Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Bernie Sanders, and two other 2016 presidential candidates spoke Friday morning at the National Urban League’s annual conference, discussing U.S. race relations, the Black Lives Matter movement, and economic and racial inequality, while also trading policy jabs with their political opponents.
“Race still plays a significant role in determining who gets ahead in America and who gets left behind,” Clinton said, speaking before the conference’s largely black audience. “And yes, while that’s partly a legacy of discrimination that stretches back to the start of our nation, it is also because of discrimination that is still ongoing.”
In recent days, some candidates have received criticism for seeming to miss the purpose of the Black Lives Matter movement — which is to highlight how U.S. society, government, and police regularly disregard black lives, seen most clearly in the several deaths of unarmed black people at the hands of the police; and to declare unequivocally that racism has tangible and fatal effects. The main Democratic contenders have been slammed for saying “All Lives Matter,” or some version of that phrase, which critics argue diminishes the message and meaning of “Black Lives Matter.”
At the Urban League conference, Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley attempted to refine his earlier statements, telling attendees that as mayor of Baltimore, “Every year we buried 300 young black men who died violent deaths on our streets — and black lives matter.”
The former mayor and Maryland governor said the next president will need to “improve and reform our criminal justice system.” And he had some policy ideas: “Reduce mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent crimes. Repeal the death penalty. Invest in re-entry programs for convicts. Better equip communities to deal with mental illnesses.” And the big one: “We must improve policing, and the way we police the police.”
Clinton also spoke about how issues of economic and racial inequality continue to play out in the lives of black Americans, citing how black people receive “disproportionately longer sentences” than white people, and are “three times more likely to be denied a mortgage loan,” The Associated Press reported.
Targeting Jeb Bush by mentioning the name of his SuperPAC and campaign slogan, Clinton said, “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.”
She also criticized Bush’s “skepticism over a federal minimum wage and his policies as Florida governor to end affirmative action in college admissions,” according to The New York Times.
Addressing the conference attendees, Bush cited his record on improving Florida schools as governor and said that Democrats “have failed to fix the education system,” Reuters reported. “For a half-century, this nation has pursued a war on poverty and massive government programs, funded with trillions of taxpayer dollars. This decades-long effort, while well intentioned, has been a losing one,” Bush said.
He also ticked off a few other political bona fides: As Florida governor, Bush said “he ordered the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the state Capitol, raised the number of black judges, and tripled the state’s hiring of minority-owned businesses.”
Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders spoke about his campaign’s core message: the need to address income inequality. Relating it to racial inequality, Sanders told conference attendees how a black high-school graduate, age 17 to 20, faces a 51 percent unemployment rate, compared to a white graduate at 33 percent, and a Hispanic graduate at 36 percent. “That is unacceptable,” Sanders said of the greater barriers in the job market faced by black youth.
On racial inequality, prisons, and policing, Sanders said, “Blacks are in prison at six times the rate of whites.” He added that cities and the country need to move in the direction of community policing.
“Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Samuel DuBose. We know their names. Each of them died unarmed at the hands of police officers or in police custody,” Sanders said. “Violence and brutality of any kind, particularly at the hands of law enforcement sworn to protect and serve their communities, is unacceptable and won’t be tolerated.”
Calling for criminal justice reform, Sanders said, “Black lives do matter and we must value black lives.”
Republican candidate Dr. Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon who is the only black contender in the presidential race, also spoke at the conference. “There was racism,” Carson said, recalling being the only black student in his 8th grade class. “There still is. And there always will be … as long as there are people with small brains and evil forces to stimulate them.”
“What do you do about it?” he asked.
Sticking to his conservative, bootstraps ideology, Carson said, “The person who has the most to do with what happens to you in life is you. It’s not somebody else. It’s not the environment. They can’t stop you. And once I developed that mindset, I stopped listening to all the naysayers and the people who were telling me that I was a victim.”
While Clinton, Sanders, and O’Malley each invoked the Black Lives Matter movement in their remarks, Carson and Bush did not.
The Urban League is a national civil rights organization “dedicated to economic empowerment in order to elevate the standard of living in historically underserved urban communities.” The 2015 conference is taking place in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, from July 29 to August 1.
Friday evening, the Urban League conference will feature a town hall plenary titled, “Saving Our Sons and Daughters: Black Lives Matter.”
Photo: Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at the National Urban League’s conference in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, July 31,2015. REUTERS/Andrew Innerarity