Will Black Lives Matter At the Republican Presidential Debate?

Isaiah J. Poole

This weekend gave us another one of those every-four-year stories about this presidential election being the one in which the Republican Party finally breaks through and wins more than a one-in-10 share of the black vote.

The latest version of this story came from The Washington Post, which wrote that “heading into an election without Obama at the top of the ticket, many Republicans say they are positioned to make inroads with black voters.”

But that hardy perennial is reappearing at a time when a new generation of activists have sharpened what it should take to earn the vote of African Americans, and once again Republican candidates are showing themselves incapable of rising to the challenge.

With the simple exhortation that “Black Lives Matter,” these activists are forcing candidates of both political parties to think beyond patches and palliatives for the problems facing African Americans and go to the root of structural racism in America – which America can now see is a life or death issue for its citizens of color.

“We are in a state of emergency,” Patrisse Cullors, a leader of the Black Lives Matters movement, said on the stage at the Netroots Nation conference in Phoenix last month when she confronted Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley. “If you do not feel that emergency, then you are not human. I want to hear concrete action plans.”

As O’Malley quickly learned, responding that “all lives matter” is a profound insult to African American people who have endured seeing their relatives, friends and neighbors gunned down wrongly by law enforcement for decades without being taken seriously until citizen and police videos laid bare the facts.

O’Malley corrected course and days later released a criminal justice reform plan designed to reverse the way the justice system has “reinforced our country’s cruel history of racism and economic inequality,” after previewing the proposals during a speech at the National Urban League on Friday in Miami. Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, also heckled at Netroots Nation and mocked on Twitter, unveiled a series of criminal justice and economic proposals as well at the Urban League, declaring, “We have got to come together as a nation and work to eliminate structural racism in this country.” Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton also addressed these issues at the Urban League and acknowledged that “race still plays a significant role in determining who gets ahead in America and who gets left behind.”

But the tone of the Republican response to the Black Lives Matters movement was typified by candidate Jeb Bush, who dismissed the negative reaction to O’Malley’s initial “all lives matter” response as being too “uptight and politically correct,” adding the slander that the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement “seemed to disagree” that “white lives matter.” That tone was echoed at the Urban League conference by Ben Carson, the sole African-American Republican candidate and the only one, besides Bush, to attend.

The Republican mind seems incapable of embracing “black lives matter,” for to embrace that phrase means to embrace the idea that racism is not a mindset displayed by an errant handful of people but is, to use a phrase that President Obama used in a June podcast interview, a system that is “part of our DNA” as a country. Defining racism as something that is episodic and individual means that society at large bears no responsibility to change; people who are left out and left behind have only themselves to blame. They should work harder, get a better education, improve their attitude and behavior.

But acknowledging, as the Black Lives Matter movement insists, that we live and operate within the framework of institutional racism means that changes must come first in the country’s social, economic and political institutions. In part, that means rejecting government policies that cater to the greed of the privileged class and exploit the fears of a besieged white working class – and therefore work as tools for maintaining racial inequality. It also means going beyond issues like sentencing reform, which is gaining some bipartisan support in part because keeping nearly one in three African-American males in prison, many for such nonviolent offenses as possessing marijuana is proving prohibitively expensive, to economic and government policy demands that Republicans have a long track record of rejecting.

That is in part what Clinton was talking about when she attacked Jeb Bush’s “right to rise” campaign slogan at the Urban League. Bush wants to frame racial disparity as a matter of government getting out of the way and giving people “choice” (that is, except for women of color on reproductive matters, but that’s another story). Clinton countered, “I don’t think you can credibly say that everyone has a ‘right to rise’ and then say you’re for phasing out Medicare or for repealing Obamacare. People can’t rise if they can’t afford health care. They can’t rise if the minimum wage is too low to live on. They can’t rise if their governor makes it harder for them to get a college education. And you cannot seriously talk about the right to rise and support laws that deny the right to vote.”

That statement calls out the contrast between the language of “opportunity” brandished by Republicans in their outreach to African Americans and the realities of policies that trammel opportunity. But that statement does not capture the full “state of emergency” that the Black Lives Matter movement is calling to the attention of the political establishment and the nation.

On November 22, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was playing in a park alone with a toy gun in Cleveland, just four miles from the Quicken Loans Arena where Thursday’s Republican presidential debate is being held. He was shot dead that day by police in less than two seconds. He is not the latest or best known of the black lives lost to police or vigilante violence in a succession that extends before Trayvon Martin and after Sandra Bland, but this week his life may well serve as a good focal point for where Republicans stand.

Did Tamir’s life matter when an officer gunned him down (and then lied about the circumstances of the shooting until security camera video showed what actually happened), or was his death the collateral damage an economically deprived community must accept to be kept under control? Did his life matter in the days before November 22, or would he have ended up being acceptable collateral damage in the rush to further enrich the rich and relieve them of the tax “burden” of maintaining a society in which he could have a decent education, guaranteed access to health care, a good job with fair wages or an opportunity to be one of the vaunted “job creators” Republicans love to talk about, and a financially secure retirement?

The Republican candidates would likely not even talk about Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland or the hundreds of other black people who have ended up dead in the last couple of years as a clear consequence of racist behavior had it not been for a Black Lives Movement doing what movements often do – abruptly interrupt the established order with a message of life-and-death urgency. At least now, with that urgency in the air and Democratic presidential candidates being compelled to respond, the news media knows to query Republican candidates on where they stand. We will see if the questioners at the Fox News debate seize the opportunity. But it’s likely that the answer won’t break news: Black lives don’t particularly matter.

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