Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2012 - Photo by the UN
Presidential candidates are always confronted with hot-button issues during their campaign debates, but this election season, it has been striking to see how often the Democratic candidates specifically have been pressed to have frank conversations about race and privilege. At the first Democratic debate back in October, an audience member asked the direct question, “Do Black lives matter or do all lives matter?” At a debate in Des Moines in the weeks before the Iowa caucus, a college student asked Hillary Rodham Clinton point-blank to “give an example from your life or career when you think you’ve benefited from” white privilege.
Thanks in large part to the work of racial justice advocates like those involved in Black Lives Matter, our country is now having conversations about race that cannot be ignored. It’s significant that this conversation includes Democratic presidential candidates. For decades, the political thinking was that the Democratic Party could bank on votes from people of color because any Democrat would be preferable to the racism and xenophobia of the Republican party. But that thinking is changing. Today, people of color are looking not just to vote against candidates who aim to deport refugees and build more border walls. They want to vote for someone who will address their community’s needs.
I spoke to a handful of politically minded friends, most of whom are still deciding between voting for Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, about how they wish the candidates would talk more about race. Despite being mostly on the fence (only one has chosen a candidate), they were pretty much in agreement that neither of them are doing a good job at talking about race.
“I'm not sure that I feel either one of them would ever seem truly sincere about this, given their backgrounds,” said Corrine, a 47-year-old Asian American who works on a college campus in the Chicago area. “Hillary as the establishment candidate, Bernie from one of the whitest states in the country.”
Bernie Sanders at a campaign event in Iowa last fall. Photo by Phil Roeder.
“Hillary has a history of supporting mass incarceration measures in the past,” pointed out Loryn, a 31-year-old social media professional, self-identified womanist, and Black-American in the DC area. During this campaign, both candidates have called for an end to private prisons—Clinton stopped accepting donations from private prison lobbyists in October (and the campaign recently donated money they did receive to a charity to assist women in prison), while Sanders made clear he wouldn’t take prison lobbyists’ money a few months earlier. But Loryn isn’t sold on Bernie either—she didn’t like his response when Black Lives Matter protesters confronted him at Netroots Nation last summer. “He got defensive and ended up saying something about how he marched with King…which is a tired line that a lot of older white progressives used when confronted about race.” Meanwhile, Corrine likes what she has seen from Sanders and his outreach to Black Lives Matter. Even if his positions were prompted by protest rather than ideas he pushed from the get-go, Corrine thinks Sanders has taken good first steps in showing that he cares and is trying to listen—which she sometimes doesn't feel Hillary does as well. On the other hand, my friend Brenda, a 33-year-old Latina Law School Diversity Professional in Boston, believes that Sanders understands how racism impacts our world, but is concerned about his understanding of sexism. Others have called out his campaign's “Bernie Bros”—hardcore Bernie fans who pile onto critics with often-misogynistic remarks.
All of this discussion makes clear how neither candidate is a shoo-in for people of color this year. This leaves me to return to the idea that people of color vote Democratic not because we see the party acknowledge the issues our communities face, but because, for the most part, they don’t immediately throw us under the bus. If the eventual Democratic candidate doesn’t seem exciting enough to support though, many voters may decide to not turn out at all. In a study of eligible voters who didn’t participate in the midterm election, the Pew Research Center found that 43 percent of “nonvoters” were people of color—roughly double the percentage of people of color who are “likely voters.” For a lot of people, it’s a hardship to get to the polling place on election day—many people have to take time off work, get childcare, or navigate voter ID laws that are specifically designed to make it difficult to vote. For many people of color who need to deal with the day-to-day realities of life, voting just isn’t seen as essential to their lives. It’s a choice. And if they’re not wowed by a candidate, they’ll choose not to turn out.
Data from the Pew Research Center.
It’s clear that when voters of color show up to the polls, they are pretty loyal to the Democratic party. In 2012, President Obama won reelection with 93 percent of the African-American vote. That was actually down from 95 percent in 2008. Latinos, on the other hand, increased their support for Obama from 67 percent in 2008 to 71 percent in 2012, and support from Asian Americans increased from 62 percent to 73.
But what are we reaping from that loyalty? Yes, we elected the first non-white dude for President. We now have a Latina on the Supreme Court. Where is comprehensive immigration reform? Why do the Democrats continue to dismantle public education, disproportionately impacting children of color? The setbacks of Obama’s presidency make me and other voters skeptical that even the most well-intentioned candidates will ever actually commit to improving the lives of people of color in a radical way.
Recent attempts by Sanders and Clinton to address racial inequities or add race to their policy conversations have fallen flat, to say the least, or have been seen as pandering, if not downright offensive. For example, a social media post from the Clinton campaign that offered “seven things Hillary Clinton has in common with your abuela” deeply offended many voters, not just Latinos. “Hispandering” is not unique to Hillary—candidates who have not authentically addressed the Latino community in the past have often started tossing Spanglish into their stump speeches and media campaigns. For her part, Loryn sees Clinton’s attempts to reach out to Latinos as pandering, but will likely vote for her in the end. “To be honest, my vote either way will not be an enthusiastic one.”
“I understand that both candidates have met with Black Lives Matter representatives, but I want to hear more in public,” said Maya, a 30-year-old biracial stay-at-home-mom friend of mine from Cleveland who makes time to attend vigils for Tamir Rice. She wants the candidates to not just respond to pointed questions, but to lead a larger conversation about race and inequality. “What do they see as the causes of inequality? How do they propose fixing them? I want them to talk about the people of color who are working with them and advising them. I want to hear them discussing current events, particularly regarding police.”
Black Lives Matter also influences how Brenda sees Clinton and her handling of racial issues. “I am friends with the folks from BLM Boston who spoke with her. I was very disappointed and horrified at a lot of her answers and tone with the activists.”
In the end, everyone I talked to wants to see Clinton and Sanders sit down with community leaders and listen. They want to see them “truly engaging” with people of color and grassroots organizations—not just reaching out after people protest their speeches. “For me, the sincerity would come from this: being willing to listen and learn rather than just talk,” said Corinne. Clinton, especially, needs to reckon with past policies like the War on Drugs and the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. “It would also help if she addressed the ways in which policies she was a part of continue to hurt black and brown people and the ways in which she plans to correct them,” said Brenda.
As I discussed in my essay in Love Her, Love Her Not: The Hillary Paradox, both candidates will need voters of color to win this race. Even if they’re running against a bigot like Trump, whoever wins the Democratic nomination needs voters of color not just to turn out on election day, but to be their driving force to get everyone else out. I want to be excited to vote! And I know others do too. That will require addressing issues that predominantly touch our communities with authenticity. Falling back on the strength of actions they took in the 1970s is not enough to get voters of color excited for 2016.