The two debates featuring 20 Democratic presidential candidates this week showed that competition will be fierce among them for the support of black voters in the 2020 primaries. That’s a welcome development for a loyal Democratic constituency that has too often been taken for granted.
Black and brown communities are exhausted from constantly being an afterthought. We seek leadership that doesn’t wait until election time or after a calamity occurs to think about how to tackle institutional racism and discrimination. We want our elected leaders to work to improve our lives and make America a more fair and just society 365 days a year, every year.
The competition for the votes of African-Americans is also a good sign for whoever the Democrats nominate to run against President Trump in the general election. The Democratic nominee is certain to get the vast majority of black votes in November 2020, but he or she will need a strong turnout by those voters to end Trump’s political career.
To motivate a large black turnout, the Democratic nominee will need to be more than the un-Trump. Black voters – like all voters – will turn out in greater numbers when they are motivated to cast ballots for a candidate they strongly support, rather than simply to vote against a candidate they oppose.
All the candidates can already say “I’m better on race than Trump,” but that’s an extremely low bar. Despite boasts during his 2016 campaign that he would be the best candidate to improve the lives of people of color, Trump has sadly proven himself to be the most polarizing, divisive and racially insensitive president in at least the last three decades – and that’s saying a lot.
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg entered Thursday night’s debate facing questions and criticism regarding the shooting death of a young black man in his city at the hands of a police officer while the mayor was on the presidential campaign trail.
Eric Logan’s death raised racial tensions in South Bend, where 26 percent of the population is black but only 13 members of the 253-person police department are black. The number of African-American officers has actually fallen since Buttigieg was elected mayor in 2012. In addition, the mayor ousted the city’s first black police chief.
While Buttigieg’s response following Logan’s death hasn’t been perfect, he’s done reasonably well. On the debate stage he took accountability for his failure to increase the number of black police officers. He says he’s determined to make improvements in the police force.
Buttigieg has been praised by Michael Patton, an ally who is head of the South Bend NAACP. He also took some of the right steps by canceling his campaign activities and returning to South Bend to face frustrated residents. He will have a tough time increasing his tiny level of support among black voters – but the task is not impossible.
Ultimately, what candidates said 20, 30 or more years ago will be less important than what they have done more recently and what they are pledging to do to close the enormous wealth and opportunity gap that still divides African-Americans from other Americans.
Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who is black, made headlines at Thursday night’s debate when she used Buttigieg’s comments on the police shooting to pivot and challenge former Vice President Joe Biden – the current frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination – on the issue of race.
Harris said she does not believe Biden is a racist, but criticized him for favorably commenting on how he worked with segregationist senators when he served in the Senate to pass legislation, as well as for his past opposition to federally ordered school busing to integrate schools decades ago.
In what turned out to be the soundbite of the night, Harris told the story of “a little girl in California” who was bused as part of the second class to integrate schools in her home county.
"And that little girl was me,” Harris said. “So I will tell you that on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously. We have to act swiftly."
Biden, whose campaign is being advised by Symone Sanders, a black woman, was surprisingly and woefully unprepared to respond to Harris, marring what was otherwise his strong and energetic debate performance.
Biden failed to say what Pete Buttigieg said about police relations with the black community in South Bend or what presidential candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii said when questioned about her past positions opposing issues of importance to the LGBTQ community. Like these two candidates, Biden should have admitted to past mistakes. He should have said: “I was wrong, I apologize, and I will do what’s right moving forward.” Unfortunately, he didn’t.
Attempting to recover from his debate performance and hold onto his substantial base of African-American support, Biden spoke Friday at an event held by the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition.
“I fought my heart out to ensure civil rights and voting rights and equal rights are enforced everywhere,” Biden said. He insisted that he “never, never, never ever opposed voluntary busing.”
And to be fair, Harris has drawn her own share of criticism on racial issues. As a California prosecutor she resisted calls to investigate shootings by police.
Harris often boasts that she had the courage not to seek the death penalty against the man who murdered a police officer when she was a district attorney. However, she appealed an attempt to establish a legal precedent to end the death penalty based on its flaws and random application as late at 2014.
Harris also championed an anti-truancy program that would have criminalized black mothers whose children were actively being pushed out of schools by a failing education system.
In addition, when the Supreme Court ruled that prisons were far too overcrowded in California and said some inmates should be released, Harris fought to keep them incarcerated.
As for the issue of busing, Harris’ fond memories are not shared by all. My wife, who is black and a Latina, attended Boston public schools. After about 15 years of busing to achieve integration, the schools were not any more integrated than before.
From kindergarten through high school, my wife had only one white classmate. Schools and the quality of education for many black children also did not improve.
Around the time Harris was being bused in the 1970s, cities like Boston largely avoided sending kids from heavily black Roxbury into wealthy white communities like nearby Brookline. Instead, they bused them further away into South Boston, where they faced violent massive resistance. The hostility the black children endured daily made learning extremely challenging.
Harris’ record is much stronger as a senator on criminal justice and a host of other issues. I believe she is a good candidate and has taken responsibility for some of her past mistakes. I love many of her proposals and would not be the least bit upset if she becomes our next president.
However, Harris’ takedown of Biden – which is being endlessly praised in the media – struck me as a deflection from her own less than stellar earlier record on issues of concern to many African-Americans. She is attacking from a glass fortress.
The competition for black votes in 2020 is now in its early stages. Black voters don’t all think alike – any more than all white voters think alike. We have different views and a small number of us even support President Trump.
The debates this week were an introduction to 20 candidates. Ultimately, what candidates said 20, 30 or more years ago will be less important than what they have done more recently and what they are pledging to do to close the enormous wealth and opportunity gap that still divides African-Americans from other Americans.
Candidates who’ve made mistakes in the past and changed their views should apologize, admit they’ve evolved and focus on what they want to do in the future to make the American Dream something all American can aspire to and achieve.