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Jones: Clinton urges strong fight against systemic racism

When I spoke with Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton in an exclusive interview that aired on my radio show Monday morning, I expected to speak with someone who was guarded, defensive and restrained.

When I spoke with Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton in an exclusive interview that aired on my radio show Monday morning, I expected to speak with someone who was guarded, defensive and restrained.

In many ways, she is exactly that, but I can't blame her. Clinton endured scandal and embarrassment while forgiving her husband's imperfections. She has shouldered blame for decisions she did not make, and in between, she has made deadly mistakes of her own. Benghazi comes to mind.

But in between the missteps, Hillary Clinton has quietly built a legacy on a foundation of experience. As a former U.S. senator and secretary of state, she is, in my estimation, the most qualified candidate for the presidency. But being the most qualified doesn't always equate to winning.

Clinton should know that from her loss to then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2008.

Now, as the clear front-runner over upstart Sen. Bernie Sanders, Clinton stands at a precipice, teetering between the office she has sought for the better part of a decade and the valley of forgotten candidates who almost won the White House.

The black vote is the lifeline that could pull her away from the edge, and Clinton knows it. That fact lingered between us as we talked.

I told Clinton the Black Lives Matter movement had shown that African-Americans are demanding equal treatment under the law. Then I asked what makes her the best candidate to meet that demand.

"I think that this is an absolutely appropriate and necessary demand," she said. "And it is one that unfortunately we have yet to fulfill. There has to be a renewed emphasis on dealing with systemic racism in all aspects of our society. Not just the criminal justice system - although that's where it is often most painfully and obviously seen - but in jobs, in education, in health care . . . "

Then Clinton said something bold. She called on whites to stop denying that racism exists.

"Too many people think, 'Well, we've had the civil rights movement. Well we've had our first black president. That's behind us.' And in fact, as we know all too well, it's anything but behind us. And we have an opportunity, which I intend to to drive as hard as I know how, both with words, but more importantly in my opinion, with actions, at all levels, not just in the government but in communities, in every institution in our society, to confront these truths."

I asked her what she'd learned not just from confronting truths, but from being confronted by protesters who have demanded that she shoulder blame for the 1994 crime bill that her husband signed into law. The bill, widely acknowledged as the catalyst for an unprecedented period of mass incarceration for blacks, has become a point of contention in the African-American community.

"I've learned quite a bit meeting with them, listening to them and I hope that as we move forward I can be part of the solution, she said. "When we are protested against, I think - as my husband pointed out in Philadelphia - we need to listen to each other . . .

"It's absolutely fair to say that [the 1994 crime law] did not eliminate, in fact, it, in some ways, opened the door to more systemic racism," she said. "It encouraged states to go way too far in how they were dealing with not only sentencing, but building prisons, creating private prisons, etc. So, yes, we do have to address it, but I don't think we come to the right solutions if we act as if nothing positive came out of our efforts."

I asked Clinton whether she should be held personally responsible for the crime bill and its consequences, and she said no.

I disagree. I don't think Clinton can say that the crime bill came from "our efforts" and then say that she is not at all responsible. Even if she was not in a position to vote for the bill, as Sanders did, or to sign the bill, as her husband, Bill Clinton did, Hillary Clinton helped to push the bill. And for that, she is responsible.

But in my view, her achievements far outweigh her mistakes. And her pragmatism is a strength we need. Not only for the black community, but for everyone.

"Let's have a conversation and bring the facts to the table, so that we can all make progress as opposed to just talking past each other," she said.

On that point, I wholeheartedly agree.

Solomon Jones is the author of 10 books. Listen to him mornings from 7 to 10 on WURD (900-AM).