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The two presidential primary debates in South Carolina this week put into stark relief that the Democratic Party is truly trying to attract black voters in 2016, and the Republican Party really isn’t.

Both debates took place in the Charleston metropolitan area. Right from the start, the Democratic debate focused heavily on issues of concern to the black community, with the candidates talking about the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., racism in the criminal justice system, the Black Lives Matter movement and how to reach out to more minority voters.

The GOP debate, meanwhile, only had the word “black” spoken twice: once in reference to black lung, and the other in reference to the black market. 

The Democratic presidential debate Sunday night took place right before MLK Day. The venue is a block away from the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where a white man made racial slurs when he murdered nine black church members last summer.

“There needs to be a concerted effort to address the system racism in our criminal justice system,” former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Sunday. 

“One out of three African-American men may well end up going to prison. That’s the statistic. I want people here to think what we would be doing if it was one out of three white men. And very often the black men are arrested, convicted and incarcerated for offenses that do not lead to the same results for white men,” she added to audience applause. “So we have a very serious problem that we can no longer ignore.”

NBC News host Lester Holt asked Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) how his campaign is trying to make inroads with voters of color, since Clinton is currently beating him in that area. 

“When the African-American community becomes familiar with my congressional record and with our agenda and with our views on the economy and criminal justice — just as the general population has become more supportive, so will the African-American community, so will the Latino community. We have the momentum, we’re on a path to a victory,” Sanders said.

The GOP candidates in Thursday’s Fox Business debate also talked about the criminal justice system, but the focus was much different.

Front-runner Donald Trump said police officers “are the most mistreated people in this country” and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie chastised the Obama administration for giving “the benefit of the doubt to the criminal, not to the police officers. Ohio Gov. John Kasich acknowledged that “there are people in the community who not only think that the system doesn’t work for them, but works against them” but didn’t go into many specifics. 

Black Americans voted at a historic rate in the 2012 elections, surpassing the turnout rate of white voters for the first time ever. 

Republicans have said they actually have a chance to make inroads with the black community with President Barack Obama off the ballot — although it wasn’t evident during Thursday’s debate, which took place in a state with a substantial African-American population. Reince Priebus, the head of the Republican National Committee, has said his party needs to pay more attention to minority voters if it wants to survive in the long run in a country that is becoming increasingly non-white.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has perhaps focused the most on reaching out to black voters, but he did not take part in either of the two GOP debates Thursday. Ben Carson is black and was long a hero in the African-American community for his distinguished career in medicine, but he has alienated many with his intense criticism of Obama.

 

Read the latest updates from the debate here.

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