HARLEM, New York — Hoping to court minority voters ahead of the first two nominating contests with diverse electorates, Hillary Clinton called on Tuesday for “facing up to the reality of systemic racism” and ending the school-to-prison pipeline in what her campaign billed as a major speech here.
“Our country can only live up to its potential when every single American has the chance to live up to theirs,” Clinton said at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Clinton started her speech by detailing her trip last week to Flint, Michigan, where a crisis has left residents of the economically depressed city without drinkable water. “Just ask yourself, would this have ever occurred in a wealthy white suburb of Detroit? Absolutely not,” she said. “Flint is not alone. There are many Flints across our country: Places where people of color and the poor have been left out and left behind.”
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Clinton argued that the crisis in Flint is a reminder of other systemic issues facing minority communities. She also continued to knock her rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, for being too focused on Wall Street.
“We aren’t a single issue country. We face a complex set of economic, social and political challenges. They are intersectional,” she said, emphasizing that she would address “all” barriers, and not just economic ones. “These inequities are wrong, but they’re also immoral. It will be the mission of my presidency to bring them to an end.”
Rebounding from a narrow victory in Iowa and major loss in New Hampshire, Clinton is re-tooling her message for the second phase of campaigning in early states, which includes regions with large black and Latino populations. The new strategy includes a far sharper attack on Sanders.
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Clinton touched on many topics during her speech, from police misconduct in Ferguson and voting rights to the future of the Supreme Court and “banning the box,” a reference to removing questions about criminal convictions from job applications.
She also proposed a $2 billion program to beef up public school resources to combat the so-called school-to-prison pipeline. “This is not just an education issue. This is a civil rights issue and we cannot avoid it any longer,” she said to a standing ovation.
Clinton slammed Republicans’ reflexive opposition to President Obama, suggesting, given the context of her speech, that she believes there’s at least some racial component to their obstruction.
“They demonize President Obama and encourage the ugliest impulses of the paranoid fringe This kind of hatred and bigotry has no place in our politics or our country,” she said.
At one point during the speech, Clinton suffered from a lengthy coughing fit, which the crowd helped her through by chanting her name. It’s at least the fourth such coughing spasm Clinton has suffered in public in recent months.
The former secretary of state currently holds a comfortable lead in South Carolina, where as much as 60 percent of the February 27 Democratic primary electorate is expected to be black. A CNN/ORC poll out Tuesday found her with a 20-point lead, which jumps to 37 among African-Americans.
However, the race is thought to be much tighter in Nevada, where there has been little polling even though its caucus is now just four days away.
Earlier Tuesday, Clinton met with civil rights leaders to discuss “breaking down barriers” for African-Americans. Nine representatives, including National Action Network president and MSNBC host Rev. Al Sharpton and lawyer Benjamin Crump, sat down with Clinton to discuss a wide range of public policy issues.
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Sharpton has yet to endorse a presidential candidate, but he seemed to tip his hat after meeting with Clinton and other civil rights leaders. After being pressed by reporters about whether he was going to endorse Clinton, he turned to her and said: "Only you know and you're not telling."
Clinton laughed, looked down and replied: "My lips are sealed."
Sharpton later told reporters in a press conference that he was not prepared to endorse a candidate at this time.
In Harlem, Clinton was joined onstage by former Attorney General Eric Holder, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, his partner Sandra Lee, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, his wife Chirlane McCray, and Rep. Charlie Rangel, who introduced her.
Rangel called Clinton “a decent, progressive human being” and asked the audience to remember this day so they could look back and say: “We were there when she turned it around.”
Sanders, meanwhile, also spent the day courting African-American leaders and voters, holding events in South Carolina and Georgia.
Both candidates have been addressing race in some of the starkest terms of any presidential candidate in recent memory, going farther even than Obama did in his high-profile speech on race in 2008.