I’m Backing Hillary Because I Hate Simple and Shallow Caricatures
by Grizzard –
It happens every so often. I post something brash onto some social media platform only to elicit the rancor of a friend who doesn’t quite get me. Sometimes it’s a conservative friend, anxious to know why I’d support the devil. Other times it’s a liberal friend — a supporter of Senator Sanders — anxious to know why I’d support the devil. They each appeal to my better angels and to her worst. How can someone like you support someone like her? I then feel like I’m justifying support for Hitler.
It’s off-putting and one of the reasons I’ve been jammed into Clinton’s corner. I didn’t start there. Much to the contrary. I’m a proud member of the Obama generation. Swept up by his soaring rhetoric during my college days, I recall the early conversations about how the little-known senator from Illinois was going to be the next president. I bought his books before he was Obama the candidate. I worked on his campaign when he fought Hillary for the Democratic nomination in a race that turned the day then-candidate Obama spoke at Clemson, my historically racist university.
I don’t remember vilifying Hillary then. I just remember sitting in small classrooms listening to people like Kal Penn tell me why the president had inspired them to spend his afternoons visiting with small groups of college students in some South Carolina backwater. I was inspired in my very naive way by the way Obama’s campaign brought me in close contact with black students who I didn’t often have the chance to work with during my childhood in a still very segregated part of the world. Of course my expectations for the Obama presidency were outsized and childlike, believing that the election of a black president might excise the racism that I’d grown to hate through decades of exposure therapy. The last decade has been a revelation in growth — the learning to disagree with the President who inspired me so. Learning, as a person heavily invested in the public defense, to disagree with the president when he declared in his Merrick Garland nomination speech that the fourth amendment was a mere technicality. Learning to disagree with the president’s use of drones and mass surveillance. More than disagreement, it’s been learning to deal with the disappointments brought on by the president’s pragmatic, incremental approach to change.
Those disappointments have tracked a middle line with crumbling hope to my left and nasty nativism to my right. It’s an unusual consequence of today’s political world that a person like me could at once grow disappointed with the president while gaining affection for him just the same. The reasons are simple. From my right, the president’s ducked, dodged, and taken on the chin every sort of insult you could think up. A congresscritter from my state called him a liar during the State of the Union address. Hoards of state-level GOP folks have compared him and his family to monkeys. He’s been mocked, questioned, and obstructed at every turn. And in the process, he’s become something like family. Sure, you disagree with family. You might even get disappointed with family. But there’s something about watching your family take potshots that puts your own disagreements in perspective. And that’s how it’s been with the President. I was a kid who wanted the world from him. He was a man who had to deal with the realities of that unchanging world.
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I arrived in support of Hillary like many, I’d assume. I’ve watched Sanders operate in the Senate for years, admiring his firebrand and wishing him along. I was excited to think that he might run for president. The economic inequality debates and protests weren’t my particular area of interest — I tend to focus my advocacy on criminal injustice and race — but I understood the value of Sanders’s message, as well as how his focus intersected with mine. In the early part of the race, I fashioned myself a supporter of Senator Sanders. And in truth, that hasn’t much changed. I’d invite the opportunity to vote for him in November, and I’d support him fiercely in his efforts to make America more equitable.
Something nasty’s happened since Sanders rose from political obscurity to his current place in the mainstream. Along the way, he’s attracted and cultivated a following that’s engaged in the same sort of demagoguery endured by President Obama. The empty caricatures of the president — that he’s a socialist, that he’s the “worst president in the country’s history,” and that he’s a shill for the corporate middle — have long since failed to fully encapsulate the man or the politician. They’ve failed to describe easy-to-muster reasons why the president’s tenure has been a mild disappointment to some of his supporters. They’re devoid of nuance, of flavor, of the sort of political spice that lifts the conversation to a constructive place. And so, too, have the most recent critiques of Hillary Clinton.
I’m not sure I have affection for Clinton. Certainly not in the way I did for Obama. Some of this is my own aging. Eight years has brought me from wide-eyed, medium-rare child with a cool pink center to a slightly longer cooked medium. There’s some pink there, but my belief in what any politician can do has cooled. And certainly there’s something about Clinton that deprives her supporters of the soaring hope the 2008 Obama campaign brought. But despite that lack of affection, I have respect for her.
I grew up in a small town in South Carolina of just more than 6,000 people. That number might have been a little higher a couple decades ago, but folks have moved on as commerce has done the same. My hometown is like many in the South, where the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education took the path of trickle-down integration. It wasn’t until 1994, after the Department of Justice investigated, that Darlington truly integrated its schools. Before that, Mayo High School was more than 90-percent black, with its district lines cutting a snake’s path through the poorest neighborhoods in town. Mayo was a source of pride for the community, but it was largely abandoned in favor of St. John’s High School, and in favor of a host of segregation academies that popped up to accommodate white flight in the post-Brown era.
My parents pulled my sisters and me from Spring Elementary when our school’s profile blackened. Spring Elementary, the school just a few hundred yards from my front yard, was about to become something different. It would adopt a new color scheme both officially and demographically. My parents had a choice. Like many in our community, they moved me to a private academy the town over. The King’s Academy, a Christian school 15 minutes away, saw its enrollment swell as parents from Darlington looked for cheap and acceptable alternatives.
It’s troubling to look back at that time in our community. My parents weren’t bad people. They still aren’t. My dad developed a prison rehabilitative program to help the re-integration of offenders before those programs were common or en vogue. My granddad had let black people shop in his jewelry store during the 1950s and 1960s when many merchants openly discriminated. My mom, too, had shaken loose from the racism in her own family. She taught in the public schools, in adult education programs, and spoke out passionately against the nastier forms of open racism in the community. But even they were swept up, perhaps in fear, perhaps in ignorance, by a rush that pulled students like me out of the community, leaving the newly “integrated” schools to languish without proper resources. It’s no surprise that public schools in South Carolina experienced belt-tightening when the wealthier residents of their communities no longer had skin in the public school game. That it happened to me, and with me, suggests that something more than just a gaggle of evil racists was afoot. Surely some parents were, but surely it was more concerning that even the more “progressive” whites participated in the mechanization of educational inequity.
I’d eventually move over from my squalid Christian school to James F. Byrnes Academy, a school established in 1966 as a haven for white students escaping integration. Byrnes was one of many schools in the South Carolina Independent Schools Association established in that period. I know because we played them on Friday nights on our newly white-washed gridiron. At Robert E. Lee Academy, the Cavaliers didn’t have a single black player. Thomas Heyward Academy had one — a Parade All-American defensive tackle who joined the all-white team weeks into training camp after being expelled from his public high school. He was one of two black players on our state-wide all-star team at the end of the season. If I could go back in time, I’d ask him how it felt it run out onto the field behind teammates who carried a large Confederate flag in a stadium that blared “Dixie,” the Southern fight song.
My childhood best friend at Spring Elementary had been Brandon Green. He was one of handful of black kids there. After second grade, my last in those schools, I didn’t have another black classmate. Byrnes had a few black people, usually the sons and daughters of doctors, but none in my class. I never had a black teammate, though we played against a handful of black kids. It all seemed very normal. I was probably more aware of my surroundings than most, but I never stopped to question why all our opponents seemed to be named after Confederate generals nor why the schools all seemed to be established in the 1960s. It was only when the school board at Byrnes convened to consider a name change that the issue struck most of us. One of the board members was concerned that the name — which honored one of South Carolina’s vilest segregationists — might bring public disfavor on his company, which relied heavily on contracts to produce its millions. The students weren’t consulted, of course, and the whole thing was kept on the hush. Eventually we emerged with new helmet stickers for our football headgear. “TBS,” they read. We joked that in the great tradition of 1990s television programming, our games might start at 7:05, just like the Braves on Ted Turner’s channel. We were The Byrnes Schools, a change designed to give our little segregation academy a bit more class and clout, to obscure the name of its founder, James F.
Later, as an adult in conversations with the then-dean of the school on this period, I listened to him defend the honor of the school in its effort to be inclusive. Maybe he’s right. But name change or not, I still didn’t encounter my first black classmate until college, I didn’t meet my first Muslim classmate until law school, and I didn’t know an openly gay man until I met him at law school orientation at the age of 25. The first black teacher at Byrnes — a woman who had also been among the first black kids to integrate her school as a child — told me recently that high school boys used to walk behind her making monkey sounds as she walked the halls. They weren’t disciplined. She kept her head up and tried to teach them, just the same.
Byrnes is closed now. It was bought by an even more posh school on the other side of town. The name’s been changed again, another degree of separation from its owner. At Trinity-Byrnes School, they let in a few more black people, especially if those students can bring the school some success in sports. But the purpose is still the same for Trinity-Byrnes and the schools like them. They stand as options, alternatives for parents who’d rather not have their kids learn alongside the blacks and browns in our rural public schools. They won’t tell you that, of course. These school administrators will tell you that they’re in the business of college prep. But these segregation academies aren’t Phillips Exeter or Horace Mann. They cost a few thousand dollars a year, just enough to make them exclusive, but not enough to put them out of reach for the average lower-middle class person in the community I came up. If it hadn’t been for a “Magnet” school in Darlington, which selectively ensured that smart students in the richer parts of town could go to school in a safely scrubbed space, all of my friends might have retreated to the segregation academies. That was just reality. And not much has changed.
That brings me back to Hillary Clinton. It’s been reported often that she cut her teeth in law school as a researcher on the creative re-segregation of southern schools after the Supreme Court integration edict. She went to Alabama, posing as a prospective parent, looking for information on what these new academies were like. They were applying for tax-exempt status, you see, the sort of status they needed in order to operate functionally. If they were engaged in discrimination, they’d lose that status. As you might suspect, accountability on this sort of thing was low. People like Clinton were sent in to get a sense of things. She uncovered the obvious. The schools were proudly discriminatory, and because she was a member of the tribe, they didn’t mind telling her about it. White folks who care about racism know how this is. There’s an unspoken assumption by racist whites that if you’re white, you must be comfortable hearing all the jokes.
Clinton earned my respect when she went into those schools. When she cared about those issues. I’ve been to law school. I know how hard it is to resist the pull of big money. It’s ingrained into the law school culture, as life-long overachievers and special snowflakes angle to see who can take home absurd gobs of cash from law firms that take too long to learn how disposable even the average Yale student happens to be. Maybe Clinton’s experience in the 1970s was different. Maybe it was the same as mine. I can respect the decision of a young Midwestern woman to step back a hundred years to help with a noble cause. That’s hard. I care an awful lot about civil rights, and in my first summer of law school, I bussed minor league baseball players to airports and hospitals, chasing the dream of working in a Major League front office. I know it’s not easy to commit to the causes that matter, even when you’re pre-disposed to them.
That Hillary did doesn’t make her perfect. And it doesn’t excuse some of her later missteps. When you’ve worked on the cases of juvenile black boys, you don’t take kindly to hearing politicians who use rhetoric like “super predators.” I know in a very real sense the impact of this language on the actual outcomes of young black men, even if Clinton’s usage was in a slightly different context. Words matter. Especially words from first ladies. They shape mindsets and outcomes. Having worked on capital cases, I know better than most the destruction brought to civil liberties by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, passed by Bill and championed by Hillary. It’s a thorn in the side of lawyers I respect. It’s the bill that empowered Antonin Scalia to utter his now infamous words about the constitutionality of killing an innocent man.
I’ve investigated the foreign policy blunders of Clinton. Specifically, she went wrong on Iraq in a decision that is now described to me as “very difficult at the time.” It wasn’t. My best friend Will was still wearing puka shell necklaces and dying the tips of his hair in defiance of cool when he wrote one of only two papers in our political science class outlining why we shouldn’t go into Iraq. He’s smart now, but he like most 17-year olds, he didn’t know shit then. But he knew more than Clinton.
She’s had other missteps. And we have our disagreements. But I trust that her core is good, and I’m willing to be wrong on that if I need to be. I know that the rising tide of segregation academies as late as the 1990s swept up people like my parents. Good people who to this day find a well of tears trying to justify decisions that quite clearly deprived their children of an inclusive education and abandoned the black children of a community they claim to love. I know that those tides are strong, challenging them isn’t easy. People don’t go into communities to fight those issues unless they care deeply at their core.
Of course I admire her pragmatism. Saying “systemic racism is wrong” is easy. Figuring out which methods are en vogue on the ground in unwatched places like my hometown is more difficult. And I know that when you wade into the weeds of detail, missteps happen. It troubles me that Hillary failed to see the link between the abandoned children in those 1970s southern schools and the rising tide of crime that led to her advocacy for the 1990s crime legislation. I wish she had. But I trust that a woman willing to fight that battle has a core that will move forward and learn.
It’s not Hillary’s imperfections that pressed me into her corner. Nor is it just her advocacy on an issue that strikes a real emotional place for me. It’s the deceitful caricatures that have plagued the last few months of this primary. I don’t like to be pissed on and told it’s raining. When you tell me that Hillary’s a liar, or evil, or a shill, or no better than Ted Cruz, I go further than not believing you. I go as far as not wanting to support you in your advocacy. It’s clownish, cartoonish even. To create a caricature of Bernie Sanders that would equal the one thrown at Hillary Clinton, you’d have to call him Stalin. He’s not, and neither is she the incarnation of evil.
That the Democratic Party has two candidates whose core values represent the movement forward should be exciting. But that’s not cool enough. Not edgy enough. In our rush to run from the simplistic, us v. them rhetoric of the Republican Party, we’ve created a similar (albeit more palatable version) on our side. The snide insults and simplistic portrayal of Clinton are reminders to all of us who’ve been paying attention of the way Republicans painted President Obama. It’s made me run into the corner of a candidate whose core has been maligned in a way that no longer squares. And truly, it’s the fault off the less constructive supporters of Senator Sanders. They can shoulder the blame for highlighting in Hillary what would otherwise be only mildly remarkable traits. Taking a Yale Law School education and using it to fight the evil of your day should be the expectation. It’s what I’d want my kids to do. But when you tell me Hillary possesses malignant insides, evidence of her goodness is magnified in the face of incessant and obnoxious misdirection.
Reprinted with permission from Daily Kos