One of the first questions put to the three Democratic candidates Sunday night focused squarely on race and the American justice system. In pressing the candidates for their views, NBC moderator Lester Holt noted that Charleston, where the debate took place, is one of many U.S. cities shaken by a police officer killing an unarmed black man.
The candidates’ responses show the lasting influence of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has worked for more than a year to push both presidential candidates and the general public to acknowledge the role structural racism plays in the U.S. justice system.
“There needs to be a concerted effort to address the systemic racism in our criminal justice system,” Hillary Clinton told Holt. “That requires a very clear agenda for retraining police officers, looking at ways to end racial profiling, and finding more ways to really bring the disparities that stalk our country into high relief. One out of three African American men may well end up going to prison. That’s the statistic. I want people here to think what we would be doing if it was one out of three white men. And very often the black men are arrested, convicted, and incarcerated for offenses that do not lead to the same results for white men. So we have a very serious problem that we can no longer ignore.”
Like Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders gave an answer that could have been lifted directly from The New Jim Crow — one that explored the connections between poverty, race, and mass incarceration.
“We have a criminal justice system which is broken,” he said. “Who in America is satisfied that we have more people in jail than any other country on earth, including China? [And those people are] disproportionally African American and Latino. Who is satisfied that 51 percent of African American, young people, are either unemployed or underemployed? Who is satisfied that millions of people have police records for possessing marijuana when the CEOs of Wall Street companies who destroyed our economy have no police record?”
Sanders has proposed a federal decriminalization of marijuana, which would make it easier for individual states to approve full legalization. In the states and jurisdictions that have already done so, arrests of young people of color have plummeted. Clinton, on the other hand, has said she would like to “wait and see” how legalization has worked in the handful of U.S. states that have voted for it before taking action on a national level.
Sanders additionally shared three ideas of how to handle deaths in police custody, in light of the growing number of cases that have resulted in no charges for officers who killed unarmed civilians.
“This is a responsibility for the U.S. Justice Department to get involved,” he said. “Whenever anybody in this country is killed while in police custody, they should automatically trigger a U.S. Attorney General’s investigation. Second of all, and I speak as a mayor who worked very closely with the police, a majority are honest, hard-working people trying to do a difficult job. But let us be clear: if a police officer breaks the law, like any public official, that officer must be held accountable. Thirdly, we have got to demilitarize our police departments so they don’t look like an occupying army. We’ve got to move toward community policing.”
Sanders concluded with a call to “make our police departments look like the communities they serve in their diversity,” referencing the current race gap that leads to many majority-black communities across the country being policed by a group of nearly all-white officers.
Over this past year, members of the Black Lives Matter movement have publicly disrupted and privately met with both Clinton and Sanders, and both candidates have made efforts to address to their concerns around racism, criminal justice, poverty, and police violence. Though Sanders — who hails from the nearly all-white state of Vermont — initially struggled when addressing race on the campaign trail, repeated engagement with these activists motivated him to release a comprehensive racial justice platform, tour a section of inner city Baltimore not often visited by presidential candidates, and to regularly invoke the names of black Americans killed by police in his speeches and during debates.