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Race Debating

Thursday night's Democratic presidential debate revealed about as much as the previous ones did--which is to say, not that much. Eight candidates shared the stage at Howard University, for an exchange that lasted only an hour--in part because the opening formalities inexplicably soaked up nearly 20 minutes of air time. And it wasn't even an exchange per se. Instead, after each question, each candidate got a turn to answer, making for a tedious and rushed dialogue. By the end, host Tavis Smiley was cutting off poor Dennis Kucinich after just 15 seconds--as if the plucky Ohio congressman didn't have enough trouble getting respect already.

Still, I took away one insight from the event. Befitting a debate at Howard, the nation's best-known black college, the subject was race--and, more specifically, the concerns of African Americans. And, until very recently, this was a very treacherous issue for Democrats. In the 1970s and 1980s, the party's support of affirmative action and welfare helped drive working-class white voters into the hands of Ronald Reagan and the Republicans--in part, because these voters felt Democrats didn't respect the work ethic and were squandering their tax dollars. It wasn't until 1992 that Bill Clinton undid most of the damage--by distancing himself from those policies and talking about individual responsibility, even as he promised to deploy government resources to help African-Americans struggling economically or facing discrimination.

That campaign had its ugly side, for sure. (Most memorably, Clinton at one point approved the execution of a mentally retarded African American prisoner back in Arkansas--a move many believe Clinton took simply because he was afraid of seeming soft on crime.) But it seems to have worked. Sixteen years later, the political landscape looks a lot different. Affirmative action, crime, and welfare have lost their potency as wedge issues. If there's a racial issue polarizing politics today, it's immigration--in which it's primarily Latinos, not African Americans, who are the objects of public suspicion and resentment. That's why, purely from an electoral standpoint, Democrats no longer have to worry about "inoculating" themselves on race--at least to the extent they did back when Clinton first ran for office.

But the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow lives on. On the whole, African Americans continue to lag in employment, health, and overall prosperity. And, as Thursday's controversial Supreme Court decision on school integration showed, there remain still real debates about how best to fix this problem. So it would still be nice if we had a president who could talk about race with the broad credibility that Clinton did--somebody capable of breaking political taboos now and then, if only to build the kind of mutli-racial political coalition necessary for enacting the programs that would ultimately help the African American community most.

To my eyes and ears, only one candidate on Thursday night showed that kind of capability--and it wasn't the candidate named Clinton. It was Barack Obama.

The contrast between Obama and his rivals was obvious from the very first question. Asked by a citizen interlocutor (who'd won a contest to ask a question at the debate) whether race remained a defining issue in America, most of the candidates spent their time explaining why the various policies they favored would help African-Americans, particularly those struggling economically.

There wasn't much disagreement about this agenda. Everybody supported more muscular childhood intervention, universal pre-kindergarten, better schools, stronger unions, and a higher minimum wage. And, just to be clear, that's a fine set of priorities. (The early childhood interventions are a particular favorite of mine.) If you think it's shameful how many African Americans live in poverty, grow up in crime-infested communities, and can't find decent schools, virtually any of the Democrats on stage Thursday night seem prepared to enact policies that would address these problems in a serious way.

What's more, all of the front-runners--Hillary Clinton, Obama, and John Edwards--showed an impressive command of policy minutia. In Clinton's case, that's yet more proof of just how well-prepared she is for the job of president; in Edwards's case, it's a reminder of just how seriously he takes issues of poverty and inequality.

Still, Obama went beyond that. He was the only one who also invoked Bill Clinton-esque rhetoric about responsibility, challenging the African American community even as he was also challenging American society as a whole to do more. "It is absolutely critical for us to recognize that there are going to be responsibilities on the part of African Americans and other groups to take personal responsibility to rise up out of the problems that we face, but there's also got to be a social responsibility."

A question about HIV/AIDS produced an even more striking contrast. Clinton won loud applause for highlighting the severity of the AIDS epidemic in the black community--and society's failure to address it. "If HIV/AIDS were the leading cause of death of white women between the ages of 25 and 34 there would be an outraged, outcry in this country," she said. (She's right, of course.) Obama, though, used the occasion to talk about lingering cultural taboos that prevent frank discussions of the issue. "One of the things we've got to overcome is a stigma that still exists in our communities," Obama said. "We don't talk about this. We don't talk about it in the schools, sometimes we don't talk about it in the churches. It has been an aspect of, sometimes, our homophobia that we don't address this issue as clearly as it needs to be."

The most obvious reason why, alone among the Democrats on stage, Obama could do this is the fact that he's African American. (When Joe Biden tried to give the same pitch on HIV/AIDS, it came off like--well, like an old white guy lecturing black people on how to behave.) But I think Obama's ability to talk about race in this way also speaks to his superior rhetorical skills and political talent. And that's something that could serve him, and the country, well on a whole range of issues--not just race.