The South Carolina Debate's Questions Let Black People Down - Rolling Stone
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The ‘Black Questions’ at Debates Are Awful

Moderators and candidates can’t just mention black people. They need to address black concerns

Raneisha Holmes reacts as she watches the Democratic presidential debate, at the Carolina Ale House in Charleston, S.C., Feb. 25, 2020. (Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)

Raneisha Holmes reacts as she watches the Democratic presidential debate, at the Carolina Ale House in Charleston, S.C., Feb. 25, 2020.

RUTH FREMSON/The New York Times/Redux

Black History Month ends Saturday, both too soon and not soon enough. It is contained within the shortest month, but the whole enterprise can be rather exhausting. Twenty-eight days is not enough time to forgive past sins, yet we still see too many in America treating it like racial Lent, coming forth to seek absolution from a people who are already asked to forgive too much. February should largely be a time for white people to listen, not speak, about what hardships black people have experienced and are currently going through. Especially during this Trump era.

Alas, there are no longer any of us represented by those running in the Democratic primary field. So on Tuesday night in South Carolina, the first state in which a major percentage of the electorate is African American, we were once again forced to listen to what six white people had to say about what they planned to do for us as president of the United States. 

The best we could hope for was that the questions would provoke some useful conversation, within the candidates’ allotted time, about their plans to help black voters if elected.

It’s good to want things, isn’t it?

We could expect, being that it was South Carolina, that the “black questions” — those which, for lack of a better term, are ostensibly intended to address our concerns directly — would be more prominent than they were, say, in Iowa and New Hampshire. The debate was co-hosted by CBS News and the Congressional Black Caucus, after all. There was plenty to ask about. 

That’s why it was so strange that the first inquiry that CBS This Morning anchor Gayle King directed at former vice president Joe Biden having to do with African Americans was actually centered on him. “Your numbers appear to be slipping with black voters,” she said, “and I’m wondering if you could respond about why that is happening to you at this particular time.” 

With all due respect, it’s a pointless question to ask. The house — no, the neighborhood — is on fire, and you’re asking if Biden is displeased that he’s lost followers on Instagram. That’s about the comparative relevance of this question, which elicited the expected response: defensiveness from Biden, who asserted that he had a “15-point lead in the latest poll” in South Carolina and that he’d “worked like the devil” to earn black support over the years. It was an answer full of sound and fury, but ultimately signifying nothing for the very people who are supposedly backing him. It was wasted time that could have been spent asking him about specifically how Biden was going to be a better president for black people, not merely how he was going to make them feel secure about voting for him in this week’s primary.

Billionaire Mike Bloomberg, still licking his wounds from the beating he took in last week’s debate in Nevada, got a repetitive question about the racist policing tactic “stop-and-frisk,” which he defended during and after his 12 years as mayor of New York City. Predictably, the question launched a virtual re-run of the prior discussion in Nevada, covering no new ground. But Bloomberg was allowed to utter, unquestioned, something that the press has repeatedly called out as a falsehood for the past two weeks — that he voluntarily reduced stops by his cherry-picked number of 95 percent in his last year as mayor, as if the pending federal lawsuit and ruling had nothing to do with it. (King or her colleague Norah O’Donnell could and should have interrupted him to correct this blatant lie. Perhaps they were ensuring that they didn’t have a long back-and-forth with him, preserving time for that vital “motto” question at the end of the night.)

Pete Buttigieg only broke through the absurdity of it all by noting that “there are seven white people on this stage talking about racial justice; none of us have the lived experience of, for example, walking down a street or in a mall and feeling eyes on us, regarding us as dangerous, without knowing the first thing about us — just because of the color of our skin.” He tried to add that none of us have the experience that black women have commonly described of going to doctors and being disbelieved when they say that they are in pain. But this being a debate, he ran out of time and was cut off.

Amy Klobuchar, to her credit, tried to advance the conversation. She pivoted off “stop-and-frisk” to talk about the need for further sentencing reform, increasing the minimum wage, and warning about Republican-controlled states like Georgia purging voters off their rolls. All of these ideas merited time and attention, which they would only receive if the moderators engage them directly with smart questions. Yes, skillful moderating is difficult, but it is possible.

And that speaks to the inherent problem with the debate, and so many others like it: by failing to ask questions specifically tied to black experiences and allowing candidates to explore them in depth, the moderators opened the door for pandering. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, there were mentions of historically black colleges and universities, and closing the racial wealth gap — tiny drops of water on the tongue when we’re thirsty for real information. 

It isn’t as if there wasn’t a wealth of material to explore. 60 Minutes correspondent Bill Whitaker did ask Biden about that wealth gap a little bit later in the debate, imploring him in one of the debate’s only good questions to explain how he can make black voters confident that he’s the man to change years of inequities. But why not do that for all of the various arenas of black life that Trump has made depreciably worse? 

This president did ask in 2016 what black folks had to lose with him as president, and it turns out that it was quite a bit. Releasing a few of us from prison through one piece of criminal justice legislation and showcasing a few of our stories during a State of the Union doesn’t represent black advance. His administration has been like a task force for making things perceptibly worse for black people, both native-born and immigrant alike. Why didn’t the CBS moderators not only address these issues, but tie them specifically to the policies of the president these people are running to replace? 

It is objective fact that this president and his White House has ignored the urgent need to address specific climate dangers to areas heavily populated by black citizens and changed housing rules to enable discrimination and scaled back desegregation enforcement. Trump has all but left Puerto Rico, which has a lot of black and brown people in it, to rot after its hurricane devastation. Betsy DeVos has worked to atrophy public education while attempting to kill it altogether. The president’s rhetoric has encouraged police violence against marginalized communities. While the FBI has most recently warned that white supremacist violence is of an equal priority to foreign terrorism, Trump continually dismisses the threat until whenever calamity strikes, when he follows conservative boilerplate and typically ascribes the crimes to a deficiency in mental health services.

Additionally, Trump’s Republican Party has not retreated from its anti-abortion stance that predominantly restrict black women from access to that procedure and other forms of maternal health care. The GOP hasn’t stopped enabling a white-supremacist gun culture nor repealed any of its voter restrictions aimed at limiting black participation at the ballot box.

But what this South Carolina debate chose to do instead of examine those topics, however, were to stage a tedious battle over Medicare-for-all, one that we’ve seen these candidates do repeatedly, and a quick nod to the looming coronavirus pandemic. There was a strange question to the two Jewish candidates about the location of the embassy in Israel and a whole bit about Chinese businesses — perhaps understandable, given Bloomberg’s investments — but there was not one question asked about Africa. Black tragedy was used as a news peg: the massacre of nine churchgoers at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel in 2015 was briefly mentioned to lead into a question about the NRA, and not a single candidate mentioned the church or anything having to do with gun violence in black communities in their responses. 

A question from Whitaker about black children and charter schools provoked a discussion about education, not black children. (Klobuchar — a former prosecutor who oddly avoided any questions about locking up a black teenager for life in a faulty case — at least pivoted her answer towards stable housing as a solution for helping children in underserved urban areas get a good start.) 

Debate questions can’t just mention black people. They need to address black concerns. As we’ve already seen thus far, black voters have a myriad of concerns that vary by geography, class, age, and a number of other factors. So few opportunities exist as it is for these matters to be addressed on the public stage; we saw that even when there was an African American president. We had such a moment on Tuesday night, near the end of this Black History Month in South Carolina, when the black electorate comes into the spotlight unlike at any other time during the Democratic primary. It is unfortunate to realize that, just like February, our moment in the spotlight may have been fleeting, ever too brief, and was wasted by the blather of people who failed to prioritize our struggles.

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