Socialist Sanders wants to fight structural racism; neoliberal Clinton wants white people to check their privilege

Presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton sparred in a town hall debate in South Carolina on Feb. 23, mere days before the primary election in the state.

Racism and racial justice were among the most important issues discussed, and the ways in which the two addressed racism mirrors their economic ideologies.

Socialist Sanders called for combating 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. He also called for funding historically Black colleges and universities, supporting Black institutions.

Neoliberal Clinton, on the other hand, instead called for dealing with the personal manifestations of racism. Consistent with her capitalist economic ideology, she focused on individual experiences, imploring white people to be “honest,” to recognize their privilege (again), and to “overcome our legacy.”

As CNN put it:

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.’

Also consonant with this ideological distinction are the differences in the candidates’ approach to the privatization of prisons.

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 did criticize police brutality in the town hall, 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?”

A video of a young Bernie Sanders being taken away by police at a 1963 civil rights protest in Chicago was recently 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.”