There was a seemingly throwaway moment during Thursday’s Democratic debate between Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that underscored one of the successes of the Black Lives Matter movement and its influence on Democratic politics today.
Early in the debate, Sanders essentially called out Clinton for past racism, going so far as to use the word racist. The funny thing: Not only did Clinton not respond with outrage—feigned or otherwise—she didn’t even defend herself. The moment once again crystalized just how far the Democratic Party has moved away from core elements of the 1994 Crime Bill—passed by President Bill Clinton and supported by then-Rep. Sanders—and especially the political rhetoric that surrounded the legislation.
The Sanders comment came when NY1 host and debate moderator Errol Louis asked Sanders why he had criticized Bill Clinton for defending his wife when confronted by protesters holding a sign that said “Black people are not super predators”—a term Hillary Clinton used in 1996 while campaigning for her husband and his criminal justice policies. “Because it was a racist term and everybody knew it was a racist term,” Sanders responded to applause. This seems to have been the furthest Sanders has gone in attacking Clinton for using the phrase 20 years ago. Previously, he had told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, “I think we all knew back then what that language meant. That was referring to young blacks.” And at Harlem’s Apollo Theater on Saturday, Sanders called on Bill Clinton to apologize “for trying to defend what is indefensible” in his response to the protesters who invoked the term. But this was the first time he had actually used the word racist, which will normally get any politician to jump out of his or her seat to issue an immediate harrumph.
Yet when it was Clinton’s turn to talk, she didn’t even attempt to justify her old use of the term—which she previously had said she should not have used—or provide context around it. And then everyone moved on.
It all showed the direct influence Black Lives Matter has had in shaping the rhetoric and policies around criminal justice of both candidates. Clinton knew that she couldn’t defend the remarks—or apparently her husband’s actions in attempting to defend her—and so she backed down.
The ground is only continuing to shift on the topic. Back in February, a young black political activist confronted Clinton at a private fundraiser about the “super-predator” remarks, saying “I’m not a ‘super-predator’ ” and holding a sign that read “we have to bring them to heel,” a reference to another Clinton quote. At the time, Clinton didn’t even bother to respond. But within a few days she said, “Looking back, I shouldn’t have used those words, and I wouldn’t use them today.”
The issue didn’t die down: When Bill Clinton was confronted by Black Lives Matter protesters, one of whom was holding up a “super-predators” sign, he attempted to defend Hillary and was widely rebuked for his comments.
And now, during a prime-time debate, Bernie called out the Clintons for using and defending “racist” rhetoric, and nobody batted an eye. It goes to show that even if Hillary wins the nomination and the presidency, likely thanks in large part to the support of black voters, her party has in many ways moved beyond the Democratic politics of the 1990s—and, in some crucial ways, beyond the Clintons too.