Why The Democrats Spoke Out Against Racism In An Extremely White State Last Night

CREDIT: AP Photo/Seth Wenig

The Rev. Al Sharpton greets Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. and his wife Jane as they arrive for a breakfast meeting at Sylvia's Restaurant, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016, in the Harlem neighborhood of New York. Sanders defeated former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday in the New Hampshire primary.

“We have to break through the barriers of bigotry,” Clinton said in her concession speech to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) Tuesday night in New Hampshire, a state that is 94 percent white. “African Americans shouldn’t have to worry that their children will be harassed, humiliated, even shot because of the color of their skin.”

Clinton has spent much of the past year in New Hampshire and in Iowa, a state that is also more than 90 percent white. But with the next two crucial primary battles in the the significantly more diverse states of South Carolina and Nevada, black commentators and activists are scrutinizing the Democratic candidates’ ability to represent them — and questioning their commitment to racial issues.

Clinton and Sanders both geared their messages Tuesday night toward issues of race and discrimination. Clinton mentioned the water crisis in the largely black city of Flint, Michigan and her record of reforming juvenile justice in South Carolina.

Sanders, who won in New Hampshire by securing a majority of almost every demographic group, is also looking ahead. He dedicated portions of his speech in New Hampshire on the primary races to come, saying that his “political revolution” will bring together every group of voters to declare that the government “belongs to all of us.”

“Not only are we going to fight to end institutional racism, and a broken criminal justice system, we are going to provide jobs and education for our young people, not jails and incarceration,” Sanders said.

Immediately after Election Day in the Granite State, he flew to New York City to have breakfast with long-time civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton at a historic soul food restaurant in Harlem.

South Carolina is more than 27 percent black. African Americans make up a majority of the Democratic electorate in the state. In the past few months, South Carolina’s Democratic voters have already demonstrated that they are interested in issues of economic and criminal justice and will not support a candidate who does not have a solid plan in place to reform the country’s broken justice system.

Though she is currently leading in polls of black voters and has focused a lot of energy on maintaining their support, Clinton’s record on criminal justice is still being sharply criticized and scrutinized. In the Nation on Wednesday, Michelle Alexander wrote that policies that Clinton supported and her husband enacted “decimated black America.” She argued that black Americans should not forget that Bill Clinton presided over the largest increase in federal and state prison inmates and escalated the War on Drugs. And, she noted, Hillary Clinton stood firmly behind his actions and lobbied on behalf of tough-on-crime legislation as First Lady.

Sanders’ campaign has been slower to attract support of African Americans and other minorities. In the months after launching his campaign last year, he was criticized for not engaging with voters on issues of race or criminal justice. But he has gradually dedicated more time to speaking and connecting with minority communities, and recent high-profile endorsements have helped launch him into conversation in states with large non-white demographics.

Former NAACP president Ben Jealous has thrown his support behind Sanders, as did prominent author Ta-Nehisi Coates on Wednesday, despite the senator’s opposition to reparations. South Carolina lawmaker Justin Bamberg, who is also representing the family of Walter Scott in the lawsuit over his April 2015 murder by a white police officer, recently switched his endorsement and is now supporting the Vermont Senator.

Bamberg told ThinkProgress last month that he believes Sanders is the best candidate to address the issues plaguing voters in South Carolina.

“Bernie Sanders has a very high interest in helping mend the relationship between law enforcement and the citizens they serve,” he said.

With the renewed focus on race, Sanders’ and Clinton’s campaigns will continue to tout their support from family members of those who have been affected by gun violence and those who have been killed by police. Even before the Black Lives Matter movement propelled the issue into the national spotlight, more than half of black millennials said in 2009 that they knew a victim of police violence.

Those most personally affected by the issue are currently split — Clinton has been endorsed by Eric Garner’s mother, for example, while Sanders is endorsed by Garner’s daughter. Clinton’s campaign said Tuesday that Garner’s mother will travel to Charleston, South Carolina to campaign for Clinton over the coming weeks.