Hillary Clinton’s Tone-Deaf Racial Pandering

The Democratic frontrunner needs to show she really gets what black and Hispanic voters want—and that doesn’t mean giving your Twitter feed a Kwanzaa makeover.

12.29.15 5:01 AM ET

Hillary Clinton’s minority outreach over the last week has rekindled the idea that she is a candidate who is out of touch, particularly when it comes to minorities. To many of us, her campaign’s insistence that she is an abuela for Latinos and the changing of her Twitter logo to represent Kwanzaa came across as pandering at its worst.

As the leading candidates for the Republican Party continue to stoke racial, religious and ethnic tensions, the Democratic Party needs a candidate who can appeal to minority electorates. Clinton’s recent snafus show a potential vulnerability with her campaign regarding voters that the Democrats cannot afford to lose.

Yet these gaffes also display an obstacle that liberal candidates will face in this election cycle. Minority voters not only want a candidate who understands and appreciates their culture, has the capacity to fight for their causes and create positive change, but also one who can successfully navigate the line between appreciation and appropriation. Republicans do not have the same obstacle since their candidates are focused on appealing to a primarily white electorate.

Clinton’s recent blog post on her official website, “7 things Hillary Clinton has in common with your abuela,” was intended to show Latino voters how Clinton is similar to their abuela, or grandmother. Yet many Latinos on social media found this outreach attempt to be pandering, or Hispandering, to an important electorate. Many mentioned how her lifestyle as an affluent white American prevents her from understanding and relating to the true experiences of abuelas in America.

This was a light-hearted blog post that was created by Paola Luisi, a Latino staffer on Clinton’s campaign, because Clinton reminded her of her own abuela, but it highlights the difficulties white liberal politicians face in our multicultural society that regularly discusses the dangers of white privilege and white supremacy.

Essentially, Clinton can remind Luisi of her own abuela, but she is not at the point where she reminds the majority of Latinos of their abuelas. Prematurely insinuating that you fill a vital role in a foreign culture will naturally invoke claims of pandering, disingenuous motives, or using the privileges that whiteness affords in America to appropriate or inject yourself into another culture.

Clinton’s outreach attempt to African-American voters with a Kwanzaa greeting on Twitter and a changing of logos to represent the holiday was also received negatively for similar reasons. Black Twitter had a field day ridiculing Clinton’s efforts. However, Clinton’s Kwanzaa message is different from claiming to be someone’s abuela.

Politicians regularly send cheerful messages regarding holidays that the candidate does not celebrate, but their constituents do. President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama sent out a Kwanzaa message too, and they do not appear to be avid practitioners of the holiday. Yet when the Clintons make a similar gesture, this now becomes a controversial act that could weaken her standing with black voters. The reasons for this are complex and stem from the purpose of the holiday in the first place.

Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, née Ronald Everett, as an extension of the Pan-African movement. The 1960s were a revolutionary time in America for black empowerment with many competing factions with various liberation ideologies including the NAACP, Nation of Islam, Black Panthers, Karenga’s United Slaves, and countless others. Karenga’s ideology was not embraced by a majority of blacks in America. Many African Americans have chosen to keep their Christian names instead of choosing a Swahili name as Karenga and many within the Pan-African movement have.

Still, the intent of Kwanzaa was to provide black Americans with an opportunity to celebrate African culture and traditions with other African victims of the Diaspora, and to also provide an alternative to the white cultural traditions that were forced upon blacks in America. Kwanzaa is not a holiday that a majority of African Americans celebrate, but the general message of black liberation, empowerment and identity is not something that most African Americans would honestly disagree with.

Black Americans may disagree with the authenticity, Pan-African ideology, and practicality of the holiday, but the intent is not problematic. We understand the importance of black Americans creating supportive structures that encourage black advancement because historically American society at large was not going to provide them.

Kwanzaa is not a holiday in the same vein as Christmas, Hanukkah, or Ramadan, so treating it as such can become complicated. The Obamas mentioning Kwanzaa makes sense because they are two symbols of black empowerment and advancement. This does not ring true for the Clintons at this time because Hillary is still working toward earning the support of black voters.

The agency, influence, and agenda of black voters has grown during Obama’s presidency, and changed dramatically since the Clinton administration. The fact that Bill Clinton was the first president to speak  about the observance of Kwanzaa does not resonate with voters today. Hillary Clinton’s at times turbulent interactions with the Black Lives Matter movement and today’s black electorate holds a much greater significance than the fact that she and Bill may have respected Kwanzaa for more than 30 years. (If this seems unfair, then merely look at how Bernie Sanders’s civil rights record initially failed to resonate with black voters.)

In the 1990s, Latino voters were not an electorate that could decide an election, and black voters primarily wanted a candidate who would listen to them and care about them, especially following the flagrant race-baiting of the 1988 presidential campaign. Bill Clinton’s acknowledging of Kwanzaa in 1993 spoke to this need among black voters. But times change. Minority voters now need more than just the status quo.

Despite being popular among Latino and African-American voters, Clinton still needs to solidify her support amongst these electorates. To do so, she will need to navigate a fairly uncharted terrain of cultural sensitivity, awareness, and respect that is new to American politics. (The GOP does not even dare to venture into this territory.) If more of Clinton’s outreach attempts seem tone deaf or overly reliant on her previous successes than her present rapport with today’s voters, it will be difficult for her to shake the image of being out of touch.