Black Lives Matter Finally Takes Center Stage At The Democratic Debate & Proves Its Influence On This Election

Something big happened during the fourth Democratic debate. I’m not referring to the bickering between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, although that was notable. This debate demonstrated Black Lives Matter’s influence on the Democratic Party, and confirmed that racial justice in America will be a huge part of both the 2016 campaign and Democratic Party politics for some time to come.

To be sure, BLM and its aims haven’t been entirely absent from earlier Democratic debates, and all three of the major candidates have, in some form, developed racial justice platforms and incorporated them into their campaigns. But racial inequality wasn’t nearly as much of a focus at any of the previous Democratic debates, and before tonight, it wasn’t clear to what extent the candidates would truly embrace the movement.

The topic arose about 15 minutes into Sunday’s two-hour event, after Sanders and Clinton had finished arguing about gun control. Moderator Lester Holt brought up the case of Walter Scott, a black man who died last year after being shot by a white police officer in Charleston (where Sunday's debate was held). Holt confronted Clinton about “the fears of many African American men that their lives are cheap.” Asked if that was “perception ... or reality,” Clinton replied that “sadly, it’s reality,” and then insisted that “there needs to be a concerted effort to address the systemic racism in our criminal justice system.”

Clinton’s use of the phrase “systemic racism” is a big deal. While overt and unabashed acts of racism are generally disparaged in American popular culture, systemic and institutionalized racism are another story entirely. Even acknowledging the existence of systemic racism is something many people refuse to do, as it requires admitting that the very structure of American society is built against people of color. Denouncing a single racist person is easy, but denouncing all of the institutions that form the very bedrock of society is much more difficult.

Clinton did just that, and in doing so, revealed the influence that Black Lives Matter's fundamental premises have had on her campaign. Her statement, that “it’s reality” that black lives are “cheap in America” and that there’s “systemic racism” in the criminal justice system, isn’t too far from the wording on the Black Lives Matter website, which references “a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.”

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Later, Clinton referenced the statistic that “one out of three African American men may well end up going to prison,” and encouraged the audience “to think what we would be doing if it was one out of three white men.” Here, she’s touching on white privilege, and is basically asking white people in the audience to check their privilege. The audience started applauding before she was even done speaking, suggesting that this type of thought resonates with core Democratic supporters.

It wasn’t just Clinton. During the same set of questions, Sanders brought up the fact that “51 percent of African American young people are either unemployed or underemployed,” and that the U.S. prison population is “disproportionately African American and Latino.” From a policy standpoint, Sanders proposed an automatic Department of Justice investigation “whenever anybody in this country is killed while in police custody,” and insisted that we “demilitarize our police departments so they don’t look like occupying armies.”

Sanders didn’t specifically mention systemic racism. But the black incarceration rate is cited by Black Lives Matter as a way in which “Black people are intentionally left powerless at the hands of the state,” and excessive violence by the police is one of the key focuses of the movement.

There was more to the conversation than this. At one point, Martin O’Malley said that “black lives matter” and touted civilian review boards. All in all, the candidates talked about racial justice issues for the better part of fifteen minutes.

Compare this with where the party was just a few months ago. During the first Democratic debate, there was exactly one question on racial justice, and was, umm, pretty broad: “Do black lives matter, or do all lives matter?” The candidates replied that yes, black lives matter — the obvious “right” answer — and then they moved on without discussing any specifics. Later Democratic debates featured no discussion on racial justice at all.

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There are a few takeaways from the striking difference between that forum and this one. For one, Black Lives Matter’s political tactics have been vindicated. Protesters from the movement were criticized over the summer when they interrupted a Sanders speech in Seattle. But as it turns out, that’s exactly how you get politicians to talk about touchy but important subjects on a national stage: You aggressively confront them about the fact that they haven’t yet done so.

From a broader perspective, Sunday’s debate also suggests that racial injustice — and specifically, the sort of racial injustice that results from systemic racism — is on its way to becoming a central animating force within the Democratic Party. The candidates were happy to talk about the topic at length, and were all more or less in agreement. The audience ate it all up, and it’s also not a small deal that NBC’s moderators brought the issue up very early on. The network cares about ratings, and recognizes that this is an issue that captivates Democratic audiences.

None of this, of course, means that the next Democratic president will actually prioritize the implementation of racial justice policies. Furthermore, the Democrats' answers were not perfect — it's been pointed out, for example, that Clinton called for a specific plan to combat racial injustice, but didn't actually say what that plan was. But Sunday’s debate strongly suggested that the Democratic Party is on the path to accepting the fundamental precepts of Black Lives Matter. That’s only one step in a larger battle, but it’s pretty damn big one.