WASHINGTON — Since grand juries in Missouri and New York declined to indict white police officers in the deaths of two black men, protesters nationwide have demanded a reckoning and an acknowledgment that “black lives matter.”
Yet so far, there are few signs such a conversation will come in a place where it might most make a difference – the next campaign for president.
Most of the current White House prospects have avoided speaking in depth or detail about the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
From those who have, it only has been only brief, measured responses about a criminal justice system that many African-Americans view as stacked against them.
Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a former U.S. attorney, has just said he would not second guess a grand jury.
GOP Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who recently visited Ferguson, Missouri, and has begun to court black voters, blamed Garner’s death on the politicians behind New York’s high cigarette taxes.
The presumed leading Democrat, Hillary Rodham Clinton, said the families and communities deserved a “full and fair accounting.”
“We have allowed our criminal justice system to get out of balance,” Clinton said. “And I personally hope that these tragedies give us the opportunity to come together as a nation to find our balance again.”
Clinton and her potential challengers have not set forth a course to do that. They have given no indication they might join in protests that have reached into popular culture, with NBA and NFL players participating.
“Both parties are reluctant to bring up race in an explicit way unless they’re forced to,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a University of California political science professor and editor of the Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Politics.
Jesse Jackson did make civil rights a central theme of his bids for the Democratic nomination in the 1980s. Fellow Democrats Bill Clinton and Barack Obama gave major speeches on race during their campaigns.
But not since John F. Kennedy and his successor, Lyndon Johnson, has a party nominee cited civil rights as a reason why voters should elect him.
That’s largely because today’s political leaders see more risk than reward in tackling race, Ramakrishnan said. It is easier to accept a system in which Democrats expect to win vast majority of the African-American vote and Republicans do little to engage black voters for fear the GOP will alienate other parts of the party’s base, he said.
Democratic presidential candidates have won no less than 70 percent of the black vote since Kennedy in 1960. Obama, the first black president, won 95 percent and 93 percent of the black vote in 2008 and 2012 respectively, according to exit polls.
The African-American vote isn’t “in play the same way other swing electorates might be in play,” Ramakrishnan said.
The political rewards are elusive, but the risks are real. The few conservatives who have weighed in on the issue in some depth and done so in a way that sided with police have drawn scathing criticism from black leaders.
New York Republican Rep. Peter King, who has been teasing a 2016 presidential run, focused on Garner’s obesity as a contributing factor to his death, which happened after Garner was placed in a chokehold by a police officer.
Another potential Republican contender in 2016, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, charged that Obama was wrong to meet with “thugs” and “mob members” involved in the protests in Ferguson.
“I think that those type of statements are despicable,” said the Urban League’s president, Marc Morial. “It demonstrates a lack of sensitivity to humanity.”
Morial and other African-American leaders said they also overwrite the positive signs that black voters see from Republicans such as Paul and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Perry has criticized mandatory minimum prison sentences and encouraged alternatives to incarceration for drug offenders, which are among the criminal justice reforms supported by black leaders.
“Right now, Republicans seem genuinely conflicted,” said Benjamin Jealous, the former head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “You’ll see somebody do something hopeful, and then you see them revert.”
Which isn’t to say Democrats are doing much better, they argue.
Jealous points to Clinton and her record on sentencing reform, which he characterized as weak. “That’s the opportunity ultimately for somebody like Rand Paul,” Jealous said.
While the protests create a sense that a window has opened for, as Clinton put it, the “nation to come together,” the differences in public opinion don’t suggest an easy way forward.
Polls show little agreement among Americans about whether the grand juries made the right decision in the Brown and Garner cases, how much race was a factor and the degree to which relations between police and people of color can improve.
Without a clear road map, said Carol Swain, a professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt University, it’s unlikely any presidential candidate will choose to engage the nation in such a conversation as the 2016 election season begins.
“Both political parties should have an interest in this,” Swain said. “But for decades, no one has known what to say or do.”