Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, waded into the national crisis of race, democracy and criminal justice with a stirring call for racial justice in Springfield, Ill., on Wednesday. In the city that President Abraham Lincoln once called home, Clinton echoed the iconic president’s warning about the dangers of a “house divided” being unable to flourish.
Clinton’s speech balanced vocal support for the Black Lives Matter movement with praise for law enforcement and a push for national gun reform. “All these things can be true at the same time,” she rightfully observed.
Acknowledging the way in which last week’s events took place “against a much larger backdrop of fear and anxiety,” Clinton basically called for a New Deal for the American people, one that would address the links between deepening economic inequality, increasing racial polarization and proliferating violence. She tied rising suicide rates and drug addiction to this backdrop, noting how “a sense of dislocation and pessimism” has gripped ordinary Americans.
On this score, Clinton announced that within her first 100 days as president, she would usher in the biggest investment into the creation of high-paying jobs since World War II.
Clinton criticized the nation’s toxic political culture while admitting to having contributed to this atmosphere with her own words and actions during what has been one of the meanest political-campaign seasons in American history.
The former secretary of state contrasted her efforts to unify Americans with Donald Trump’s polarizing rhetoric, which includes building walls to stymie immigration, banning Muslims from entree into America, and publicly questioning President Barack Obama’s citizenship and thus eligibility to be commander in chief.
Clinton’s embrace of racial and economic justice, however belated, marks an important turning point in American history, recalling the civil rights movement’s heroic period, when grassroots upheavals inspired politicians and protesters to work in creative tension to help transform the nation. “We need to listen to those who say, ‘Black lives matter,’” Clinton said at one point, underscoring the fact that our long-overdue national conversation on race not only has finally started but is progressing right before our eyes.
Now, to be sure, Clinton’s support for Black Lives Matter, racial reconciliation and New Deal-style economic reform policies is ironic, some would say, as well as hypocritical and contradictory. As first lady during Bill Clinton’s two-term presidency from 1993 to 2001, Hillary Clinton supported public policies that helped to amplify and institutionalize mass incarceration and create enduring obstacles to opportunity for poor, low-income and formerly incarcerated African Americans.
Hillary Clinton’s use of the term “superpredators” to define black youths who were supposedly prone to violent criminal behavior will haunt her for the rest of her public career. Bill Clinton, whom black elites embraced even as his policies hurt the most vulnerable among the community, now admits to having “overshot the mark” in crime policies during his presidency, even as he zealously defends his record against Black Lives Matter protesters.
But what a difference a generation makes.
The Black Lives Matter movement has dramatically exposed the depth and breadth of institutional racism and white supremacy in the criminal-justice system. In so doing, the young activists have jump-started a new American civil rights movement, one that uses the bold confrontation tactics and strategies of nonviolent civil disobedience alongside black power radicalism’s critique of structural racism and gender and economic exploitation.
That movement, coupled with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ robust campaign for the presidency, has permanently altered the nation’s political landscape. A generation after embracing neoliberal politics and policies that demonized black lives instead of saying that they mattered, that shamed poor people instead of offering jobs and that imprisoned thousands of youths whose families were robbed of their awesome potential, Hillary Clinton has rhetorically embraced racial and economic justice.
Like Paul on the Damascus Road, Hillary Clinton has seen the light reflected in the abject poverty, economic misery and racial dehumanization that are actively experienced by tens of millions of African Americans every day.
The black quotidian consists of the mothers, fathers, sons, daughters and babies living in housing projects, segregated neighborhoods that are food deserts where no fresh vegetables can be found, and attending failing schools. To add insult to injury, this impoverished landscape serves as what the Black Panthers called “occupied territory” for law enforcement that views blacks less as fellow citizens than as criminal predators who can be harassed, arrested, brutalized and shot at will.
Politics have fueled Hillary Clinton’s change of heart, as have demographics. The Obama coalition of 2008 and 2012 conclusively proves that a multiracial and multigenerational group of voters—one in which the white vote was 43 and 39 percent respectively—can elect a president.
Much of that coalition has been disappointed over the past seven-and-a-half years, not so much by Obama’s individual performance as by the collective, racially charged obstacles that sought to cripple the first black presidency even at the expense of national progress.
Hillary Clinton’s race speech follows on the heels of Obama’s memorial address in Dallas and news that the president will be leading a town hall on racial justice and policing this Thursday. Suddenly, perhaps even more pointedly than at any other point since Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, race talk is everywhere. This is the first step toward framing a dialogue on racial and economic justice that can lead to concrete policy solutions promoting black equality and citizenship.
Hearts and minds, as both Obama and Clinton remind us, matter as much as policy and frank racial dialogue are required, now more than ever, to help the nation comprehend why black lives not only matter but also hold the key to liberating a country held hostage to a past it refuses to acknowledge but can no longer ignore.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.