Hillary Clinton's Blunt View of Social Progress

The presidential hopeful told Black Lives Matter activists that it’s about changing laws, not hearts. Is she right?

Charlie Riedel / AP

In the push for social progress, which comes first: changed hearts or changed laws?

Hillary Clinton answered this question in the course of her quasi-private meeting with activists from the Black Lives Matter movement, and she came down firmly on the side of the latter. “I don’t believe you change hearts,” Clinton told Julius Jones in an candid moment backstage after a campaign event. “I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate. You’re not going to change every heart. You’re not. But at the end of the day, we can do a whole lot to change some hearts, and change some systems, and create more opportunities for people who deserve to have them.”

The video of the encounter between the Democratic frontrunner and the activists was described as “tense,” “awkward,” a “confrontation.” All of those words make you want to click and watch, but the exchange was really just a honest human discussion about an important issue—fascinating in large measure because it seems so rare in modern presidential politics, and especially when the candidate is the famously cautious Clinton. But her response was most interesting for what it revealed about her view of social progress movements. Jones was pressing Clinton to acknowledge her culpability in the tough-on-crime legislation that passed during her husband’s administration, which even President Clinton has conceded made the problem of mass incarceration “worse.” Jones wanted to know what had changed “in your heart” that proved she was on their side in the push for racial justice.

Clinton had little interest in the touchy-feeling notion of hearts and minds—“lip service,” she called it at one point—and instead wanted to get down to brass tacks: What is it that you want to achieve? Give me a policy agenda to “sell.” In the language of a politician, she wanted to hear their “ask”—a specific, tangible request that is made hundreds of times a day in meetings between officials and advocates on Capitol Hill or Cabinet department offices. Clinton has spoken in detail about enacting criminal-justice reform, but that platform did not get discussed in the video. The response seemed to reveal Clinton’s inner wonk, a preference for the nitty-gritty bottom line of policy changes over soaring political rhetoric that has led her campaign to place in more intimate settings with voters rather than large speeches.

And at least on the surface, it highlights a difference between her and President Obama, a man who rode into office on the strength of his ability to inspire voters with lofty rhetoric and an appeal to their hopes and dreams. Yet one major lesson of his presidency—as evidenced by the very rise of the Black Lives Matter movement six years into his tenure—is that it has done little to transcend the deep-seated racial tensions in the U.S. In key areas like health care and climate policy, Obama has succeeded in enacting, by legislation or through regulations, significant changes even as the electorate remains deeply polarized on those issues. On gay rights, he has presided over an era marked by a rapid shift in both concrete policy (the legalization of gay marriage by the courts and the repeal of the ban on gays serving openly in the military by Congress) and a corresponding change in the “hearts and minds,” according to polls showing majority support for same-sex marriage. And then there’s gun control, where Obama has failed to win policy changes despite a wave of mass shootings, to the point where he has suggested that Congress won’t act unless the public gets more engaged.

Activists, of course, have targeted Obama on all of these issues over the course of his presidency, accusing him of not being aggressive enough in his pursuit of change. On immigration, reformers criticized him for barely pushing the issue in his first term only to come around in his second. And on race, he’s only recently begun to speak in depth on the topic, most notably during his eulogy for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney in Charleston earlier this summer. In television interviews since the Clinton meeting, Jones said the movement would continue to hold Obama “accountable” along with the many candidates to replace him.

As for Clinton’s message, Jones and his colleague Daunasia Yancey had a mixed response. Appearing on MSNBC, Jones said the encounter was “good.” “It moves the conversation about race in the United States to a new and deeper level,” he said. He also said Clinton was “ducking the question” of her culpability in the ’90-era crime measures, and Yancey said her focus on policy “wasn’t sufficient for us.”

When I asked a few activists from the immigration-reform movement, who have also confronted Clinton and other political leaders over the years, they had an even more critical reaction to her message. “She totally doesn’t get it,” said Cristina Jimenez, managing director of United We Dream. “I felt very offended by her remarks.” Jimenez argued that personal storytelling and “changing hearts and minds” had been crucial in the push to spotlight the cause of Dreamers (immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children) and to ultimately gain protection from deportation through Obama’s executive action in 2012. Even though the movement started more than a decade ago, she said, “we weren’t able to achieve a policy change until 2012.”

Monica Reyes, the 24-year-old co-founder of Dream Iowa, said she had the opposite view of social progress as Clinton. “You need to change the culture before you can change laws,” she told me. Clinton’s attitude “doesn’t speak to the grassroots community,” Reyes said. “The grassroots is about people.” Another Dreamer activist who has confronted Clinton over immigration policy, Cesar Vargas, criticized Clinton for being “insensitive.” “She’s not understanding the people who are electing her,” Vargas told me. Achieving progress in women’s rights, civil rights, and other movements in history, he argued, “was about changing the hearts and minds.”

Who is right? “There’s no question that hearts can change, and it’s often social movements that create it,” the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin told me. She pointed in particular to the gay-rights movement, where the experience in people coming out to their friends and family and the increased portrayal of gay couples in popular culture preceded the passage of laws legalizing first civil unions and then marriage. “People felt a ‘fellow feeling’ with gays and saw not as others in the same way,” she said, quoting a famous line from Teddy Roosevelt. Similarly, Goodwin said, it was the national broadcasts of white brutality toward blacks in the 1950s and 60s that engendered sympathy among whites for the civil-rights movement and led to the passage of landmark legislation under Lyndon Johnson.

Goodwin said presidents from Lincoln (“Public sentiment is everything”) to LBJ understood the need to mobilize broad support for policy changes. But she noted that elsewhere in her conversation with the Black Lives Matter activists, Clinton seemed to acknowledge the importance of raising public consciousness around an issue like race relations, even as she pressed them to have an agenda “ready to go” as did activists in the earlier generation of civil-rights leaders.

On that point, members of the movement appeared to take note. By Friday, a group of protesters had launched a website called Campaign Zero that featured a set of 10 proposals for policing reform, including an end to “broken windows” policing, increased training, expanded use of body cameras, and an end to the kind of “for-profit policing” that the Justice Department found in Ferguson. It also included a chart of where several presidential candidates in both parties, including Clinton, stood on the ideas. It might not settle the hearts-versus-laws question at the heart of her debate with the Black Lives Matter activists, but at least it gives both sides a place to start.