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Hillary Clinton's Stumble Over Race

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Senator Jay Rockefeller said recently and he suggested basically that some of the political opposition to President Obama could have something to do with the color of his skin. Do you agree with that? What do you think about that?

CLINTON: Well, I can't read the mind of all of the opposition. But some of it is virulent, and really, in my view, you know, quite detached from the job that not only this president is doing but any president has to do. It's a really hard job. And you're not going to agree -- I don't care who you are -- with everything any president does.

And there are many reasons why people are opposed to political figures. I felt when I ran in '08 that there were people who were opposed to me because I was a woman. So, you have to really try to keep getting up everyday and doing the best you can. That's what President Obama has done.

And he is trying -- like the capture today, you know, that was months in the making. And he had to make the decision, once again, to send Americans into harm's way to try to detain the leader of the attack against Benghazi. You know, he has to shut out a lot of the other stuff that's going on to have the concentration to be able to make those hard choices.

So, if someone wants to dislike the president, remember, 60 percent is a landslide. If you get that kind of vote. That means 40 percent, four out of 10 people don't like you. And you have to know that, because even if you get to 60 percent, which is hard to do, you're operating on a margin where four out of 10 are never going to be happy or satisfied --

[...]

AMANPOUR: Do you think some of that is latent racism, vestiges of racism, as some people have said?

CLINTON: Well, I know that -- I don't want to -- I don't want to say that I verify that, because that would be generalizing too broadly. I believe that there are people who have trouble with ethnicity, with race, with gender, with sexual orientation, you name it. And therefore, they are not developing a reasoned opinion -- even if it's an opinion in opposition, but they are a reacting to not a visceral stereotypical basis. And that's unfortunate.

Video clipped via Mediaite:

Why does talking about race make Clinton uncomfortable? She sidestepped the initial question with the "no one will agree with the president" line, but when Amanpour tried to bring her back to race, Clinton demurred that racism was "too broad" of a label, adding that sexism and homophobia are also problems. You don't say!

The simple explanation is that Clinton, in full-on presidential run mode (despite her insistence that she hasn’t yet decided) was cautious of turning off voters who fear the racism label, whether it is justified or not.

The less simple explanation is that race isn’t easy for very many people to talk about in America, particularly in a public setting.

Even President Barack Obama, who has increasingly started talking about race in a more personal way, was quoted by the New York Times in 2009 -- after a five-second hesitation -- saying, “I’m not somebody who believes that constantly talking about race somehow solves racial tensions.”

Gradually Obama began talking about race more directly and more personally, finally in 2012 addressing the Trayvon Martin killing by saying: “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.”

In other words, Obama eventually became comfortable drawing on his lived experience and the lived experiences of those close to him to talk about race. That's not surprising when you consider a Pew survey that revealed a gap in how whites view whether black Americans are "treated less fairly" in various aspects of life -- at work, in stores or restaurants, in public or during voting -- with how black Americans view it. Only 13 to 16 percent of whites felt black were treated unfairly in these aspects of life, while 44 to 54 percent of blacks felt that way.

By contrast, when Clinton was asked about an issue a bit closer to her own personal experience -- family leave -- it was a lot less cringeworthy:

CLINTON: Well, as you know, we have the Family and Medical Leave Act in our country. It was I think the first bill my husband signed back in 1993. It's not paid leave, but it saved people's jobs when they had to take time off.

But it didn't cover every business. And so it did have gaps.

And I have been a strong proponent of trying to fill those gaps, giving more people the chance to do what is most important in life. And that is to balance work and family, and to take care of your family obligations, whether it's a newborn child, a sick child, an aging relative or any other emergency.

Some local communities are passing paid leave provisions. New York just did so. And I support trying to figure out how we're going to do more to give families that peace of mind and the -- the guarantee they're not going to either lose their job or their income, while they try to fulfill the most human of responsibilities.

So, we need to look to see how we make that work, what the conditions would be, but it's unfinished business, in my view.

Again, not surprising when you look at more Pew research that shows women are far more likely to experience some kind of career disruption to care for a child or other family member.

With the answer to Amanpour's question about race in America, Clinton demonstrated that she’s not so comfortable talking about race, something that presidential candidates may have gotten away with in the past, but that she may not be able to get away with now. Whether that struggle is a dealbreaker will be something for voters to eventually decide.

Ultimately her discomfort isn’t so different from lots of other white Americans. And as long as the common lived experience of white Americans remains avoiding real conversations about race, many of us will still stumble over our words.

Photo courtesy CNN

About The Author

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Kay Steiger is an associate editor at Talking Points Memo. She formerly worked at Raw Story, Washingtonian magazine, the Center for American Progress and The American Prospect. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, the Guardian, Jezebel, AlterNet and others. She graduated from the University of Minnesota. Contact her at kay@talkingpointsmemo.com.