With the ‘Mothers of the Movement,’ Democrats Put Their Base’s Concerns Above Political Caution

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Hillary Clinton Meets With Mothers  Who Lost Children To Gun Violence
Hillary Clinton with Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin.Photo: Win McNamee

African-Americans have long accused the Democratic Party of taking their votes for granted. And for good reason. In the early ’90s, the Democrats cut a path back into the White House that involved distancing itself from the black community’s concerns. The last time the party nominated a nonincumbent named Clinton, he ostentatiously performed his independence from African-American voters by overseeing the execution of a mentally handicapped black man and condemning the “hateful” lyrics of a black female rapper.

But the Democratic Party has changed a lot since 1992. And on the night it nominated its second Clinton, the party placed the concerns of African-American voters ahead of political expediency: On Tuesday, the Democratic National Convention devoted part of its prime-time program to highlighting the human costs of anti-black violence.

This isn’t about being politically correct,” Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, told the DNC Tuesday night. “This is about saving our children.”

Fulton is one of the nine “Mothers of the Movement,” an advocacy group comprised of women who have lost their black children at the hands of police, vigilantes, or random gun violence. On Tuesday night, the women offered heartrending testimonies to the weight of maternal loss.

You don’t stop being a mom when your child dies,” said Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. “I still wake up every day thinking how to protect him; how to ensure that his death doesn’t overshadow his life.”

Geneva Reed-Veal, the mother of Sandra Bland, recalled watching her daughter being lowered into the ground and thinking that she’s “on leave. Not administrative leave — permanent leave.”

In such moments, the mothers’ presentation was the opposite of controversial, appealing to the universal human longing to protect those we love. But the women also insisted on the role of race — which is to say, racism — in their children’s deaths. Reed-Veal argued that her daughter would still be alive were it not for an unnecessary police encounter that was laced with racial hostility. McBath recalled warning her son about the hazards his skin color would bring him. These were sentiments that deserved to be spoken before a national television audience. But they aren’t sentiments that everyone in that audience wants to hear. Which made “Mothers of the Movement” an unusually brave bit of political programming.

There are many reasons why the Democratic Party might have opted to keep the mothers out of prime-time. To name just a few:

1. Donald Trump is on pace to win roughly zero percent of the black vote. Democrats have never had less reason to worry about protecting their grip on the African-American electorate.

2. But they’ve rarely had more reason to worry about their standing with blue-collar whites. The latest CNN/ORC poll shows him leading Hillary Clinton by 39 points among that demographic. And police violence against black people is not necessarily one of the group’s voting issues.

3. Just this month, two separate mass murders of police officers — committed by self-conceived black nationalists — have commanded national headlines.

4. After years of flirting with criminal-justice reform, the Republican Party readopted a “tough on crime” posture last week, as its 2016 standard-bearer declared himself the “law and order candidate.”

It’s never been more true that black Democrats “have nowhere else to go.” The voters that the party needs to reach most are the same socially conservative whites that were once the apple of the DNC’s eye. And yet, the Democrats spent one of their few opportunities to reach a national audience via free media by spotlighting the scourge of anti-black violence.

To be sure, this decision isn’t bereft of strategic logic. If the mothers emphasized any message as strongly as the need for America to value black life, it was that voters need to value Hillary Clinton. This kind of endorsement could help Clinton boost turnout in swing-state urban centers like Philadelphia. Just because black voters have no interest in pulling the lever for Trump doesn’t mean they’ll be willing to stand in line for Clinton. Considering the margins Democrats enjoy with black and Hispanic voters, providing these demographics with every motivation to turn out in November makes some tactical sense.

Still, the decision to embrace cultural liberalism as muscularly as the party has done on its first two nights — highlighting the plight of the undocumented on Monday, that of black families torn apart by police violence on Tuesday — seems more principled than pragmatic.

Since exit polls tend to underrepresent white voters, the degree to which Barack Obama relied on blue-collar whites in 2008 and 2012 has been underappreciated. A recent analysis from the Upshot’s Nate Cohn suggests that blue-collar whites made up 34 percent of the Obama coalition in 2012 — and 44 percent of the total electorate. The size of this demographic — combined with Trump’s unusually high approval within it — is the only thing keeping this election close.

After Donald Trump delivered an RNC address centered on the threat of crime and the need to respect our police, his popularity among blue-collar whites reached new heights. In this political context, a purely pragmatic Democratic Party would not spend Tuesday night complicating Trump’s narrative about policing in America.

But, like every political party ever formed by humans, the 2016 Democrats are not a purely pragmatic beast. The party’s actions are determined by a multiplicity of factors, some of which are less than admirable (cue Bernie Sanders decrying the “rigged” campaign-finance system). But the party is also influenced by activists who work to put their community’s issues on its agenda. The various African-American social movements that were born in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death — and matured in the wake of Michael Brown’s — have made black lives matter (more) to the Democratic Party.