Black Lives movement shifts racial discussion
Activists emphasize that their votes also matter
BY EVAN HALPER AND KURTIS LEE | TRIBUNE NEWSPAPERS
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Democrats have never been more confident that their chances of hanging onto the White House hinge on black voters, who tipped key states toward President Barack Obama — but they have never been less confident, it seems, about how to talk to them.
The Black Lives Matter campaign is seeing to it that the rules they relied on for courting the vote of African-Americans no longer apply.
The social media-driven movement, sparked in the aftermath of Florida teen Trayvon Martin's 2012 death and re-ignited in the racial unrest of the past year, has some 2016 contenders adjusting their strategies. Candidates who might otherwise have been complacent given their high marks on legislative report cards from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and endorsements from an older generation of black leaders have had to more directly confront questions of racial inequality and how the criminal justice system treats blacks.
"We want to ensure that these candidates will actually deal with the issues that black people face," said Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of the movement who is from Los Angeles. "The reality is that it's still not legal to be black in this country."
The group's demands weighed heavily on discussions at a major conference of the National Urban League in Fort Lauderdale on Friday, where candidates of both parties sparred over the best approach for improving the lives of African-Americans. Hillary Rodham Clinton discussed the challenges of being black in America. Jeb Bush spoke of his conservative growth agenda and how it related to minority empowerment.
"Four percent growth is more enterprise in urban areas, more people moving in, a higher tax base and more revenues — in other words, a better chance to save our cities," he said. "We can do this as a country. We can grow at a pace that lifts up everybody, and there is no excuse for not trying."
Democrats are re-educating themselves on how to talk to black voters They fear any stumbles could erode the coalition of black voters that was key to Obama's victories in Florida, Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
"This is not just about statistics, as damning as they can be," Clinton said at the Urban League. "This is about Americans doing some soul-searching and holding ourselves to account."
Cullors said the group wants candidates to address poverty, racial profiling by police, incarceration and homelessness.
"What we are seeing is a group of voters that are getting their political legs up under them and beginning to define what politics are going to be like for them post-Obama," said Cornell Belcher, who was a pollster for the Obama campaign. "You will have a hard time getting to the White House as a Democrat without speaking to them and including them in your coalition."
These activists are sidestepping the usual brokers whom many white Democrats have gone through to reach black voters.
"There is a sense that the traditional civil rights organizations have been far too cozy with whoever and not making clear enough demands," said Fredrick Cornelius Harris, director of the Center on African-American Politics and Society at Columbia University in New York. "They see these people as having failed them."
It's a point of concern with some of the older groups, like the Urban League, which embrace the attention Black Lives Matter has managed to direct toward racial disparity and injustice but express frustration that their own work is overlooked.
"We have been talking police accountability since before these incidents occurred," Urban League President Marc Morial said of the events that spawned the Black Lives Matter movement.
Black activists have more strongly emphasized elections in the aftermath of the Ferguson riots, where they led a push to vote out local officials, and organizers with experience mobilizing voters are building coalitions around Black Lives Matter.
Kareem Jordan, a criminal justice professor at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell, drove to Clinton's town hall Tuesday in Nashua, N.H., where he was one of a handful of blacks in an audience of
250. He pushed the candidate on mass incarceration.
Clinton, who decried racism in sentencing and emphasized the need to build trust between police and local communities, provided an answer Jordan found mostly adequate, though "a little vague."
Jordan plans to vote for Clinton. But he said turning out the black vote the way Obama did is going to be "tough for her." It's hard, he said, for whites to talk about racial justice issues in a way that blacks find genuine. "There are gaffes."
Evan Halper reported from Fort Lauderdale and Kurtis Lee from Los Angeles. David Lauter contributed from Nashua, N.H.firstname.lastname@example.org