Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have begun speaking about racial disparities in America in very blunt terms, talking about themes of entrenched racism in ways arguably more aggressive than any Democratic presidential candidate since Jesse Jackson in 1988. Their raw rhetoric on race is revealed as the competition for black voters in the Democratic presidential primary has quickly become the focal point of the contest as it heads into states with a large percentage of African American voters.
Clinton met with a host of leaders in the African American community Tuesday and delivered a speech on race in Harlem, where she discussed "racial injustice" and "systemic racism."
Meanwhile, Sanders is participating in a prayer breakfast with mostly African American clergy in South Carolina and later will tour Atlanta University Center in Georgia, part of a larger tour of historically Black Colleges and Universities.
But it's not the events focused on gaining support for the black community that is getting attention, it's how they are talking about issues of race.
"We have to begin by facing up to the reality of systemic racism," Clinton said in Harlem. "For many white Americans it’s tempting to believe that bigotry is largely behind us. Race still plays a significant role in determining who gets ahead in America and who gets left behind."
Sanders framed his appeal in a similar way: the system is racist.
“So when you have childhood African-American poverty rates of 35 percent, when you have youth unemployment at 51 percent, when you have unbelievable rates of incarceration -- which, by the way, leaves the children back home without a dad or even a mother -- clearly, we are looking at institutional racism,” he said at the PBS Democratic debate in Milwaukee last week.
Republicans and most Democrats who have come before them of course present policies around housing, education and unemployment. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is even talking about the disproportionately high unemployment rate among blacks. But Sanders and Clinton are going farther by outlining the opportunity disparity, too – the systemic roots in government and corporate structure that are believed to cripple black achievement.
“One wonders if this were a white suburban community what kind of response there would have been," Sanders said at a recent MSNBC debate. "Flint, Michigan, is a poor community. It is disproportionately African-American and minority, and what has happened there is absolutely unacceptable."
They’re framing the debate in ways that few mainstream politicians have done.
Paul Butler, a law professor at Georgetown who focuses on race, said it’s “new territory.”
“It’s new and it’s important,” he added.
Sanders and Clinton both have electoral motives especially as the next nominating contest is in South Carolina where a majority of voters are expected to be African American. Both candidates are competing fiercely to attract those voters.
“Now we have two Democratic candidates who both desperately need the African American vote to win the primary so they’re making affirmative appeals to blacks,” Butler added.
Clinton and Sanders have evolved their message to address the concerns of a politically active and effective Black Lives Matter movement and pointed writings by influential leaders in the black community like Ta-Nehisi Coates who are pushing the candidates to go farther on race. Both Coates and BLM have been highly critical of both candidates.
“The discourse has moved leftward, meaning it’s moved toward what black people have always said among themselves: This is a racist country,” Butler said. “It’s never been part of the mainstream discourse on race Until now).”
To utter the words institutional or structural racism as the cause of disparity among blacks and whites not common.
Even during his historic election, Barack Obama largely avoided difficult components of racism. Instead, he talked about race through his own biography.
During a speech on race in March of 2008, during the height of the contested primary with Clinton, Obama came under pressure to address race in a campaign that became increasingly polarized.
But the speech talked just as much about African American’s racist beliefs by explaining fiery sermons by his minister Rev. Jeremiah Wright than it did how race impacts blacks.
"This is where we are right now. It's a racial stalemate we've been stuck in for years," Obama said in Philadelphia in March of 2008. "But I have asserted a firm conviction — a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people — that, working together, we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union."
After the South Carolina primary eight years ago, when 78 percent of African Americans supported Obama, it became clear that it was the white vote that was up for grabs, making their vote noncompetitive.
“In the past, talking about those concepts would not be winning ideas in a major party campaign,” Butler said.
Steve Phillips, an activist and author of the recently released book “Brown is the New White,” agrees. He said Clinton and Sanders have realized that that the white vote is no longer up for grabs.
He said a winning coalition for Democrats consists of only 39 percent white people – far from a majority.
“In order to win what is now ... the proven formula is you have to inspire and galvanize voters of color,” Phillips said.
Looking at the both candidates schedules is proof that they are aggressively competing for voters of color. IN addition to her speech on race Tuesday, she visited Flint, Michigan last week. Sanders focused a stop in Minneapolis last week on race.
Clinton unveiled endorsements by ministers in Flint, the mothers of unarmed black men killed by police, and civil rights leaders. Sanders is touting the support of the former head of the NAACP, the daughter of Eric Garner and Coates said he would vote for Sanders.
“African Americans are taking their rightful place as an important special interest group who need to be catered to,” Butler said. “And that brings us to discussions of structural racism.”