NEW YORK — In Hillary Clinton’s sweeping plan to boost racial equality if elected president, announced last week in Harlem, her most powerful message may have been to white voters.
"White Americans need to do a better job at listening when African Americans talk about the seen and unseen barriers they face every day," she said. "Practice humility rather than assume that our experience is everyone’s experiences."
Yes, during the event, Clinton announced a wide-ranging plan to dismantle racial discrimination and bias through a mix of new and previously proposed policies. She proposed a plan to close the school-to-prison pipeline. She intends to reduce youth unemployment and close the gender pay gap, which she noted especially affects women of color. She talked about banning areas on job applications where ex-offenders are asked to disclose any criminal background.
But the speech also seemed to mark a turning point for Clinton, who used the opportunity to show black voters she’s heard the criticism directed at her, while also asking white voters to actively participate in dismantling racism.
Clinton has made faux pas on race in the past
African Americans still generally support Clinton. And that will be crucial for her going into Saturday's South Carolina primary, where a majority of voters are black.
Nonetheless, she's still faced multiple confrontations and tough questions from black voters since announcing her bid for the presidency last year. In fact, when it comes to race, several moments have dogged Clinton’s campaign.
In June, at a historic black church just miles from Ferguson, Missouri, which had protests over the shooting of 18-year-old black resident Michael Brown a year prior, Clinton used the term "all lives matter," which has been used frequently to downplay the sentiment behind the Black Lives Matter movement. She wasn’t alone on this, since her Democratic rivals at the time, Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders, have both encountered pushback for using the term.
Later in August, a group of Black Lives Matter activists spoke with Clinton after a New Hampshire campaign event, and the conversation grew tense. A particular sticking point was whether a president can change people’s racist attitudes, and how law enforcement policies under Bill Clinton's administration have contributed to racist views.
Earlier this month, legal scholar and author Michelle Alexander declared that Clinton hadn’t earned the black vote. She wrote that Clinton had a role in ushering in policies during the 1990s that were part of a major push for "tough-on-crime" legislation, leading to disproportionate imprisonment among people of color. She also pointed out the effects of allowing mass economic globalization, which eliminated many jobs for black workers in the US.
Clinton used a unifying message, with a call for white Democrats to help end systemic racism
In 2008, as Clinton debated Barack Obama during the Democratic primary, one might remember the sarcastic tone she took around the idea that a president could "wave a magic wand" to help people abandon their divisiveness.
But Tuesday at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture on Malcolm X Boulevard, Clinton attempted to flip the script. She pivoted away from her words this summer about not being able, as a president, to change the hearts and minds of voters who are ignorant to racism. Instead, she told voters to "hold me responsible," adding that "ending systemic racism requires contributions from all of us, especially those of us who haven't experienced it ourselves."
Clinton alluded that focusing on economic status as a means to deal with racism is comforting for some who have not had to deal directly with racism in their lives.
She even made a dig at her remaining rival on the left, Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has been met with skepticism as to whether his overall message of dismantling economic inequality can do anything to also break down racial bias.
"We have to begin by facing up to the reality of systemic racism, because these are not problems with economic equality," she told the crowd. "These are problems with racial inequality."
In recent months, though, Sanders has expanded his vision with a broader plank on racial justice and equality.
Overall, Clinton’s plan for helping erode discrimination against people of color seems pretty broad. But she declared, borrowing from black lesbian feminist poet Audre Lorde, "we're not a single-issue country," meaning that all of these policy goals can be met through a sustained, collaborative effort.
Throughout Clinton's speech, she leaned into both subtle and overt references to black thought leaders to share her policy proposals, while also attempting to show she’s been listening to the feedback.
She used the term "intersectionality," which was coined by scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw decades ago to describe how systems of oppression are interconnected (for example, how women of color are uniquely met with both racism and sexism).
In addition to Lorde, Clinton quoted poet Langston Hughes, who wrote in "Mother to Son" that when "life ain’t no crystal stair you’ve got to keep climbing."
She spoke of learning from Marian Wright Edelman, an advocate for the rights and opportunity for children and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, where Clinton got her start as a young lawyer.
Just the fact that Clinton spoke in Harlem, two weeks before heading into the South Carolina Democratic primary — where black voters are expected to have a bigger impact than in Iowa and New Hampshire's primaries — was clearly a strategic move.
But her words show she knows what role she could play in her presidency when it comes to race: leading white people into the tough conversation around racial inequality in a meaningful way. It's a task that President Obama has somewhat sidestepped through much of his time in office, perhaps to avoid alienating many Americans who are still too uncomfortable to talk about race.
"For many white Americans, it’s tempting to believe bigotry is behind us. That would leave us with a lot less work, wouldn’t it?" Clinton said. She added, "I don’t have the answers, but I do believe we can and we must do better."
Passing policy is one thing, but ending systemic racism is another
As the crowd dissipated after her speech, one young woman of color stood near the back, watching Clinton shake hands with supporters from the stage. "How the hell is she going to even do all these things?" she asked her friend. "How many times have we heard some white guy politician say the exact same stuff?"
That young woman's questions came from true concern, especially since she is surely not alone in remaining skeptical that a politician can just show up to the White House and undo the deep-seated systems of discrimination that still linger in America. Even Clinton herself has expressed skepticism of such a feat — remember that magic wand comment? Or even what she said to activists this summer?
But there was one distinct difference in the way Clinton spoke versus the way other politicians often do. The white teenage girl sitting next to me with her mom at the Schomburg Center — clapping passionately with every admission of racial and gender inequality — may not be old enough to vote, but she's old enough to have conversations about race and difference. With time, for that girl and her peers, those conversations may be, while still uncomfortable, not insurmountable.