Hillary Clinton is headed to Philadelphia Wednesday to talk about the scourge of gun violence, just weeks after Bill Clinton sparred with activists there over racially charged language she once used to describe black violence.
Throughout her campaign Clinton has made the issue of guns central to her appeal to voters, especially African-Americans. That message will continue on Wednesday, a day after the New York primary, when Clinton is scheduled to appear with former Attorney General Eric Holder and two so-called “Mothers of the Movement” whose children lost their lives while in police custody.
Holder, the first African-American to hold that position, is widely respected among black voters, and he endorsed Clinton earlier this year in Charleston, South Carolina, where nine black church members were murdered last year by a young white supremacist.
"I've seen her deal with the issues that will confront the next president firsthand, and she has bold plans to address police brutality, fight for commonsense reforms to our gun laws, get incomes rising, and make college affordable,” Holder said in January.
Clinton has called for gun policy reform and blasted Bernie Sanders, her Democratic opponent, for his support of pro-gun legislation and his relatively comfortable standing with the NRA and gun lobby.
She’s stood in black churches and met with black families, often alongside respected black emissaries, and preached on the immediacy of action needed to break down the “barriers” that keep too many hemmed in.
“I have been privileged to meet with so many family members who have lost loved ones to gun violence, sometimes at the hands of police, most times senseless, random, terrible violence,” Clinton said during a recent stop at the Christian Cultural Center in Canarsie, Brooklyn. “We all know these stories. We have to end them.”
At Brown Memorial Baptist Church, another black church in Brooklyn, Clinton drew a distinction between herself and Sanders.
“That’s a big difference between me and my opponent,” she said that day in early April. “He has voted with the National Rifle Association and the big gun lobby.”
She’s evoked the name of Sean Bell, an unarmed young man shot and killed by police the night before his wedding day, and Trayvon Martin, a Florida teen shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer, whose death sparked a national movement. Martin, she said, was “stalked” before being killed by “a man empowered with a gun.”
But, as much as Clinton has lifted up the banner to end the relentless bloodshed -- state sanctioned and otherwise -- of young black men, she’s been dogged by language she used in 1996 in which she described a generation of young black criminals as “super predators.”
Clinton has since apologized for the use of that term, considered a racial dog-whistle originally crafted by conservatives to describe what they posited was a new breed of super-villain in the form of inner-city black youth who were drug-addicted from the womb, heavily armed, remorseless and addled by drugs and drug profits. The theory was later debunked but not before the language and spirit made its way through American policy and (flawed) conventional wisdom of the day.
Black activists have plugged away at her racially incendiary comments during the 1990s, when gun violence had peaked and her husband, President Bill Clinton, was in the process of passing a crime bill that many experts, in hindsight, say had a disastrous effect on the black community and ratcheted up the levers of mass incarceration that ensnared it. The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, known casually as the 1994 Crime Bill, created stiffer penalties for nonviolent drug offenders, flooded American cities with 100,000 new police officers and built dozens of prisons. Instead of crushing violent crime, which started to trend downward before the bill was signed, many say it crushed black families.
Though the bill garnered wide support from Democrats and Republicans, blacks and whites, it is one of the policies that belie the Clinton administration’s wide popularity and love within the black community.
Just weeks ago Bill Clinton sparred with a couple Black Lives Matter activists in Philadelphia, one who held a sign that condemned his wife’s use of the super predator term.
“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,” an agitated Bill Clinton fired back at a protester. “Maybe you thought they were good citizens. She didn’t.”
Days later Bill Clinton offered a tepid walk-back of the Philadelphia exchange with the protesters, telling the New York Times that, “I know those young people yesterday were just trying to get good television.”
“But that doesn’t mean that I was most effective in answering it,” Clinton said.
Ahead of the New York primary, Hillary Clinton joined the hosts of the Breakfast Club, a popular hip-hop radio show in New York City, and addressed the exchange.
Host Charlemagne told Clinton that what was so offensive about the remarks was that it described black youth as predators without addressing the “system that created the super predators.”
"How do we hold the system accountable for that?" Charlamagne asked.
Clinton said it was a poor choice of words and that "I was talking about drug gangs and traffickers and cartels, but it was a poor choice of words."
"There is systemic racism that has to be called out and addressed," Clinton said.
The interview included a bit of lighthearted banter around Clinton always carrying a bottle of hot sauce around with her. "Now, I just want you to know people are going to see this and say ‘OK, she’s pandering to black people,” Charlemagne said, to which Clinton replied, “OK, is it working?”
As Clinton continues to chug toward the Democratic nomination, she's done so by effectively securing her wide base of support among black voters and smartly deploying her African-American surrogates across the country to vanquish her political demons. On Wednesday we'll see how effective that exorcism has been or if those predators will come back to bite her.