Robert Tracinski of The Bulwark makes a good point when he warns that the “Republicans will spend hundreds of millions of dollars over the next ten weeks trying to convince voters that they should punish Democrats for tolerating or excusing lawless violence.” This was clear during the Republican National Convention. Tracisnki is also correct in advising Joe Biden to tackle the issue head-on, but his recommendation that Biden dedicate a whole month to revisiting Bill Clinton’s 1992 Sister Souljah Moment shows just how out of touch he is with the politics of the left.
In the aftermath of the Rodney King riots, the rapper Sister Souljah made some very impolitic remarks. Most controversially, she suggested it would be a good idea if Black gang members took a week off from killing each other to focus on killing white people. She then appeared at Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Convention in June 1992, the day before Bill Clinton was scheduled to speak. The Clinton campaign team wanted to create some distance from Jackson and they didn’t want to be tarnished by association with Souljah, so the future president took the opportunity to condemn some of Souljah’s most incendiary lyrics and remarks. Jesse Jackson was furious, but the press loved it and has spent the last 28 years celebrating Clinton’s act of independence.
Of course, Bill Clinton did not win an election in November 1992 because of remarks he made five months earlier at the Rainbow Convention. It was a conversation piece in June, well before the party conventions or the debates with Poppy Bush and Ross Perot. Most observers credit Clinton’s laser focus on the economy as the reason for his success, and they’re probably right.
It’s true that Toni Morrison once called Bill Clinton “American’s first black president,” but the Sister Souljah Moment caused lasting hurt. It wasn’t because he had objected to the idea that Black gang members kill some white people for a change, but because he used the stage at Jackson’s convention to seemingly marginalize the movement. It would have been worse if Clinton dwelled on the rapper for a whole month.
The Republicans don’t want to talk about the racial justice protests, so they focus on the looting. The Democrats don’t want to talk about the looting, mainly because it’s a distraction from the need for police reform. Biden’s response has been to praise the protesters and their cause while condemning violence and lawlessness. He will have to go through many iterations of this dance between now and November, but the steps should remain the same.
In the wake of the Jacob Blake shooting in Wisconsin, the Black community is in tremendous pain. Black athletes are boycotting games and practices, not only to protest but also to mourn. It’s hard to focus on your job when you’re overcome with grief.
Biden needs to take this moment to show he can lead us to a better place. He can’t do that by joining the Republicans in making this all about the looting. The last thing we need right now is for both white presidential candidates using the Black community as a punching bag by associating their grievances with lawlessness.