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The Right Message, the Wrong Messenger

Martin O’Malley has a bold new plan to fight structural racism. But will it matter?

Joe Raedle/Getty

Jeb Bush, in his less infamous flub this week, said that racism “still does exist…a quieter, but insidious form of it.” American racism is only quiet if you have your hands over your ears. He’s right about it being insidious, though: Its steady tide is stemmed only when citizens and politicians decide they’ve had enough and make change; but more often its march is turned back when those resisting change decide it’s no longer to their advantage to persist.

Today, we mark the 50th anniversary of the recently-neutered Voting Rights Act. The first Republican presidential debate—a golden opportunity for candidates to imply that they “get it” on race by calling for a restoration of that Act, and of the protections against racial bias enshrined in voting laws. I don’t expect any Republican candidates to recognize that opportunity when they debate in Cleveland, however. But one Democratic presidential hopeful has already done so. This week, Martin O’Malley, the former mayor of Baltimore and the former governor of Maryland, issued a call for a new amendment that would guarantee what, surprisingly, is not explicitly written into in the United States Constitution: the right to vote. 

Nearly one year after the death of Michael Brown, a new poll has found that racial equality is now a priority for most Americans. The Washington Post reported that 60 percent of respondents said there are “more changes needed to give blacks equal rights.” Before Brown’s death last August, and the nationwide attention to police brutality that followed, only 46 percent said as much. That 14 percent jump isn’t people of color—it’s white people. People of color, for the most part, already knew this was an urgent issue. But it’s notable that now, 53 percent of white respondents agree with them. That’s up from from 39 percent last year.

This is only further evidence that presidential candidates need to be engaging openly on this topic. We shouldn’t assume, though, that they’ll be able to recognize racism when they see it. That’s why it matters that O’Malley, after being interrupted by a recent Netroots Nation protest led partly by #BlackLivesMatter organizers and bumbling his response, is now showing real signs that not only he has made structural racism a campaign issue, but is also offering the firm proposals organizers have demanded.

“It's fundamental to the fabric of our nation, our republic, our democracy,” O’Malley said when asked about his proposal at an event on Tuesday. “You see states doing things like requiring photo ID, states reducing the amount of time for early voting, states making it harder for people to vote, not easier.” He added that in American history, the nation has “always been about making it easier” to vote—a contention which I’d question, because we needed a Voting Rights Act in the first place. But I see what he’s saying. The spirit of the message is on point.

O’Malley notes in his statement that amending the Constitution is hard, but that voting shouldn’t be. While it's a nice sentiment, his plan probably won't become a reality. First, he’s polling abysmally. But even if his proposal is seconded by Hillary Clinton or another candidate more likely to occupy the White House, getting the required two-thirds majority votes in both the House and Senate that a Constitutional amendment requires is unlikely—even if Democrats make significant gains in each chamber.

O’Malley’s criminal justice reform plan, released last Friday, also shoots for the moon. (You can read it here.) Much of it is politically unfeasible; its boilerplate proposals for addressing economic inequality, including a $15 minimum wage and universal child care, feel like a mere outline tacked onto the end. That said, it is far more serious and comprehensive than any plan put forth by a candidate on either side of the aisle. After the Netroots Nation debacle, this plan is a serious rebound for O’Malley. His plan begins in the right place: accountability for police officers, in the form of legislation requiring local law enforcement to report killings and excessive use of force, and the creation of a centralized and publicly available database to track these statistics. He wants national use-of-force guidelines for cops to follow, and wants to incentivize federal grants by making crisis de-escalation and racial bias training something that police departments actually want to do. O’Malley’s plan expands from there to include recommendations specific to mass incarceration, sentencing reform, and lowering the federal standard for Justice Department civil rights investigations. He even addresses immigration detention centers, drugs and mental health, and the racial discrimination inherent in how students are disciplined.  

"There is no such thing as a spare American," O’Malley’s plan reads near its start, and his plan, for the most part, embodies that sentiment. Though much of it may be difficult to write into law, it’s a cornucopia of #BlackLivesMatter demands put forth in a serious manner.

We’re now in an era when attention on police misconduct and abuse of black citizens is higher than ever. Americans have suddenly begun to read a lot more about how cities are policed. And, after the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of six police officers in April, Baltimore has drawn specific focus, and so has O’Malley. As such, it’s important to consider his proposed criminal justice reforms as political repentance.

In an interview with The Marshall Project, David Simon, creator of the HBO show The Wire, excoriated O’Malley after Gray’s death for his record on law enforcement during his time as mayor. He alleged that “the stake through the heart of police procedure in Baltimore was Martin O’Malley,” and encapsulated the city’s attitude toward mass arrests under O’Malley’s leadership: “We can lock up anybody, we don't have to figure out who's committing crimes, we don't have to investigate anything.” This is the kind of stuff that earned the former Baltimore mayor his share of hecklers early on. O’Malley admitted some errors of judgment during his tenure as mayor in an interview with Ebony's Jamilah Lemieux released the same day as his plan came out, but not the kind that Simon was talking about.

The O’Malley campaign is taking big steps in the right direction on race, and its plan is more or less what many have demanded—but he may simply be too imperfect a messenger. Given the governor’s place in the polls and his history with police, I hope that his fellow candidates—particularly Clinton and even some Republicans—see his plan and engage with his ideas. We need to hear more from them.

Steven Cohen contributed reporting.