Race was a key topic of conversation at Thursday's Democratic presidential debate, as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) each sought to establish themselves as the greatest adversary of racism and champion of communities of color.
Both candidates appeared to hit their stride on criminal justice reform and systemic racism. But when they were asked specifically if they'd be able to improve race relations, things got awkward.
"What would you do that the nation's first African-American [president] has not been able to?" Moderator Judy Woodruff asked.
Woodruff's question didn't exactly invite a more frank discussion of the current state of race relations in America. How could two white candidates like Clinton or Sanders explain their vision without seeming to dismiss the historic legacy of the nation's first black president?
Their responses to Woodruff's question showed how difficult it was for them to strike a balance between promoting their own agenda and not diminishing Obama's. Clinton disagreed with the assessment that race relations had faltered under Obama, perhaps because she felt uneasy blaming the president for the poor state of race relations.
Some viewers balked at Sanders' statement that race relations would "absolutely" improve under his presidency. But their response shows that many people still underestimate the racial divisions that exist in the U.S. today.
With survey after survey showing that the nation remains deeply polarized on race-related issues, it seems wrong to attack a candidate for saying that he or she would be able to improve race relations. In fact, Democrats should demand just that from their next presidential candidate -- whether it's Sanders or Clinton. Republicans should, too, but with Donald Trump as the GOP front-runner, that's unlikely.
This doesn't mean Sanders offered a strong explanation for how he'd improve race relations in the White House. His answer, which railed against tax breaks to billionaires, seemed to fall within the realm of his oft-criticized tendency to approach racial inequality as a symptom of economic injustice, rather than of explicit racial prejudice. In this case, Sanders' cliches about kids hanging out on corners didn't do him any favors. On Friday, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), whip of the Congressional Black Caucus and a Clinton supporter, accused Sanders of giving a "very simplistic answer to a very complicated problem."
But some observers suggested it was tone-deaf for Sanders to insinuate that he could improve upon Obama's efforts to address racism and racial inequality at all.
Clinton's campaign blasted out a Politico story titled "Sanders says he'd be better for race relations than Obama." Her press secretary, Brian Fallon, wasn't buying what Sanders was selling.
But is it wrong for either candidate to feel they could further improve race relations, even after eight years of the first black presidency? Was Sanders really supposed to say that race relations would get worse if he wins in November?
Obama's victory in 2008 was a milestone for a nation built on slavery and black oppression. But on its own, it did little to mend generations of racial injustice and inequality. In many instances, those wounds have been further aggravated since Obama took office, laying bare the deeply entrenched nature of racism and white supremacy in America.
To improve race relations, we must be willing to highlight these realities. And while Obama's presidency may have helped put the nation on a path toward healing by inspiring difficult conversations about race and causing more white Americans to acknowledge the reality of racism, most Americans, both black and white, feel that racial tensions have only become more strained under his watch.
A New York Times/CBS News poll conducted in July found that nearly 6 in 10 Americans, including strong majorities of black and white respondents, believed that U.S. race relations are generally bad. Nearly 4 in 10 said the situation was getting worse. At the beginning of Obama's first term, two-thirds of Americans said they believed that race relations were generally good.
While Obama has suggested that race relations have improved during his presidency, other surveys taken throughout his second term have shown that the American public disagrees.
Obama has become a deeply divisive figure, and since he took the White House, racial polarization has increasingly mirrored political polarization, suggesting that people's opinions of Obama may now be shaped in part by their views on race, which appear to break down along party lines.
These trends are not necessarily the president's fault. But they have diminished his faith that he can bring the nation together on issues of race. When Obama addressed the public after black teenager Michael Brown's fatal shooting by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and again after that officer was not charged, many observers criticized the president for being too restrained. As blogger Ezra Klein explained at the time:
The problem is the White House no longer believes Obama can bridge those divides. They believe -- with good reason -- that he widens them. They learned this early in his presidency, when Obama said that the police had "acted stupidly" when they arrested Harvard University professor Skip Gates on the porch of his own home. The backlash was fierce. To defuse it, Obama ended up inviting both Gates and his arresting officer for a "beer summit" at the White House.
As a candidate, Obama was optimistic that his experience as the son of a white mother and black father, raised largely by white grandparents, would give him the freedom to speak with authority and empathy on race relations -- as he did in his famous Philadelphia speech during the 2008 campaign.
But, as Michael Eric Dyson has written, the president has been constrained by that very background, forced to hold back for fear of appearing to favor the black community. As a result, his restraint on the subject of race has often been perceived as neglect.
Sanders and Clinton wouldn't be subject to the racism that Obama has faced, meaning they'd have fewer impediments in working to dismantle systemic racism and uniting a more egalitarian society. As white people, their messages on race might even be better received by the large segment of white Americans who have responded to the current conversation on race with bitterness and derision.
Or not. But at any rate, they'd have a hard time doing anything that would make Americans see race relations as much worse than they do today.
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