What the First Democratic Presidential Debate Showed Us About the Candidates

Dr. Julianne Malveaux

By Julianne Malveaux

In contrast to the more entertaining Republican presidential candidate debates, the first Democratic presidential candidate debate was more absorbing. We heard from grownups that refrained from personal attacks and offered solid information about their positions. While there were mild fireworks, there was much gravitas, and the sagacity with which these candidates discussed issues was most welcome.

Hillary Rodham Clinton was gracious, graceful, firm and focused. She was the best I’ve seen her since she gave her incandescent speech at the 2008 Democratic Convention in Denver. Martin O’Malley missed his chance to shine. He seemed stiff and though he also seemed thoroughly prepared, he did not stand out. Senator Lincoln Chafee might as well have stayed home. The dog ate my homework is not a credible defense for voting to repeal Glass-Steagall, the legislation that regulated banks in some of their activities. He says it was his first vote, and his dad had just died. With all due sympathy, that’s no excuse. Finally we have “Whining Jim Webb” who complained that he was not getting enough time. But he spent too much time saying he wasn’t getting equal time, and he did not jump in, as others did, to make his point. As CNN’s Anderson Cooper (who did a great job) correctly pointed out, Webb agreed to the rules in advance. And, really, had he equal time, what would he have said, and who would be interested? Bottom line, Webb and Chafee should go away, but they won’t. The real contrast is between Hillary and Bernie, with O’Malley, seemingly running for Vice-President, adding occasional spark to the fire.

In response to the question, “Do Black lives matter, or do all lives matter?” Senator Bernie Sanders was the only Democrat on stage who uttered the words, “institutional racism.” Whatever the Black Lives Matter team said to him in back in August, it took. He invoked Sandra Bland, the woman who supposedly hung herself in Texas, and talked about mass incarceration. O’Malley and Clinton addressed the issue as well, with the acceptable answers that included police reform, education and mass incarceration. Clinton suggested a “new deal” for communities of color, but time prevented her from offering details. Neither Clinton nor O’Malley suggested that institutional racism had anything to do with the Black Lives Matter movement or the racial disparities that exist in our nation. Unless I missed something (I watched the debate twice and went through the transcript) Chafee did not address the issue. “Whining Webb” cited his work with African American veterans, which included defending a Marine who was convicted of murder and clearing his name. He also fought to include an African American soldier on the Mall. Great work, but where is the public policy?
The fact that Bernie Sanders mentioned racism is significant. While as many as three-quarters of African Americans vote for Democrats, it is not clear that our Democratic allegiance is returned. In the Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton talked about the role entrepreneurship plays in empowering people in our nation. Did she (or any of the other candidates) know that the Democratic National Committee spent $500 million on political consulting, but only 1.7 percent of those funds went to minority-owned businesses? African American support of the Democratic Party is not reflected in the dollars the DNC chooses to invest in our community. Black lives matter, and so do black dollars.

African Americans have unemployment rates that are twice the jobless rates of Whites, earn less regardless of education and occupation, have a fraction of the wealth, and less homeownership. Blacks account for 13 percent of the U.S. population, but half of those incarcerated. Institutional racism is alive and well, but only one Democratic candidate for President chose to mention that. Some will say that Clinton and O’Malley alluded to institutional racism, but the concept has to be embraced, not simply alluded to. When people understand the concept of institutional racism, it allows them to work to dismantle it. Otherwise, we get a tepid response to racial injustices and ignorant attitudes about African American incarceration. Haven’t you heard some White person say they didn’t own any slaves, without understanding that slavery’s aftermath can be seen in disparity data? Union folks forget that African American people were systematically excluded from their unions, used as strikebreakers until a few decades ago. Others forget the advantages they gained because institutional racism dictated African American exclusion.
Race matters are not the only matters that the Democratic nominee for president must deal with. But those Democrats who take African American fealty for granted must understand that they have to give as much as they get. If about 25 percent of all Democrats are African American, shouldn’t we get 25 percent of the dollars that the DNC spends?

I am glad that Bernie Sanders raised the issue of institutional racism. I am wondering if the DNC and others will address the issue by doing a better job of distributing contracts and opportunities to minority-owned businesses.

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