Hillary Clinton Is Incredibly Corrupt, but Her Black Lives Matter Advice Is Spot On

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is incredibly, almost cartoonishly corrupt.

One could go on and on.

Yet, although Clinton is the master of saying one thing and doing another, this doesn’t mean she is always wrong. Even the most hypocritical of politicians can offer important advice and do valuable analysis—they often just fail to live up to what they themselves propose. A broken clock is still right twice a day, after all.

In a 19 August meeting with three activists from the Black Lives Matter civil rights movement, Clinton offered an example of this indispensable advice.

It bears mentioning that, although Clinton may now, for political gain, claim she supports Black Lives Matter, she is closely tied to and receives large sums of money from private prison lobbyists that profit from the expansion of mass incarceration and propagate the prison-industrial complex.

But, in spite of her hypocrisy, Clinton does indeed raise very important points that must, of utmost political exigency, be carefully considered.

You don’t “change hearts,” she explains in a conservation with Black Lives Matter activist Julius Jones. “You change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate.”

JULIUS JONES: I think that a huge part of what you haven’t said is 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. But the truth is that there’s an extremely long history of unfortunate government practices that don’t work, that particularly affect black people and black families.

And until we, as a country, and then the person who’s in the seat that you seek, actually addresses the anti-blackness 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 that we can actually take on anti-blackness as a founding problem in this country, I don’t believe that there is going to be a solution, because what the conversations that are happening now and why there is so much—so much cohesion across the divide, the red side and the blue side, is because of money, right? We’re spending a lot of money on prisons. We’re spending more money on prisons than we are on schools, right? But if we look at it from a lens of “Let’s solve this financial problem,” and we don’t look at the greater bottom line, that African Americans, who are Americans, are suffering at greater rates than most other people, every other people, for the length of this country, then it’s not going to go away. It’s just going to morph into something new and evolved.

You know, I genuinely want to know—you and your family have been, in no uncertain way, partially responsible for this, more than most, right? Now, there may have been unintended consequences. But now that you understand the consequences, what in your heart has changed that’s going to change the direction in this country? Like, what in you—like, not your platform, not what you’re supposed to say—like, how do you actually feel that’s different than you did before? Like, 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?

HILLARY CLINTON: Well, obviously, it’s a very thoughtful question, and it deserves a thoughtful answer. And I can only tell you that I feel very committed to and responsible for doing whatever I can. I have spent most of my adult life focused on kids, through the Children’s Defense Fund and other efforts to try to give kids, particularly poor kids, particularly, you know, black kids and Hispanic kids, the same chance to live up to their own God-given potential as any other kid. That’s where I’ve been focused.

And I think that there has to be a reckoning. I agree with that. 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—the next question is: “Well, so, what do you want me to do about it? 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, because in politics, if you can’t explain it and you can’t sell it, it stays on the shelf.

And this is now a time, a moment in time, just like the civil rights movement or the women’s movement or the gay rights movement or a lot of other movements reached a point in time, the people behind that consciousness raising and advocacy, they had a plan ready to go, so that when you turn to, you know, the women’s movement—”We want to pass this, and we want to pass that, and we want to do this”—problems are not all taken care of. We know that. Obviously, I know more about the civil rights movement in the old days, because I had a lot of involvement in working with people. So, they had a plan—this piece of legislation, this court case we’re going to make, etc., etc. Same with the gay rights movement—you know, “We’re sick of homophobia. We’re sick of being discriminated against. We want marriage equality. We’re starting in the states, and we’re going to keep going until we get it in the highest court of the land.”

So, all I’m saying is, your analysis is totally fair. It’s historically fair. It’s psychologically fair. It’s economically fair. But you’re going to have to come together as a movement and say, “Here’s what we want done about it,” because you can get lip service from as many white people as you can pack into Yankee Stadium and a million more like it, who are going to say, “Oh, we get it. We get it. We’re going to be nicer.” OK? That’s not enough, at least in my book. That’s not how I see politics. 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, you know, have your thoughts about, because that’s what I’m trying to figure out how to do.

So, yeah, deal with mass incarceration. I don’t—it’s not just an economic issue, although I grant you some people see it like that. But it’s more than that. I think there is a sense like, you know, low-level offenders, disparity in treatment, we’ve got to do something about that. I think that a lot of the issues about housing and about job opportunities, Ban the Box, a lot of these things—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 have to admit that they’re part of a long history in our country of, you know, either, you know, proposing, supporting, condoning discrimination, segregation, etc. Now, what do we do next? And that’s—that’s what I’m trying to figure out in my campaign, so that’s what I’m doing.

JULIUS JONES: Respectfully, the piece that’s most important—and I stand here in your space, and I say this as respectfully as I can—but if you don’t tell black people what we need to do, then we won’t tell you all what you need to do. Right?

HILLARY CLINTON: I’m not telling you; I’m just telling you to tell me.

JULIUS JONES: What I mean to say is that this is, and has always been, a white problem of violence. It’s not—there’s not much that we can do to stop the violence against us.

HILLARY CLINTON: Yeah, well, respectfully, if that is your position, then I will talk only to white people about how we are going to deal with a very real problem.

JULIUS JONES: That’s not what I mean. That’s not what I mean. That’s not what I mean. But like, what I’m saying is you—what you just said was a form of victim blaming. Right? You were saying that what the Black Lives Matter movement needs to do to change white hearts is to come up with a policy change.

HILLARY CLINTON: No, I’m not talking about—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 can 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, to live safely without fear of violence in their own communities, to have a decent school, to have a decent house, to have a decent future. So, we can do it one of many ways. You know, you can keep the movement going, which you have started, and through it you may actually change some hearts. But if that’s all that happens, we’ll be back here in 10 years having the same conversation, because we will 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.

This is how politics works; this is how reality works.

Hillary Clinton is far—very, very far—from being a political radical, but the advice she offers here is unwittingly radical.

You don’t change people’s hearts by appealing to their sensibilities, their feelings, their irrational prejudices. You might be able to convince a few people, to turn them into advocates, allies, comrades, but you will never reach the masses through personal, apolitical means.

You change people by changing the material conditions in which they live; you change people by changing politics, economics, the institutions in and with which they interact.

Black Lives Matter activists can have the best, most accurate analysis of the nuances of structural racism. Many do. But if they are unable to articulate material responses to this material reality, these problems will never be addressed.

It is crucial that this is grasped. Otherwise, the movement will fizzle out just like Occupy Wall Street (OWS). Many OWS activists understood very well, at not just a visceral but at an intellectual level, how deeply unjust the capitalist system against which they were struggling is. But, by refusing to engage with the system, by refusing to articulating clear, tangible demands, the movement inevitably doomed itself to failure.

France’s famed 1968 non-revolution was precisely that: a non-revolution. Activist Alain Geismar claimed it supposedly succeeded “as a social revolution, not as a political one.” Yet, since this ostensible “social revolution,” the French Communist Party has approached the verge of death; the French “Socialist” Party has become thoroughly neoliberal; the French Left is on a seemingly perpetual retreat; and the National Front, a fascist party—a literal fascist party—is poised to take state power within just a few years.

This is the value of a “social revolution” in action. When it is not coupled with a political revolution that permanently institutionalizes its social gains, those gains are transient. They can and will be taken away. All it ends up amounting to is a hill of apolitical beans.

One of the most well-known slogans of the Mai 68 movement was “Demand the impossible!” This may be the worst “political” slogan ever made. It is not even a political slogan; by virtue of its apolitics, it is explicitly apolitical.

“Demand the impossible!” epitomizes the kind of pseudo-radical non-politics Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin dubbed “infantile leftism.” If you are going to demand the impossible, you might as well demand nothing, because that is what you are going to get.

This pseudo-radical non-politics—a non-politics that centers on identities, individual feelings, and utter disengagement from systems of oppression in order to maintain untarnished more-radical-than-thou ideological purity—is all the rage in the contemporary US Left, however. Nothing is exactly what Occupy Wall Street got. OWS failed precisely because activists continued to “demand the impossible.” And, as a result, they predictably won imaginary change in response to their imaginary demands.

Similarly, nothing is unfortunately what the Black Lives Matter movement will get unless activists and leaders begin to articulate tangible political demands. On this point leadership is vital. The fetishization of horizontalism and leaderlessness present in many American left-wing movements is good insofar as it encourages democracy, yet it ultimately a double-edged sword—one that is often much more harmful than it is helpful. It is precisely this opposition to leadership that allowed OWS to be so easily infiltrated and destroyed from within by reactionaries, right-wing libertarians, and government provocateurs. Until leaders emerge and move toward tangible political action, the Black Lives Matter movement will continue to be co-opted by neoliberal NGOs and the Democratic Party, that infamous “graveyard of social movements.”

“Indict the system” is an amazing slogan. Last year, I wrote glowingly in support of it. It is a slogan that, like Occupy’s “99% vs. 1%” rhetoric, can change the hegemonic political discourses surrounding issues.

But changing media narratives and political rhetoric gets us absolutely nowhere if they do not translate into tangible material action. “Indict the system” is a slogan that, in spite of its constant repetition over the past year, has led to very little.

Not only has the system not changed, if anything, all the signs indicate it is only continuing to get worse. Police continue to kill more and more unarmed black Americans, largely with impunity; the militarization of the police continues to grow; black Americans and other people of color still endure disproportionate poverty and lack of access to healthcare and education; the list of injustices tragically goes on.

The fact of the matter is indicting the system is not enough. We may indict it for structural racism, for systemic violence, for brutal misogyny and murderous transphobia, but if we do not propose material ways by which to change the system, it will only continue to ravage, torture, and destroy.

Black people face extreme oppression in the United States of America. Extreme, violent, dehumanizing oppression. On a daily basis. This is precisely why it pains me so enormously to see Black Lives Matter go down the same road as Occupy.

Hillary Clinton is the last person I would normally be seeking advice from, given her seemingly innumerable and ever-growing conflicts of interest. But this does not mean what she says is wrong. Au contraire, in this case, she is absolutely correct: You don’t “change hearts”; “you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate.”

In his August 1857 “Address on West India Emancipation,” legendary black abolitionist and activist Frederick Douglass famously declared “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

Activists around the country would do well to heed this invaluable wisdom.