The Democratic Debate Focused On Race, And That Speaks Volumes About The Two Parties

The seventh Democratic debate is over, and one of the most noteworthy things about it was the extent to which it focused on race relations in America. In fact, just about everybody at the event — candidates and questioners alike — seemed to accept the fundamental premise that systemic racism seriously hurts people of color in America. The subsequent conversation centered on how to fix this. The Democratic debate focused on race issues in a really big way, and moreover, highlighted the gargantuan division between Democrats and Republicans on issues of race.

Over the course of the night, Sanders and Clinton got into several heated arguments. They agreed, however, that systemic, institutionalized racism exists in America and is a serious problem that needs addressing. Clinton said that "systemic racism stalks the criminal justice system," and outlined several steps to fix this, while Sanders pledged more generally to "end institutionalized racism and reform a broken criminal justice system."

Of course, candidates shouldn't necessarily get cookies for simply accepting the basic fact of systemic racism. Still, given that many (most?) politicians do not accept this fact, it's a big deal that Clinton and Sanders did. At the very least, it served as a microcosm of the broader way in which Democrats addressed race on Sunday night. There were numerous questions on race, and while the candidates' responses weren't always perfect, they did engage with the topic in a deep and thoughtful manner.

Some of the questions were policy-oriented: Don Lemon asked the candidates about their support for the 1994 crime bill, which has been blamed for the mass incarceration of black Americans. This elicited a range of policy proposals from the candidates, including ending mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders and requiring body cameras on police.

But other questions struck deeper, and elicited deeper responses. Lemon asked both candidates to describe their own "racial blind spots." When both Clinton and Sanders attempted to dodge the question, he asked it again. Clinton's response is worth quoting in full:

I think being a white person in the United States of America, I know that I have never had the experience that so many people, the people in this audience have had. And I think it's incumbent upon me and what I have been trying to talk about during this campaign is to urge white people to think about what it is like to have "the talk" with your kids, scared that your sons or daughters, even, could get in trouble for no good reason whatsoever like Sandra Bland and end up dead in a jail in Texas.

And I have spent a lot of time with the mothers of African-American children who have lost them, Trayvon Martin's mother. And I've gotten to know them. I've listened to them. And it has been incredibly humbling because I can't pretend to have the experience that you have had and others have had. But I will do everything that I possibly can to not only do the best to understand and to empathize, but to tear down the barriers of systemic racism that are in the criminal justice system, in the employment system, in the education and health care system.

That is what I will try to do to deal with what I know is the racism that still stalks our country.

That's a thoughtful response. It acknowledges that white people, simply by virtue of being white, can never fully comprehend or perceive the effects of racism in America, and furthermore, that the only solution to this is for white people listen to people of color. And sure, it's true that talk is cheap — but this talk in particular is still too expensive for any of the Republican candidates.

Sanders' response was more problematic. While he hit on many of the same points as Clinton, he misstepped by saying that "When you're white, you don't know what it's like to be living in a ghetto. You don't know what it's like to be poor." That comment was widely-derided, because the implication was that there aren't any poor white people in America, which obviously isn't true.

Even so, the bulk of Sanders' response was on point. When talking about police brutality, for example, Sanders clarified that he was "not just talking about the horrible shootings that we have seen," but also "just everyday activities where police officers are bullying people." That's an important distinction, because it drives home the fact that racism often manifests itself in ways that are subtle to outside observers.

All of this is was a glaring contrast with the Republican debates, and really, the Republican Party as a whole. Ted Cruz has accused the Black Lives Matter movement of "embracing and celebrating the murder of police officers," while physical violence against black protesters has become a frequent occurrence at Donald Trump rallies. Marco Rubio likes to insist that the Republicans are actually the more diverse party, because there are two Cuban candidates running for the nomination, but other than that, the GOP debates have largely steered clear of discussing race at all. Instead, they've screamed at each other, called each other names, and debated the size of Donald Trump's penis.

It's worth noting how far Democrats have come this cycle. At the first Democratic debate, candidates were asked "do black lives matter, or do all lives matter?" That's a problematic question in and of itself, largely due to the word "or," but even worse, it was the only question about race at the entire debate. Contrast that with Sunday night, when the candidates answered multiple questions about race, some of which required substantial self-reflection.

You can't hope to combat racial inequality if you don't acknowledge that the problem is a pervasive, far-reaching one that takes many different forms. On the Democratic debate stage in Flint, the Democrats acknowledged this loud and clear. They also made it abundantly obvious that, while Democrats are far from perfect on race issues, they're light-years beyond what the GOP has to offer.