Democrats didn’t talk enough about racism in their first primary debate

In a Wednesday night debate marked by serious — and at times confrontational — discussions of policy, candidates didn’t have much to say about how these issues affect communities of color, a large swath of the population that plays a significant role in the Democratic electorate.

It wasn’t that race wasn’t discussed at all. There was a robust discussion on immigration, and several candidates — including Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro — briefly commented on issues like police violence, voting rights, and black maternal mortality. But they were just that, often isolated to a statement from a single candidate before the conversation pivoted to a different topic.

Some of this is simply due to the debate format. Beyond two questions about black and Latino voter turnout, few, if any, questions centered specifically on race or racism. Policy-wise, the only debate that occurred was on immigration — certainly an important issue, but just one of many that voters of color are looking at in this election cycle.

The night’s limited discussion of issues faced by voters of color stands in stark contrast to the role these voters play in the Democratic Party. Recent months have seen candidates discuss gentrification, the racial wealth gap, reparations, police violence, and other issues, all in an effort to reach voters of color, particularly black voters, who could play a pivotal role in primary states like South Carolina. And several candidates have introduced policy plans that suggest significant differences in how they are thinking about racism and the struggles of black and brown communities in the US.

Unfortunately, that conversation didn’t really get a chance to play out on the debate stage.

Candidates had few chances to have policy discussions about race and racism during Wednesday’s debate

Many of the references to communities of color that did occur came from Booker, the only African American candidate onstage. In his response to a question about the power of corporations, Booker pointed to the ways the economy was playing out in the black and brown communities he serves, saying that “this economy is not working for average Americans.” He later pointed to his community again when answering a question about health care, arguing that limited access to health care was also an education and jobs issue for black and brown communities.

There were also two moments where candidates discussed police violence: first, when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio pointed to the importance of understanding police shootings as a form of gun violence disproportionately affecting communities of color, saying that it was important to build relationships between police and communities. He noted that he had direct experience as mayor of a city that has been rocked by high-profile incidents of police violence, though he did not acknowledge that he has also faced criticism for his handling of high-profile cases like the 2014 death of Eric Garner.

De Blasio also argued that “raising a black son in America” sets him apart from other candidates on the stage, a statement that might not have been intended as a slight but certainly sounded weird with Booker — himself a black son — onstage.

The second moment came when Castro, the only Latino candidate in the 2020 field and the only candidate who has released a comprehensive policing reform platform, argued that his campaign considers it crucial to discuss racial and social justice issues. “I’m proud that I’m the only candidate who put forward legislation that would reform our policing system in America and make sure no matter what the color of your skin is, you are treated the same,” he said.

Plenty of questions could have been asked. One day after the sixth anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling that blunted the Voting Rights Act, candidates could have been asked about their plans to fight voter suppression and its effects on communities of color. Given that many voters of color have said that they are especially concerned about a rise in reported hate crimes and violence from white supremacists, candidates could have been asked for specific plans to help these communities on this topic. Discussions of the economy and the gender pay gap could have included targeted questions about how to address the fact that women of color are often paid less than not only white men but white women as well. (To her credit, Klobuchar brought it up on her own in answer about economic opportunity.)

There were other topics, too, such as education inequality, black and Latino unemployment, and affordable housing. Even the topics that were discussed, like police shootings, could have been better served by a full debate question.

To be fair, this is the first of many debates, and there will be many chances for these topics, and others, to be discussed. But if anyone was hoping to hear any sort of intensive discussion of the issues affecting communities of color in the first debate of the 2020 season, they didn’t get to hear much.