The voters Clinton needs to win over

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The Democratic Party convention has been taking place this week

Peniel Joseph: Hillary Clinton preached a philosophy of empathy

Editor’s Note: Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Political Values and Ethics and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently “Stokely: A Life.” The views expressed here are his.

CNN  — 

America’s halting efforts to confront the nation’s original sin of slavery and continuing systemic transgressions against blacks and people of color dominated the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this week.

Against the backdrop of a presidential election whose outcome will largely be decided by the energy, organizing, and turnout of African Americans, especially black women, it was fitting that first lady Michelle Obama laid down the racial justice gauntlet in a speech as deftly written as it was passionately delivered.

Peniel Joseph, at Tufts University's Granoff Music Center in 2014. (Kelvin Ma/Tufts University)

The nation’s first black first lady trumpeted Hillary Clinton’s qualification to be president in a speech that doubled as a critique of Donald Trump’s dystopian world of vulgar rhetoric and his constituency of race-baiters, immigrant haters, and Black Lives Matter scapegoaters. In strikingly personal terms, America’s mom-in-chief poignantly recalled explaining to daughters Sasha and Malia how to respond to “the hateful language they hear from” a variety of media outlets and public figures: “Our motto is when they go low, we go high.”

The first lady’s most controversial remarks were also her most historically resonant. Obama placed herself along a historical continuum as part of “the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.”

This last line cuts to the heart of our democratic ideals, strivings, disagreements, and disappointments. That a black woman could publicly express these truths reflects less of an example of racial progress than the peculiar circumstances of the 2016 election, one wherein the Democratic Party has become the nation’s de facto multiracial political party. The racial makeup of the Obama coalition between 2008 and 2012 became darker, with the president’s share of white voters declining from 43% to 39%. Remarkably, black voter participation increased by almost two million, roughly the same amount of decrease in white voter turnout. For the first time in American history, the percentage of black voter participation surpassed whites.

The combined energies of the Black Lives Matter and Bernie Sanders movements have highlighted the precarious nature of the Obama coalition as it faces its first national test in an election where Barack Obama is no longer on the ballot. African Americans and voters of color are expected to vote for an all-white ticket of two center-left Democrats in a party that is increasingly reliant on black women voters.

The party’s efforts to ameliorate these tensions resulted in multiple strategic and substantive displays of multiracial unity in Philadelphia, most notably when African American mothers of victims of police shootings appeared on stage. The “Mothers of the Movement,” as they have been nicknamed shared brief moments of their stories with one proclaiming that “Hillary Clinton isn’t afraid to say that Black Lives Matter.”

Meanwhile, outside the convention hall Black Lives Matter demonstrators begged to differ, protesting the Democratic Party as an entity held corporate hostage to financial institutions whose candidate Hillary Clinton they say backed criminal justice and welfare reform that have had a devastating impact on poor black communities.

So black people are faced with a quandary. Black millennial voters recognize the dark side of the Clintons’ racial legacy, an underbelly that found Bill Clinton defending his crime bill against Black Lives Matter protesters last April in Philadelphia. While demonstrators charged that black youth were not “superpredators,” Clinton shot back that they “were defending the people who killed the lives that you say matter.”

The exchange perfectly encapsulates the larger dilemma faced by African Americans and people of color in this election. We find ourselves caught between a rock and a hard place, between Donald Trump’s post-apocalyptic American nightmare and Hillary Clinton’s uninspired track record on championing racial and economic justice.

President Barack Obama’s presence on Wednesday seemed to attest to these complexities. He spoke on the 12th anniversary of his electrifying 2004 keynote address at the DNC in Boston, a speech whose hopeful vision of racial unity helped to catapult him to the presidency. “We’re not done perfecting our union,” observed Obama, as he ticked off needed policy advances that included criminal justice reform. The president’s brilliantly reflective speech acknowledged anxiety about “racial divisions” that one major party has stoked for political gains, even as the President’s own party gingerly confronts racial inequality’s stubborn persistence.

Democratic efforts to confront racial divisions in Philadelphia this week – and across the nation moving forward – hold the key to the 2016 presidential election and the party’s overall future. Racial justice, often seen as a marginal issue by politicians and pundits, has taken center stage. Hillary Clinton knows, Obama said near the end of his address last night, “that acknowledging racial problems that have been festering for decades isn’t making race relations worse but creating the possibilities for people of good will to make them better.”

Rev. William Barber, the local activist and spokesman of North Carolina’s “Moral Mondays” movement for racial and economic justice, offered a powerful speech on the final day of the convention that positioned Black Lives Matter, the restoration of voting rights, and criminal justice and immigration reform as the beating heart of American democracy. “When we fight for peace and resist the proliferation of military styled weapons on our streets…and when we stand against the anti-democratic stronghold of the NRA we are reviving the heart of our democracy.” Barber praised Hillary Clinton for working to connect the nation to “its deepest moral values,” an especially-needed endorsement for progressives who remain skeptical of the depth of Clinton’s social justice commitments.

Hillary Clinton reinforced Barber’s affirmation by voicing robust support for immigration reform, religious tolerance, and social justice. Clinton’s speech walked a tightrope, personalizing her story for Americans who still find her too “cold” to be commander in chief and broad, sweeping tones that offered a comprehensive vision of a nation big enough to expand the American Dream to new frontiers. “When any barrier falls in America it clears the way for everyone,” said Clinton. “After all when there are no ceilings, the sky’s the limit.”

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Clinton’s words forcefully acknowledged not only her watershed historical moment as the first woman nominated by a major party, but in a nod to Black Lives Matter activists, the way in which social justice movements help expand the terrain of citizenship. Hillary’s “New Deal” promised the largest domestic investment in jobs since World War II, debt-free college tuition, equal pay for women, and paid family leave. If all these things amounted to “playing the woman card,” observed Clinton, “deal me in.”

She preached a philosophy of empathy, which might be the clearest indicator of how the first female president’s leadership style might contrast with her male predecessors. “So let’s put ourselves in the shoes of young black and Latino men and women who face the effects of systemic racism and are made to feel like their lives are disposable.”

This line might be the single most important of her acceptance speech and campaign, signaling to skeptical Sanders and Black Lives Matter supporters that Clinton has not only been challenged by her grueling primary battle, but has been transformed by it. To become the first woman to sit in the Oval Office she must now convince the rest of the nation.