Will the 2016 Election Include a Real Debate About Racial Justice in America?

May 1, 2015

Hillary Clinton’s bold speech was a good start, but events in Baltimore show we’re still a long way from addressing inequities.

Earlier this week Hillary Clinton used the first major policy address of her campaign to speak passionately about the systemic inequities and injustices that afflict communities of color in the United States, and presented herself as a markedly more progressive, empathetic, and authentic candidate than we’ve seen in the past.

Clinton’s remarks at Columbia University come against the backdrop of protests and unrest in the streets of Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, whose spine was nearly severed while in police custody. As Andrew Rosenthal wrote in The New York Times yesterday, our nation’s leaders should be at the forefront of a national conversation on “race, policing, and the crisis that exists in so many of our cities.” In many ways, Clinton’s remarks show she knows what the contours of that conversation should be, and that she has what it takes to elevate it to the forefront of our national consciousness.

“From Ferguson to Staten Island to Baltimore, the patterns have become unmistakable and undeniable,” she began, as she listed a handful of the men whose lives have been cut short as a result of police violence. Walter Scott of Charleston. Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old from Cleveland. Eric Garner of Staten Island. And now Freddie Gray in Baltimore.

“We have to come to terms with some hard truths about race and justice in America,” she said, adding that there is something “profoundly wrong” when Black men are more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charged with crimes, and handed longer prison sentences than their white peers; when 1-in-3 young Black men in Baltimore are unemployed and approximately 1.5 million Black men are missing from their families and communities as a result of incarceration and premature death.

Clinton could have kept her remarks limited to the broken criminal justice system, but she ventured further, acknowledging that the fractures in that system are just one cause—and also a symptom—of deep social and economic injustices that must be corrected if communities of color are to live safe, healthy, and economically secure lives.

We also have to be honest about the gaps that exist across our country, the inequality that stalks our streets. Because you cannot talk about smart policing and reforming the criminal justice system if you also don’t talk about what’s needed to provide economic opportunity, better educational chances for young people, more support to families so they can do the best jobs they are capable of doing to help support their own children…

You don’t have to look too far from this magnificent hall to find children still living in poverty or trapped in failing schools. Families who work hard but can’t afford the rising prices in their neighborhood. Mothers and fathers who fear for their sons’ safety when they go off to school—or just to go buy a pack of Skittles. These challenges are all woven together. And they all must be tackled together.

She enumerated the real marks of a nation’s prosperity: how many children can escape poverty and stay out of prison; how many can go to college without being saddled with debt; how many new immigrants can start small businesses; and how many parents can get and keep jobs that allow them to “balance the demands of work and family.” These indicators, she said, are a far better measurement of our prosperity “than the size of the bonuses handed out in downtown office buildings.”

In many ways, it is a sad commentary on the state of our nation’s politics that Clinton’s speech feels significant. But given our political discourse on race (or lack thereof), and the gender, race, and social and economic inequities that continue to rage on unchecked, it did indeed feel significant.

Of course, Hillary didn’t have far to climb to pass the low, low bar that has been set by Republicans. This week we saw members of the GOP blame the protests and uprising in Baltimore on everything from President Obama inflaming racial tensions (thank you, Ted Cruz) to the legalization of same-sex marriage (that gem of wisdom from Representative Bill Flores of Texas). GOP presidential hopeful Rand Paul blamed the “breakdown of the family structure, the lack of fathers, the lack of sort of a moral code in our society” and remarked on how glad he was that his train didn’t stop in Baltimore because it’s depressing, sad, and scary. And Jeb Bush proposed that there be a rapid investigation into the death of Freddie Gray “so that people know the system works for them” (even though—as Rosenthal pointed out—it clearly doesn’t).

Clinton’s remarks were of an entirely different caliber than we’re hearing from the GOP (not that rising above that nonsense alone should win one points). But she still has a steep road ahead to convince justifiably cynical voters that she will run her campaign—and the nation, should she become our next president—with the same commitment to racial and economic justice that she espoused yesterday. The 2008 campaign left a bitter taste in the mouths of many progressives, especially those in communities of color. And, as Bill Clinton himself said yesterday, it was the tough-on-crime policies of his own administration that led to the over-policing and mass incarceration that his wife criticized.

It remains to be seen if yesterday’s speech will mark a real evolution in her long political career, and not, as some suspect, a calculated political pivot to appease the voters she will need to win this campaign. All things considered, it was a bold start to what will be a long campaign. This is the Hillary many have been waiting for. This moment requires a leader who will boldly challenge the inequities and injustice in our society—whether at the voting booth, on the job, in our neighborhoods, or within our criminal justice system—and lay out a clear path forward. That’s the challenge and opportunity for Hillary; we don’t yet know if she will accept it.