In an evocative and emotional address, Hillary Rodham Clinton on Saturday urged the nation to come to grips with the "deep fault line" of race in the U.S., blaming it and easy access to guns for the slayings of nine worshipers at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C., days ago.
"It's tempting to dismiss a tragedy like this as an isolated incident, to believe that in today's America bigotry is largely behind us, that institutional racism no longer exists. But despite our best efforts and our highest hopes, America's long struggle with race is far from finished," Clinton told hundreds of the nation's mayors gathered in San Francisco for their annual meeting.
Tackling an issue that has split the 2016 presidential candidates since the horrific violence at Emanuel AME Church, Clinton ticked off a litany of circumstances in which black children and families are hobbled by lack of money, illness and thwarted opportunity.
"A half-century after Dr. King marched and Rosa Parks sat and John Lewis bled and the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and so much else … how can any of these things be true? But they are," she said.
She called on everyday Americans to play their role, beginning in conversations with family members, to help the nation move past what she called "a history we desperately want to leave behind."
"Our problem is not all kooks and Klansmen," Clinton said. "It's also the cold joke that goes unchallenged; it's the offhand comment about not wanting 'those people' in the neighborhood. Let's be honest — for a lot of well-meaning, open-minded white people, the sight of a young black man in a hoodie still evokes a twinge of fear."
The Charleston shootings, coming in a season of candidate announcements, has thrust the issue of race and violence against African Americans into the presidential campaign and exposed a rift between the political parties.
Republican candidates have largely cast the shootings as an assault on faithful churchgoers, rather than delving into its racial implications.
Clinton and other Democrats, including President Obama, have cited the Charleston killings as evidence that stricter gun laws are needed. She reiterated that plea Saturday, to a standing ovation from the assembled — and bipartisan — group of mayors.
"I know that gun ownership is part of the fabric of a lot of law-abiding communities," she said. "But I also know that we can have common-sense gun reforms that keep weapons out of the hands of criminals and the violently unstable, while respecting responsible gun owners."
It makes no sense, Clinton said, that a measure to require background checks failed in Congress despite support from a vast majority of Americans.
"It makes no sense that we wouldn't come together to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, or people suffering from mental illnesses, even people on the terrorist watch list," she added. "That doesn't make sense, and it is a rebuke to this nation we love and care about."
Clinton said she would work to "make this debate less polarized" — a hope that belies the vitriolic nature of the nation's past feuds over gun control. She asked the mayors to work to win passage of background checks and other unspecified gun measures "on behalf of all who have been lost because of this senseless gun violence in our country."
Clinton's discussion of the lasting impact of race in American rested, she said, on growing up during the civil rights movement and living in the South during her husband's governorship.
In broaching an unusual conversation for a national politician even in the era of Obama, Clinton insisted that sympathy for victims of crime or discrimination was not enough.
Too rarely, she said, do incidents like the Charleston shootings "spur us to action or prompt us to question our own assumptions and privilege."