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It Would Suck If Next Democratic Debate Is All White, But…

Campaign 2020 Democrats Featured Post Newsletter Race and Ethnicity

It Would Suck If Next Democratic Debate Is All White, But…

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Kamala Harris, debate

Let’s start by acknowledging what a real loss it is that Sen. Kamala Harris decided last week to suspend her presidential campaign. Thankfully, she will not be going anywhere, and will instead continue to fight for the vitally important priorities she identified, and for those whose perspectives “have not been heard or too often ignored.” As she wrote (and I encourage you to read her entire post):

I will keep fighting every day for what this campaign has been about. Justice for The People. All the people….We will keep up that fight.

[snip] Our campaign uniquely spoke to the experiences of Black women and people of color — and their importance to the success and future of this party. Our campaign demanded no one should be taken for granted by any political party. We will keep up that fight because no one should be made to fight alone.

[snip] Although I am no longer running for President, I will do everything in my power to defeat Donald Trump and fight for the future of our country and the best of who we are.

Understandably, Harris’ withdrawal most deeply pains those who hoped she would become the first woman of color (she is both black and Indian) to win the presidency—something that looked like a distinct possibility when she placed second in an Iowa state poll as well as two national polls (one of which showed her only 2 points behind Vice President Biden) just after the June debate. Moreover, the end of her campaign leaves the Democratic field for president far less representative of our voting coalition. Harris’ presence on the debate stage brought something profound to the discussion, as her exchange with Biden at that June debate over busing and segregation made crystal clear.

Many analysts, pundits, and political figures have offered commentary regarding why Harris’ campaign came to an end. Among other sources, our own site has posted pieces by Marissa HigginsAnoa Changa, and, on the front page earlier today, Denise Oliver-Velez, that offer valuable insight. And this tweet, from the author of the new, thought-provoking book How to Be An Antiracist resonated with me.

Even in her exit, Sen. Harris reminded voters of her wit and her toughness. She knows how mix it up in the political arena, which is just one reason she has a long and bright future ahead of her as a leader of national stature.

I’m not going to address the varied reasons why Sen. Harris fell out of the top tier of candidates and decided to leave the race. For full disclosure, I’m on record as being a supporter of Sen. Elizabeth Warren this cycle (I supported Barack Obama in the 2008 primary, and Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2016). It is important to note that while many analyses have correctly mentioned the extra hurdles Harris faced as a woman of color, none that I saw ignored the missteps her campaign made, or pretended that she ran a perfect race. In other words, no serious commentator said that Harris didn’t win only because she’s a woman of color. Anyone who claims otherwise is not only incorrect, they are being deliberately divisive, and trying to drive a wedge between supporters of Harris and the remaining Democratic candidates.

Moving forward, the most visible, immediate impact of Harris’ departure will be seen in the upcoming Democratic debate on Dec. 19, for which she had qualified but which is now in danger of lacking any candidates of color, and will almost certainly not have any black or Latino candidates. Former HUD secretary and 2020 Democratic candidate Julián Castro stated: “What we’re staring at is a DNC debate stage with no people of color on it. That does not reflect the diversity of our party or our country. We need to do better than that.”

Sen. Cory Booker made an important point in an MSNBC interview:

Booker also showed some emotion in another comment: “I’m a little angry, I have to say, that we started with one of the most diverse fields in our history, giving people pride. And it’s a damn shame now that the only African American woman in this race, who has been speaking to issues that need to be brought up, is now no longer in it. And we’re spiraling towards a debate stage that potentially, we’re still trying to get in it, but could have six people with no diversity whatsoever.”

With all due respect to Sen. Booker, that’s not completely accurate. Certainly, we should respect the anger and frustration around this topic—notwithstanding the fact that it is still reasonably likely that Andrew Yang will qualify for the debate, and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard might as well (both need to hit 4 percent in only one more DNC-sanctioned poll, with Yang having already hit 3 percent in 11 of them). But even if the debate stage doesn’t end up 100 percent fitting the #DebatesSoWhite hashtag, the point made by Booker, Castro, and plenty of others remains highly relevant.

I want to reiterate that it is a real loss that candidates like Booker and Castro didn’t qualify for this next debate, and that Harris decided to suspend her campaign and thus not participate. Individually and collectively, they brought a vital and important perspective along with the visual representation of the black and Latino communities that will presumably no longer be on the debate stage in this race. The debates would be that much richer with their continued presence. Nevertheless, even if it lacks candidates of color, the next Democratic debate stage will nonetheless continue to demonstrate significant, historic levels of diversity.

That debate will include the first ever openly gay candidate for president, it will also include a Jewish candidate, as well as multiple women. There has never been a president of the United States from any of those groups, and there has been only one woman nominated by a major party. She beat Donald Trump by 3 million votes, in case anyone forgot.

Yes, even Joe Biden represents a form of diversity, as he would become only the second Catholic president if he won (the first was John F. Kennedy). To say it another way, there have been as many black presidents as there have been Catholic ones. Catholics have constituted 25 percent of the U.S. population throughout the post-World War II era, approximately twice the percentage of black Americans.

Obviously, I don’t mean to equate the struggles Catholic Americans, or women, Jews, or LGBTQ Americans have faced with the unique oppression—historic as well as ongoing, not to mention structural in nature—faced by African Americans. The point is simply that, in terms of representation, a second Catholic president would be much more of a barrier-breaker than another white, male Protestant. Democrats will almost certainly not nominate a white, straight, Protestant, male, and that’s (as far as we know) what all but two of our previous presidents have been.

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Finally, even though there may not be a black face on the debate stage in Los Angeles, the No. 1 choice of black voters will be. Joe Biden has consistently polled far stronger with African Americans than any other candidate. A recent Quinnipiac poll from South Carolina showed Biden at 44 percent among black voters (Sanders got 10 percent, Warren got 8 percent, Harris got 6 percent, and Booker got 2 percent).

Likewise, although no Latino candidates will be on stage for the next debate, the apparent No. 1 choice of Latino voters will be. That’s Sanders, aka “Tio Bernie”—as he was dubbed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez during her remarks endorsing him. In a recent poll Sanders earned the support of 39 percent of Latino respondents, compared to 21 percent for Biden, 9 percent for Harris, 6 percent for South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and 5 percent for Warren. Sanders is probably also the No. 1 choice of young voters of color, considering that he leads among young voters overall and that Biden’s support is much stronger among older African Americans. Whether or not there are black or brown faces among the candidates at the next debate, the preferences of black and brown voters are carrying the day in defining the front-runners.

So even as we rightfully lament and, yes, mourn the real loss that is the end of Kamala Harris’ campaign, and even as we bemoan the fact that none of the four remaining front-runners are people of color, let me leave you with one simple fact:

No American born after Nov. 3, 1986, has ever cast a ballot in an election where the Democratic nominee for president was white and male. Without question, we’ve got a long way to go, but that is a tangible sign that the Democratic Party has made significant progress when it comes to the diversity of the people we nominate to be the next leader of the country we love. And that is something to be proud of.

Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by 

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