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What Black Lives Matter Made Clear to Hillary Clinton

Public policy can't be the only—or even primary—weapon against structural racism

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Last week, Hillary Clinton met with a small group of Black Lives Matter protesters who had intended to disrupt her campaign event, only to arrive late and be shut out by Secret Service. The closed-door meeting resulted in frustration on the part of the activists, a bit of condescension from the candidate, and little sign of a reckoning for destructive policies she and her husband once supported. As activist Julius Jones told me afterward, "She was not willing to concede that the inherent anti-blackness in the policies that were enacted to address problems is the cause of the problems we have today." That left me discouraged. Getting face time with the most prominent, media-averse presidential candidate of 2016 is no small feat, and it seemed an opportunity was missed for a quantum leap in the discussion about black liberation.

But now that two videos of the meeting surfaced on Tuesday, followed by the Clinton campaign's release of a comprehensive transcript of the exchange, I feel differently. Rather than being a lost effort, the meeting cut to the heart of the racial justice conversation that the Black Lives Matter has been advancing in this presidential campaign, and exposed the inherent fallacy: That public policy, even that which liberals brand as "good" for black Americans, can be the only (or even primary) weapon against structural racism.

The original hope was that, by disrupting the rally, the activists would push Clinton's campaign to put out a policy platform that formalized the stances made in her widely lauded April speech on criminal justice reform. In private, the group pushed further, evoking past calls for the fundamental reconstruction of an American society seeded by white supremacy. 

They started the meeting, as fellow protesters had with the other candidates, with a challenge to produce a plan. Clinton responded not with a set of proposals, but contextualization. Emphasizing that she is trying to explore what policies are and are not working with regard to drugs, on mass incarceration, on police behavior and criminal justice reform, Clinton said, “I do think that there was a different set of concerns back in the eighties and the early nineties. And now I believe that we have to look at the world as it is today and try and figure out what will work now. And that’s what I’m trying to figure out and that’s what I intend to do as president.” 

Clinton later emphasized that at the time of the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act’s passing in 1994, a “very serious crime wave” had gripped the nation, and that she and President Clinton were, at the time, “responding to the very real concerns of people in the communities themselves.” She applauded what Black Lives Matter is doing, encouraged them to keep pressuring her and her fellow politicians, and offered to work with them on developing a comprehensive plan.

Jones, the founder of Black Lives Matter's Worcester, Massachusetts chapter, responded to that in an unflinching manner that should redefine how we talk about racial justice policy in the 2016 campaign. He wanted to ensure that it wasn’t just the policy Clinton knew she had wrong, but the instinct to react to things like crime waves with policy that has discriminatory consequences that are foreseeable. “I think that a huge part of what you haven't said is that you have offered a recognition that mass incarceration has not worked, and that it is an unfortunate consequence of government practices that just didn't work,” said Jones.

He drove home that the problem isn’t necessarily a lack of policies to mitigate structural racism, but that U.S. public policy was and remains inescapably flawed with regards to race. “America's first drug is free black labor, and turning black bodies into profit,” Jones said, “and the mass incarceration system mirrors an awful lot like the prison plantation system. It’s a similar thread, and until someone takes that message and speaks that truth to white people in this country so that we can actually take on anti-blackness as a founding problem in this country, I don't believe that there is going to be a solution.”

This is may sound pessimistic, but Jones speaks to a fundamental truth too often ignored in our political discussions, one that should seem obvious as we use the term “structural racism.” The American experiment is racially defective, which happens when its foundation was largely built upon the subjugation, rape, abuse, exploitation, murder, and forced servitude of kidnapped Africans and their descendants. The notion that this kind of system needs to be rebooted may sound radical, but it's hardly new. W.E.B. DuBois, writing in his 1935 essay Black Reconstruction, argued that the American political system itself had been made provably better with racial equality during Reconstruction, but that revisionist history emphasized white dominion over newly freed black slaves. In other words, it was codified into our history. And the negative effects aren't limited to black folks or other people of color today; systemic bias and discrimination makes white lives matter less, too. Racism is endemic to America, but it is also its undoing.

In my earlier call for policies from each candidate to address structural racism, I failed to properly acknowledge that even supposedly good policy can have consequences adverse to black populations, even if unintended. That’s what the Clintons thought they had in that 1994 law: a good policy. While not quite apologizing for the law, Hillary made it clear to the activists that that particular road to mass incarceration hell was indeed paved with the best of intentions, and in fact was a response to community demand. Not only do candidates in this presidential race, Democrats and Republicans alike, need to present serious racial-justice policies, but they also need to consider the possibility of unintended consequences. 

This meeting got to the heart of why our racial conversations so often detour into the oft-irrelevant question of meaning. Did Clinton and her husband mean to increase incarceration rates for drug offenses by nearly 60 percent? Perhaps not, but does that matter? The activists’ argument is that policy solutions, when made the only pathway to change, is insufficient.

Jones asked Clinton, “What in you—not your platform, not what you’re supposed to say—like, how do you actually feel that’s different than you did before?” She replied with an acknowledgment that talk is cheap: “You can get lip service from as many white people as you can pack into Yankee Stadium and a million more like it, who are going to say, ‘Oh, we get it.  We get it.  We’re going to be nicer.’”

“The consciousness-raising, the advocacy, the passion, the youth of your movement is so critical,” Clinton added. “But now all I'm suggesting is—even for us sinners—find some common ground on agendas that can make a difference right here and now in people’s lives, and that's what I would love to have your thoughts about, because that's what I'm trying to figure out how to do.”

However, Clinton paired that recognition with a call for a statement of concrete policy goals from Black Lives Matter, similar to other civil rights movements. That didn’t go over so well. Jones took her recommendations as a white woman trying to tell a black movement what to do to achieve justice, and I can see why. As many supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders have shown in the past month, there are many alleged allies who have scolded Black Lives Matter about how they are conducting their struggle. But Clinton seemed to be coming at this from a different standpoint, that of a politician. She was asking for their help in directing her policy, just clumsily.

Her final statement in the conversation was more on point. “I don't believe you change hearts,” she said, forcefully. “I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate. You're not going to change every heart. You're not.” She emphasized that if Black Lives Matter can change some hearts, great—but that “if that's all that happens, we'll be back here in 10 years having the same conversation.”

That is as blunt and unscripted as we’ve heard Clinton on this issue, and there is nothing untrue in that last bit. But the quote about how to effect change shows the limit of politics, and points to Black Lives Matter’s broader mission. As Jones and his fellow activists demonstrated, not only is the movement pushing for better policy to mitigate the effects of structural racism and potentially reverse them, it is offering an interpretation of the American project and its flaws that politicians and voters aren’t used to hearing. Clinton may not promote the idea of American exceptionalism as openly as Republicans, but she clearly believes in a system with built-in racial bias and inequality. This group of young people not only showed that they have the intelligence and political standing to debate that conclusion with a presidential frontrunner to her face. By noting how deep the rabbit hole of American racism goes, these Black Lives Matter activists also took the first step into a broader, more constructive political conversation about racial justice. 

Steven Cohen contributed to this article. Below, an interview with the activists on Monday's "The Rachel Maddow Show."