The White Candidate’s Burden

Securing African-American support will require Clinton and Sanders to challenge white voters on racial justice. One is doing a better job of that.

A group of five black mothers is campaigning for Hillary Clinton in South Carolina, in advance of Saturday’s Democratic primary. These women became famous for the worst reason: the violent deaths of their children. Three of their children were killed by police hands or in police custody; the other two were shot dead by men who had no business wielding a weapon. We know the victims' names -- Dontre Hamilton, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Jordan Davis, and Sandra Bland -- thanks to a movement galvanized by activists and amplified by media and communities alike. The mothers are newer fixtures in the public sphere.

Twenty-four hours before joining Clinton for a "Breaking Down Barriers" forum, the group was rallying support for her at a Baptist church in Sumter, near the center of the Palmetto State. Part of me can’t help being disconcerted, seeing the manner in which campaigns use the bereaved. They’re surrogates now, carrying the campaign hopes of white Democratic candidates. Garner’s mother has endorsed Clinton; his daughter cut a lengthy, heart-wrenching ad for Bernie Sanders. The five mothers have their own spot for Clinton. It’s easy to see this as chasing votes on the backs of black death. But my concerns regarding the optics don’t outweigh the greater benefits of these women being considered vital parts of this election cycle. As much as we are used to seeing black entertainers speak out for their chosen candidates, I love that these women are now taking center stage.

Geneva Reed-Veal, Bland’s mother, said of the former secretary of state’s authenticity in personal settings, "You cannot fake passion. You cannot fake concern." I’ve heard similar testimonies, but with all due respect to Reed-Veal, you can certainly fake both of those things. Politicians have it down to a science, especially when it comes to black folks.

We’re used to the routine, after all, whether in a church or on Twitter. Black voters have long been experts at detecting pandering or a false ally. That’s why I had both a familiar and disjointing feeling last Tuesday, when I went to hear Clinton speak at Harlem’s Schomburg Center, the American mecca of black intellectualism. To her credit, she has effectively recognized the unique challenge she faces: being the first Democratic front-runner for president in my lifetime who can’t afford to take black voters for granted. She faces latent mistrust from Obama voters who recall the dog-whistle rhetoric of her husband in 2008, enough of a burden to work through for most candidates. Clinton also is making her second run at the White House amid the ascendance of Black Lives Matter and, as a result, heightened scrutiny of the gift to mass incarceration that was the 1994 crime bill that her husband signed into law and that both she and Sanders supported (one behind the scenes, and the other with a Senate vote). Yet black voters are consistently referred to as Clinton’s "firewall," a term I’ve come to dislike for how it paints the electorate as a monolith.

Sanders, despite a wish list of racial-justice goals admired by black activists, has been trounced by Clinton among African-American voters, including the young ones so crucial to his ascendance. But Clinton had to know that there’s still so much ground to make up last Tuesday when she stepped up to the Schomburg podium, in front of an American flag backdrop.

Even though the speech was billed as being about "breaking down barriers for African-Americans," I didn’t expect Clinton to deliver her boldest address on race ever. Her rhetoric cut both to the heart of black concerns and drew blood from what she sees as a Sanders weak spot: his economically focused, narrower approach to American inequality. While campaign finance is more of an intersectional issue than even Sanders makes it out to be, it's Clinton who has most substantively addressed Flint, Michigan, dedicating significant campaign time and resources to draw attention to this crisis and others like it.

Her $125 billion proposal to combat systemic racism, assisting with job training, education, and reentry into society for released prisoners, was the policy linchpin of the address. However, perhaps the most important moment occurred when Clinton did something you don’t see most white politicians doing: She talked about what white people need to do better. "Ending systemic racism requires contributions from all of us, especially those of us who haven't experienced it ourselves," she said near the end of the speech. "White Americans need to do a better job of listening when African-Americans talk about the seen and unseen barriers that you face every day. We need to recognize our privilege and practice humility, rather than assume that our experiences are everyone's experiences." She echoed that sentiment in a reply to me during theGrio’s Monday Facebook Q&A after I’d asked her how she plans to continue engaging white voters on issues involving racial justice.

The "listening" and "humility" parts are key. But another key is the recognition of white privilege; while that in and of itself won’t clean Flint’s water or stop police brutality, it is a vital step for a white candidate who might hope to achieve tangible racial progress. In that respect, I see Clinton separating herself a bit from Sanders. While the Vermont senator certainly has adopted a passionate stump speech that integrates racial issues into his economic-inequality framework, it’s very traditional get-out-the-black-vote stuff. I see Clinton going further.

While I’d prefer she more forthrightly denounce her past views on matters like the crime bill and welfare reform, it seems Clinton at least grasps that she has progress to make. I’m also encouraged that she is now making white responsibility for ending racism a part of her racial message. When race comes up, it’s easy for white people to check out of the conversation. They can either claim to feel left out or that they are actively excluded. Debating the validity of that opinion or evaluation is a waste of time; it just needs to stop, and one group is best suited to engineer that change. White people, given their locus of power and privilege in America, are inarguably the folks who most need to be talking about racial inequity. Too often, they have the least practice doing so.

Just as men have to remind other men that it’s on them to stop sexual harassment and abuse, white people need to get other white people focused on strategies to end systemic racism. And since conservatives seem to either enjoy racial imbalance or think everything’s been leveled off already, it’s especially vital for white liberals to get going on this. "I’m increasingly becoming impressed with how Clinton is invoking an intersectional framework," Penn professor Salamishah Tillet told MSNBC this week.

Sadly, I don’t yet see the Sanders campaign exhibiting a similar urgency. He certainly has the rhetoric down, demonstrating the fluency of someone who’s been reading about black death in the last few years. Sanders was scheduled to finally campaign in Flint on Thursday, presumably to show residents of the majority-black city that he feels their pain. But he isn’t challenging white voters sufficiently to be part of the solution. To many, it makes him appear "woke" — but as I’ve written before, I don’t see that alone being a persuasive argument to black voters. Not in this election. Sanders appears to understand the horrors of systemic racism, yet his solutions (free public college tuition, single-payer health care, funding public works by bleeding Wall Street) ring unrealistic to many in an electorate that has become more grounded in the Obama era.

Obama’s legislative legacy is where Sanders has tripped up the most with black voters. Protecting the gains made in the past eight years, however incremental they're judged to be, is paramount to many. Clinton has emphasized this heavily, and it’s working; in her Nevada victory last Saturday, she won 75 percent of caucusgoers for whom preserving Obama’s work was a priority. Sanders has countered that Clinton’s Obama protectionism is pandering to black voters. Not only is that politically unwise, it’s rather demeaning. In the emotional business that is voting, Sanders’s best hope is to convince black voters that he cares more about the issues we prioritize; one of them is the Obama record, whether he likes it or not. But perhaps more significantly for the "political revolution" Sanders wants to lead, he has failed to effectively demonstrate that, as a white politician, it isn’t so much about showing us that you’re "woke" as it is waking up other people who share your privilege. (As Rembert Browne noted recently, we give "woke" white folks too much credit as it is.)

Clinton and Sanders are both running in a black-liberation moment, when white allyship is under particularly close scrutiny. Right now, Clinton's victories and rhetoric are demonstrating that even as she has yet to fully account for her checkered past, she is measuring up better with black voters. This race is hardly over, so she needs to keep it up. I’d love to see Sanders more effectively engage white audiences about these issues as well. It’s vital that as the Democratic candidates discuss racial justice, they don’t just talk in our direction as they try to secure our votes.

Both candidates and their supporters have to understand that to be black in America is often to be made to feel like a guest in a house you were forced to help build — or, worse, a trespasser. Presidential elections have a particular way of reinforcing this. By now, we’re used to seeing candidates of color in our local, state, and federal races, even if they remain rarer than they should be. But the race for the presidency, Obama aside, can magnify the distance between black citizens and political power. The only participation in politics many black citizens have consists of voting for a slate of white candidates who have given us lip service about addressing the needs of our communities. And since only one party's candidates have typically even bothered to entice us to vote for them, it isn’t much of a choice. Black lives matter, it seems, until Election Day.