SC town hall: Sanders calls for fighting structural racism; Clinton calls for white people to be "honest"

The way the candidates discussed racism in the South Carolina town hall reflects their economic ideologies

Published February 24, 2016 4:30PM (EST)

Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton at a CNN town hall style televised event in Columbia, S.C., Feb. 23, 2016.    (Reuters/Rainier Ehrhardt/AP/Gerald Herbert)
Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton at a CNN town hall style televised event in Columbia, S.C., Feb. 23, 2016. (Reuters/Rainier Ehrhardt/AP/Gerald Herbert)

Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton sparred in a town hall discussion in South Carolina Tuesday night, mere days before the primary election in the state.

The election is heating up, as a new Reuters poll shows that, nationally, Sanders is in fact more popular than Clinton, with 41.7 percent support to her 35.5 percent.

Both candidates have an equal number of delegates, 51 — although, because of the superdelegate system, which has been widely called undemocratic, Clinton has much more support from unelected party elites. DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz has admitted that unelected superdelegates "exist really to make sure that party leaders and elected officials don’t have to be in a position where they are running against grassroots activists."

Racism and racial justice were among the most important issues in the town hall. The way the candidates addressed the issue reflects their economic ideologies.

Sanders called for dealing with structural racism, fighting systems of racial oppression, particularly the criminal justice system, which imprisons millions of Black and Latino/a Americans, often in nonviolent drug offenses for which rich Americans and whites are not punished.

Clinton, on the other hand, spoke much less about structural racism, and instead called for dealing with the personal manifestations of racism. Consistent with her neoliberal economic ideology, she focused on individual experiences, saying: "We have serious challenges and I think it's important for people, and particularly white people, to be honest about this and our experiences may not equip us to understand what our fellow African-American citizens go through every single day"

CNN reported: "The forum highlighted the very different tone Clinton and Sanders take to address race. Sanders called for reforms in the criminal justice system and promised to hike funding for historically black colleges and universities if he is elected president. Clinton responded in more personal terms, saying that white people should be honest and recognize 'that our experiences may not equip us to understand what a lot of our African-American fellow citizens go through every single day.'"

Sanders has proposed legislation to ban private prisons. Clinton has received large contributions from prison corporations — at least $133,000, to be specific — although, after public backlash, she later criticized the private prison lobby and claimed she would stop accepting money from it.

Clinton also criticized police brutality, but called for no particular policy changes. "There are an enormous number of police officers in our country that perform honorably every single day," she began. "They put themselves in harm's way, they connect with the communities they are sworn to protect. And we should show them all the respect that they have earned and deserve."

She did not call for punitive action against police who kill unarmed Americans. Clinton simply said "we have to figure out how we're going to life up the good practices, reform policing, provide more support." Calling for better training for police, she asked, "how do we create a better understanding about how to deal with different situations that de-escalate instead of escalate?"

This week, a video of a young Bernie Sanders being taken away by police at a 1963 civil rights protest in Chicago was released in the media. In a previous town hall in New Hampshire in early February, Sanders had been asked about his work in the civil rights movement. "Injustice bothered me very, very much," he replied. Speaking of his work with the civil rights group the Congress of Racial Equality fighting to desegregate housing and the school system, Sanders explained, "Injustice is something I have always fought, for all my life."

On Tuesday night, Sanders once again called for Clinton to release transcripts of her paid speeches to Wall Street. The former secretary of state said she would only do so when other candidates released theirs. Sanders responded to the CNN host, "I am very happy to release all of my paid speeches to Wall Street. Here it is, Chris: There ain't none. I don't do that. I don't get speakers fees from Goldman Sachs."

When told that Sanders said he would be completely willing to release transcripts of his very few paid speeches (he noted it is against the law for him to do paid speeches while in office), Clinton slightly changed her response, adding that she would only do so if the Republicans do as well.

The two candidates did, however,  agree on Guantánamo Bay. On the morning of the town hall, President Obama released a new plan to transfer detainees from the prison.

Both Democratic presidential candidates called for the closure of the U.S. prison camp in Cuba. "We look like hypocrites and fools to the entire world," Sanders said, calling Guantánamo a blemish on the U.S.'s international reputation.

"People say, 'Oh you're a democratic society,' [but] we have locked people up in an island," he added, noting closing it, "in the long run, it will help us significantly."

Clinton also calling for closing the prison, and claims she has supported shutting it down since 2008. She called it "a very serious, I guess symbol, I would say." Most of the prisoners Guantánamo have never had a trial, or even been charged with a crime, yet the CNN host asked Clinton what the U.S. was supposed to do after releasing detainees who are allegedly violent criminals.

"I will say this," Clinton replied. "We've got a few places in the places, not here, but the maximum security place that I think is in Colorado, there's one in Illinois, that hold some really terrible people who have committed horrific crimes, including the mastermind of the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993."

When asked why so many more young Americans support Sanders, however, Clinton did not have an answer.

"What do you think has been causing this common generational gap between your supporters and Senator Sanders' supporters?" a young woman in the audience asked.

"I really don't know," Clinton replied. "But I want you to know that, whether you end up supporting me or not, I will support you. I will support the young people of this country. That has been my life's work."

In New Hampshire, 84 percent of voters from ages 17 to 29 supported Sanders. In Nevada, more than eight in 10 young Americans voted for the Vermont senator.

By Ben Norton

Ben Norton is a politics reporter and staff writer at AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.

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