Donald Trump has been making half-hearted attempts to win over black voters, speaking at their churches and kissing their children. The Republican presidential nominee's preferred line of argument is that, given how dangerous and crime-ridden their streets are, what do they have to lose? He's shown little understanding of the challenges specific to their communities, and no interest in addressing them. But Democratic rival Hillary Clinton is far from deserving of their support as well.
Trump has been castigated for his broad-brushed stereotyping of black neighbourhoods, including claims that residents risk being shot every time they leave the house. Clinton has largely been spared criticism, as the media has focused on her ill-informed, offensive opponent. However, Clinton's support for violent-crime and welfare-reform legislation during her husband's presidency, and her racially charged description of criminals as "super-predators", should give black voters pause for thought.
Laying down the law
With his wife's approval, former US president Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in 1994. In a bid to appear tough on crime, he created dozens of new federal crimes punishable with death, mandated life sentences for individuals convicted of three serious violent crimes, and green-lit billions of additional funding for state prisons and the expansion of police forces. The laws ushered in an era of mass incarceration of African Americans, tearing families apart, fuelling criminalisation by placing young men in captivity with hardened criminals, and thrusting large swathes of the black community into an inescapable cycle of poverty and despair.
Moreover, the Clinton administration revamped the nation's welfare programmes. It ripped holes in the federal safety net, limited people to five years of welfare assistance, and reassigned funds from public housing and child-welfare initiatives to mass incarceration. In 1996, according to The Nation, the government spent twice as much on the penal system than it did on food stamps.
Hillary Clinton also supported the elimination of federal grants for prisoners interested in higher education, the denial of financial aid for students with drug convictions, and lifetime bans on receiving welfare or food stamps for individuals convicted of serious drug offences.
To top it all off, she described "gangs of kids" as "super-predators", preying on others without conscience of empathy. "We have to bring them to heel", she added.
Road to the White House
This may be a rare occasion where Trump has stumbled onto something. He has described failing black institutions, hammered Democrats for not doing more to help and urged black people to vote for him as they have “nothing to lose”. He could have used more sensitive, nuanced language, but he has a point. The black community’s longstanding support for Democrats hasn’t been rewarded; their politicians haven't lived up to their promises.
Of course, Trump's solution of fixing the economy and creating more jobs wouldn't solve the challenges facing the black community. Specific barriers to prosperity, including racist policing and discriminatory housing, employment and education practices, must be specifically addressed.
By dismissing #BlackLivesMatter and other pro-black or anti-police brutality movements, he's refused to acknowledge that black people face, to commandeer his term, a "rigged system". By advocating that a Trump administration would, inevitably and almost by accident, sweep blacks out of poverty while improving the lot of all Americans, he's only waggling tastier scraps than Democrats usually throw.
That isn't to say there's been no progress. In the half-century since the Civil Rights Act, black women have become the most educated cohort in America, and African Americans have risen to the highest echelons of government, business and culture. They've proven time and again that they can overcome adversity and disadvantage, and outperform more privileged groups.
Little hope for salvation
Clinton's private email server, accusations that she's traded access for donations to the Clinton Foundation, and her cosy relationship with Wall Street and other powerful lobbies have made it hard for voters to trust her and believe her promises. That's bound to be doubly true for black people, who suffered when her husband was in charge. The former Secretary of State may strike many as the obvious choice, compared with her brash, unapologetic and polarising opponent. But black voters must demand that she does more for their communities.
Clinton is counting on the ‘Obama coalition’ of young people, minorities and college graduates to help her secure the presidency. Black voters shouldn't forget her repeated support of legislation that has fuelled aggressive policing, excessive criminalisation and mass incarceration, devastating their communities. Although she has disavowed some of her husband's initiatives, there's little evidence that she will work to undo the damage caused. She shouldn't take black voters for granted or count on their blind support; they deserve much more from her than she does from them.