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Clinton seizes the center on race and guns in wake of GOP's silence

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton is not seen as honest and trustworthy by most voters. But on Saturday the Democratic presidential frontrunner spoke truths about race and gun violence in America that her Republican rivals have refused to utter after a shooter killed nine worshipers at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, this week.

If Clinton is to win the presidency, part of the reason will be Republicans' unwillingness to seriously confront realities that threaten the stability and strength of American society, from race and gun violence to income inequality and climate change.

It's hard to come up with solutions if you refuse to identify the problems. Clinton didn't advance the ball much on the former Saturday, but she delivered on the latter — putting tremendous distance between herself and a field full of Republican gun-and-race deniers. One would think the GOP would have learned this lesson from the 1990s: If you give a Clinton the obvious middle ground, she'll take it.

Clinton on race and guns

Here's part of what she said on race.

"Bodies are once again being carried out of a black church. Once again racist rhetoric has metastasized into racist violence. Now its tempting, it is tempting, to dismiss a tragedy like this as an isolated incident. To believe that in today’s America bigotry is largely behind us, that institutionalized racism no longer exists. But despite our best efforts and our highest hopes, America’s long struggle with race is far from finished."

And this is part of what she said on guns, a line that drew a long round of applause from those in attendance at the US Conference of Mayors in San Francisco.

"I know that gun ownership is part of the fabric of a lot of law-abiding communities, but I also know that we can have common-sense gun reforms that keep weapons out of the hands of criminals and the violently unstable while respecting the rights of responsible gun owners.

Clinton called the failure to implement universal background checks and restrictions on gun sales to domestic abusers, the mentally ill, and people on terrorist watch lists "a rebuke to this nation we love and care about." And she called racial tension the "deeper challenge we face."

Clinton's data points

The former secretary of state cited a litany of statistics documenting important racial disparities in American life:

  • Black applicants are nearly three times as likely to be turned down for a mortgage as whites.
  • Black children are 500 percent more likely than their white counterparts to die from asthma.
  • Black men are more likely to be stopped and searched, prosecuted for crimes, and sentenced to longer prison stints than white men.
  • Schools are more segregated now than they were in the 1960s.
  • And, of course, the median wealth for white families is over $140,000, while the median wealth for black families is about $11,000.

Pew Research Center, 12/12/14

"More than half a century after Dr. King marched and Rosa Parks sat and John Lewis bled," she said, "how can any of these things be true?"

Compare what Clinton is saying in the wake of the Charleston massacre with what Republican candidates for the presidency have said when asked about racism and the availability of guns as factors in the horrific murders Dylann Roof is accused of committing.

Here's Jeb Bush:

"I don't know what was on the mind or the heart of the man who committed these atrocious crimes"

His spokesman, Tim Miller, later said that "of course" Bush thinks racism was a factor in the killings.

Incongruously, Rand Paul made it an issue of failure to understand religious teachings and the size and scope of government.

"What kind of person goes into church and shoots nine people? There’s a sickness in our country, there’s something terribly wrong, but it isn’t going to be fixed by your government. It’s people straying away, it’s people not understanding where salvation comes from. And I think that if we understand that, we’ll understand and have better expectations of what we get from our government."

And Chris Christie, who hasn't yet declared a run for the presidency but is still considered a possible contender, said "laws can't change this."

So, in the wake of Charleston, who is honest and trustworthy? It can't be these guys.

In her remarks Saturday, Clinton said it's not just "kooks and Klansmen" who are responsible for racial division in America.

The person who lets the racist joke go unchallenged or feels a twinge of fear at the "sight of a young black man in a hoodie" is also responsible for perpetuating racial tensions, she said.

Maybe, just maybe, the presidential candidates who dare not speak of racism for fear of alienating voters who harbor deep bigotry bear some responsibility, too.

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