Race at the Second Dem Debate: So Close Yet So Far

By: Mirielle Wright

Earlier this week, the 20 Democratic hopefuls faced off in Detroit to participate in a two-part debate, covering topics from climate change to healthcare. Set in the historically Black city, race was a large topic of discussion both nights of debate. The focus on race and racial issues was promising, although the candidates made sure to give us a healthy serving of cringe-worthy moments as well. Let’s review.

Photo via  Time

Photo via Time

Many candidates talked about their visions for an America that works “for everyone” and condemning the rhetoric of Donald Trump. “Whatever our differences, we know that before anything else, we are Americans first,” said former U.S. Representative Beto O’Rouke. “We need to be the country that fights for its democracy and its economy to work for everyone,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren. 

Former Vice President Joe Biden also put his two cents in. “I’m running for President to restore the soul of this country.” He goes on to say, “Just look at this stage, made up of very diverse people of diverse backgrounds, who went on to be mayors, senators, governors, congresswomen, members of the cabinet,” referring to the many minority candidates on the stage. He continues, “and yes, even the Vice President,” referring to himself. “Mr. President, this is America and we are strong and great because of this diversity, not in spite of it.” How Joe Biden, a white man, was able to center himself in this progress and position himself as the one who will restore diversity is beyond me. It definitely set the tone for the night.

One of the major parts of the debate revolved around criminal justice. Senator Kamala Harris, who ironically began the night claiming that she would “prosecute the case of four more years of Donald Trump,” faced criticism on her record as a prosecutor. “She put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana,” Representative Tulsi Gabbard said, referring toHarris’ interview on The Breakfast Club earlier this year. Senator Cory Booker and former VP Joe Biden went back and forth, as Biden was called out for supporting tough-on-crime legislation such as the 1986 and 1994 Crime Bill (which created the crack cocaine sentencing disparities and instituted federal mandatory minimums), and Booker on his leadership over the Newark Police Department. As he continues to do, Biden defended himself by reminding people that he was the VP to the first Black President. “Barack Obama knew exactly who I was. He had 10 lawyers do a background check on everything about me on civil rights and civil liberties, and he chose me, and he said it was the best decision he made,” Biden said. Somehow, “I was President Obama’s VP!” is the new “But I have a Black friend!” defense. 

The whole encounter took a turn when Booker decided to whip out a line he had no business trying to whip out. “Mr. Vice President, there’s a saying in my community: you’re dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don’t even know the flavor!” Dipping… in Kool-Aid? From the candidate who loves to tout that he lives in “the hood,” one would think he would at least get the saying right. 

Similarly cringe-worthy, CNN posed the question, “Why are you the best candidate to heal the racial divide in America?” The question itself could warrant a chuckle, as if to suggest one President could fix generations of racial injustice and distrust. In response, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana said, “As an urban mayor in a diverse community, the racial divide lives within me.” No words, really.

On the topic of policing, Mayor of New York City Bill de Blasio came under fire for allowing the NYPD officer that put Eric Garner in a deadly, illegal chokehold to remain on the force. Former HUD Secretary Julian Castro called for justice forGarner, as well as uplifting Michael Brown and Tamir Rice in the tradition of #SayHerName. He pointed out that he is the only candidate that has released a full plan to reform the policing system in America. Other candidates presented their plans specifically geared towards African-American communities, such as Pete Buttigieg’s Douglass Plan.

Oddly enough, one of the best moments of the debates came from author Marianne Williamson. When CNN anchor Don Lemon asked about Williamson’s support for reparations, referring to reparations as “financial assistance,” she quickly put him in check. “[It’s not] financial assistance… it’s payment of a debt that is owed, that is what reparations is.” She continued to explain that African-Americans were never given their “40 acres and a mule” which today would amount to trillions, well beyond the current monetary proposals. “Anything less than $100 billion is an insult,” Williamson argued, “We need to recognize that when it comes to the economic gap between Blacks and whites in America, it does come from a great injustice that has never been dealt with.” While not #TeamWilliamson, this was a great moment. Reparations was once an idea so unfeasible it was thought to be a joke, the subject of a Dave Chapelle skit. Now, we have Democratic candidates on national television saying reparations are a “debt that is owed.” Talk about a shift in public opinion.

Overall, the prominence of racial issues on the debate stage may yield hope. The attention towards issues like environmental racism, criminal justice, and policing has a lot to do with the rise of Black Lives Matter and years of work from Black and Brown activists, organizers, and scholars. Even more, many candidates are stepping away from colorblind policies and are designing proposals that would explicitly, directly benefit communities of color. If anything, the second Democratic debate showed that despite some of the candidates’ questionable records and not-so-great responses, perhaps there is some progress to be seen, and hope to be had for 2020.



Kayla Pasacreta