As civil rights activists and faith leaders converge in New York City for National Action Network's (NAN) annual convention beginning Wednesday, not only will we hear from top Obama Administration officials, clergy, senior media figures and corporate executives, but we will also be addressed by both Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. They are also scheduled to debate this week in my hometown of Brooklyn, NY as the all-important NY primary fast approaches. Voters in the Democratic primary, as well as those in the Black community and civil rights community in general as represented by NAN, have to choose between two formidable and qualified candidates. But frankly, neither are as good as they claim, or as bad as their opponent casts them as. One need only look at the two individuals' own statements and actions.
Both Clinton and Sanders supported the omnibus crime bill in 1994. Despite having some good in it, the bill was opposed by me and others because it ultimately would lead to mass incarceration, expansion of the death penalty on a federal level and adverse criminalizing of innocent people. Even though there were appeals by many of us to rethink this legislation, both Democratic candidates supported the questionable bill at that time.
In the past, Clinton used language such as "super predators" which had racial overtones, meanwhile Sanders recently sloppily responded to a question about racial blind spots by stating that white people don't know what it's like to be poor or to live in a ghetto -- as if all blacks fit that description. And on top of these troubling statements, former President Bill Clinton got into a shouting match with protesters in Philadelphia last week who properly questioned the impact of the '94 crime bill. Neither candidate is exempt from insulting us.
Putting gaffes and bad policies aside, I say we must deal with the substance that either individual is offering today. What will they specifically commit to? Will they say that he or she will appoint an Attorney General that will continue the instructions given by former Attorney General Holder and present Attorney General Lynch to tell their U.S. attorneys across the country not to pursue mandatory minimums for nonviolent crimes? Will they continue commuting sentences of those unfairly incarcerated from the '94 crime bill? Will they continue the aggressive fight to protect voting rights for everyone, and overturn state laws that have proven to be an impediment to voting? How will they specifically address health care disparity, unequal educational opportunities and severe questions of economic inequality?
Blacks are still doubly unemployed to Whites, still redlined from home mortgages, still denied business loans and much much more. What are Clinton and Sanders' track records in dealing with these issues that would make us believe that whatever they propose now is more than some election year rhetoric or false promise? It is a good thing that the questions of racial imbalance have been raised, but it should not be reduced to just statements and gotcha phrases. The issues of gun control and Wall St. economic inclusion are grave matters that need to be dealt with in a serious manner.
The Black vote is pivotal to the Democratic Party and to this election. As such, it must be valued and our concerns must be taken into account by anyone that is vying for that vote. Our community should be respected and the only way to do that is to take seriously our issues, and provide concrete plans that show why we ought to believe that you will deliver for us. Anything short of that sends the signal that you take us for granted and we shouldn't tolerate that from neither friend nor foe.
Hear the candidates themselves at NAN's convention this week. Check http://nationalactionnetwork.net for a full schedule of events.