Sanders knows it’s an issue. When he was asked on Vermont Public Radio on Tuesday what he learned in the 2016 campaign that will help him this go-round, Sanders said, “There are people in the African American community who have very, very serious concerns.” This proactive nod to the base of the Democratic Party is an improvement over his tone-deafness on race during the last campaign that I and others clobbered him for in 2016.
Which leads me to Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).
After the pitch-perfect speech by Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) announcing her candidacy last month, Klobuchar’s snowstorm announcement of her own presidential run (along with that of Julián Castro) ranks as the second best of the crop. She was clear-eyed about our challenges and aspirational about our future. But she missed an opportunity that portends trouble ahead, especially if winning the African American vote is so vital to any candidate’s chances of winning the Democratic nomination.
On July 6, 2016, Philando Castile was pulled over for what the St. Anthony, Minn., police officer told him was a broken taillight. Within moments, the black man was shot dead by the officer. The immediate aftermath of the police-involved killing was captured by Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who had the presence of mind to do a Facebook Live stream as her boyfriend lay dying next to her. Reynolds’s 4-year-old daughter could be heard trying to reassure her mother from the back seat.
Castile was the beloved manager of the cafeteria at the J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School in St. Paul, Minn. A Carleton College classmate of mine sent me a message back then that his children went to that school, knew “Mr. Phil” and that he and his wife had to explain to their youngest why they wouldn’t see him again. He told me that he took his son to the memorial service that ended up marching from the school to the governor’s mansion. “Somebody made little dolls for all the kids depicting Mr. Phil,” my friend told me, “and my younger kid keeps it on his bureau.”
So troubling was the killing that Mark Dayton, then Minnesota’s governor, wondered aloud, “Would this have happened if the driver were white, if the passengers were white?” Then-President Barack Obama commented on the tragedy when asked about it while on a trip to Warsaw. “All of us, as Americans, should be troubled by these shootings, because these are not isolated incidents,” Obama said, alluding to the other fatal shootings of unarmed black men that spurred protest and outrage across the country. “They’re symptomatic of a broader set of racial disparities that exist in our criminal justice system.”
A year after the shooting, the police officer charged with second-degree manslaughter in the killing of Castile was acquitted. The New York Times story on the verdict reviewed key details of the shooting that made African Americans recoil and sparked outrage across the country.
Mr. Castile was licensed to carry a gun and was recorded on a dashboard camera video calmly telling Officer Yanez that he had a weapon in the car. Officer Yanez told him not to reach for the weapon, and Mr. Castile and Ms. Reynolds both tried to assure the officer that he was not doing so. Within seconds, Officer Yanez fired seven shots.Prosecutors said Mr. Castile had mentioned his gun to allay concerns, not to threaten the officer or escalate the situation. “If someone were just about to reach in their pocket and pull out a gun and shoot an officer, that’s the last thing they would say,” [Jeffrey] Paulsen said.
In his remarks from Warsaw, Obama added statistics that put what happened to Castile into further context. “African Americans are 30 percent more likely than whites to be pulled over. After being pulled over, African Americans and Hispanics are three times more likely to be searched,” he said, adding that in 2015, “African Americans were shot by police at more than twice the rate of whites.” Castile’s killing was a reminder that a black man endangers his own life following police orders to produce his license and registration. No matter what the law says, a black man has no Second Amendment rights.
Castile had a legal permit to carry a gun that was issued by the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office — the same county where Klobuchar was twice elected chief prosecutor. And, yet, Klobuchar didn’t mention Castile during her presidential announcement on Feb. 10. How very odd for a candidate for the presidential nomination of a party whose bedrock is the African American vote to not take the opportunity to talk about an issue of concern to them that happened in her own state.
“I always believe in doing my job without fear or favor. That’s what I do as a senator and that’s what I did as a prosecutor. And that means not only convicting the guilty but protecting the innocent,” Klobuchar said in the swirling snow. “That’s why I have and why I will always continue to advocate for criminal-justice reform.” That’s it. And then she moved on to gun control.
The day after the killing of Castile, Klobuchar called for a “full and thorough investigation into his death. At the same time, we must do more to ensure accountability and trust between our law enforcement and the communities they serve, especially communities of color.” A week later, she took to the floor of the Senate to decry Castile’s death and that of others, including five Dallas police officers who were targeted by a sniper the day after “Mr. Phil” was killed. “America is better than Philando Castile losing his life and a two-year-old in Minneapolis losing his life in a drive-by shooting,” Klobuchar said. “And America is better than throwing concrete chunks at a police officer in St. Paul and five Dallas cops being taken from the beat forever.”
Klobuchar is seen as the candidate “seeking to carve out a more moderate lane” in the Democratic field. Does that mean she is going to eschew issues of race? Not necessarily. I’ve learned that Klobuchar is set to speak next week to a group where she plans to address the Castile shooting. But she has a little more work to do.
When asked by CNN anchor Don Lemon what her agenda would be for black America, Klobuchar said, “I’ve been working on these racial justice issues all my life.” She talked about how, as a prosecutor, she wanted her office to better reflect the community they represented. She then said, “There are many problems with the criminal-justice system” and pointed to her work in improving eyewitness identification and protecting defendants’ rights. Klobuchar then moved to the First Step Act, voter suppression and leveling the economic playing field by, among other things, raising the minimum wage.
Klobuchar told the town hall audience that she wanted to “make it easier for people who are not in the same position as everyone else and weren’t born with the silver spoon in their mouth, that they are able to pursue the American dream because no matter where you come from or where you worship or what you look like, this should be a country of shared dreams.”
For many African Americans, this belief that a rising tide lifts all boats, that everyone should be able to pursue the American dream is so much wishful thinking. As Bakari Sellers, a former member of the statehouse in all-important South Carolina, told me, “We don’t get the benefit of the tide, because we don’t get the benefit of our humanity.”
At a time when blacks of all socioeconomic strata have their pursuit of the American dream disrupted by the likes of “BBQ Becky,” “Permit Patty,” “Pool Patrol Paul,” “Hallway Harry” and countless others, Klobuchar must learn how to talk about race and do so in a way that lets African Americans know she sees them, that she knows how to talk to them. If she doesn’t, Klobuchar 2020 will go the way of Sanders 2016, only a lot faster.
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