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Opinion The importance of what Hillary Clinton did and said in Philadelphia

Hillary Clinton. (John Taggart/European Pressphoto Agency)

Hillary Clinton ducked out of Iowa to go to Philadelphia on Wednesday. All you probably know about that visit was that the Democratic candidate for president held a fundraiser with deep-pocketed donors. But she did something even more vital to her White House chances. She met with about 50 African American ministers from across the country and spoke plainly about the issues they and their congregants care about.

“Now I doubt that I am saying anything that you don’t already know,” Clinton told the gathering at Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, “but anyone running for president should see things as they actually are, not just as we want them to be, talk about the real problems not try to create and inhabit some alternative universe.” The reality she laid out was indeed stark.

We know there are systemic inequities that haunt our economies, our laws, our schools, our prisons, our hospitals, even our water supply. And as Dr. Hale said, there is something wrong when African Americans are nearly three times as likely as whites to be denied a mortgage. Or when the median wealth for white families in 2013 was over $134,000 but for black families it was $11,000. Or when the rate of African American unemployment remains stubbornly high while the country as a whole is slowly doing better. And far too many communities struggle to overcome a legacy of poverty and neglect. There is something wrong when African Americans are more likely to be arrested, charged, and sentenced to longer prison terms than white people for doing the exact same crimes. Or when so many encounters between African Americans and the police end up in humiliation or worse. There is something wrong when our schools are more segregated today than they were in 1968.
And there is something deeply wrong when people in an American city like Flint, Michigan, have been drinking and bathing in poisoned water for almost two years. They told their state government but no one could be bothered to listen. We know there are more Flints out there. Communities, often poor and black, and often poor and Latino, where kids’ lives and health are at risk every single day. Some of you are from Baltimore. You know, I am sure, that families receive settlements for childhood lead poisoning in Baltimore. Now private companies are trying to get those families to sign away the money they deserve for tiny payouts.

That was not Clinton’s first time talking about the lead poisoning of Flint, Mich. During the debate this month in South Carolina, she brought it up when the candidates were asked if there was anything they wanted to talk about that went unspoken.

That was the first time it came up at the gathering. The cheers in the audience and on my Twitter feed were a collective sigh of relief that this American tragedy in a predominantly black city had not gone unnoticed.

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Why that discussion and the one in Philadelphia, in tone and topic, are politically important is explained in “Brown Is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority” by Steve Phillips. Using census and voting data, the politically active senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and co-founder of convincingly argues that there is a “New American Majority” that comprises 51 percent of the voting age population in the United States.

“Progressive people of color now comprise 23 percent of all the eligible voters in America, and progressive Whites account for 28 percent of all eligible voters,” Phillips writes. “The New American Majority electoral equation requires securing the support of 81 percent of people of color and 39 percent of Whites.” Phillips details some compelling census data to consider.

  • “The two fastest-growing groups, Asian Americans and Latinos, each grew by 43 percent from 2000 to 2010. African Americans grew by 12.3 percent. White Americans, by contrast, grew by just 5.7 percent.”
  • “Each and every day, 7,261 people of color are added to the U.S. population, in contrast to the White growth of 1,053 people.”
  • “Roughly 150,000 young people — nearly all U.S. citizens — turn eighteen every month, and 42 percent of them are people of color.”

Then there is this: the last Democratic candidate for president to win the majority of the white vote (58 percent) was President Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Using national exit poll data from the Roper Center at Cornell University, Phillips writes, “The historical average since 1972 is 39.91 percent” of the white vote for the Democrat. President Obama won reelection in 2012 with 39 percent of the white vote, down from 43 percent in 2008. Phillips notes that Obama “won reelection with 5 million fewer White votes than he received in his initial election in 2008.”

[Why Obama was imploring — no, downright begging — the black radio audience to get to the polls]

Phillips acknowledges throughout his book what is a truism in American politics. Unless they are motivated, people of color don’t vote. And his explanation might also strike some as obvious. “People of color vote in lower numbers because many of them feel that most of the U.S. public policy agenda has little relevance to their lives,” he writes. Knowing this and the data he presents should put the Democratic campaigns for president into clearer perspective.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is relentlessly focused on income inequality, as are Clinton and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley. Clinton unapologetically engages on issues of race with a forcefulness that must surprise many. They all are campaigning on immigration reform and correcting the imbalance of the criminal-justice system. These are all issues that people of color and progressive whites care about. The 2016 presidential election will show whether campaigning on them during the primaries and continuing into the general election is successful.

[‘Ugly’ GOP leaves votes on the table]

In a chapter titled “Conservatives Can Count,” Phillips writes that the window to secure the support of the “New American Majority” is “small and shrinking” and that Republicans are “actively working both to slow its influence and shift its partisan preferences.” Voter suppression is one way they are trying to slow influence. But their grooming of people of color for public office and the Koch brothers-financed Latino-focused nonprofit Libre Initiative are part of a conscious strategy to woo voters of color. Donald Trump, notwithstanding.

“Demography is not destiny,” admonishes Phillips, “and it’s clear that Republicans are actively trying to turn the tide in their favor.”

To win minority votes, candidates and their political parties must openly ask for them. And they have to do so in a way that not only acknowledges the painful past (and present) but also explains clearly how they will lead the nation in solving the lingering problems they created. With Trump’s xenophobic and openly racist campaign for the Republican nomination, the Democrats have the field to themselves to make their case to the “New American Majority.” And that’s why Clinton’s meeting with black clergy and what she said there are more significant than you realized.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj