This year, as with every other year, nearly every presidential candidate is white, with the only exceptions being long shots in the mushrooming Republican field. Most candidates are making at least rhetorical efforts to present themselves as allies in the increasingly amplified struggle for black liberation. Hillary Clinton has spoken forcefully of a universal voter registration plan, and her husband told the NAACP this week that the 1994 crime law he signed in his first term as president “made the problem worse,” jailing too many for too long. Rand Paul, an advocate of prison sentencing reform, has embraced Martin Luther King, Jr.’s frame of “two Americas.” Last month, Ben Carson, the only black candidate, published an op-ed after the Charleston church murders, writing, “Not everything is about race in this country. But when it is about race, then it just is.” On July 2, Rick Perry made a speech that is as close to an apology to black voters for ignoring them as a Republican may deliver this entire election season.
Republicans aren’t stopping there. They announced a “Committed to Community” initiative earlier this week, a partnership with black broadcasting giant Radio One to make a direct appeal to African American voters, who turned out at a higher percentage than white voters in 2012. They may very well be doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, but you’ll forgive me if I have my doubts that they suddenly realize, after generations of the “Southern Strategy,” that black voters matter.
I suspect it isn’t the party’s sudden rediscovery of a conscience that’s behind this. I think it’s this past year. Friday marks one year since NYPD police officer Daniel Pantaleo killed Eric Garner on a Staten Island sidewalk. The death of the 43-year-old father of six from a supposedly prohibited chokehold was captured on oft-played video, and his pleading— “I can’t breathe!” over and over, until he suffocated—became a mantra that energized a movement. #BlackLivesMatter dates back to the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012, but Garner’s death last July began a year in which Americans unaware of how fragile and frightening living a black life can be could no longer ignore reality. And it set a template for how we would come to digest all of the violence and injustices done in silent service of structural racism, which continues to survive as the deaths mount.
Sandra Bland took a road trip to Texas last week to take a job, and instead became a hashtag. It happened over the course of a weekend. This is a process we’re terribly familiar with: A black person finds her or himself in an encounter with police that proves injurious, harassing, or, all too often, fatal—and if we’re lucky, someone has a camera on it. It has become formulaic.
A bystander took video of the 28-year-old Chicago native’s Friday arrest for allegedly not signaling before making a lane change. Bland, who reportedly had just landed a new job as a college outreach officer at her alma mater, is heard questioning their rough treatment, which went unreported by the arresting officers. “You just slammed my head into the ground,” she tells an officer. “Do you not even care about that? I can't even hear!”
Police found Bland dead in her jail cell on Monday morning, allegedly suffocated by a garbage bag. There are a lot of practical reasons to question the law enforcement narrative on this, but a year of seeing what we’ve seen is more than enough to make anyone suspicious not only of what the cops say, but about whether any of them will ever suffer any consequences for it.
We’ve become familiar with this pattern because abuse and death resonates, first across social media and then ricocheting through traditional media with an urgency that can feel discombobulating to those unaccustomed to seeing black lives mattering to people who aren’t living them. Increased media attention means people remember names. Before they would have forgotten them or not even bothered to learn. Justice is sought where shoulders once simply shrugged. Media organizations like the Guardian and the Washington Post count those killed by police, doing the job a government should.
We haven’t gotten the candidate statements on Bland’s case yet, but they’ll come. The remarks will be taciturn and consoling, and will call vaguely for change. But we need to demand more from each and every presidential candidate, and they will need to offer more than rhetoric. The violence has not slowed. The inequity has not lessened. It’s just lain bare with each new death, with every numbing video. We’ll never end racism and racial discrimination. But we can make policies to end the ways racism infects the very structure of American life. Those policies need to be on the platform of every presidential candidate.
If you look at a typical presidential campaign site under a heading like “Issues,” you’ll see that there isn’t a bullet point that lists a candidate’s plans to attack the complicated issue of structural racism with specific steps. This should change. And in this, candidates can take a lesson from President Obama.
His administration, even as it nears its end, recently offered an example of how a politician can chalk up wins against structural racism. Two weeks ago, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro announced that previously unenforced Fair Housing Act rules would now become requirements. As the Los Angeles Times reported, HUD will now require towns and cities to study patterns of segregation and how they are linked to access to jobs, high-quality schools, and public transportation—then submit specific goals for improving fair access to these resources. This is a policy, not a speech.
It is not an empty appeal to voters. It is not telling them, as Perry did, that the poor, brutalized, and marginalized amongst us are that way because they had faulty political leadership. That is avoidance, perpetrated by people who would have us mistake political courage for actual courage.
Structural racism needs to be a campaign issue. It needs to be something every 2016 candidate is asked about on the trail, in debates, in town halls, and hell, even at the local ice cream shop. Even if they can’t offer firm plans this summer, someone running to be the de factoleader of her or his party should at lease seize the opportunity to shape the Democratic or Republican agenda on this issue.
If ending structural racism is a priority for either party, there is no need to dance around the issue. Because right now, the most a lot of families can hope for their loved ones is that they manage to navigate a country that clearly doesn’t care much for their bodies or their lives. If they can’t, the only kind of justice they’ll see is financial. (On Monday, Garner’s family reached a settlement with New York City for $5.9 million.)
A year after Eric Garner’s death and mere days after Sandra Bland’s, our presidential candidates cannot deny America’s racial realities. If you’re running for president, you can no longer plead ignorance. You’ll have to confront it.