The anticipation of a Democratic debate filled with fiery confrontations between candidates on Tuesday night gave way to a mostly civil discussion on issues that should have been very familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention to this political cycle.
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Debate moderators asked the obligatory questions about everything from going to war against Iran to foreign policy to national security to Trump’s impeachment to healthcare, among a host of other topics. And Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren didn’t disappoint when she delivered what cable news pundits kept referring to as “the moment of the night” as they faced off over accusations he claimed a woman could not be president.
But when it came to one issue in particular — the topic of race — all of the White House hopefuls and the debate moderators alike largely steered clear of any mention of it, whether intentional or not.
Finally, nearly an hour and a half into the first debate of the year, Warren became the first person participating to refer to “Black and brown women” in the context of people most affected by the inflating costs of childcare. A few minutes later, billionaire Tom Steyer said he would not expect free college tuition for his own children and instead would use that money to “invest in every single kid … “specifically Black kids, specifically brown kids.”
Nearly 15 minutes later, Pete Buttigieg spoke about “Black and brown” farmers being affected by climate change during a larger discussion about the environment. That prompted Steyer to say that as president he would prioritize “the black and brown communities where you can’t breathe the air of drink the water that comes out of the tap safely.”
But while those notions were noteworthy, they amounted to nothing more than quick, unsolicited comments that just so happened to be the only times Black and brown lives were addressed at all during the first hour and a half of the nearly two-and-a-half-hour debate. In that time span, moderators didn’t ask one single question about the topic until CNN’s Abby Phillip — a Black woman — seemed to call out Buttigieg for having such low support among Black voters.
After Buttigieg said he had the support of Black residents and leaders back in South Bend, Indiana, where he is mayor, Joe Biden quickly piggy-backed and boasted that he had “overwhelming support from the African American community. More than anybody else on this stage.”
But aside from the above and fleeting references during the candidates’ closing remarks, there was no hint of a hearty or substantial debate on the plight of Black and brown people in America. Nothing on gun violence, poverty, trans women of color, Black infant and maternal health or criminal justice reform — all pressing issues for Black and brown folks as well as the rest of America. There is also a homelessness crisis in California that’s gone unchecked and has disproportionately affected Black people. Yet, there was no debate about of any of the above issues.
It was a curious and glaring omission considering Cory Booker dropped out of the race on Monday, leaving an all-white slate of candidates participating in what Deval Patrick — the lone Black presidential candidate (who did not make the cut for the debate) — earlier in the day likened to “an episode of reality TV with candidates paying more attention to polling numbers and donations than issues and people.”
Chances are that if Booker, Harris and Julián Castro — three consistent champions of Black and brown causes — were in the debate, they surely would have raised the issue of race much earlier; and without having to wait to be asked about it, either.
The Iowa Caucuses were set to open the primary voting season on Feb. 3.
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