In his last appearance as president at the NAACP's annual convention in July, Bill Clinton beamed with delight as a parade of black notables slapped his back and pumped his hand in praise for his support of civil rights. Clinton, in turn, reminded the mostly black audience that he and Vice President Al Gore had marched in lockstep for eight years in pushing civil rights progress, and that African Americans should do everything they could to elect Gore president.
To back his appeal for Gore, a week later Clinton issued a fact sheet touting the civil-rights and economic gains blacks made during his administration. He boasted that he and Gore increased funds for urban investment programs, education, health care, and HIV/AIDS testing; passed tax cuts for the working poor; and fueled the economic boom that benefited many blacks. These are indeed solid accomplishments that have lifted the fortunes of many blacks. But even so, the Clinton-Gore scorecard on these big-ticket racial issues is far more murky and troubling than the rosy picture Clinton paints:
Racial Divide. With much fanfare, Clinton and Gore established a national panel on race. The goal was to get Americans thinking, talking about, and taking action to close America's racial divide. The panel did the first two, but did nothing on the latter. The panel's anemic proposals for continued support of Clinton's watered-down affirmative-action policies, stronger efforts at preventing police abuse, and the elimination of the gaping racial disparity in the drug sentencing laws went nowhere. Clinton and Gore not only did not put their political muscle behind the panel's proposals, they scuttled publication of the panel's full recommendations. Their inaction doomed the panel to be yet another one of the endless commissions on race that make recommendations for reform, only to be quickly forgotten. Affirmative Action. Following conservative Republican and media claims that white males were losing ground to minorities, Clinton, with much prodding from Gore, promised to end "abuses" in federal government affirmative-action programs. But there never was any federal mandate that forced contractors to replace white workers with minorities and women, nor compelled employees to impose racial quotas in hiring and promotions. The issue of affirmative action for a time inflamed many whites, and was used by cynical politicians to grab votes. Clinton and Gore pandered to that hysteria. Welfare. Republican Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and Bush all promised to end welfare as we know it. Democrats Clinton and Gore actually did it. They tacitly fanned racial and sexual myths about welfare, such as: that it encourages dependency, cheating, laziness, and births out of wedlock; that it is a massive drain on the taxpayers; and that the recipients are mostly poor black women. Republicans weren't willing to pay for job-skills training, education, health, and child-care programs to truly end welfare dependency. Clinton and Gore weren't either. Their welfare-reform package contained no funding provisions for such programs. Crime. In 1994, Clinton and Gore rammed the most wasteful and punitive crime bill in American history through Congress. It gutted funds for drug rehabilitation, social services, and youth employment training programs. It added scores of new death penalty provisions to federal law. It spurred along the greatest police and prison boom in US history, marked by a nasty rash of race-profiling and police-abuse cases, and widened the obscene racial disparities in the drug-sentencing laws. The more than 1 million black men warehoused in America's jails, mostly for nonviolent drug offenses and petty crimes, is an enduring testament to Clinton and Gore's "lock 'em up and throw away the key" strategy.
Clinton and Gore also like to boast that they put more blacks in high administration positions than other presidents, supported minority redistricting, took tough action on the spate of church burnings, proposed new hate-crimes laws, and increased funds for civil-rights enforcement.
But none of those claims amounts to much. Their political appointments were to high-profile positions with relatively little major policy-making power, and Clinton dumped Lani Guinier, his nominee to head the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, and Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders, when they got mild flack from conservative Republicans.
Clinton and Gore had to oppose Southern redistricting, since it meant the loss of Democratic seats and votes. And it took a massive national outcry by blacks and church groups, and mass-media attention to hate crimes and church burnings, to prod a laggard Clinton-Gore administration to take the action they did take on hate violence.
Clinton and Gore's eight-year record on civil rights is a muddled blend of achievement, cautious rhetoric, neglect, and political opportunism. That record offers only shaky hope that Gore, without Clinton, will do any better in the White House.