Over the weekend, Black Lives Matter activists were able to navigate through a phalanx of Secret Service officers to have a backstage, one-on-one conversation with Hillary Clinton about the pertinent issues of the movement. And what they encountered was a bureaucrat in peak form who was more comfortable highlighting problems than proposing her own solutions.
In the first video, Julius Jones of BLM implores Clinton to explain how she has evolved on issues of race since the 1990s when she supported policies that have led to the mass incarceration of African Americans. “How do you actually feel that is different than before?” he asked. “And what were those mistakes, and how can those mistakes that you’ve made be lessons for all Americans for a moment of reflection on how we treat black people in this country?”
A Clinton staffer then politely interjected that they were already running short on time, and that throngs of other groups were also waiting to speak with the candidate. This did not go over well, and projected a dismissive perspective of the BLM movement before Clinton had a chance to respond. Regardless of whether this was the intent, it’s indicative of a larger problem, which Clinton’s response further highlighted.
Clinton’s stuck to the standard political, unemotional answers that referenced her commitment to civil rights issues and to the concerns of the needy and children. Next she briefly, and uncomfortably, touched upon America’s “original sin” without ever saying slavery, racial oppression, or the near destruction of Native American civilization. Then she transitioned straight into the realities of electoral politics: “I’m trying to put together in a way that I can explain it and I can sell it, because in politics if you can’t explain it and you can’t sell it, it stays on the shelf.”
Clinton flubbed the question because all the members of the BLM movement wanted was to learn a bit more about her as a person. We wanted more than a staid political response. We wanted an eve of the 2008 New Hampshire primary moment, when she had tears in her eyes and finally showed some emotion. We wanted a glimmer of Hillary the human, and at this point BLM has received none of that.
Yet the remainder of the video still displayed an interesting perspective on an aspect of her personality and method of governing.
She eventually twisted the question into a request for the BLM movement to become more organized, so that it can champion a specific issue, which she can get behind, much like previous civil rights movements.
Later in the video, the BLM activists responded to her assertion that they needed to become more organized, and a tense exchange unfurled. As I highlighted in a previous piece, the need to organize is already a known cause for concern within this movement, so having a presidential candidate respond to a question about her perspectives on race by highlighting the known flaws of your movement was always going to be troublesome.
Yet the most enlightening aspect of this exchange is how Clinton occupies the position of someone more focused on brokering deals and selling plans than someone capable of creating a solution or in touch with the lives of black Americans.
She needs the BLM movement to come together, so that they can create a plan, which she can sell to the American people. A decade ago, this position would have been adequate, but in this era it is not.
Prior to the election of Barack Obama, the best a black movement could do was internally express grievances, create a unifying body, and express these concerns to a white audience and hope that they gained support.
Access to power for black lives was so limited that the only opportunity for positive change was an organized assault on the minds of white Americans.
This is no longer the case. America has a black president. He understands the plight of black lives. He sees himself in Trayvon Martin: “You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.” He spoke about the complexities of race during his first campaign. He has frequently spoken about the unfairness of our criminal justice system. He has appointed two African-American attorneys general. He is the first president to visit a prison. The list goes on and on.
President Obama is a black president who innately understands the reality and issues facing the black community, and this is the standard that African Americans now expect from Democratic presidential candidates. Of course, we cannot determine the race of presidential hopefuls, but we can vet them to see if they understand the realities of black life in America.
Previously, the expectation was for Democratic presidents to listen to our voices. We did not expect them to be one of us or to initially understand us. We hoped that through discourse we might be able to convince them that our perspectives had merit. Prominent African Americans ranging from Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton, Cornel West, and Tavis Smiley were regularly beckoned to the White House to counsel previous presidents, but a change has now emerged. BLM is showing that black Americans expect presidential candidates to understand the issues that matter most to us if they want our support.
Presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley have already come under fire for appearing to not understand the black community. Discussing issues involving race along economic and income inequality lines is no longer adequate, even if these proposed policies would improve black lives.
Sanders learned this the hard way, and in response he has presented a platform on racial justice and appointed an African-American woman as his campaign’s national press secretary. Candidates can no longer dismiss “Black Lives Matter” and proclaim “All Lives Matter” because this overlooks America’s original sins and professes a false narrative of racial equality in America. O’Malley has learned this the hard way too.
Bill Clinton was once lauded as America’s first black president because African Americans felt that he related to us, and that we would receive a seat at his table. Now, we are not only expecting a seat at the table, but also that the candidates already understand our perspectives and the issues that matter the most to us.
We need to be an integral part of the political process, and this cannot be dismissed. Sitting on the outside, and waiting for our turn or the eventual ear of the president, is no longer acceptable. Candidate Clinton needs to learn that we will no longer settle for a seat at her table when she decides that we are organized enough.