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American politicians, from Republicans in South Carolina to President Barack Obama, are increasingly addressing issues of race in frank terms, spurred by a series of racially charged incidents across the country, the rise of “black Twitter” and the strength of the “Obama coalition” of white liberals and minority voters.
Hillary Clinton will address a black church on Tuesday in Florissant, Missouri, a St. Louis suburb near Ferguson — her second racially themed speech in four days.
South Carolina Republicans on Monday called for the Confederate flag to be removed from the state’s capitol ground amid an aggressive protest movement in the wake of the killing of nine black people at a church in Charleston by a man who held racist views.
And Obama invoked the n-word in an interview that aired on Monday, urging Americans to deal with structural racism.
“Some of the problems that have manifested in the last year….have become much more high profile in the second term so President Obama has no choice but to act,” said Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University who has written extensively about racial politics.
In all these moves, both Democratic politicians and some Republicans seem to be following the moves of the activists who emerged in the wake of the death of Michael Brown at the hands of Ferguson police last year. This new generation of activists, many of whom are African-Americans who primarily organize online, start using the phrase “Black Lives Matter” last year, inspiring Clinton to repeat it.
In the wake of the Charleston shooting, they called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the capitol grounds in Columbia, South Carolina. A series of politicians then joined that movement, from 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney to Obama and now South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.
“I am hopeful that these events continue to push us forward as a country to have these difficult conversations,” said Michele Jawando, Vice President of Legal Policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.
These new racial politics are a major shift.
In 1992, Bill Clinton ran for president determined to appeal to white voters in the South and Midwest even if it annoyed African-American voters who had been loyal to the Democratic Party.
In 2000, George W. Bush refused to call for the removal of the flag as he campaigned in South Carolina’s primary. In 2008, Obama generally avoided speaking about his race.
Now, political strategists on the left say those approaches are outdated.
Democrats have largely given up winning the rural Southern voters who backed Bill Clinton in favor of the young people and minorities who voted for Obama.
“Social Media has empowered different voices and made it impossible for politicians and the media to ignore, and I think this is particularly true for African Americans. Black Twitter is very powerful and has demonstrated an ability to shape the political and media conversation,” said one former senior Obama adviser, who did not want to be quoted publicly discussing his former boss’ strategy.
Clinton, while taking more cautious stands on economic issues, has embraced the liberalism of Obama’s supporters on cultural issues. In the early stages of her campaign, she has argued the criminal justice system disproportionately incarcerates black men and that American schools are too segregated.
“Our problem is not all kooks and Klansman. It’s also in the cruel joke that goes unchallenged. It’s in the off-hand comments about not wanting “those people” in the neighborhood,” she said in San Francisco on Saturday to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
“Let’s be honest: For a lot of well-meaning, open-minded white people, the sight of a young Black man in a hoodie still evokes a twinge of fear,” she added.
Obama too has shifted. Two years ago, in speech at Morehouse College, a historically black school, the president said, “Nobody cares how tough your upbringing was. Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination.”
Now, the president is speaking often of the discrimination that he says African-Americans still endure.
“Racism. We are not cured of it. And it's not just a matter of it not being polite to say 'n-----' in public. That's not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It's not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don't overnight completely erase everything that happened 200-300 years prior,” the president said in an interview with comedian Marc Maron.
Obama has already announced a series of policy changes since Ferguson, such as encouraging the use of body cameras by police and pushing cities to use more data to determine if they unfairly targeting minorities.
The president is considering other moves, such as an executive order to ‘ban the box,” that would prevent federal contractors from including on job application forms if potential employees have been convicted of crimes.
Conservatives have been more reluctant to make these shifts, wary of what they cast as “identity politics.” But they are responding to the new racial politics as well.
In South Carolina, where the legislature is dominated by Republicans, a bill was passed that Haley signed last month requiring all officers to wear body cameras.
And the flag issue illustrated the same shift. None of the Republican 2016 candidates and few Republicans across the country wanted to defend the use of the Confederate flag, saying they would instead defer to South Carolina officials.
Jeb Bush, who has made appealing to Latinos a signature part of his campaign, noted he had had the flag taken down in Florida.
And South Carolina, while not being more liberal, is itself more diverse in terms of political leadership than a generation ago. Haley is the state’s first Indian-American governor, Tim Scott its first black senator.
But civil rights advocates say much progress remains and are determined to push politicians further.
The Color of Change, a grassroots civil rights group, is calling on the Obama administration to compile data on the killings of civilians by police. There is currently no precise count of such deaths now by the federal government. Other groups are urging the administration to require all police officers to undergo implicit bias training.
“I'm giving zero points to politicians saying take the Confederate flag down. That's the most basic simple thing America could've done,” said Elon James White, media director at the Netroots Nation, in a Twitter message.