Will the Democratic Party truly stand with black people? Or will it continue to support the institutional white supremacy that murders us and disenfranchises us?
That is the real question Hillary Clinton needs to answer as she accepts her party’s nomination for president. As she moves toward November, she needs to articulate a message that the Democratic Party will not be business as usual on race.
But almost certainly, she won’t. Still she needs to be pushed to the limit on her commitment to the black people who she will need to win the White House.
She needs to challenge Democrats, especially white ones, way down the ballot to introduce legislation in their statehouses to challenge police unions that protect cops who kill the children of black women. Black women’s votes are responsible for her history-making nomination.
Clinton has voiced the need for better relations between black communities and the police departments they fear. But if she really appreciates the power of the black vote, which buoyed her during the primaries, she needs to take her advocacy further.
President Obama was right on Wednesday night when he said that engaging local politics is the best way to achieve “more justice in the justice system.” A staggering 95% of elected state and local prosecutors are white. Four in five are white men.
Both Obama and Clinton should challenge state Democratic parties to back black candidates, who can do more at the local level to fight police brutality than they ever could in the White House.
It is one thing for Obama to admonish black voters to vote, but true leadership will compel the party that lives off those votes to back black candidates who will bring the kind of police reforms our communities so desperately need.
But black people and politicians should not be expected to do it alone. White politicians should also be challenged to use their privilege to influence change. No matter how many more black people are voted into office at the local level, they likely will not outnumber their white colleagues who do not share their experiences with racism.
Hillary Clinton has articulated the need for white people to recognize their privilege to better understand how they can correct the ills of institutional racism. She should take this a step further and challenge white politicians at all levels to do the same.
Take Rahm Emanuel, the Democratic mayor of Chicago and President Obama’s former chief of staff.
For one, his administration closed six of the 12 mental health clinics in Chicago in 2014, a move that disproportionately hurt people of color. Black people are the least likely to have access to mental health treatment.
His handling of police brutality is equally egregious. Critics have long accused his office of attempting to bury video of a Chicago police officer shooting LaQuan McDonald 16 times, including while he was lying on the ground.
Yet black people still supported him during his contentious re-election; and so did Obama. In return, what has Emanuel offered black voters, who have been loyal to him, yet have been subjected to the city’s neglect and abusive policing?
We know that Donald Trump’s Republican Party, which supports cops without any analysis of their abusive behavior toward people of color, is not our best option.
But that doesn’t mean the Democratic Party should get a pass.
The party owes us. It must reform its power structure to reflect the black support that elects the white men who control it. Black women are the party’s most important voters, yet make up just 3.4% percent of Congress and less than 1% of state executive positions.
How much money is the party investing in black women’s campaigns for local, state, and national office? Kamala Harris, California’s attorney general, is the only black woman competing for a U.S. Senate seat. She’s expected to win, and become only the second black woman elected to the Senate. And while that victory will rightly be celebrated by the Democratic Party, it will also represent its failure to develop leaders from its most important voting bloc.
If black women can lead the push that made Obama America’s first black president in 2008 and ensured he would also be reelected in 2012, surely the Democratic Party can help cultivate more than one black woman candidate for U.S. Senate in 2018.
Clinton can as well.
And we have to call out Sen. Tim Kaine, Clinton’s running mate, for his complicated history on criminal justice reform. His support for a program called Project Exile, in particular, deserves some inspection.
The program, which started in Virginia and which Kaine backed as the mayor of Richmond, moved the prosecution of certain gun crimes into federal court rather than state court, making it more likely that the convicted would face harsh mandatory-minimum sentences. The program’s opponents argue that it disproportionately hurt black people.
In 2010, as Virginia governor, Kaine declined to support full restoration of voting rights for felons. If he’s serious today about ending disenfranchisement against black people, he would be wise to consider how such heavy-handed crime laws hurt them. According to the Sentencing Project, black people are four times more likely to lose their voting rights than the rest of the population; in Virginia, more than 20% of black people are disenfranchised. In total, 2.2 million black people cannot vote because of felony convictions.
How does disempowering formerly incarcerated people from making political choices help America grow as a democracy? How does weakening the voice of black voters make black communities safer? And how does a less engaged black electorate help strengthen our ranks in a party that needs our votes, but whose VP nominee has been silent on the need to restore them to those who can’t cast a ballot?
On Thursday night, Hillary Clinton accepted the Democratic nomination for president. It will be troubling if she and her running mate’s rise doesn’t afford the black people who supported them an opportunity to rise, too.
Terrell Jermaine Starr is National Political Correspondent for Fusion. You can follow him on Twitter @Russian_Starr.