NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — Three little words made a big difference during Tuesday night’s debate after a viewer on Facebook asked the Democratic presidential candidates: Do black lives matter or do all lives matter?
Up first was Bernie Sanders, who unequivocally answered “black lives matter,” invoking the popular Twitter hashtag that has come to represent a national movement against police brutality and racial and social injustice.
“The African American community knows that on any given day some innocent person like Sandra Bland can get into a car, and then three days later she’s going to end up dead in jail,” Sanders said. “We need to combat institutional racism from top to bottom and we need major, major reforms in a broken criminal justice system.”
Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, also used the phrase in his response. “Black lives matter and we have a lot of work to do to reform our criminal justice system, and to address race relations in our country.”
Yet, Hillary Clinton and the other candidates refrained from uttering the phrase.
When asked what she would do for African Americans that President Obama could not, Clinton said she would continue the work he has started on reforming the criminal justice system and curbing mass incarceration.
Another part of her plan: to improve early childhood education and housing in black communities. “We need a new New Deal for communities of color,” Clinton said.
But black activists didn’t think any of the candidates went far enough on the issues.
In an interview with CNN Wednesday morning, Deray McKesson, a prominent black activist with civil rights group Campaign Zero, said the candidates should have spent much more time directly addressing issues affecting blacks and warned Democrats against taking the black vote for granted.
“If we don’t start hearing direct language about black lives, then people will just stay home,” he said.
In the past few months, McKesson has been instrumental in coordinating meetings between black activists and political candidates, including Sanders and Clinton.
Just last week, McKesson and a group of more than a dozen activists and staffers met with Clinton in Washington D.C. where they discussed the private prison system, demilitarization of the police and mental health services for children.
Despite those advances, McKesson thought Clinton could have said more during Tuesday night’s debate. “She’s the only candidate of the major candidates on the stage who didn’t directly talk about race in her response,” he said.
Clinton was criticized this summer for using the phrase “all lives matter” at a campaign stop near Ferguson, Mo. where Michael Brown was killed. Then, a few weeks later at a campaign stop in South Carolina, she said “We first have to acknowledge and believe that black lives matter. It’s not just a slogan.”
The fact that she didn’t say either phrase at Tuesday night’s debate resonated with Tory Russell, the co-founder and program director of Hands Up United, a St. Louis based civil rights group.
Russell believes that both Clinton and former Virginia senator Jim Webb sidestepped the issue of race for political reasons. “They are going to be looking for more inclusive hashtags or more inclusive statements like ‘all lives matter’ because they are looking to get to the next step [in the campaign],” Russell said.
Patrisse Cullors, an activist and co-founder of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, agreed. Clinton’s choice to stay away from uttering the phrase “black lives matter” during the debate signaled that the seasoned politician was “being strategic in her approach” Cullors said. “She’s trying not to isolate audiences.”
Many of the Democratic candidates have been hard pressed to ignore issues from Black Lives Matter activists, particularly after a series of disruptions at campaign rallies across the country this summer.
Sanders appears to have gotten the message. He appeared to be “singing a new tune when it comes to how to talk about black lives and the issues facing black people in this country,” said Cullors.
His campaign has released its platform on racial justice that includes recommendations to demilitarize and diversify police departments, restore the Voting Rights Act and supporting a federally funded youth employment program.
McKesson said Sanders “has a platform that is strong” and that activists were eager to see Clinton release her own racial policy agenda in the coming weeks.
For Russell, Sander’s message about the economy was an attractive one since it appeared that he was “moving out of the center and further to the left on racial and social justice.”
However, the true winner of the debate on Tuesday was the Black Lives Matter movement, said Van Jones, a CNN political commentator. Getting the candidates to talk not just about the phrase, but about issues like mass incarceration and income inequality was a big win, he said.
“I don’t know if we won the debate, but we’ve entered the debate in a significant way,” said Cullors. “Culturally, the fact that we had an all white presidential candidacy talking about black people is huge.”
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