Democratic Candidates in the Hot Seat at Brown and Black Forum

HIllary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley spoke frankly on race, the state of criminal justice, and immigration in an event geared to voters of color three weeks ahead of the Iowa caucuses.

Democratic presidential candidates Martin O'Malley, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders argue their points during the Brown & Black Forum in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

DES MOINES, Iowa—Hillary Clinton acknowledged her white privilege Monday night.

It was the last question from the audience in the Brown & Black Presidential Forum, just three weeks before the Iowa caucuses.

“Can you tell us what the term ‘white privilege’ means to you and can you give me an example from your life or career when you think you benefitted from it?” asked Thalia Anguiano, a Drake University student.

“Where do I start?” Clinton said to applause. “I was born white, middle class in the middle of America. I went to good public schools. I had a very strong supportive family. I had a lot of great experiences growing up. I went to a wonderful college. I went to law school.

“I never really knew what was or wasn't part of the privilege. I just knew I was a lucky person.”

The presence from the campaigns Monday showed that the state’s black and Latino populations can make a difference in the election. While Iowa is predominantly white (92 percent) according to 2010 Census numbers, the Latino population is growing steadily. Right now, Latinos make up 5.6 percent of Iowans, a number that is rising as small towns attract low-wage workers to replace the aging white population.

That’s a different story than the state’s black population, which is 3.4 percent. In Des Moines, where the forum was held, black families on average make 38 percent of what white families make—$29,000 compared to $74,000—and their population numbers remain stagnant, according to Census figures.

On Immigration, Raids and Families

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley came across as most forceful on immigration, at times raising his voice in the throes of an answer on current immigration raids and the unaccompanied minor crisis from two years ago, where children from Central America arrived by the tens of thousands at the U.S. border.

"We do not send children and women and families back to the hands of death gangs," he said. "Our mindless deportation policies are breaking up families every single day in the United States. Our policies should be about keeping families together, yes, protecting our borders, yes, protecting public safety. We need to return to our true selves and act like Americans.”

When asked by forum moderator and Fusion multimedia network anchor Jorge Ramos if he would turn away children at the U.S. border, he responded, “I would not.”

While Clinton said she does not support the raids being conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement across the country, on unaccompanied minors, she said she would give every person, but particularly children, due process, while also supporting Central American countries financially to prevent future crises that lead to mass exoduses.

“I have come out in favor guaranteeing that unaccompanied children have government-sponsored counsel,” she said, “so that as they go through the process they will not be lost in the process, confused by the process, and they'll have a chance to tell their story.”

Clinton also promised never to use the term “illegal” again in her campaign, a phrase she has been heavily criticized for using previously.

Sen. Bernie Sanders was challenged on his votes against previous immigration legislation. He, however, defended his position, saying that guest-worker provisions in the legislation were “akin to slavery.”

Sanders was the only candidate to explicitly say he would use executive action to further his position on immigration.

“I happen to believe that we have to move toward comprehensive immigration reform and a path toward citizens,” he said. “And if Congress does not do what they should be doing, I will use the executive offices of the president."

On Equality and Justice

While moderators brought up other issues, including big banks, contraception, and guns, all three candidates were challenged on the state of equal rights for people of color, particularly with regard to criminal justice.

New York magazine writer Rembert Browne, one of the forum’s moderators, listed off names of black people that have been killed in police-involved incidents in recent years—including Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, and Sandra Bland—and asked Sanders if the black community is justified in its distrust of law enforcement.

“The short answer is yes,” said Sanders. “All the names that you have listed are well-known. And sometimes I think young people especially think, 'My god, what's going on?' The truth is, this has gone on for a very, very long time. The only difference is we did not have cell phones to video these problems.

“So, do I think the black community has the right to be nervous and apprehensive about the police? Absolutely. And I think we need some radical rethinking about police procedures and the relationship of police departments with the minority community.”

O’Malley, for his part, was challenged on his record as Baltimore mayor and asked if he bore any responsibility for the distrust that was brought to light with Freddie Gray’s death last year because of his policies that dramatically reduced crime.

“I believe that all of us bear a responsibility,” he said. “When I ran for mayor of Baltimore in 1999, there was already a deep, deep distrust between community and police. That pre-dated my service as mayor probably by about 250 years. So I had to work to heal that wound."

Clinton’s firmest answer of the night came when she discussed how black and Latino men get arrested more quickly, are more likely to be charged, more likely to be convicted, and more likely to be incarcerated than white men.

“The figures don't lie,” she said. “We know what they are. But we have to bring those to a broader audience because it is such a violation of what we say our values are. Equal before the law? Well, we have systemic racism and bias that is implicit in our system."

Overall, the three Democratic candidates, who took the stage separately, were candid about their views on an array of issues during the oldest presidential forum for issues that are important to people of color in the country. Dating back to 1984, this forum—hosted by Fusion and moderated by Ramos and fellow Fusion anchor Alicia Menendez, along with comedian Akilah Hughes and Browne—was the first time that the three candidates were given equal time in front of a national audience.

Watch the entire event here.