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Young Black Voters Point To Lack Of Race Discussions In Democratic Debates


Democratic presidential candidates debate this weekend, and young black voters are hoping for a meaningful conversation about race. In the first Democratic debate on CNN, there was essentially only one question.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The question from Arthur in Des Moines is, do black lives matter or do all lives matter?

INSKEEP: Now, both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have been interrupted by young African-American activists who want to hear more than that about their priority - racial justice. NPR's Asma Khalid reports.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: I meet 31-year-old Bree Maxwell on a rainy day in Columbia, South Carolina. We're just a couple of blocks from the state Capitol grounds, where the Confederate flag infamously flew for more than half a century. It's a symbolic place to chat about politics, given what's on her mind these days. She has a challenge for the presidential candidates.

BREE MAXWELL: I need a better, clear-cut definition of what you're going to do for the Black Lives Matter movement because people aren't protesting for nothing.

KHALID: Maxwell says she's not excited about the 2016 election, which is kind of strange because she's the president of the Young Democrats of South Carolina. Maxwell says she wants to hear more about racial justice - not just policies, but also empathy.

MAXWELL: You can't just be on these national platforms, come up with these elaborate ideas, without actually being down in the trenches talking to the people that it has affected. Like, go talk to these families that have had to suffer with police brutality.

KHALID: Maxwell's frustrations are common. Whenever I ask young black voters about their top issue in this election, it often boils down to race, regardless of which candidate they support. Some tell me it's the high level of black male unemployment. Others, like Cassie Harrison, tell me it's about mass incarceration or police violence. I met Harrison at a Bernie Sanders rally in Virginia.

CASSIE HARRISON: You know, being from Southern California I witnessed a lot of, you know, violence on the part of the police. It's the overall system and how it's structured and the systemic racism.

KHALID: Racism, Harrison tells me, is a major political issue for her.

Churches line the streets of Old Charleston, in South Carolina. And just around the corner from Mother Emanuel, where nine African Americans were murdered this summer, I meet 36-year-old Shani Gilchrist.

SHANI GILCHRIST: The black community doesn't really have a hero in this race.

KHALID: There's no one candidate that really appeals to her. But she says she'll probably vote for Clinton, reluctantly.

GILCHRIST: She's not authentically or fully addressing what's causing the racial strife in this country.

KHALID: I asked Gilchrist what the former Secretary of State needs to do.

GILCHRIST: Listen and not fake listen. Call for a truth and reconciliation commission on a federal, White-House level.

KHALID: Every Democratic candidate has policies that relate to these issues in the black community. Hillary Clinton is calling for an end to racial profiling. And Bernie Sanders often talks about reforming the prison system.

JASON JOHNSON: The question is, do black voters believe any of these people?

KHALID: That's Jason Johnson, a poly sci professor at Hiram College in Ohio.

JOHNSON: The candidates are going to be forced to address these issues. And the candidates that don't address them, or can't address them consistently, are the ones who are going to end up losing out in November of 2016.

KHALID: Because, Johnson says, this isn't going away. There's likely going to be another shooting or two or three before Election Day. Asma Khalid, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.