Hillary Clinton was pilloried and battered for days on end for not uttering a peep about the Michael Brown slaying, the Ferguson disorders, and most importantly race. Clinton took heat on this for the simple reason that she almost certainly will run for president and likely win. It would look pretty peculiar for a presidential candidate, especially a Democratic presidential candidate, and likely winner not to say anything about America’s eternal flashpoint issue. But it was worth the wait for her to speak out. Clinton skipped the platitudes and echoed the uncomfortable truths that Black men are routinely profiled, disproportionately pack America’s jails and prisons, and get longer sentences than White males.
This took courage because presidents and presidential candidates have avoided race like the plague not just in the case of Ferguson and the Brown killing, but whenever racial controversy inevitably flares up. Racial issues have seeped into presidential debates only when they ignite public anger and division.
Race has been a taboo subject for presidents and their challengers on the campaign trail for the past two decades for a good reason. No president or presidential challenger, especially a Democratic challenger, would risk being tarred as pandering to minorities for the mere mention of racial problems.
The double standard on race has been especially troublesome to President Obama. From the moment that he announced his presidential bid in 2007, he knew that race would be a minefield that could blow up at any time and the explosion could be even more harmful to him. That was the case when he knocked a Cambridge police officer for the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Gates, and the few times that he cautiously addressed other controversies from the slaying of Trayvon Martin to Ferguson.
No matter how loud the deafening the silence from presidents and contenders about race is, its painful consequences can’t disappear. In each of its annual State of Black America reports the past decade the National Urban League found that Blacks are less likely to own their own homes, die earlier, are far more likely to be jailed disproportionately and receive longer sentences, receive less or poorer quality health care and earn far less than whites. They attend failing public schools, and are more likely the victims of racially motivated hate crimes than any other group.
The report also found rampant discrimination and gaping economic disparities between Latinos and Whites. In the past decade, the income, and education performance gaps between Blacks and Latinos and Whites have only marginally closed, or actually widened. Discrimination remains the major cause of the disparities.
Shunting race to the back burner of presidential campaigns invariably means that presidents shunt them to the backburner of their legislative agenda. Yet, presidents have not been able to tap dance around racial problems. Reagan’s administration was embroiled in affirmative action battles. Bush Sr.’s administration was tormented by urban riots following the beating of black motorist Rodney King. Clinton’s administration was saddled with conflicts over affirmative action, police violence and racial profiling. W. Bush’s administration has been confronted by the HIV/AIDS pandemic, voting rights, reparations, and affirmative action battles, gang violence, and failing inner city public schools.
By ignoring, or downplaying these issues until they burst into touchstones of national debate and conflict, presidents have been ill prepared to craft meaningful legislation and programs to deal with them.
This won’t be the case with Clinton. She tipped her hand on this at an NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet in Charleston, South Carolina during the 2008 presidential campaign when she publicly vowed to do everything from aggressively fighting hate crimes to strengthening voting rights. It was the kind of civil rights speech that top Democrats in campaigns past have sprinted from giving like the plague. Two months before that she intimated that racism drove public policy in how Americans dealt with the HIV/AIDS plague and said that if young white women were dying at the rate young blacks are from AIDS, there would be a national outcry.
Clinton’s aim was to send a forceful message to her then chief Democratic presidential campaign rival Barack Obama that she — not he — was the real civil rights candidate. This was hardly the case since Obama had to walk the tightest of tight ropes on race as an African-American and with the wolves ready to pounce on any utterance from him would supposedly prove that he would tilt toward Blacks once in the White House. Yet, Clinton did stake a bold, aggressive, and challenging in-your-face approach to frontally confronting racial issues. There almost certainly will be more Ferguson-like tests on race for Clinton in the 2016 race for the White House. The odds, though, are great that she’ll get it right again as she did this time on Ferguson and race.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent MSNBC contributor. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network. Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson
Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/earlhutchinson