On Tuesday, Democratic presidential hopeful, Hillary Rodham Clinton, gave a speech on race in the United States at a Black church in Florissant, Missouri. The church is just a short drive from Ferguson, the city where Michael Brown was murdered by Officer Darren Wilson last August. While Clinton’s speech was meant to score points with Black voters, a voting bloc which has been on the fence about her since her 2008 run against then candidate Obama, she missed the mark on several fronts. Mainly, her speech seemed like a canned response with no actual thought toward fixing the issues of ongoing systemic racism in this country. And, her use of the violent phrase “All lives matter” in the speech only confirmed to many Black Americans that she is completely out of touch with the community at-large.
Clinton’s speech was problematic for two major reasons.
First, though it hasn’t been mentioned much in the mainstream news media, Clinton’s words focused deeply on the concept of Black forgiveness. This appearance was likely brought on in response to the massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina last Wednesday. So, almost immediately, she outlined the myriad versions and examples of forgiveness she saw after that horrible event. She cited Archbishop Desmond Tutu when noting that, “There is no future without forgiveness…and forgiveness is the first step toward victory in any journey.” She said that the acts of mercy toward terrorist Dylann Roof from the families of those slain in Charleston were “as stunning as his act of cruelty.” She also implored onlookers, “Do not be overcome with evil but overcome evil with good.” It is absolutely absurd that Black forgiveness is “as stunning” as White terror. If that stuns anyone, they are the problem.
Her rhetoric of forgiveness is yet another attempt to burden Black Americans with the guilt and shame for racist, terrorist events they had no hand in creating. It is concerning that she focused on Black people rather than the Whites who perpetrate and maintain systems of inequality and racial hatred. By telling Black people that they are responsible for forgiving White murderers and terrorists, without making a call to Whites to repent or even acknowledge their own racism and bigotry, Clinton espoused the same shallow (pretend) solutions many Whites have in the past. The fact is: Black forgiveness won’t keep racist cops and murderers from killing us. We already know this unfortunate fact. Why didn’t Clinton implore Whites to examine whatever ideologies make them (falsely) believe this is a real step in ending racial tension in the first place?
Second, she positioned the conversation as if she was talking to White people and White people alone. She opened the speech describing “our” inability” to understand that racism still exists. Her words were obviously not directed at Black people who are living through these tragedies, murders and terrors every day.
“I know it’s tempting to dismiss a tragedy like this as an isolated incident. To believe that in today’s America, bigotry is largely behind us. That institutionalized racism no longer exists. But, despite our best efforts and our highest hopes, America’s long struggle with race is far from finished.”
Who is tempted to dismiss the Emanuel AME Church massacre as “an isolated incident?” Certainly not the Black folks sitting in the church where she delivered the speech. Her discussing these issues like she was talking to a group of well-meaning (read: bigoted) White people underscores the fact that even she – while giving a speech on race in America – is incapable of facing our deeply-rooted, historically anchored issues with systemic racism and White privilege.
She said, “I grew up in an all-white middle-class suburb. I didn’t have a black friend, neighbor or classmate until I went to college and I am so blessed to have so many in my life since.” She also said that her mother taught her that “everybody needs a chance and a champion.” By calling up the language of the “black friend” and queueing the concept of the White Savior, Clinton, once again, reminds White Americans of their comfortable ways to address race in the United States. She followed up this personal story with the term “all lives matter,” proving that her conception of race still positions White people as the point of reference.
Clinton wants credit for race activism and allyship which she hasn’t earned. Her pandering to White voters, while at times using the language of Black activists, shows how unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and unaware she is about actual issues facing Black and brown folks in this country.
Many will praise this speech noting that Clinton was willing to discuss this “very sensitive” topic. Others will reduce the criticism of her use of the term “all lives matter” making it into a partisan issue or Black Twitter drama. But, the fact is that Hillary Clinton’s words, during times like these, represent and reflect many of the sentiments of those who will vote for her. Her inability to really address the issues facing Black communities speaks to a larger, societal issue with grappling with our very real and very present problems with racism, violence, and exclusion of Black people from the public sphere.
Hopefully, she gets it right soon. But, honestly, I don’t have any reason to believe she will. In the meantime, we can’t accept this half-baked approach to race and racism in this country. We simply deserve better.
Jenn M. Jackson is the Editorial Assistant for The Black Youth Project. She is also the Editor-in-Chief and co-founder of Water Cooler Convos, a politics, news, and culture webmag for bourgie Black nerds. For more about her, tweet her at @JennMJack or visit her website at jennmjackson.com.