Ian Haney Lopez articulated like no one else has why Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) talking about race comes off as cold to my African-American ears. And his explanation highlighted for me not only how I believe Hillary Clinton gets it right, but also how discussions of race and “America’s Original Sin” of racism should be handled going forward.
Lopez, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley and author of the books “Dog Whistle Politics“, “White by Law”, and “Racism on Trial,” was part of the opening plenary I moderated at the Common Cause conference here in Washington on Tuesday. After spending quite a bit of time talking about the role of money and race in the Republican campaign, I asked the panel to talk about their impact on the Democratic presidential nomination contest between Clinton and Sanders. This is where Lopez got to the nub of the problem for Sanders on race.
Lopez argued that “broad social mobilization” is needed to “recover control of the Democratic party, of our governance, of our marketplace.” He believes that Sanders gets this, but added that the presidential candidate “hasn’t quite grasped” the view that “how race hurts everybody” must be addressed.
“When Sanders talks about race, he still talks in that sort of progressive model in which racial justice is an issue for people of color,” Lopez said. “Whereas what he needs to recognize is it’s an issue for people of color and it’s an issue for our democracy and our economy.” He is right. And implicit in his broadening of the issue is a recognition that racial justice is not solely an issue or concern for people of color. Everyone has a role to play in righting our nation’s racial wrongs. This dovetails perfectly with what I have praised in Clinton’s remarks on race during this campaign.
Ending systemic racism requires contributions from all of us, especially those of us who haven’t experienced it ourselves,” Clinton said in a speech last month at Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. “White Americans need to do a better job of listening when African Americans talk about the seen and unseen barriers that you face every day. We need to recognize our privilege and practice humility, rather than assume that our experiences are everyone’s experiences."
And that came after Clinton said the only way the nation could begin addressing inequities in government response to disasters like the lead-water crisis in Flint, Mich., was “by facing up to the reality of systemic racism.” The former secretary of state said this is necessary “because these are not only problems of economic inequality. These are problems of racial inequality. And we have got to say that loudly and clearly.”
As I wrote in an op-ed last month, Clinton’s words were refreshing to African-American ears because for generations, blacks have chafed at the notion that unpacking our nation’s racial baggage is a chore solely for them. For a potential president of the United States to acknowledge this and do so from a knowing place — to demonstrate that she gets it – is a very powerful thing. And it is why I believe blacks have overwhelmingly given their votes to Clinton over Sanders in the Democratic primaries.
But what Clinton is saying goes beyond politics. What she said provides a roadmap for how we can start down the road to racial reconciliation and understanding in a nation that will soon have no demographic majority. The sentiment behind Clinton’s words struck me because they were identical to those expressed by Jim Wallis in his new book “America’s Original sin: Racism, white Privilege and the Bridge to a New America.”
Wallis is the New York Times bestselling author, theologian and social justice activist who founded and edits Sojourners magazine. He also happens to be white. And what he writes in the opening pages of his book deeply resonated with me. “I wrote this book because I believe truth-telling about America’s original sin of racism must not be left to people of color alone,” Wallis explains. “If white Christians acted more Christian than white, black parents would have less fear for their children.”
Using the literal black-and-white reactions to the rash of police-involved killings of African American young men and boys, Wallis strikes at the heart of the task ahead. “Believing that black experience is different from white experience is the beginning of changing white attitudes and perspectives. How can we get to real justice if white people don’t hear, understand, and, finally believe the real-life experience of black people? Families have to listen to other families.”
Citing “the talk,” that devastating conversation African American families must have with their young sons and daughters about how to behave in public and with law enforcement, Wallis urges we “start a new talk between white and black parents.” His key admonition to those white parents is “Pay attention, read, listen.”
“White people need to stop talking so much — stop defending the systems that protect and serve us and stop saying, ‘I’m not racist,’” Wallis writes. “Loving our neighbors means identifying with their suffering, meeting them in it, and working together to change it.” And he goes in on this later in the book. “[D]efensiveness is a common reaction, as opposed to trying to really hear what black coworkers or fellow citizens are saying,” Wallis notes. “For many whites, it’s all about me, or us, and we don’t believe we are responsible for racist behavior, even if we believe that some other white people — the bad or immoral ones — are.”
Clinton’s Schomburg address and other remarks, particularly her South Carolina primary victory speech, embody Wallis’s emphatic advice. And part of Wallis’s argument, about the political ramifications of the demographic changes already underway in the United States, are echoed in great detail in Steve Phillips’s book, “Brown is the New White.”
Phillips’s book is about what he calls a “New American Majority” of progressives that can elect the next president with a large turnout of the Democratic Party base, which “is heavily Black.” He says that in order to get their votes, candidates and political parties must openly ask for them. And he argues that they have to acknowledge our painful racial history and present a way forward. Wallis’s book is a blueprint for what he calls the “Bridge to a New America.” Phillips’s “New American Majority” is set to cross it.
Having read both books, the Clinton and Sanders campaigns have come into clearer and hopeful focus. But to my mind, only Clinton’s pursuit of the nomination embraces the central themes of both works. The possibility of electing a president who is already seeking to lead a new American majority over that bridge to a new America is a positive development in the primary election. What’s needed is for that majority to vote in November to make their power felt and their status real.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj