Yes, the first CNN 2018 Democratic Debate night was very white compared to the second night. I have seen CNN criticized for the unintentional segregation, bringing race once again to the forefront of an already racially charged political atmosphere. Race has been a constant in both this administration, and at times has served as a show piece for the platforms of many of the candidates. While addressing race relations is important for confronting the damage that white fragility preserves, some conversations can be distracting and play into the race baiting narrative touted by extreme conservatism. As silly as it may have seemed, the grandeur of the debate drawings confirmed the fairness of the line-up and prevented the appearance of impropriety. But as Harris, Booker, Gabbard, Castro, and Yang’s names were drawn I can’t help but wonder if CNN regretted its decision not to retain some control over the groupings to create a more “representative” atmosphere and preserve open dialogue. So let’s discuss—were there differences between the debates in light of the unintentional segregation? In my opinion, if the line-up did impact the debates, I would argue there were a few positive consequences:
There was an opportunity for white candidates to express understanding for racial injustice without comparison to diverse candidates
Many of us enjoyed Senator Kamala Harris blast former Vice President Joe Biden’s comments over school busing and race issues in last month’s debate. Personally, as a woman of color it provided a sense healing to call out the fact that the black woman on stage should be speaking to these issues and that the white man could not possibly exude the same emphatic passion as a minority so close to the problem. But that interaction did not stymy white candidates from pushing forward and expressing compassion, even if it was gained through redemptive reeducation. Gillibrand’s comments during the second debate about benefitting from her white privilege were powerful.
“I think as a white woman of privilege who is a U.S. senator running for president of the United States, it is also my responsibility to lift up those voices that aren’t being listened to.”
But one of the most powerful statements on race relations came from Williamson (during the first night) whose powerful justification for reparations resonated with me as if it came from Harriet Tubman herself. Part of her statement’s genuineness came from the fact that it was unprompted, but also because it stood out strong among her white cast members who chose not to take a similar resolute stance. By having an all-white debate night, it provided the opportunity for white candidates to genuinely speak to race without seemly responding (or reacting) to a candidate of color’s ardent comments of personal experience.
“Well, first of all, it’s not $500 billion in financial assistance. It’s a $200 to $500 billion payment of a debt that is owed. That is what reparations is. We need some deep truth-telling when it comes. We don’t need another commission to look at evidence. I appreciate what Congressman O’Rourke has said. It is time for us to simply realize that this country will not heal. All that a country is is a collection of people. People heal when there is some deep truth telling. We need to realize 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.”
It provided a safe space to be critical of the diverse candidates’ platforms
In the months leading up to the debates, it was easy for many to assume that all the candidates of color treated social justice issues as a priority. On July 31, having all of the diverse candidates together allowed the nation for the first time to see their platforms side-by-side to discuss the differences in their approaches to healthcare, immigration, and criminal justice reform intelligently. Let’s be honest, it may have been uncomfortable to see Biden criticize Harris’ history. But providing the opportunity for Gabbard and Harris to critique each other’s pasts allowed us to appreciate that not all minority candidates have all social injustice issues worked out. Once this happened, it opened the door for Booker’s relationship with his former police department to be questioned and for challenges to Castro’s sincerity on decriminalization of illegal border crossings. By doing this, it drew attention back to the issues allowing us to critically analyze HOW each platform strategy would affect minorities instead of ASSUMING that it would just because it was being touted by a minority.
The racial divide did not prohibit comprehensive discussion on civil rights issues
One may have expected the second debate to speak more about racism and institutionalized injustice. However I personally observed equal air time and depth of discussion with respect to issues of racial injustice in each debate. Whereas in the past it can be argued race was a “sensitive” topic, only acknowledged but not addressed. But in both CNN debate nights racial inequality and injustice were debated in meaningful ways. To name a few:
- Discussion of minorities’ net worth and gender pay gaps
- Sparing over the meaning of “illegal” immigration
- The place for redemptive politics and parallels to political flip-flopping
- Sentencing disparity and “sincere” signs of reformed policing
- Unashamed discussions of white fragility
As Gillibrand stated “I don’t believe that it’s the responsibility of Cory and Kamala to be the only voice that takes on these issues of institutional racism.” When issues of injustice were raised, each debate fostered comprehensive discussion, suggesting to me that we are moving away from burdening the representative persons of color with the responsibility to raise the rallying cry.