The 2016 Brown & Black Presidential Forum, hosted by Fusion and moderated by Jorge Ramos, Alicia Menendez, Akilah Hughes and Rembert Browne, could be a turning point in this year's election. The candidates, frontrunner Hillary Clinton, spoiler Bernie Sanders and longshot Martin O'Malley, were there to plead their cases directly to younger voters, a demographic that's highly prized yet hard to reach. They touched on everything from gun control to immigration reform, but three issues in particular stood out for young people of color: weed, reparations and white privilege.
All these issues have long been taboo in American politics. But, thanks to a shift in the public's consciousness (h/t Ta-Nehisi Coates) and some acknowledgment that the country's prison problem has gotten out of control, young people now want to hear where candidates stand on these issues.
During the forum, Hughes asked about weed. "In states where marijuana is legal, there are men and women in jail for nonviolent, weed-related offenses, while at the same time, people are selling it legally in those states. Statistically speaking, people of color are more likely to be arrested on these charges. Should these people be released from jail?"
Sanders responded by putting the question in context. "To me, this is a criminal justice issue," he said.
Many young people of color can say the same. In 2013, there were more than 1.5 million drug arrests in the United States, more than 80% of which were for possession only, according to the Drug Policy Center. More than 50% of federal prisoners are incarcerated for drug-related offenses, and an outsize number of those inmates are people of color, who use drugs at roughly the same rates as whites.
Those numbers have led a call to change mandatory-minimum sentencing. But in his answer Monday, Sanders proposed a different way forward: changing the legal classification for weed on the federal level altogether. "Right now, under the federal Controlled Substance Act, marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug alongside of heroin. Doesn't make a lot of sense to me," Sanders said. "So I have introduced legislation to take marijuana out of the Controlled Substance Act."
Sanders' proposal wasn't new. In fact, he first introduced it in October during a speech at George Mason University in Virginia. As Mic's Zeeshan Aleem wrote at the time, the move wouldn't legalize marijuana, but it would "dramatically enhance the ability of states to pursue their own marijuana policies without interference from the federal government."
Whether marijuana will get young voters to the polls is a different question altogether. While younger voters are heavily in favor of marijuana legalization and favor Democrats over Republicans, one survey found that youth turnout for elections in states with legalization on the ballots actually dropped from previous years.
One issue that definitely won't be on a ballot any time soon but has gained interest in the cultural zeitgeist is reparations for slavery. Browne posed that question to Clinton. "Do you think 2016 is the year, kind of on the federal level, we should start studying reparations?"
Clinton pivoted to talk about moving forward. "I think we should start thinking about what investments in communities to help individuals and families and communities move forward," she said. "And I am absolutely committed to that."
While Clinton seemed far and away the most impressive of the night's candidates, she stumbled when answering a direct question about white privilege.
Thalia Anguiano, a Drake University junior, asked what white privilege meant to Clinton. It's an important question that's animated a new wave of campus activism across the country focused on racial justice. Clinton began telling a story about baby-sitting migrant workers' children for her church, an anecdote that left Anguiano wanting more.
"That showed me that she does not fully understand what white privilege is and how oppressed marginalized communities are in our society," Anguiano told Fusion after the forum. "I feel like I got more of a white privilege understanding from [Sanders and O'Malley] than Clinton tonight."
Later, in a question that referenced the campaign's heavily criticized attempt to compare Clinton to young voters' abuelas, Clinton said: "Well, you know, I'm obviously running for president. Not every grandmother does that." Anguiano was again disappointed, she told Fusion.
There's no denying it's an exciting time when legitimate candidates are at least talking about issues that were once taboo and relegated to the realms of activists and academics. But that's ultimately bait for young voters of color who've long been distrustful of a political system that's often excluded them. Whether they take that bait will be one test. Whether our next president turns rhetoric into reality will be another.