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When it comes to the issue of racial equality in America, voters undoubtedly look to the Democratic candidates for answers.
Bernie Sanders attended the March on Washington in 1963 and might just be the most racially progressive frontrunner the nation has ever seen, and Hillary Clinton, while she has made imprudent remarks regarding race in the past, has seemingly pushed racial justice to the top of her priorities list in recent times. But is this enough to show black voters that their concerns will be a real priority for the next president?
It seems just yesterday that Sanders stood aside while two young women in the Black Lives Matter movement climbed up on stage in Seattle to speak about racial injustices in a stereotypically progressive city, consequently cutting his speech short. Clinton has also been a target of activists; last month during a speech, protester Ashley Williams confronted Clinton on a rash statement she had made in 1996, which implied that black youths were “superpredators” who needed to be brought “to heel.”
These events have brought forth a question: why is Black Lives Matter focusing on progressive Democratic candidates rather than a Republican like Donald Trump who has been known to make less-than-favorable remarks about the Movement?
As CNN puts it, the “GOP doesn’t pretend to be a champion of the economic underdog.” The democrats, on the other hand, need to prove to black voters that, indeed, they can walk the walk.
Historically, Clinton has, at best, been inconsistent in her racial justice record. Her 1996 statements have earned her ample criticism and confusion about “which Hillary” will lead America, should she be elected. Although she was formerly seen as dismissive of the Movement, after the recent string of speech disruptions by activists among various Democratic candidates, she has attempted to distance herself from the “destructive Clinton legacy on crime” and in turn drafted an agenda on racial justice.
During the South Carolina primary, Clinton garnered the support of five mothers of prominent victims of race-related gun violence and police brutality, including the mothers of Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland. The mothers spoke at three black churches in South Carolina about their emotional experiences and the trauma they endured. Although heartfelt, the move was reportedly to convey to the mostly black audiences that they can truly trust Hillary Clinton to act on their concerns.
Alas, rhetoric may not prove to be enough to convince many black voters that Clinton will indeed prioritize their needs and concerns, as many remain skeptical of her intentions.
Bernie Sanders, on the contrary, is historically known as the progressive candidate who was arrested while protesting school segregation in Chicago, but in reality his relationship with Black Lives Matter has been rocky. During a Netroots Nation conference in July, Black Lives Matter activists stormed the room as Sanders was being interviewed and asked him various questions, to which he dismissively replied, “If you don’t want me to be here, that’s okay. I don’t want to out-scream you.” Later on he released a statement that he was “disappointed” that his interview had been interrupted.
He has also drawn criticism after stating the infamously dismissive, “Black lives matter, white lives matter, Hispanic lives matter,” after being asked his opinion of the Movement.
Like Clinton, Sanders quickly realized the importance of the black vote and shifted his agenda, promoting racial justice as a top priority in his campaign. He added a “racial justice” page to his website and began echoing the concerns of the Black Lives Matter movement in his policy proposals.
By the time the two activists rushed the stage during his Seattle rally, Sanders knew exactly what he had to do in order to be seen as conducive to the Movement; he moved aside and let the two women speak.
After the rally, however, he released a statement disapproving of the activists for interrupting his speech, saying that “…on criminal justice reform and the need to fight racism, there is no other candidate for president who will fight harder than me.”
Sanders is arguably the candidate most open to social change and progress, but the aforementioned statement after the Seattle rally is indicative of a bigger issue within American politics and racial equality: regardless of how progressive they are, candidates are still largely out of touch with the concerns of black Americans. Black Lives Matter is the “new center of gravity for the Democratic Party,” and Clinton and Sanders have both begrudgingly caught on in a time when the minority vote is crucial. Sanders continuously alludes to his “participation in civil rights demonstrations in the ’60s as a show of his commitment to black voters,” when the fact of the matter is that social justice movements are constantly evolving, proving that staying up-to-date on them is an absolute necessity for a presidential candidate. Clinton, on the other hand, has not given black voters much of an idea of “which Hillary” will appear, should a Clinton presidency be the outcome.
Bernie Sanders has clearly proven that he has the better track record when it comes to racial justice, but in no way does that imply that America doesn’t still have far to go in the fight for equality. Unfortunately the question many black voters may face during the election is still, “which candidate will least disregard my concerns?”
Photo courtesy of Salon