Black votes matter, especially to Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, the two Democratic contenders fighting for votes across the country.
After working the primaries in the racially homogenous states of New Hampshire and Iowa, Clinton and Sanders have drastically changed their rhetoric, steering the conversation to a dialogue about race. But after a debate in diverse Flint, Michigan last night, complete with a black church choir, have the rivals gone far enough to exploit black issues for the vote? That’s where Reverends Irene Monroe and Emmett Price can’t seem to agree.
The reverends joined Jim Braude and Margery Eagan on Boston Public Radio for this week’s edition of All Revved Up, exploring two different interpretations of Sunday night’s feisty debate.
“It absolutely pulled at my heartstrings,” Monroe said, “but I really felt like it was exploiting a moment, I felt that similarly when [Clinton] was talking and standing next to Sandra Bland’s mother.” The mothers of Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Dontre Hamilton, and Eric Garner are supporting Clinton though a coalition called Mothers of the Movement. Erica Garner, Eric Garner’s daughter, is supporting Bernie Sanders. These endorsements will surely pull support, but the larger question remains: is it appropriate to draw votes from tragedy?
“I think the viewership has become accustomed to seeing black criminality and suffering,” Monroe said, “to the point that those seem to be the optics and the visuals that we’ve become used to.”
Sunday’s CNN debate was held in Flint, Michigan, site of a dramatic water crisis that left thousands of people without safe tap water and at risk of lead poisoning. Flint also happens to be 57 percent black and 41.5 percent poor. “I liked it,” Price said. “I thought that it brought accountability to the issues in Flint.”
“I thought the fact that both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton agreed on the dereliction of duty, the insanity that’s going on, and the lack of accountability,” he said. “I appreciated it for that matter.”
According to Monroe, that’s all well and good, but that empathy only exists for political leverage. “The only time we see white faces or the only time our issues are front and center are moments like this,” she said. “They want to be elected for office, this is why many of them go to black churches, or they’re running for president.”
“Then there was that moment when that black choir got up to sing, and I just said, oh my god, this is just so over the top,” Monroe said. “Black issues become front and center because it’ll make [candidates] more electable. I think it really shows how both of them have been really anemic in addressing racial issues in this country.”
During the debate, both candidates touched on a larger water crisis problem in states across the country. "We have a lot of communities right now in our country where the levels of toxins in the water, including lead, are way above what anybody should tolerate,” Clinton said. “We have a higher rate of tested lead in people in Cleveland than in Flint. So I'm not satisfied with just doing everything we must do for Flint, I want to tackle this problem across the board."
Monroe wasn’t swayed.
“That didn’t work for me, because it stopped when the black choir got up,” she said. “Do you remember before the South Carolina election? Every other word coming out of Bernie and Hillary’s mouth was about ‘black people this, and black people that.’”
To hear All Revved Up, click the audio link above. Rev. Emmett G. Price III is a professor of music at Northeastern University, and the author of The Black Church and Hip Hop Culture. Rev. Irene Monroe is a syndicated religion columnist who writes for Huffington Post and Bay Windows.