Like a lot of white people, politicians need to get more comfortable talking about race

Hillary Clinton is in the spotlight with her recent book release and not-yet-really-a-campaign for president. As she warms up her talking points, she’s stumbled over a couple of sensitive issues (see her “word salad” about marriage equality). Kay Steiger at Talking Points Memo wonders why Clinton had such a difficult time addressing racism in a recent CNN town hall. You can see the full clip above. Here’s a transcript of the tail end where she’s asked about race impacting people’s vehement opposition to President Obama: 

AMANPOUR: Do you think some of that is latent racism, vestiges of racism, as some people have said?

CLINTON: Well, I know that — I don’t want to — I don’t want to say that I verify that, because that would be generalizing too broadly. I believe that there are people who have trouble with ethnicity, with race, with gender, with sexual orientation, you name it. And therefore, they are not developing a reasoned opinion — even if it’s an opinion in opposition, but they are a reacting to not a visceral stereotypical basis. And that’s unfortunate.

Steiger asks:

Why does talking about race make Clinton uncomfortable? She sidestepped the initial question with the “no one will agree with the president” line, but when Amanpour tried to bring her back to race, Clinton demurred that racism was “too broad” of a label, adding that sexism and homophobia are also problems. You don’t say!

The simple explanation is that Clinton, in full-on presidential run mode (despite her insistence that she hasn’t yet decided) was cautious of turning off voters who fear the racism label, whether it is justified or not.

The less simple explanation is that race isn’t easy for very many people to talk about in America, particularly in a public setting.

Hillary Clinton has surely seen what the rest of us have seen, from disgustingly racist photoshopped pictures of the president passed around workplace to the birther obsession to a local police commissioner unashamedly throwing around racial slurs. In the same way that one would hope that President Obama could pointedly condemn sexism lobbed at Clinton and other female candidates,  Clinton should be able to call out the racism against President Obama for what it is.

Clinton is a political figure walking in a minefield when it comes to talking about race. We have a media culture in which it’s often considered worse to call someone racist than to be the one saying something racist. And as Steiger points out, even President Obama himself has been very careful about how and when he addresses racism.

Of course this difficulty isn’t limited to Hillary Clinton, or politicians in general. It’s not easy for anyone. Racism is of course a sensitive issue, and people are very concerned about making mistakes. If we’re going to evolve as a society, we need to be able to have those conversations and be willing to take risks. We’ll probably make mistakes, but we’ll learn from them.

Racism is an incredibly important problem for our politicians to tackle head on. It touches employment, housing, education, criminal justice, immigration and just about everything else.  Color-blind policies that ignore the history of racial discrimination in this country aren’t going to cut it. Our leading politicians, including but not limited to Hillary Clinton, need to get comfortable taking this problem head on.

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Author: Rebecca Griffin

I am a passionate advocate for progressive causes with over a decade of experience organizing for social change. That organizing experience informs the way I look at the world and the challenges we face in working toward social justice. I started Of Means and Ends to write about social issues I care about and share my thoughts on how we organize in a smart, strategic way. Please visit and join the conversation.

4 thoughts on “Like a lot of white people, politicians need to get more comfortable talking about race”

  1. Politics is all about choosing your words carefully, and that’s what she did. It ended up making it so that her statement was pretty meaningless, but at least that way she’s less likely to be misconstrued as a racist herself, which is the ultimate goal when asked this question.

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    1. Yes, that’s one of the frustrations of politics. People tiptoe around an issue and avoid frank debate. But I do think that politicians, especially those who represent a party that is ostensibly more sensitive to the needs of people of color, need to be able to address these issues more effectively. And as far as race issues go, this question was a bit of a softball (though in the tradition of TV news it probably wouldn’t have generated enlightened debate).

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  2. Reblogged this on BrAsian Hussy and commented:
    She could have been braver in her response but shied away at the risk of alienating potential voters. I’m pretty sure however that any American who had a problem with having a black President, isn’t going to vote for a woman anyway.

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  3. Everyone, all those willing to be genuine, caring, and concerned about all doing well in this country–and this world of ours–needs to talk about race. Not just white people. These issues travel up and down two-way streets, but sadly many times the road is paved with dishonesty. Thorough introspection by all sides keeps people sitting at the table of communication.

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