The Subtle Phrases Hillary Clinton Uses to Sway Black Voters

The Subtle Phrases Hillary Clinton Uses to Sway Black Voters

FARAH STOCKMAN
Publication Year: 2016
Hillary Clinton during the first presidential debate at Hofstra University, in Hempstead, N.Y., on Monday. Credit Damon Winter/The New York Times

When political candidates speak, they are often addressing several audiences at once, and their words can have different meanings for each. When Hillary Clinton talked about race during her debate Monday night against Donald J. Trump, she delivered a subtle and powerful message to black voters, speaking to them not only in the substance of what she said, but in her carefully chosen language.

Mrs. Clinton has been viewed with skepticism by some black activists since the 1990s, when she called for harsh penalties for teenage gang members, whom she termed “super-predators.” But throughout the 90-minute forum Monday night, she showed her determination to persuade large numbers of black voters to support her in November by adopting the lexicon that has been embraced by a new generation of young black activists and liberal whites.

Mrs. Clinton’s expressions set off a range of reactions, from relief to delight, to accusations of cynical political maneuvering. But there was near universal agreement that her use of the language of the racial justice movement signaled a significant moment for both the candidate and the cause. Here is a look at what Mrs. Clinton said and what it meant to certain viewers.

‘Systemic Racism’

“We’ve got to address the systemic racism in our criminal justice system.”

A central demand of Black Lives Matter activists has been the recognition of the role that systems — such as the funding of schools through property taxes — play in fostering racial inequality.

Mrs. Clinton’s use of the term systemic racism in response to a question on how to heal the country’s racial divide immediately drew praise across social media.

“Did Hillary just use the words #SystemicRacism,” Rachel Gilchrist, a black Harvard student, posted on Twitter. “She knows. Oh my God, she knows. Maybe there is hope for this country.”

“Presidential candidate that says the words #systemicracism,” Vangie Castro, a program manager at the Diversity Council in Minnesota, said on Twitter. “She’s listening.”

But not everyone was convinced that the simple use of the phrase represented a sufficient shift in Mrs. Clinton’s mind-set.

“She used the phrase, but I don’t believe she understood it,” said Henry Louis Taylor Jr., professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University at Buffalo. He added that Mrs. Clinton had not offered a “comprehensive urban strategy,” nor had she discussed “a continuation of Obama’s urban strategies.”

‘Implicit Bias’

“I think implicit bias is a problem for everyone, not just police. I think, unfortunately, too many of us in our great country jump to conclusions about each other. And therefore, I think we need all of us to be asking hard questions about, you know, why am I feeling this way?”

In recent years, the national conversation about race has shifted from the need to combat deliberate discrimination toward a focus on the role that unconscious bias plays in everyday life, including the split-second decisions that police officers make to shoot black people who later are proved to have posed no threat. Mrs. Clinton’s comments about broadening the conversation beyond the police earned a flurry of praise from activists and academics.

“As soon as she said implicit bias is a problem for everybody, not just police, I cheered to myself,” said Rinku Sen, executive director of Race Forward, who had spent that morning training the staff of a foundation in Boston on the subject.

“Congrats to the racial justice movement,” she posted during the debate. “We got implicit bias onto the presidential agenda!! Go, us!”

Kate A. Ratliff, an assistant professor at the University of Florida, who is also executive director of Project Implicit, a nonprofit organization of scientific researchers who have developed a test to measure implicit bias, said she was “happy and a little bit surprised” to hear Mrs. Clinton use the term.

“Most people want to be egalitarian, but they hold these below-the-surface biases that they are not even aware of,” said Ms. Ratliff, who says that millions of Americans take her organization’s bias test each year online. “A big chunk of Americans — and not only people of color — want our leadership to talk about race, and to talk about policing and the criminal justice system and the role that race plays in those institutions.”

‘Black Businesses’

“The vibrancy of the black church, the black businesses that employ so many people, the opportunities that so many families are working to provide for their kids. There’s a lot that we should be proud of and we should be supporting and lifting up.”

Two decades ago, efforts to rebuild impoverished inner cities focused on identifying their problems and deficits and then “solving” them by providing whatever was lacking. But that model has been criticized as creating dependency. Over the past 20 years, the focus has shifted to identifying a community’s strengths and building upon them.

At a debate-watching party at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, the packed room erupted in applause when Mrs. Clinton pushed back against Mr. Trump’s dismal portrayal of inner cities and mentioned the black-owned businesses that employ and serve black communities.

“People cheered Hillary Clinton as she talked about black communities being hubs of vibrancy. That got a great reaction,” said Derek Dingle, the editor of Black Enterprise magazine, who served as a panelist of a pre-debate discussion at the Apollo. But Mr. Dingle wanted to hear more about how Mrs. Clinton intended to help extend credit and federal contracts to black businesses in struggling cities.

“The greatest challenges facing black-owned businesses is that 96 percent of the roughly two million black-owned businesses are sole proprietorships,” he said. “They are not of the size and scale that could have a greater impact on employment and community development.”

‘Racist’

“He has really started his political activity based on this racist lie that our first black president was not an American citizen. … He has a long record of engaging in racist behavior.”

Today, activists, including many in the millennial generation, speak passionately about the importance of calling out racism forcefully and straightforwardly, wherever they see it. They have been so vocal, in fact, that their condemnation of a variety of things — from memos about Halloween costumes to classic books — has generated pushback on college campuses across the country. But Mrs. Clinton’s direct accusation of Mr. Trump still surprised some people who did not expect to hear that kind of language during a presidential debate.

“People often dance around calling something racist,” said Toby Crittenden, executive director of Washington Bus, a civic engagement organization in Seattle. “They just don’t say it, because it’s such a loaded term, especially in politics.”

Mr. Crittenden, who watched the debate from a crowded bar, added: “As soon as it became clear that she was not going to be talking about just ‘Are you right or wrong about birtherism?’ but getting at the underlying reality of what birtherism was about, you could feel the energy in the room shift.”

“Not sure how it is elsewhere, but the only moment when this bar went dead silent with focus was when Clinton opened her statement on racism,” he wrote on Twitter during the debate.

Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root and professor of political science at the School of Global Journalism at Morgan State University in Baltimore, said Mrs. Clinton’s language showed how much she had evolved as a candidate, in reaction to the times.

“What she demonstrated was an incredible dexterity and adroitness that she has learned in the last year when it comes to discussing racial issues,” he said.

“This is not the Hillary Clinton of the 1990s,” he said.

“This is the Hillary Clinton who, like Bernie Sanders” and several other candidates, he added, “got smacked upside the head by the Black Lives Matter movement and realized that you can’t speak to these issues the way you used to.”