A Primary Race Race Primer

clinton sanders

In the most recent Democratic presidential debate on Thursday, issues of criminal justice and race were featured in the conversation between the two leading candidates for the first time. In contrast to previous debates, which largely avoided asking about mass incarceration or racism, this round featured Sanders decrying “institutional racism,” Clinton making repeated references to “systemic racism,” and both candidates speaking out against the racially disparate impacts of the criminal justice system. This shift is not incidental; it reflects a new stage in the race for the Democratic nomination.

As the primary race moves from the pearly-white states of Iowa and New Hampshire to more demographically-representative states like South Carolina, it’s very likely that issues such as policing, incarceration, and criminal justice reform will play a larger role in the campaign between Sanders and Clinton than they have up until this point. Especially since Sanders sorely lags behind Clinton when it comes to non-white voters – referred to as her electoral “firewall” – it’ll be up to him to make the case that the policies of a Democratic Socialist from Vermont will serve the needs of minority communities in America better than those of the Democratic establishment candidate. But regardless of who comes out on top with the nomination, the coming effort to win over black and latinx voters is likely to push both candidates to develop more substantive and progressive pitches on issues of criminal justice and mass incarceration. Below, I offer a brief primer on the candidates’ history with criminal justice issues, where they stand now, and where we can expect things to go.

Candidate Histories: A mixed bag

The most damning point in both candidates’ history on incarceration came during Bill Clinton’s administration with his 1994 crime bill, widely considered to be a significant mechanism of modern mass incarceration. The legislation expanded capital crimes, instituted “three strikes” laws for certain crimes, imposed new mandatory minimum sentences, decimated prison education, allocated money for the creation of new prisons, and played no small part in driving the current state of incarceration in which the U.S. has more people in prison than any other country in the world, in both absolute and per capita terms. This is a legacy that Clinton will have to contend with – as first lady at the time she played an active role in the promotion of the legislation. Speaking to a conference of female police officers, Clinton noted that “there are many dollars in the crime bill to build more prisons,” and touted the three strikes provision. It will rightly be noted that Sanders, a Vermont congressman at the time, voted in favor of the legislation. As such, the consequences attendant to that bill, which include the number of African Americans in prison increasing by 60 percent during Clinton’s administration, are on both of them.

But though they are both implicated in the 1994 bill, Clinton did more than Sanders in circulating the tough on crime ideology that forms the backbone of America’s punitive state. In particular, this video shows Hillary Clinton sounding the alarm in 1996 about the threat of the “super-predator,” a thinly-racialized pseudo-scientific theory widespread in the mid-nineties that warned of a generation of criminal youth with “no conscience” and “no empathy,” in Clinton’s words. (This soundly debunked theory, it should be noted, was popularized by John DiIulio, a professor in Princeton’s politics department at the time. There’s also, of course, a Trump connection there.)


By way of contrast, Sanders spoke out against mass incarceration and tough on crime rhetoric on the floor of the House as early as 1991, calling for an end to the death penalty and a focus on fighting poverty instead of incarcerating. And though he ultimately voted for the 1994 crime bill, Sanders presciently spoke out against its potential consequences on the floor of the house, saying:

Mr. Speaker, it is my firm belief that clearly, there are some people in our society who are horribly violent, who are deeply sick and sociopathic, and clearly these people must be put behind bars in order to protect society from them. But it is also my view that through the neglect of our Government and through a grossly irrational set of priorities, we are dooming tens of millions of young people to a future of bitterness, misery, hopelessness, drugs, crime, and violence. And Mr. Speaker, all the jails in the world, and we already imprison more people per capita than any other country, and all of the executions in the world, will not make that situation right. We can either educate or electrocute. We can create meaningful jobs, rebuilding our society, or we can build more jails. Mr. Speaker, let us create a society of hope and compassion, not one of hate and vengeance.

Powerful stuff from Sanders more than two decades ago, well before mainstream politicians were questioning the turn towards punitive carceral policies. Today, however, there is a growing shift towards criminal justice reform, marked by the shift towards “smart on crime” politics that encourage shorter sentences and a move away from mass incarceration. And though Sanders and Clinton have very similar stances in favor of reform today, it should be noted that Clinton supports retaining the death penalty, while Sanders has been a lifelong opponent.

The Turn to Race

The candidates have wasted no time in appealing to the nonwhite electorate in the wake of the New Hampshire primary, which was a resounding success for Sanders. In addition to the heightened attention to criminal justice and racism in Thursday’s debate, both Clinton and Sanders have since released ads focusing on racial justice. Sanders’ ad is striking for featuring Erica Garner, the daughter of Eric Garner, talking about her father’s death at the hands of the NYPD and her subsequent turn to activism. Clinton’s ad – called “Broken” – likewise focuses on the broken justice system, albeit against a more traditional visual backdrop for a campaign video. But both have also been supplemented in their appeals.

This week, Bernie Sanders received some (less than full-fledged) support from prominent black intellectuals Michelle Alexander and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Alexander penned an article co-published in the Nation and the Root that highlighted the Clintons’ checkered history, including the 1994 bill and the subsequent gutting of welfare. Coates, on the other hand, who has notably taken Sanders to task for not supporting reparations, indicated on Democracy Now! that he would be voting Sanders. In a peculiar turn of events, Alexander took down Clinton and implied that Sanders was the lesser of two evils, but stopped short of endorsing him. Coates, for his part, indicated that his vote for Sanders should not be taken as an endorsement, and encouraged anybody who would take it as such to decide for themselves. Despite their qualifications, though, both quasi statements of support are likely to wear away at Clinton’s support among black voters.


Clinton has not been without her own prominent endorsement this week, though it too was not without qualifications. On Thursday, the Political Action Committee (PAC) of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) formally endorsed Clinton for president. However, some observers were quick to point out that it was the Caucus’ PAC that voted for the endorsement, not the dozens of black legislators in the Caucus itself. The Intercept published an article pointing out that the board of the PAC included lobbyists from Walmart and big Pharma companies, while CBC member Rep. Keith Ellison tweeted that he and other CBC members were not included in the decision making process. With holdouts like Ellison aside, though, it’s not all that surprising to learn that the representatives and senators of the CBC have fallen in party line behind the establishment Clinton: a large majority of the Caucus’s 45 Democrats have individually endorsed Clinton for their party’s nomination. A good explainer of the contention around the endorsement can be found on Democracy Now!.

The Path Ahead

It’s clear that as long as the race between Clinton and Sanders remains tight, issues of criminal justice will remain in both candidates’ talking points. This is for the best. With the flicker of bipartisan support for criminal justice reform appearing to be fleeting, keeping incarceration in the back and forths of the primaries will be a good way to keep the critical topic in the national consciousness. Also, as the race draws on, it is likely that the candidates will adopt more progressive policies to try to distinguish themselves from each other, which is a tough task at present. Hopefully, the influence of #BlackLivesMatter will remain strong on both campaigns, and the candidates will engage in the sort of substantive policy debate on the issue that they are presently engaged in over health care, taxes, and foreign policy. Key things to look out for will be Sanders putting forth an approach on racial issues that goes beyond the pivot to economics that has been characteristic of his dealings with the issue, and Clinton articulating a policy plan that does more than focus on nonviolent drug offenders and other milquetoast liberal “solutions” to mass incarceration. All of this bodes well for the Democratic Party. As for the Republicans…

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect endorsements of Hillary Clinton by individual members of the CBC. An earlier version mistakenly implied that had the CBC endorsed based on a membership-vote, they would have endorsed Bernie Sanders. 

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