Don't Pivot Away From Race Talk, Hillary Clinton

Democrats don't talk enough about racial justice during the general election. Clinton must not avoid it.

Hillary Clinton has won the Democratic nomination, and she will likely win the presidency. I don’t make that prediction carelessly or because I’m excited about her historic achievement. It’s just difficult to envision another outcome at the moment.

Clinton has amassed more than 15 million votes, the most of any candidate in either party. As a Democrat, she will have undeniable demographic advantages over any Republican in the fall, considering the increasingly brown and black electorate nationwide and the continued Democratic strength in Obama’s 2012 states. Add to that the fact that Donald Trump’s campaign is a dumpster fire — one that even those Republicans who’ve endorsed him aren’t rushing to put out — and it’s clear there’s no real need for Clinton to “pivot to the general,” as they say. Especially when it comes to race and racial justice.

For Democrats, such pivoting doesn’t simply involve turning one’s attention away from defeated challengers. It usually means adopting more conservative policies than the candidate held or advertised during the primary. It can also mean distancing the party from black radicalism, hinting to white, working-class voters and suburbanites that the party’s leftism only goes so far.

While pivoting, you never want to be too obvious. Typically candidates use of a series of rhetorical dog whistles, subtle signifiers of a shift in policy or thinking. Sometimes pop culture even lends a hand, as it did in 1992 when Clinton’s husband Bill harshly criticized rapper Sister Souljah’s comments on the L.A. riots shortly after he had all but clinched the Democratic nomination for president. But usually Democrats pivot on race more subtly.

Rather than pull a Bill Clinton and make a big spectacle, the party’s nominees have simply chosen to avoid too much race talk when the general happens. Democrats have been able to do this because Republicans have chosen to either ignore or scapegoat black and Latino voters. Without another party option to turn to, we’re considered to be in the Democratic pocket. In 2016, with the Republicans running an unrepentant bigot for president, that may be especially true.

About that, though. While I believe Hillary Clinton will win in November, I do see two ways in which she could lose, and both have to do with the turnout of black voters. This is the first presidential election since the 1965 Voting Rights Act became law that will take place without the act’s full protections, thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Shelby County v. Holder. Without those protections, it’s possible that Republican-controlled states will take advantage of voter restrictions that suppress people of color and, as such, help Trump.

The other scenario in which Clinton loses? The party neglects black turnout efforts while the nominee herself fails to continue engaging on topics relevant to voters of color, and assumes that those voters are already in the fold in a general election in which she’s running against an orange bag of bigotry. That would be unwise, to say the least; black Democrats are already pleading with the national party to begin its turnout efforts for African-American voters much earlier than they usually do. “People are tired of the last-minute money,” one Democrat told BuzzFeed. “That is a huge concern and they don’t want that. They want to see that early investment. It needs to happen on the ground, and now.”

I’m hoping that Clinton learned from the Democratic primary, the first of the Black Lives Matter era, that she can’t afford to ignore voters of color if she hopes to win decisively, or at all. Throughout the primary, she has been challenged by Bernie Sanders, a candidate who attracted support from mostly young people (of all backgrounds), the same young people who are leading the revived movement for civil rights and should continue demanding that a candidate help them accomplish their goals. And since Clinton began running for president last year, it’s been an obvious priority for her to rebuild the Obama coalition of voters, with black voters at its center. She gave a stage to several black mothers who’d lost their children to gun and police violence (all of whom had endorsed her), for example. She devoted significant time and campaign resources to the Flint water crisis, which predominantly affected black residents.

This emphasis on voters of color was a savvy move — and, really, the only move. The presidential election in 2012 was the first time black voters outvoted white ones. Black women were key to Obama’s two wins, and they’ve been instrumental for Clinton in 2016. As such, she has made it a point not only to label herself the protector of the first black president’s legacy, but to actively engage voters of color (and white voters, too) with talk about racial justice.

Now that she is the presumptive nominee, that talk should grow even louder, rather than vanishing into the vacuum of general-election politics like it typically does. For the first time in a good while (perhaps ever), we have the chance to see a Democratic nominee be truly progressive on race, beyond the symbolism Obama offered merely by being black. There’s an argument that Clinton, thanks to her own evolution and pressure from Sanders, is more liberal now than Obama was during his two runs. As Michael Eric Dyson noted in the New Republic last November, Clinton has more freedom to not only address race more than Obama did (because she’s a white politician, and hence more able to talk about race without the consequences we saw Obama suffer), but also to structure her policy platform in a way that attacks systemic racism from the get-go via immediate policy changes and recommendations.

There’s also, of course, the fact that she’s running against Trump. Never in my lifetime have we seen the kind of naked racism Trump embodies and espouses. Trump's reaction to the Orlando massacre has been particularly abominable, from his Twitter self-congratulation on Sunday to his hateful, xenophobic speech on Monday. And because of this, Clinton has the chance to go even further than she did during the primary, rather than dial back her liberal message. She has the license to say actually radical stuff, to actively support black liberation movements, to back state efforts to combat voter suppression, and to continue hawking solutions to all manner of racial-justice issues. I’d hope that, as with immigration reform, there are some “first 100 days” assurances for black voters, too. For example, she could end her conditional support of the death penalty, a policy as racist and incompetent as her Republican opponent.

The fact is, while Trump cannot be seen to care about voters of color, lest his base of mostly white voters revolt, he will do his best to make black voters cynical about Clinton and her husband. Just wait until the debates: He’ll talk about the 1994 crime bill. Clinton’s “superpredators” remark two years later will come up. Trump will do whatever he can to make Clinton look as racist as he is.

Clinton will have to get ahead of this strategy, because it will work with some who are already skeptical that she can actually help communities of color as president. Even if you’re being cynical, getting louder about racial justice is just a smart way for the Clintons to preempt Trump’s barbs. She lambasted Trump in a speech last week, highlighting his racism and willingness to exploit poor people through his Trump University scam; that was a good start. But both basic empathy and good politics require that she continue calling out his bigoted attacks, because they are felt very personally by the people she most needs to have voting for her. Trump won’t stop talking about race until November; that’s clear. Clinton should be thankful for the opening.