That notorious Souljah moment: Joan Walsh has a piece in Salon today about the need to develop “a post-[Bill] Clinton Democratic domestic agenda,” “even if the Democratic frontrunner is named Clinton.”
Almost always, time marches on—but sometimes, so does memory. We were struck by one part of this passage from Walsh’s essay, which strikes us as generally sensible:
WALSH (5/5/15): My goal is not to bash either Clinton, as we look at what did and didn’t work in the 1990s Democratic domestic agenda. (I also think it’s unfair to automatically credit or blame Hillary Clinton for the policies of her husband.) Bill Clinton was a gifted politician who cared about civil rights and poverty. He saw the way Republicans had used both issues against Democrats since the 1960s and he tried to fight it, even if he had to wade into the swamp of white backlash politics to fashion a new Democratic approach to crime, poverty and race.We think Walsh’s approach is totally sensible here. We’re inclined to agree with her assessment of Clinton’s motives at that distant point in time.
His notorious “Sister Souljah” moment during the 1992 campaign; his crime and welfare reform policies; his railing against “big government;” all were tailored to reassure white people that Democrats had heard their concerns about the excesses of the war on poverty, and would incorporate the politics of personal responsibility into future efforts to promote equality. But his goal wasn’t perpetuating poverty, inequality and racism; it was forging a winning political coalition to take up a new fight against them, informed by the lessons of the 1960s and ’70s. You can disagree with his tactics, but it’s indisputable that was his intent.
That said, we were struck by Walsh’s reference to that “notorious Sister Souljah moment.” Is it true? Did Clinton engage in “a notorious Sister Souljah moment during the 1992 campaign?”
In an otherwise sensible piece, we thought this remark stood out.
The new Salon devotes a lot of time to the task of confusing young readers about the politics of the Clinton and pre-Clinton years. We thought Walsh’s reference to that “notorious moment” should perhaps be addressed.
A bit of backstory:
As of 1992, it was becoming hard to believe that the Democrats would ever win the White House. A great deal of culture-war politics seemed to be arrayed against them. This seemed especially true after Michael Dukakis, a good decent intelligent person, got dismantled in the 1988 campaign.
What did Governor Dukakis have against the pledge of allegiance? Bush the elder rode such questions to an easy, dispiriting win, with the press corps screeching about Dukakis’ failure to punch Bernie Shaw for asking an ill-considered question at the start of one debate.
Crime rates were much higher during that era. For that reason, crime drove a constellation of those culture war issues. And then, along came Sister Souljah, who was quoted in the Washington Post in May 1992.
She had been asked about black-on-white violence during the Los Angeles riots/rebellions. Some of that violence had been ugly, dramatic and videotaped. This comes from the transcript of the interview which was excerpted in the Post:
QUESTION: Even the people themselves who were perpetrating that violence, did they think that was wise? Was that a wise reasoned action?To see the profile which appeared in the Post, just click here.
SOULJAH: Yeah, it was wise. I mean, if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people? You understand what I’m saying? White people, this government and that mayor were well aware of the fact that black people were dying every day in Los Angeles under gang violence. So if you're a gang member and you would normally be killing somebody, why not kill a white person?
A few weeks later, Candidate Clinton was scheduled to speak at a conference organized by Jesse Jackson, who has done good things in the world. Souljah was also scheduled at the conference. When he appeared, Clinton repudiated her words.
As we’ve often noted here, the city of Baltimore is full of superb young people who are both black and white. (The demographics go on from there.) That’s also true of the United States as a whole.
In the past week, we’ve seen a lot of superb young people discussing the recent events in Baltimore. How many of these impressive young people have you seen saying anything like what Sister Souljah said at that distant point in time?
We don’t mean this as a criticism of Souljah, who was young at the time. But no Democratic politician with two brain cells to rub together could have appeared at a conference with Souljah at that time without rejecting such remarks.
We’ve seen a lot of superb young people in Baltimore in the past two weeks. Very few people have said anything like what Souljah said way back then.
The Gray family hasn’t said anything like that. Their very capable attorney, Billy Murphy, hasn’t said anything like that.
Those remarks were made a long time ago. Most people no longer recall what was said. As we pimp the histrionics of our fiery progressive outlooks, we may sometimes remember this as a bit of “notorious” conduct on Bill Clinton’s part.
Are you sure we should recall it that way? Have you seen any of our inspiring young people making such comments, or anything like them, in this past few weeks?
We saw some impressive young people with Melissa Harris-Perry on Sunday. If MSNBC could get its transcripts posted, we could have shown you their words!