Clinton gives blunt talk on race

2016-02-26 17:40
(Steven Senne, AP)

(Steven Senne, AP)

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Columbia - Hillary Clinton is addressing race in increasingly blunt terms as the presidential race turns to Southern states, where black voters make up a significant portion of the Democratic electorate. She's talking about discrimination and inequality in ways that haven't been heard on a presidential stage since civil rights leader Jesse Jackson's 1988 run.

Calls to tackle the problem of "systemic racism" are a standard part of Clinton's campaign speech, followed by a long list of areas, like housing and health, where she says disparities are prevalent. She says the lead-poisoned water in Flint, Michigan, wouldn't have happened in a "wealthy white suburb" and calls on white voters to "recognise our privilege.

Black poverty

"For many white Americans, it's tempting to believe that bigotry is largely behind us," she told civil rights leaders in Harlem last week. "Race still plays a significant role in determining who gets ahead in America and who gets left behind."

At an unusually emotional event in Columbia, South Carolina, Clinton sat beside five black mothers whose children were killed by gun violence and urged white voters to "practice humility" and "do a better job listening."

South Carolina's Democratic primary is on Saturday.

Clinton's language underscores how the conversation around race has shifted after seven years of America's first black president, a period some critics say marked little progress on criminal justice abuses and black poverty. But it also captures the relative freedom Clinton, a wealthy white woman, has to discuss race.

"If President Obama said the same thing she said, he would be attacked," Jackson said in an interview. 

"The white experience is accepted more in race discussion than the black perspective, that's the fact of it."

President Barack Obama largely shied away from the topic during his campaigns. A study by University of Pennsylvania researcher Daniel Q Gillion found that Obama talked about race less in his first two years of office than any Democratic president at least since John F Kennedy in the early 1960s.

"The thing is, a black man can't be president in America, given the racial aversion and history that's still out there," Cornell Belcher, a pollster for Obama, said to reporter Gwen Ifill after the 2008 race. "However, an extraordinary, gifted, and talented young man who happens to be black can be president."

But the Black Lives Matter movement, born out of the prominent police killings of blacks, has changed the political calculus for candidates, particularly in Southern states, said Frederick Harris, the director of the Centre on African-American Politics and Society at Columbia University.

Black vote

Protesters affiliated with the movement have demonstrated at several of Clinton's events, including a private gathering in South Carolina this week.

Clinton rival Bernie Sanders, too, has spoken about race in raw terms. He frequently criticises a "broken" criminal justice system; unequal arrest rates for marijuana use; black poverty and the water crisis in Flint. And he often attributes the Republican opposition to Obama to racism.

"The Black Lives Matter movement has been able to accomplish within two years where the civil rights establishment, President Obama and the Congressional Black Caucus haven't been able to do in six years," said Harris. "The question is, will it be sustained after Clinton has pretty much locked up the black vote?"

Clinton's aides believe that Obama's re-election victory, where he won just 39% of the white vote, proves that Democrats no longer win by wooing white independents but by galvanising turnout among communities of color.

Read more on:    hillary clinton  |  us 2016 elections

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