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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Race in America

At a town hall meeting for liberal activists over the weekend in Phoenix, two Democratic presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, were interrupted by demonstrators who challenged the candidates to directly address race in America. The leader of the demonstration, Tia Oso of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, took the stage and delivered a speech.

“We are going to hold this space,” Oso said. “We are going to acknowledge the names of black women who have died in police custody. And Governor O’Malley, we do have questions for you. … As the leader of this nation, will you advance a racial justice agenda that will dismantle—not reform, not make progress—but will begin to dismantle structural racism in the United States?”

While the tactic was certainly disruptive, it was also poignant and effective. The candidates, especially O’Malley, took the opportunity to address the space they felt racial inequality should take in their campaigns.

As the 2016 presidential election heats up on the heels of a series of heavily publicized tragedies against African Americans and other people of color, race has been largely left out of the conversation. This is unacceptable. Race in America should be a foundation of each candidate’s platform, prominent in every major debate and a fixture of political polling.

It is time that race became a central part of American politics, right alongside the economy, immigration, national security and other social issues such as equity for women and America’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer population.

Many saw President Barack Obama’s 2008 election as a sign America had finally become a post-racial society and racism was largely an issue of the past. There were others who were less naive and thought Obama’s presidency would propel civil rights and bring sweeping racial reform. The past seven years have proven both camps wrong.

In the twilight of his presidency, Obama has taken a more direct approach to race, addressing issues such citizen and police violence against people of color, mass incarceration and calling for Americans to examine race beyond the surface level. But the president currently lacks the time and political capital to make the changes needed.

In what many have been seen as an intentional effort by Obama to be “America’s president,” the commander in chief focused his early presidency on the economy and Afghanistan and later became a moderate champion for social causes such as environmentalism, gender equality and marriage equality. Until recently, he has largely ignored race. Many prominent black intellectuals, politicians, and activists have accused the first black president of failing a responsibility to black America bestowed by his identity.

Being the nation’s first black president does not automatically entail a special responsibility to African Americans and other people of color, but being the president does. Every president should be “America’s president,” but that entails a special responsibility to those Americans who have been disenfranchised by a broken system. Any president who does not do so is only the president of the privileged and the powerful.

As Oso said, it is the responsibility of each candidate to seek not to reform or improve structural racism in America, but to dismantle it. The 2016 election is so far dominated by white candidates who might have an easier time addressing race than Obama due to their natural distance. But this distance will also make it easier for them to avoid the divisive issue.

In order to ensure that the next American president is really America’s president, we must hold them accountable, as Oso did, to what that truly means.

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