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Clinton Gives Blunt Talk on Race Where Obama Trod Lightly

  • Associated Press

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton takes pictures with supporters after a campaign event at the Central Baptist Church in Columbia, South Carolina, Feb. 23, 2016.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton takes pictures with supporters after a campaign event at the Central Baptist Church in Columbia, South Carolina, Feb. 23, 2016.

Stefanie Brown James, the director of African-American outreach for President Barack Obama's re-election campaign, thought that the changes must have been typos.

The statement she'd written for the president honoring Black History Month had been immediately returned with every instance of the word “black” crossed out. They'd been replaced by “African-American,” a term, she was later informed, was considered by his team to be ``more generally acceptable.”

“It was my first example as to how nuanced the conversations had to be,” she said. “It was a tight wire act.”

Four years later, Hillary Clinton seems far less worried about that balancing act.

As the race turns to Southern states, where black voters make up a significant portion of the Democratic electorate, Clinton is addressing race in increasingly blunt terms, 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” have become 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 “recognize our privilege.”

“For many white Americans, it's tempting to believe that bigotry is largely behind us,” she told civil rights leaders in a Harlem speech 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 Tuesday night 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.”

“That's too many deaths. Too many young lives cut short,” she said, prompting a few “amens” from the audience gathered in a Baptist church. “Something is very wrong.”

Clinton's frank language underscores how the conversation around race has shifted after seven years of the 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 from a Chicago suburb, has to aggressively discuss race.

“If President Obama said the same thing she said, he would be attacked,” Jackson said in an interview with The Associated Press. “The white experience is accepted more in race discussion than the black perspective, that's the fact of it.”

Obama largely shied away from the topic during both of his campaigns, particularly after he delivered a speech on race in March 2008, under pressure to address the fiery sermons by his minister, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. That address largely dealt with his biography and his “firm conviction” that the country can move beyond “old racial wounds.”

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.

“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 calculous for candidates, particularly in Southern states, said Frederick Harris, director of the Center on African-American Politics and Society at Columbia University. African-American voters make up a majority of the Democratic electorate in South Carolina.

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, though the topic is couched in his economic message. He frequently decries 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?”

Now, race is a key piece of her message, which has shifted in recent weeks to focus on “breaking barriers” and expanding opportunities, a way for her to divert attention from questions about her trustworthiness and cast herself as an empathetic champion for struggling Americans.

Her aides believe that Obama's re-election victory four years ago, where he won just 39 percent of the white vote, proves that Democrats no longer win by wooing white independents but by galvanizing turnout among communities of color.

Friends and supporters say Clinton's commitment to the issue is sincere, going back to her early work as a young lawyer in the South and her long ties within the black community. But even some of her own aides were surprised by the forcefulness of the response she delivered to the deadly June shooting in a Charleston church - an attack she denounced as “racist violence.”

“Our problem is not all kooks and Klansmen,” she told the U.S. Conference of Mayors three days later. “Let's be honest: For a lot of well-meaning, open-minded white people, the sight of a young black man in a hoodie still evokes a twinge of fear.”

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