Last night, the five—yup, five—Democratic presidential candidates participated in their first debate of the election cycle. Lincoln Chafee, Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley, Bernie Sanders and Jim Webb discussed everything from honesty to xenophobia to civil liberties.
They also received a question, via Facebook, from Sterling Arthur Wilkins, a black law student from Des Moines: “My question for the candidates is, do black lives matter, or do all lives matter?” Here, we feature the candidates’ verbatim responses.
Black lives matter. And the reason—the reason those words matter is the African-American community knows that on any given day some innocent person like Sandra Bland can get into a car, and then three days later she’s going to end up dead in jail, or their kids are going to get shot. We need to combat institutional racism from top to bottom, and we need major, major reforms in a broken criminal justice system in which we have more people in jail than China. And, I intended to tackle that issue. To make sure that our people have education and jobs rather than jail cells.
The point that the Black Lives Matter movement is making is a very, very legitimate and serious point, and that is that as a nation we have undervalued the lives of black lives, people of color. When I ran for Mayor of Baltimore—and we were burying over 350 young men ever single year, mostly young, and poor, and black, and I said to our legislature, at the time when I appeared in front of them as a mayor, that if we were burying white, young, poor men in these number we would be marching in the streets and there would be a different reaction. Black lives matter, and we have a lot of work to do to reform our criminal justice system, and to address race relations in our country.
The question shifted a bit for Clinton and Webb: “What would you do for African Americans in this country that President Obama couldn’t?” Anderson Cooper asked.
Well, I think that President Obama has been a great moral leader on these issues, and has laid out an agenda that has been obstructed by the Republicans at every turn. So, what we need to be doing is not only reforming criminal justice—I have talked about that at some length, including things like body cameras, but we also need to be following the recommendations of the commissioner that President Obama empanelled on policing. There is an agenda there that we need to be following up on.
Similarly, we need to tackle mass incarceration, and this may be the only bi-partisan issue in the congress this year. We actually have people on both sides of the aisle who have reached the same conclusion, that we cannot keep imprisoning more people than anybody else in the world. But, I believe that the debate, and the discussion has to go further, Anderson, because we’ve got to do more about the lives of these children. That’s why I started off by saying we need to be committed to making it possible for every child to live up to his or her god given potential. That is really hard to do if you don’t have early childhood education, if you don’t have schools that are able to meet the needs of the people, or good housing, there’s a long list. We need a new New Deal for communities of color.
As a President of the United States, every life in this country matters. At the same time, I believe I can say to you, I have had a long history of working with the situation of African Americans. We’re talking about criminal justice reform, I risked my political life raising the issue of criminal justice reform when I ran for the Senate in Virginia in 2006. I had Democratic party political consultants telling me I was committing political suicide. We led that issue in the Congress. We started a national debate on it. And it wasn’t until then that the Republican Party started joining in. I also represented a so-called war criminal, an African-American Marine who was wounded—who was convicted of murder in Vietnam, for six years. He took his life three years into this. I cleared his name after – after three years. And I put the African American soldier on the Mall. I made that recommendation and fought for it. So, if you want someone who is – can stand up in front of you right now and say I have done the hard job, I have taken the risks, I am your person.
Chafee was not given a chance to respond to the question. The only time he explicitly mentioned African Americans was in his closing statement, which included the passage below.
America has many challenges confronting us—ending the perpetual wars, addressing climate change, addressing income inequality, funding education, funding infrastructure, funding healthcare, helping black Americans, helping Native Americans.
Watch the full debate below and read the Washington Post’s full transcript here.