Is Hillary Clinton as Cautious as Her Reputation?

Standing with the Mothers of the Movement carries some risk in battleground state

Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, seen during the third presidential debate, is speaking with nuance about race to an anxious electorate , writes Mary C. Curtis. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, seen during the third presidential debate, is speaking with nuance about race to an anxious electorate , writes Mary C. Curtis. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted October 25, 2016 at 1:39pm

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A persistent criticism of Hillary Clinton has been her overly cautious nature, her reluctance to take bold stands, her preparation to the point of predictability. Kate McKinnon of “Saturday Night Live” has taken these traits to parody on her way to an Emmy. But anyone who sees candidate Clinton frozen in that place hasn’t been paying attention this election season.

Of course, Clinton never will be “wild and crazy,” particularly when compared with her Republican counterpart, Donald Trump, the very essence of both. It’s also true that her views on many issues have remained remarkably stable. But those who say Clinton really doesn’t believe in anything only have to look at how, and how frequently, she has spoken with nuance about race to an electorate anxious about the changing demographics and power.

Clinton said the words “systemic racism” and “implicit bias” in the first presidential debate while explaining her thoughts on why achieving true equality in jobs, education, policing and so much more is challenging in an America with a history of injustice that didn’t end when slavery was abolished and the grip of Jim Crow loosened.

Clinton has her own complicated history, her work with the Children’s Defense Fund and in exposing segregated schools countered by her onetime support of President Bill Clinton’s crime bill and its role in a mass incarceration crisis that persists. She has apologized for the latter, a step beyond her husband’s spotty statements of justification.

Hillary Clinton has done more than she needs to if her only goal was to distinguish her positions from those of her Republican opponents. Mike Pence, the GOP vice presidential candidate, has said the problem is too much talk about racism; the candidate at the top of the ticket has a tendency to pivot from any random question from a black person, as Trump did in debate No. 2, to an answer limited to violence, crime and living in hell.

[The Victims Behind the ‘Mothers of the Movement’]

In North Carolina over this past weekend, Clinton campaigned in Raleigh with the Mothers of the Movement — including Sybrina Fulton (mother of Trayvon Martin), Gwen Carr (mother of Eric Garner), Lucia McBath (mother of Jordan Davis), Maria Hamilton (mother of Dontré Hamilton) and Geneva Reed-Veal (mother of Sandra Bland) — whose children were killed in gun violence or after confrontations with police.

Clinton called the women “remarkable,” according to an NBC News report, noting “the fierce sense of urgency to try do what they can to help us meet the challenges we face in our country.”

With Trump’s endorsement by the Fraternal Order of Police — though not from several groups that represent minority law enforcement officers — and his unwavering support of “stop and frisk” to reduce crime, that was one endorsement Clinton was never really competing for, even if she had declined to support the Mothers’ group.

But when the Mothers of the Movement — without the candidate — previously made an appearance in Charlotte, I heard them speak movingly of how Clinton reached out to them and met with them, one-on-one, with no cameras in sight.

[Poll: Clinton and Trump Supporters Disagree on Race Relations]

Publicly standing with them could be a risk in battleground North Carolina, where polls are tight and a Clinton win would eliminate any chance Trump has. She is still wooing suburban white women, many of them traditional Republicans and some of whom might not see themselves in the faces and experiences of grieving African-American mothers seeking justice from a system they see as wanting.

It would be cynical and unfair, then, to say that Clinton’s alliance with them was merely a no-consequence move to shore up her support among African-Americans.

After her Raleigh stop on Sunday, Clinton traveled to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where her appeal to millennials was clear; Bernie Sanders got a shout out. Yet there, again, she talked about racial and social justice, after being introduced by Thurston Alexander, an African-American student who, in his introduction, said: “Hillary Clinton understands me.”

Clinton seemed relaxed, dressed in the school’s signature green, and embraced her historic role as potentially the first woman in the Oval Office.

[Opinion: Did Hillary Clinton Ace Her ‘Job Interview’ in North Carolina?]

But Clinton also mentioned the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II and the Moral Monday movement demanding economic and racial reform that has become his signature. The NAACP state leader energized the Democratic National Convention this summer, but his sometimes disruptive actions fighting conservative laws from the Republican-dominated state legislature are not universally hailed in North Carolina.

Have rising poll numbers freed Clinton to speak about issues closer to her heart? Talking about systemic racism, police-community relations and the movement for black lives is far from a cautious move. It was those words as well as her promise to achieve equal pay that led UNCC freshman Samaria Parker, 18, to call Clinton “an amazing woman.” Parker, who is African-American, said she is telling her fellow students, “You can’t complain if you don’t vote.”

Talking about an issue that has become the third rail of politics may be a chance Hillary Clinton feels she can afford to take.

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.