In her second bid for the presidency, Hillary Rodham Clinton is discussing “systemic racism” and making the issue a hallmark of her campaign as she looks to connect with the black voters who supported rival Barack Obama in 2008.
At multiple stops in South Carolina, Clinton on Thursday bemoaned “mass incarceration,” an uneven economy, increasingly segregated public schools and poisoned relations between law enforcement and the black community. She praised South Carolina leaders, including Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, for removing the Confederate battle flag from statehouse grounds after a white gunman’s massacre of nine people at a historic black church in Charleston, but she warned that the act is only symbolic.
“America’s long struggle with racism is far from finished,” the former secretary of state said before a mostly white audience at a Greenville technical college. Hours earlier, with a majority black audience at a West Columbia church, she declared, “Anybody who says we don’t have more progress to make is blind.”
At both stops, she added some symbolism of her own, trumpeting the mantra “Black Lives Matter,” which has become a rallying cry of and name for the activists who have organized protests in several cities amid several high-profile cases of black citizens being killed during encounters with police.
“This is not just a slogan,” Clinton said. “This should be a guiding principle.”
The bold approach is a contrast to her 2008 campaign. That year, she didn’t talk so directly about race as she faced off against Obama, who would go on to become the nation’s first black president. Instead, she ran as the battle-tested, experienced counter to the first-term U.S. senator from Illinois.
Clinton doesn’t frame her unabashed commentary on race in a political context; aides repeatedly explain her strategy as “working to win every vote” and nothing more. Yet it’s clear that Clinton feels no constraints going into 2016, as perhaps she did eight years ago. It’s also no surprise that her newfound freedom is on display in South Carolina. African-Americans make up about 28 percent of the population and a majority of the Democratic primary electorate, the first of the early-voting states to feature a significant bloc of black voters.
Obama trounced Clinton here in 2008, 56 percent to 27 percent, as many black voters flocked to his candidacy once he demonstrated white support in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. That leaves Clinton both to reverse a bitter primary defeat, while using South Carolina as a test run for a potential general election in which she would need strong black support to reassemble Obama’s winning coalition in swing states like Virginia, Florida and Ohio.
If Clinton’s approach is born of necessity, it also comes with potential pitfalls.
Last month, she angered some activists by using the phrase “all lives matter” during a speech a few miles from Ferguson, Missouri, where Michael Brown died at the hands of a white police officer. Clinton used those words as part of an anecdote about her mother, whom she said taught her that “all lives matter,” but some activists thought it demeaned the significance of the “Black Lives Matter” effort.
Her Democratic rivals Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders drew similar outrage last week at the liberal Netroots Nation convention. O’Malley, the former Maryland governor, ended up apologizing after snapping at hecklers: “Black lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter.”
Clinton said Thursday that she won’t “comment on what anybody else said.”
She also faces questions about her advocacy for tougher sentencing laws that her husband signed as president. Bill Clinton recently expressed regret over the laws, but his wife stopped short of calling the laws a mistake.
“We were facing different problems in the ’80s and ’90s,” she told reporters, saying crime in cities “was causing an outcry across the nation,” including in poor and minority neighborhoods. “I think now, 20 years on, we can say some things worked and some things didn’t work,” she continued. “One of the big problems that didn’t work is that we had too many people, particularly African-American men, who were being incarcerated for minor offenses.”
Clinton also must avoid any residue from Bill Clinton’s remarks during and after the South Carolina primary in 2008. Clinton, who was extremely popular among black voters when he was president, expressed open frustration at Obama’s rise. After Obama won South Carolina, the former president dismissed the victory as akin to Rev. Jesse Jackson’s victory in 1988. A black South Carolina native, Jackson won the state’s caucus that year, but he was never a serious contender for the nomination.
Meanwhile, Clinton says she will continue declaring that “black lives matter.”
“I think this has become an important statement of a movement,” she said, “to try to raise difficult issues about race and justice that the country needs to address.”
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