Sterling Arthur Wilkins, a second-year Drake Law School student, was spotlighted on national television when his viewer question, “Do black lives matter, or do all lives matter?” was aired during the CNN Democratic presidential debate on Oct. 13.
Wilkins, an undecided voter, had recorded his question when CNN’s Campaign Camper stopped by Drake University a week before the debate.
According to Drake spokesperson Jared Bernstein, about 100-150 Drake students visited the Campaign Camper while it was on campus. The vehicle also made stops in Ames, Iowa; Lafayette, La.; Ferguson, Mo., and Las Vegas.
“I got an email letting me know they’d be on campus, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to try to engage in the political discourse,” Wilkins explains. “I did not expect that they’d actually use my question.”
When his video was aired during the debate, Wilkins didn’t see it. He says he watched the beginning introductions of the debate via livestream on his computer, then muted it to study.
“When my question was aired, I got a wave of text messages and phone calls from friends and family letting me know they had just seen me on TV,” he says. “So at that point I unmuted my computer, and I got to hear the responses.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders answered Wilkins’ question by saying, “Black lives matter.” He pointed to Sandra Bland as an example of recent racial injustice and talked about combatting institutional racism from top to bottom with major reforms.
“When Bernie Sanders was highlighting the high-profile deaths that have occurred in the last year or two, he seemed to be getting to the point that yes, black lives are devalued in this country – these cases are evidence of that,” Wilkins says.
Hilary Clinton talked about body cameras, tackling mass incarceration, and the need for criminal justice reform. She also proposed a new New Deal for communities of color, which Wilkins says “really hit the nail on the head.”
“As I interpreted it, she was calling for government to become a part of the solution and work to rectify the vast racial disparities in this country,” he says. “So I thought that was important.”
While he was overall pleased with the candidates’ responses, Wilkins says looking back, he would have phrased his question differently.
“I sort of phrased it in a binary fashion that posed an either/or scenario,” he explains. “The thing is, the answer ‘all lives matter’ cannot actually be true unless and until black lives matter, too. And that was really the aim of my question.”
Regardless of the wording, Wilkins is happy his question sparked conversation on social media. There was a significant uptick in the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter on Twitter after his video aired.
“I think it’s a good thing that it got people talking about the issue,” he says.
After the debate, Wilkins received a wave of media attention, as well as encouragement from family and friends. His hometown barber even joked that he would have to charge Wilkins more now that he's a celebrity.
“My brother, my mom, my dad – they all reached out to me and let me know that they were really proud of me,” he says. “It’s been nothing but support.”
Wilkins points out that although he used the term “black lives matter” in his question, he is not affiliated with the Black Lives Matter national organization.
“It’s much more than a slogan,” Wilkins explains. “And I hope my question provoked that feeling.”
Watch Wilkins' video on the Drake University Facebook page.