak about changing hearts and minds, “What the BlackLivesMatter needs to do to change white hearts . . .” and you interrupt:

Look, I don't believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate. You're not going to change every heart. You're not. But at the end of the day, we could do a whole lot to change some hearts and change some systems and create more opportunities for people who deserve to have them, to live up to their own God-given potential . . .

For you it is again about systems, allocations, and policies. So let me tackle this, given it certainly is important. You are right.

As I have tried to point out, the construction of racial difference is related to the organization of class structure, and also to class interests. In this regard, I respect much of what you have already done in terms of policy, and said you would do. For example, as a Senator, according to the Nation, you voted against the Central American Free Trade Agreement, to the benefit of all US workers. You also voted against Bush’s energy bill that included tax breaks for the energy sector. When you ran against Obama you called for a cabinet-level position to end poverty. Your healthcare plan was also more progressive than Obama’s. And now you want to end Citizens United, and said you would only appoint judges who pledge to do so. You have also been strong on women’s issues. But you have not been consistently good on issues related to the environment such as Keystone and fracking. As you know, lower class families are often the most harmed by energy policy as refineries and fracking operations are in their neighborhoods. And your war policies disproportionately, and often negatively, affect working class and poor families; these groups tend to make up the ranks of our military. In addition, your war policies have also devastated families abroad who are the victim of US aggression. You say you care about children. They are so vulnerable in all of this.

Importantly, in recent years, you and I have seen strategies about globalism, by both parties, turn our vibrant industrial cities into wastelands, killing a growing white and black middle class. The reduction in collective bargaining rights and the diminution of unions, all part of this strategy, fragmented workers from one another, both black and white. This contributed to quieting their collective voices. De-regulation (I am sure you and President Clinton have discussed his role in the repeal of Glass-Steagal) led to many abuses that brought on the Great Recession. Today we need policies that will lead to full-employment, job creation and training, an increase in the minimum wage, taxing the wealthy and corporations, and closing the obscene income gap. And we need more diplomacy and less militarism. I hope we agree on this. I know you are considering some of these changes. You asked for some direction for legislation. Here it is.

Returning to your dialogue, while you are gracious and affirm Mr. Jones’s points, there nevertheless is a breakdown in what you are saying to one another. I think this speaks to how difficult it is for whites and blacks to talk about race as a personal issue. You say:

You can keep the movement going which you have started, and through it you may actually change some hearts, but if that is all that happens we will be back here in 10 years having the same conversation because we do not have all of the changes that you deserve to see happen in your lifetime because of your willingness to get out there and talk about this.

Look. In this nation we ARE back every 10, 20, 50 years. We just commemorated the 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. This Sept 16, 2015 Reverend William Barber and the NAACP will enter Washington D.C. after a march from Selma, to advocate for Voting Rights all over again. They will present a long list of demands, yet again. I think Mr. Jones’s point about the way the injustices “morph” is right on.

Think of it. After the First Reconstruction we had the 14th and 15th Amendments and an end to slavery and the violence of bondage. Without hearts and minds changing and a deep look at antiblackness, these Constitutional and legislative advances were followed by Jim Crow. Jim Crow meant new economic forms of oppression that kept blacks, especially in the South, in menial labor, terrorized by their fellow citizens in white hoods and by local law enforcement, disenfranchised, and much more. The Second Reconstruction gave us the War on Poverty and the Civil Rights Movement of the sixties, raising the nation’s consciousness about segregation, racism, black unemployment, poor education, disenfranchisement, lynching, and lack of opportunity. But without changing hearts and minds, we now have the New Jim Crow and mass incarceration, police abuse, and all the rest. So while the legislation and court cases have accomplished much, they are not sufficient.

For me, this moment feels like we may be on the verge of a Third Reconstruction. The #BlackLivesMatter movement is asking you to address antiblackness in all its manifestations, economically, socially, culturally, and psychologically. (On this 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, how can we not admit there is deep antiblackness in this nation?) And I am asking you to reconsider economic strategies and policies that underlie racial difference as it has been constructed - class issues that we must address. While the #BlackLivesMatter movement has not directly talked about truth and reconciliation, at least that I am aware of, other blacks are asking the nation to enter such a process. Might you call for this?

At the end of the conversation, you told Mr. Jones, “I’m ready. I’m out there to do my part in any way I can.” I trust you mean what you say. I hope that you and the Democratic Party have the courage to do what needs to be done. It won’t be easy. Mr. Jones has done all of us a favor by speaking up. What do you think? Can we do some truth telling, reconcile, and move forward together?

Thank you for your attention.


Stephanie Glass Solomon

Stephanie Glass Solomon M.S. M.A.
Professor Emeritus
Antioch University Los Angeles
September 1, 2015
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Last Updated on Thursday, 03 September 2015 16:59