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Why America’s Next President Must Speak About Systemic Racism

Black Lives Matter has brought inequality to the forefront of the election season’s debates

Black Lives Matters protesters interrupt a Bernie Sanders event in Seattle. Image by Tiffany Von Arnim via Wikimedia Commons

In the aftermath of the protests, riots and violence that erupted a year ago in Ferguson, Missouri, there was a huge appeal by pundits, pastors and politicos to engage in healing. The nation needed to heal, the people needed to heal, and, of course, Ferguson itself needed to heal. The catch, of course, is that we can’t begin to engage in a true “healing process” if we can’t even agree on what made us sick to begin with. Which explains why so many presidential candidates in the 2016 race, representing both the Republican and Democratic parties, are struggling to address institutional racism, discrimination, and how these issues should be tackled. Whether it's in reference to police brutality, mass incarceration, economic justice or just plain old bigotry, this is the first election in almost 50 years in which candidates are being directly asked by African American voters to tackle institutional racism. The candidate who figures out how to effectively deal with these issues will probably be measuring the curtains at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue next November.

A chronic illness

The recent, highly public protests at campaign events for Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders have highlighted the rising political will to make sure candidates address institutional racism, and violence against African-Americans in particular. And while shooting for this kind of accountability is a laudable goal, the process inevitably comes up against an immovable barrier: Most Americans don’t know much about institutional racism and worse, don’t care, even if somebody takes the time to inform them. Unfortunately, these political campaigns are essentially no different.

There’s a reason it’s called “institutional” racism—America was built on it. From the slave trade that created billions of dollars in wealth, to job discrimination that keeps that wealth mostly in the hands of white Americans, to redlining and education policies that separate and misinform the public, these problems are seldom addressed as the systematic issues they are. Because these instances of discrimination and disadvantage make up a status quo that (directly or indirectly) benefits many Americans, most people in the U.S. will deny to their dying day that institutional racism exists, let alone its impact on our political system. If you’ve been walking around your whole life with a monkey on your back, just because someone runs up on stage and says you smell like bananas doesn’t automatically mean you’re going to immediately recognize the stench. And that is essentially what has been happening during campaign 2016. Everyone smells like bananas and quite a few candidates have been publicly slipping on the peels.

Bernie Sanders’ “get off my lawn” routine with Black Lives Matter protesters did him no favors, though to his credit, he’s recently been willing to speak with and work with leaders of the movement. Jeb Bush has waffled back and forth on the issue, sometimes calling Black Lives Matter a mere “slogan” and Ben Carson has argued that much of the movement is “silly.” Hillary Clinton has probably evolved the most on these issues. Her trajectory has gone from relative silence about Ferguson (she took 19 days to say anything), to then saying “All Lives Matter” in a mostly black church, to now not only proudly proclaiming “Black Lives Matter” but engaging with activists after a speech in New Hampshire last week. Just capturing this much of the public discourse is new ground, an anomaly both historically and strategically for the issue of systemic racism. But it’s not surprising candidates have been so clumsily resistant to dealing with the problem; it’s just the nature of American political campaigns.

Presidential campaigns are basically extended commercials. The goal of each candidate is to figure out what version of America people want to live in, then give speeches, place ads, and give interviews pronouncing their own ability to either bring that America back or keep that America going. Campaigns can motivate, engage or even scare people into action. But what they aren’t good at is actually teaching people much. In 2016, for any candidate—whether that’s Hillary Clinton, Bobby Jindal, or even Donald Trump—to actually address institutional racism, he or she would have to explain a complicated concept to the public first, and no campaign wants to spend money on teaching the public anything. Even trying to educate people in this way would depend on the candidates themselves actually understanding enough about institutional racism to explain it to voters.

If you’re not part of the solution…

The Republican and Democratic presidential candidates don’t have a lot of experience dealing directly with the concerns of black people on the campaign trail. In general, Democrats are used to picking up over 90 percent of the African-American vote without putting in much effort. As a result, they can take these votes for granted, speaking in vague generalities about making America fair to everyone, though lacking specific plans or policies to achieve this. Republican presidential candidates tend to either ignore black voters outright or use them, either as a cudgel to motivate white conservatives or as a signal to independents that a particular candidate is “not racist.” No matter how you slice it, neither party has a real history of dealing with institutional racism. And even just a quick breakdown of the current presidential field reveals an array of bad racial policies and questionable actions.

For example, during his time as Mayor of Baltimore and Governor of Maryland, the ostensibly liberal Martin O’Malley supported the kind of Three Strikes legislation that has been consistently used to send African-American boys from high school to prison to work camps with little or no chance to join the economy. This policy was also championed by Hillary Clinton and her husband Bill during their two terms in the White House. Bernie Sanders hasn't co-sponsored one bill to end discrimination in the last cycle, and hasn’t stepped up to support any of the numerous bills floating around the senate to end racial profiling in federal investigations. And that's just the Democratic side. Scott Walker’s Wisconsin has been deemed the worst state in America to raise African-American children. John Kasich’s Ohio record isn’t much better. Anyone who isn’t living under a rock can tell you that Donald Trump just continues to blather on, spewing inane racist commentary about African-Americans, Latinos and any other group that suits his fancy.

Yet, to the credit of some Democrats and Republican Rand Paul, there have been recent attempts to create policy that addresses racism in the criminal justice system. Clinton and O’Malley have released White Papers, and Bernie Sanders has released a four-point plan. Rand Paul has a bill floating around Congress to give former inmates back their right to vote. But to many, especially those involved with the protest movement, these plans just aren’t enough. And given the gap between campaign rhetoric and action in past elections, it’s not hard to understand why voters might be cynical about whether all this talk will equal real change once one of these candidates is in the White House.

A change is coming

If there’s one bright spot in this campaign season’s conversations about institutional racism it’s that the problems associated with this kind of injustice have slowly but surely moved into the mainstream. In large part, this is due to protests by Black Lives Matter activists, but it is also the result of some cold economic realities. Whereas once police brutality was considered a “black issue,” the high profile killings and beatings of Eric Garner, Walter Scott, John Crawford, and Sandra Bland have raised the concerns and consciousness of many white Americans. The insurmountable financial intensity demanded by mass incarceration has organizations as divergent as the Koch Brothers and the ACLU working together. And the costs associated with racism in criminal justice are so high (in terms of settlements and payouts), that cities like Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh are forced to explore new technologies and training methods to improve policing. But these local plans and emergent developments are just a beginning. Perhaps for the first time in half a century there are some members of both political parties willing to even listen to black communities, and maybe even learn a bit.

But now that we are having these conversations in the public sphere, anti-racism activists need to evolve beyond protest and into the financial and strategic realms of the campaign world if they want to hold these politicians accountable. While the Black Lives Matter Movement is still young, as we turn from this long, hot summer into the fall, there are important 2015 elections to leverage before the 2016 presidential race really even gets serious. In Kentucky and Louisiana, for example, both states with large African-American populations, anti-racism activists should be on the ground making a difference. Heading into 2016, there are literally thousands of local municipal elections for positions like judges, school boards, and county commissioners that have an impact on how racism plays out in the day-to-day lives of non-white Americans. Whether it's in the form of a Super PAC, endorsements of particular candidates, or pledges given by each campaign, now is the time for specific policies to be put in the hands of the men and women hoping to lead this country. For the first time in America, it seems that enough politicians realize that the nation is sick, sick with the disease of racism—and now is the time to start collectively working on a cure.

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