Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand gave a powerful response to a question about white privilege Thursday during a campaign stop in Youngstown, Ohio.
The New York Democrat, who has so far failed to break through in the crowded primary field, was asked the question by a white woman during the senator’s “Trump Broken Promises” tour in which she is attacking President Donald Trump’s record on issues like bringing back manufacturing jobs and lowering prescription drug prices. Youngstown is near the Lordstown General Motors plant, which shut its doors in March taking away thousands of jobs in the region.
“This is an area that, across all demographics, has been depressed because of the loss of industry and the opioid crisis,” the woman told Gillibrand. “What do you have to say to people in this area about so-called white privilege?”
Gillibrand said she understands families in the community are suffering and that it is not acceptable for them to be in the financial hardships they are in. “But that’s not what that conversation is about,” she said.
“What that conversation is about is when a community has been left behind for generations because of the color of their skin, when you’ve been denied job after job after job because you’re black or because you’re brown or when you go to the emergency room to have your baby, the fact that we have the highest infant mortality rate in this country, and if you are a black woman, you are four times more likely to die in childbirth,” Gillibrand said.
Gillibrand told the woman her “suffering is just as important as a black or brown person’s suffering,” but for the black community, “far more transformational efforts” are needed to target racism.
The senator’s response to the voter comes at a time when Democratic contenders are working hard to show they understand the challenges facing minority communities and have plans to combat them. Candidates including South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey have announced ambitious proposals in recent months to confront inequality and deal with the fallout of decades of discrimination.
In her answer, Gillibrand brought up racial disparities in regard to arrests and incarceration to explain white privilege.
“If your son is 15 years old and smokes pot, he smokes pot just as much as the black boy in his neighborhood and the Latino boy in his neighborhood, but that black and brown boy is four times more likely to be arrested,” Gillibrand said. “And when he’s arrested, that criminal justice system might require him to pay bail, 500 bucks. That kid does not have 500 bucks. He might not be able to make bail.”
She added it is especially dire if a person of color is arrested who is a single parent.
“If he’s thrown in jail, no one’s with his child. Doesn’t matter what he says. ‘I have to go. I have a child at home. He’s only 12. What am I going to do?’ It doesn’t matter. Imagine as a parent how you would feel so helpless,” she said. “That’s institutional racism.”
Gillibrand’s campaign stop came the same week she launched a 30-second ad called “I Promise” that criticizes the president for what it describes as a series of broken promises. The senator is making stops in Pennsylvania and Michigan as part of her tour.
CNN’s Athena Jones contributed to this report.