Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley fielded pointed questions about police violence, racial justice, reparations, white privilege and deportations at the Iowa Brown & Black Forum on Monday night.
Fusion, a joint media venture by Disney and Univision catering to millennials, hosted the Democratic presidential candidates for the forum at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Because Democratic National Committee rules stipulate that candidates can only appear and interact on the same stage at official party events, the night's forum held each candidate on the stage one at a time, taking questions from Fusion's Jorge Ramos, Alicia Menendez, Akilah Hughes and New York Magazine writer Rembert Browne.
The Iowa Brown & Black Forum has been bringing presidential candidates to one of the whitest states in the country in order for them to speak on issues of diversity since 1984. This year's event took place with polls in the first-caucus and first-primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire at a deadlock. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News/Marist poll released on January 11 has Sanders trailing Clinton in Iowa and Sanders leading Clinton in New Hampshire, both results within the margin of error.
Sanders Calls for Tuition-Free Public Universities
Sanders took to the stage first, with Ramos soon asking, "Have you noticed lately that [Clinton]'s been getting more aggressive with you?" Sanders let out an exasperated "yes," throwing up his hands and saying, "It could be that the 'inevitable' candidate for the Democratic nomination may not be so inevitable today."
"It is time to go beyond establishment politics and establishment economics."
"It is time to go beyond establishment politics and establishment economics," Sanders told Ramos, arguing that the crowds he's been drawing in Iowa, New Hampshire and elsewhere indicate that a "democratic socialist" certainly could become the next president. Sanders went on to call Clinton an "establishment politician" later in the night, but for the most part, he focused on defending his own politics and pushing back against the panel's questions regarding the feasibility of his platform, which he says will alleviate the high unemployment rate in communities of color through large federal investments in jobs and education.
"Making certain that kids can get the education they need and not leave school deeply in debt is not only good for the young people, it is good for the future of this country. That's not a radical idea," Sanders told Browne. "You want to hear a radical idea? Here's a radical idea: In the last 30 years, trillions of dollars have been redistributed from the middle class to the top one-tenth of 1 percent - that is a radical idea. Making public colleges and universities tuition-free is not a radical idea."
Ramos also questioned whether Sanders' plan to break up big banks was far too radical for the nation. "No one is talking about doing away with banking. What we're talking about is ending a horrendous concentration of wealth and power on Wall Street," Sanders replied, recommending the recently released film, The Big Short, as a good way to understand the abuses in finance. "I want a banking system that makes affordable loans to small- and medium-sized businesses so we can create jobs in this country, not a handful of banks whose only goal in life is to make as much profit for themselves as they can," he added.
Candidates Field Questions on Police Violence, Refugees and Deportation
Sanders told Browne that he believes Black communities' distrust of law enforcement is justified, saying, "we need some radical rethinking about police procedures, and the relationship of police departments to minority communities," listing police accountability after public deaths, police demilitarization and diversity in police staff as his priorities, showing responsiveness to demands made by Black Lives Matter activists.
Browne asked Sanders whether he would be willing to challenge police unions to reform their contracts for increased accountability, something of which has been a project of prominent Black activist DeRay Mckesson (a sure sign of his growing influence), but Sanders only said, "I think what we want are police departments that are supported and appreciated by their communities, not seen in an antagonistic way, so any and all ways that we can do that make sense to me."
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who is currently in distant third and possibly out of contention for the next debate because of his low levels of support, tried to focus his attentions instead on refugees, telling the panel that he was ahead of the other candidates with his vocal defense of Syrians and Central Americans needing protection. "Whether it was in 1939, whether it's today, we should never be sending American children back to death gangs so I've called for an end to these mindless deportation policies," he said.
The Democratic front-runner, Clinton, who in 2014 remarked that unaccompanied Central American children crossing the border illegally should be sent back to their native countries, began her time on stage, answering Ramos, who asked, "Can you promise you won't deport children?"
"We have to do a lot more to help those countries in Central America get over some of the challenges of violence, criminality, drug cartels, that is really the impetus behind it," Clinton told Ramos, not mentioning, however, her role in facilitating the 2009 coup of a democratically elected Honduran president. "I would give every person - but particularly children - due process to have their story told, and a lot of children will of course have very legitimate stories under our law to be able to stay."
When asked about the possibility of slavery reparations for Black people in the US, Clinton largely sidestepped the question.
Hughes asked Clinton what she would do to make sure Black lives mattered in her administration. "The figures don't lie. We know what they are. But we have to bring it to a broader audience because it is such a violation of what our values are - equal before the law," Clinton replied. "We have systemic racism that is implicit to our system and unless we begin to go after that and expose it and end it, we won't stop this problem," Clinton said, before continuing on with her belief that nonviolent drug offenders should be offered treatment rather than be incarcerated.
Clinton refused to say whether ISIS or domestic terrorism was a greater threat to the United States. "I saw homegrown terrorism in Oklahoma City and I saw foreign terrorism in New York City, and I saw people grieving over the loss of their loved ones, and at some point, we all have to come together as a country again and stand against violence and do something to get the guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them, no matter who they are," she said, connecting the issue to gun control.
The night's loudest, sustained, round of applause from the audience came when a Drake University student asked Clinton what white privilege meant to her and if she could recall a moment where she had benefited from it. After the applause died down, Clinton replied: "Look, I was born white, middle-class, in the middle of America; I went to good public schools; I had a very strong, supportive family; I had a lot of great experiences growing up; I went to a wonderful college ... I never really knew what was or wasn't part of the privilege, I just knew that I was a lucky person and that being lucky was in part related to who I am, where I'm from and the opportunities I had." She then shared a personal anecdote about volunteering with her church and babysitting migrant children when she was young, saying that doing so made her realize how different her life was from theirs.
It was a long, stilted response, with her anecdote taking up much of the question's allotted time so that Ramos moved on as soon as she was finished. She didn't fully attach her experience to white privilege, but merely acknowledged that she had it better than others growing up. Clinton's answer did not include a confirmation or analysis of structural racism. Instead, she related a tearjerker story without addressing the crux of the question. Reaction from the student who asked the question has been negative.
While Sanders attempted to get his shade of democratic socialism across to the audience, Clinton made sure to place a kernel of conservative discourse within her arguments.
"I think we have to get comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship, but I also think we need to keep our borders secure - I don't see a contradiction there," she told Ramos at one point when discussing the differences between the immigration plans offered by Donald Trump and her.
Clinton Sidesteps Question on Reparations and Attracts Heckling Over #NotMyAbuela Controversy
When asked about the possibility of slavery reparations for Black people in the United States, Clinton largely sidestepped the question, saying that she instead supported focusing on "studying what investments we need to make in communities to help individuals and families and communities move forward," without referencing reparations once, which I imagine Ta-Nehisi Coates would find unsurprising.
Clinton also said that while she agreed in substance with recent paid family leave legislation, she could not support it due to its proposed increase in payroll taxes to fund it. "The reason why I've said I don't want to raise middle-class taxes is most middle-class families haven't recovered from the Great Recession. They haven't recovered from their wages going up. They often work two jobs instead of one job. Their family wealth has not recovered, maybe lost a home and now they're renting and can't get back into the home market," she said.
Given Fusion's demographic targets, it was not surprising that a few audience members heckled Clinton when Menendez asked the candidate about a recent article released by the campaign titled, "7 things Hillary Clinton has in common with your abuela." Two voices could be heard from the audience, saying, "Not my abuela!" loud enough to throw Browne off for a second as he began to ask his question. #NotMyAbuela went viral in late December 2015 after the Clinton article was released, a cry against what critics saw as pandering to the Latino community.
When asked to name one way in which she was not like a Latina grandmother, Clinton replied, between laughs, "Well, you know, I'm obviously running for president. Not every grandmother does that," Fusion reported.
She ended the night by refusing to count out a Sanders win. "Anybody can win," she said. "Who would have thought Donald Trump would be leading in national polls?"