Statement by Ben Jealous on President Clinton’s Remarks on Black Lives Matter

President Clinton should apologize. He just did to an entire generation what he did to Sister Souljah a generation ago. Bill Clinton’s policies may have worked for a short time in the 1990s, however the millennial generation has paid a steep price for them ever since.

Today, we have record numbers of teachers packing backpacks of food for children on Fridays, as opposed to parents packing backpacks full of books on Mondays. This is because in 1996 Bill Clinton led the charge for the policy shift that put a lifetime limit on welfare for any poor parent. The lifetime limit was 5 years. No one hit it until just after his administration ended.

By the start of the Great Recession millions of families had already hit their ceiling on welfare. As a result, we now have twice as many Americans living in extreme poverty as we did 20 years ago.

The Great Recession is the defining economic experience of millennials, just as the Great Depression was for their grandparents and great grandparents. They understand that President Cilnton’s decision to weaken Glass-Steagall made the Great Recession possible. It allowed banks to operate in ways that had been banned ever since FDR championed Glass-Steagall a half century earlier.

Furthermore, virtually every American between 18 and 24 is paying a price for mass incarceration.

This is because state after state has cut their higher education budget to pay for higher incarceration. As a result, public university tuition and student default rates have soared. Our youngest voters find themselves most likely to either be in prison, indentured by student loan debt or afraid to even apply to college.

President Clinton was misleading when he suggested his 1994 crime bill was only responsible for 10 percent of America’s mass incarceration crisis because that bill only applied to the federal system. Since at least the 1970s, when incarceration rates began rising in America, the states have quickly replicated federal changes in sentencing laws.

Indeed, most Black Lives Matter activists have paid a steep price for President Clinton’s policies.

However, they also understand what President Clinton has often ignored: while the percentages are higher in the black community, an equal or larger number of our white sisters and brothers have been impacted by the sky-high incarceration, poverty, and student debt default rates spurred by the very policies he touted.

Yesterday, many confronted President Clinton looking for accountability, leadership and the humility that underlies both. What he exhibited was something very different.

An apology would be a good first step.

President, People For the American Way. Visiting Scholar, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania. Former National President, NAACP.

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