A spate of riots triggered by police brutality has born a movement called Black Lives Matter. The group is exerting pressure on politicians to take steps to address the reality of racism against African Americans, particularly when it comes to treatment by police officers and the criminal justice system.

Here are a few of the ways in which Black Lives Matter may influence the presidential primaries in 2016, and the ensuing race for the Oval Office:

  • Recognising that ‘All Lives Matter’ isn’t enough

A common response to the Black Lives Matter movement has been to say ‘well, all lives matter.’

Though the sentiment of the statement is obviously without question, a politician who falls into this trap is essentially demonstrating that he or she does not understand the movement or its importance.

The Black Lives Matter movement is, by its very existence, a reflection of a widespread perception that black citizens in America are not treated equally. For a public figure to fail to recognise this basic premise of the movement instantly sends the signal that they do not grasp the gravity of the current racial inequalities at play in the nation.

  • Criminal justice reform

African American men are subject to far higher levels of stop and search questioning, and proportionally the prison population includes far more black Americans than their overall share of the national populace.

President Obama has sought to introduce reform into the criminal justice system in 2015. To start with, he has reduced mandatory minimum sentences of drug offences that were widely perceived to punish poor African Americans in excess of comparable drug crimes committed by affluent white Americans.

For example, crack cocaine usage carries a far higher penalty than powdered cocaine, which has the effect of racially segmenting punishments.

Given the high-publicity incidents of police brutality that fuelled Black Lives Matter, policing is one area that could be particularly receptive to change. Introducing more body cameras on police officers has helped reveal the reality of racialised policing in parts of the United States; more action on this subject could be an achievable and effective goal.

One measure of success for the Black Lives Matter movement could be how far they succeed in pushing criminal justice reform onto the national agenda in 2016.

  • The Civil Rights Movement hangover: urban development

Reopening the question of race relations in America also opens up the opportunity of returning to the question of urban development.

After the landmark legislative achievements of the civil rights movement in the 1960s (the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965), the focus of civil rights leaders, including Dr Martin Luther King Jr, turned to the underlying socio economic problems that were causing racial divisions.

Although MLK led a massive 1966 campaign in Chicago to shine a light on the condition of the urban poor, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 sought to provide for equal access to housing, the divisions and disparities in urban housing remains one of the lasting shortcomings of the civil rights movement.

If Black Lives Matter can apply some of its energy onto specific areas of policy, like urban development, the presidential candidates in 2016 may deliver clearer promises on what action could be taken.

  • Party loyalty test

Thus far the reaction of Democratic candidates to Black Lives Matter has been muddled, with Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley struggling to appease the group, while Hillary Clinton has taken pre-emptive action by meeting with the group and showing herself to be a potential ally in the Oval Office.

For Republicans it has been far easier to simply respond ‘All Lives Matter’. As mentioned above, this does very little to satiate the movement itself, but will appeal to the largely white base of the party, and protect individual candidates from attack ads by rivals over giving in to civil unrest.

Currently Black Lives Matter therefore reinforces the Democratic Party’s image as being the party for African Americans and positive equal rights action. Over the past few Presidential elections, over 85% of the ‘black vote’ has gone to the Democrats.

Conversely, the movement is yet another indication that the Republicans lack the political dexterity to reach out to this key demographic while maintaining their core supporters.


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