The Evolution of Hillary Clinton's Remarks on Race

The former first lady has come a long way since 'super-predators'

HIllary Clinton as secretary of state.
Hillary Clinton in New Zealand. U.S. Embassy/

Has Hillary Clinton turned into a racial progressive? During the 2016 presidential campaign, she faced criticism from Black Lives Matter leaders who urged her to admit that her husband’s policies, specifically the 1994 Violent Crime Control Act and 1996 welfare reform bill, had a detrimental effect on African Americans. Activists especially took her to task for using the term “super-predators” in reference to young black offenders as she championed President Bill Clinton’s crime legislation.

“They are not just gangs of kids anymore,” she said during a 1996 speech at Keene State College in New Hampshire. “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.”

Activists have pointed out how this bill set the stage for the mass incarceration of black men and that Hillary Clinton’s remarks dehumanized the vulnerable youth who turn to crime after upbringings in violent and impoverished communities. But two decades after her Keene State speech, Clinton not only said that she regretted her “super-predator” remarks but also called for criminal justice reform. Additionally, after apparent reluctance to align herself with movements such as Black Lives Matter and immigration reform, Clinton expressed support for the concerns they raised.

Does this signal that Clinton has sharpened her awareness of injustice over the years, or are her recent remarks about racism, immigration and xenophobia a calculated move to win support from a diverse coalition of voters, as President Obama did?

Decide for yourself by reading what Clinton has said about race and social justice during her second run for president.

A Prayer for Freddie Gray

In April 2015, Baltimore residents took to the streets to protest the death of Freddie Gray, who died in police custody. During a speech on criminal justice reform, Hillary Clinton offered a prayer for Gray and made references to other black men killed in encounters with police.

“We should make sure every police department in the country has body cameras to record interactions between officers on patrol and suspects,” Clinton said. “That will improve transparency and accountability, it will help protect good people on both sides of the lens. For every tragedy caught on tape, there surely have been many more that remained invisible. Not every problem can be or will be prevented with cameras, but this is a commonsense step we should take.”

Here, Clinton made a statement that likely strained her relationship police unions. Her remark that many tragedies go unrecorded suggests she believes people of color who say that police misconduct is rampant. Rather than argue communities of color are prone to lawlessness and that deadly police force against them is warranted, as Republicans such as Rudy Giuliani have, Clinton validated the experiences that black and brown people report having with police in inner cities. This remark is leaps and bounds more progressive than her "super-predators" comments.

That said, Clinton did not totally dismiss the police and their concerns. She urged protesters to demonstrate peacefully and said, “We should listen to law enforcement leaders who are calling for a renewed focus on working with communities to prevent crime, rather than measuring success just by the number of arrests or convictions.”

‘We All Have Implicit Biases’

During a visit to St. Paul's Baptist Church in Philadelphia in April 2016 for a roundtable on gun violence, Clinton didn’t hesitate to discuss problems such as institutional racism. The event featured many parents of black men killed at the hands of police or in other circumstances as speakers.

Clinton readily admitted that racism has been woven into the fabric of society for “millennia.” She also said implicit bias is pervasive, an assertion countless people of color have made but one many whites (of all political persuasions) refuse to recognize. 

“We have to be honest about the systemic racism and that particularly is the responsibility of white people, not just people in public life, but all of us, who have to keep trying to put ourselves in the position of what goes through the minds and hearts of so many people in our country who know they aren’t getting a fair shake,” Clinton said.

“They are not being treated equally and we can’t assume that our experience is somehow enough to guide us. We have to be open and listening and then responsive.”

Radical Islamism

Unlike her Republican opponents, Clinton avoided using terms such as “radical Islamism” during her presidential bid.

 “Well, the problem is that that sounds like we are declaring war against a religion. And that, to me, is, number one, wrong," Clinton told ABC News. "I don't want to do that because, number one, it doesn't do justice to the vast numbers of Muslims in our own country and around the world who are peaceful people.

"Number two, it helps to create this clash of civilizations that is actually a recruiting tool for ISIS and other radical jihadists who use this as a way of saying we're in a war against the West."

But after pressure from her GOP rivals, Clinton relented and said she would be open to using the term “radical Islamism” interchangeably with “radical jihadism” when discussing terrorism. However, she added that semantics weren’t the point. The point was how she planned to curb terrorism.

But Clinton's willingness to use conservatives' lingo to discuss terrorism doesn't signal that Clinton would cease to call for an end to hatred and intolerance of Muslim Americans. At the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, she featured Khizr and Ghazala Khan, a Muslim couple who buried their son after he gave his life to the United States to fight the war on terror. Trump later insulted the family publicly and, as a result, lost some Republican support.

Determined to Achieve Immigration Reform

At a convention for black and Hispanic journalists in August 2016, Clinton was adamant that she’d work for immigration reform if elected president.

“I want this to be a clear high priority for my administration,” she said. “I am hoping that the outcome of the election, which I am working hard to ensure a victory, will send a clear message to our Republican friends that it’s time for them to quit standing in the way of immigration reform. …If you remember after the 2012 election, the Republican National Committee did what they called an autopsy of their loss, and concluded that they could not continue to deny the importance of immigration reform and they urged Republicans running for office to get on board. Now that hasn’t turned out the way they seemed to have hoped. We have instead a Republican nominee who has been very anti-immigrant. But there’s nothing like winning to change minds.”

Clinton’s commitment to immigration reform may have been a way for her to reassure Latinos that her party doesn't take their votes for granted. Although she’s expressed support for immigration reform over the years, the journalism conference reportedly marked the first time Clinton had gone into detail about strategies to make it a reality.

“Basket of Deplorables”

Arguably no speech Clinton gave earned more press during her 2016 presidential run as her “basket of deplorables” remarks. During her Sept. 9, 2016, speech at the LGBT for Hillary Gala in New York City, Clinton tried to distinguish herself from Donald Trump and told her supporters to take this election seriously because the nation’s political climate is volatile.

“You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump's supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it,” she said. “And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people—now 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive, hateful, mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks—they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.”

Clinton faced a fierce backlash from Trump supporters because of her “deplorables” characterization, prompting her to express regret for her remarks. But her descriptions of Trump supporters are borne out in research. 

A Langer Research Associates survey found that 38 percent of his supporters believe people of color have too much influence in society. ThinkProgress summed up other relevant findings about Trump voters:

“Polls conducted earlier this year found that 65 percent of Trump supporters believe Obama is a Muslim; 59 percent believe Obama wasn’t born in the United States; 40 percent believe blacks are more 'lazy' than whites; 31 percent support banning homosexuals from the country; 16 percent believe whites are a superior race; and 20 percent disagree with Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed Southern slaves.”

Given such findings, Clinton was hardly off the mark to describe her rival’s supporters as she did.

Wrapping Up

The 2016 presidential campaign revealed a different side of Hillary Clinton. But political shifts aren’t new to her. As a young woman, she supported Barry Goldwater before eventually becoming a Democrat. Competing with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) for the Democratic nomination, Clinton insisted that she was just as progressive as he was and supported causes that indicated she was moving farther left. Only a Hillary Clinton presidency will show just how committed Clinton is, or isn't, to enacting socially-conscious and anti-racist policies.