About halfway through Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate, CNN moderator Anderson Cooper said, “I want to talk about issues of race in America. For that, I want to start off with Don Lemon.” I shuddered. For one thing, there’s the whole let’s-go-to-the-black-guy-to-ask-about-race thing, which was followed later in the debate by an instance of let’s-go-to-the-Latino-guy-to-ask-about-immigration. But I was primarily concerned that Lemon, known for his empty stunts and bizarre remarks, might ask one of his own questions. I feared it would be laced with the rubbish respectability politics that have earned him side-eyes from black viewers and interview subjects alike.
Thankfully, Lemon cut to a Facebook question from Sterling Arthur Wilkins, a black law student from Des Moines, Iowa. “My question for the candidates is,” Wilkins asked, “Do black lives matter, or do all lives matter?” That was it.
Bernie Sanders, the wildcard Senator from Vermont, was first up. “Black lives matter,” he replied when the question was thrown to him first, slamming the easiest rhetorical home run he’ll ever hit in his life. He then launched a passionate and effective barrage of talking points. “The reason those words matter is the African American community knows that on any given day, some innocent person like Sandra Bland can get into a car, and then three days later, she’s going to end up dead in jail. Or their kids are going to get shot.” He then promised to combat institutional racism “from top to bottom,” emphasizing the need for criminal justice reforms to stem mass incarceration. “And I intend to tackle that issue,” he said, “to make sure that our people have education and jobs, rather than jail cells.”
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, took a smart shot at the Republican Party for obstructing her former boss “at every turn.” She called for reforming the criminal justice system—including giving body cameras to police officers in the field—but also for passing bipartisan sentencing reform and following up on the recommendations from the Justice Department’s Task Force for 21st Century Policing. She pushed the structural racism discussion further, calling for a “new New Deal” for people of color.
It was good talk. But there was no back-and-forth about racial justice issues at this debate. And the question itself was most to blame.
Wilkins’s question was good for Google searches, but it was disappointing for voters hoping for an actual debate. For one, it treaded well-worn ground. The words “black lives matter” have long since made their journey from common sense hashtag to the name of a movement, becoming a household phrase in America in the process—if not yet a universally agreed-upon assertion.
The implicit “too” at the end of the phrase, of course, is implicit, but that hasn’t stopped the even more obvious “all lives matter” from gaining traction as a silencing slur directed at the newly revitalized black liberation movement. That’s how it has felt, at least, when it comes out of the mouths of the Republicans running for president. But for Democrats, it was long ago made clear—thanks to a Netroots Nation protest this summer where activists interrupted speeches by Sanders and O’Malley—that saying “all lives matter” in response to the latest clarion call for black rights is a political faux pas. The activists who have pushed our national conversation about race from the polemical into the political are responsible for this, and good on them for it: Back in July, some people required an explainer, but I’d bet that’s no longer the case.
Blue Dog Democrat Jim Webb, though, apparently hadn’t paid any attention to the lesson, and came the closest to screwing up. “As the president of the United States, every life in this country matters,” said the former Virginia senator, meaninglessly. Having previously answered a question about his narrow support of affirmative action—good for the black folks, and no one else—Webb engaged Wilkins’s question poorly. He referred awkwardly to the “situation of African Americans,” discussed his representation of a black Marine who committed suicide, and talked about how he risked his “political life” to fight for criminal justice reform. That may be true, but coming days after two reports justifying the shooting death of unarmed 12-year-old Tamir Rice by Cleveland police, Webb’s wording lacked sensitivity and awareness. He shouted a lot, but offered no new plans. Former Rhode Island governor (and former Republican) Lincoln Chafee didn’t even get to say anything on the subject before the debate pivoted to the economy.
After a summer where loud chants of “black lives matter!” were accompanied by detailed policy proposals and demands for each candidate to put forth her or his plan to address structural racism, it would have been nice to hear some policy plans from Webb and Chafee. O’Malley and Sanders had already met activist demands for concrete proposals, and after some tension, eventually met with activists. Clinton, after nearly being interrupted by a planned protest herself, conducted perhaps the most frank and telling meeting with Black Lives Matter activists we’ve seen during this entire campaign. She has also pushed policy recommendations for reform—some of which would help undo the damage to communities of color done by the 1994 tough-on-crime bill signed into law by Bill Clinton during his time as president.
Though the “Do black lives matter, or do all lives matter?” question was no doubt well intentioned, it was a poor way to begin the discussion. It was too simple, allowing each candidate to simply spout generalities and broad promises to address very specific racial justice issues, and it also short-circuited any debate about policy plans. I’d have loved to see O’Malley challenge Clinton to post her racial-justice platform on her website. I wanted to see Sanders do more than namecheck victims and speak with passion; black voters aren’t looking for inspiration on this issue as much as we are substance. I doubt black liberation activists have worked this hard to get these Democratic candidates merely acknowledging racial injustice and making vague promises, to say nothing of Republicans who seem set upon denying any responsibility for the divide.
In the next week or so, we’ll no doubt see that the first Democratic debate had blockbuster ratings, and reached every political segment in the country. That’s why this was such a squandered opportunity. If the Democratic National Committee has its way, we won’t see too many more of these chances for the candidates to debate their plans for addressing structural racism among one another, and potentially improve them. This moment was thrown away by the questioner and the candidates—and also by CNN, which ensured that was this was the only sustained moment of discussion about structural racism. Not long after they moved on, it was apparent that we’d gotten our one black question for the night.