Candidates Should Talk About Race
President Bush and Democratic presidential contender John Kerry have one more debate in which to talk about something they've ducked the whole campaign. And that's racial problems. A perfunctory question to candidates Vice President Dick Cheney and Democratic vice presidential challenger John Edwards on the devastation of HIV/AIDS among black women in their debate is the only race related question that's been asked so far. Edwards dodged it, and Cheney claimed he didn't know it was a problem. In the debate, Edwards knocked Cheney for a Congressional vote against the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday, and against freeing imprisoned South African leader Nelson Mandela. Other than that, there's been no hint that racial problems are serious public policy issues in America.
That's a terrible blind spot. Debates are tailor-made opportunities for presidential candidates to educate the public on crucial policy questions. The Kerry and Bush debates are no exception. They have garnered top TV ratings. The millions that have intently watched them want and expect to hear the two men tell where they stand on crucial policy issues, and that should include racial issues.
But Bush and Kerry have been content to discuss racial issues in speeches to the NAACP (Bush declined) and the Urban League conventions, at black churches, in private meetings with select black ministers, in Kerry's case in an interview on Black Entertainment Television, and on their campaign web sites. Their audiences are mostly blacks. That reinforces the notion that racial issues are by, and for, blacks, with no broad policy implications for all Americans as issues such as health care, jobs and the economy, terrorism and Iraq.
There are two reasons why race has been a taboo subject for presidents and their challengers in debates and on the campaign trail for the past two decades. The spectacular expansion of the black middle class implanted the myth that racial problems are largely part of America's distant and by-gone past, and except for isolated pockets of racial discord, the problems have long since been resolved through legislation and the enactment of social programs. Also, no president or presidential challenger, especially a Democratic challenger, will dare risk being tarred as pandering to minorities by talking openly about racial problems.
Racial issues have seeped into presidential debates only when they ignite public anger and division. In one of their debates in 2000, Bush and Democratic challenger, Al Gore clashed over affirmative action. In a 1988 debate, Bush Sr. hammered Democratic contender Michael Dukakis as being soft on crime for his opposition to the death penalty (who can forget Willie Horton?).
But this election racial problems are just as compelling. In a report this past January, the National Urban League found that blacks are less likely to own their own homes, die earlier, are far more likely to be jailed disproportionately and receive longer sentences, receive less or poorer quality health care and earn far less than whites. They attend failing public schools, and are more likely the victims of racially motivated hate crimes than any other group.
The report also found similar patterns of discrimination and equally gaping economic disparities between Latinos and whites. In the past decade, the income, and education performance gaps between blacks and Latinos and whites have only marginally closed, or actually widened. Discrimination remains the major cause of the disparities.
Shunting race to the back burner of presidential debates invariably means that presidents shunt them to the backburner of their legislative agenda. The lone exception was President Clinton. He was well into his second term in 1997 when he felt secure enough to take a mild stab at directly confronting racial problems. He raised black hopes that he would be the first president since Lyndon Johnson to do something about racial conflict in America when he appointed a race panel. But his inability or unwillingness to put any political muscle behind the panel's proposals doomed it to be yet another commission whose proposals were quickly forgotten, or hopelessly compromised. Not a breath has been said or heard about any of the panel's tepid proposals since.
Yet, presidents have not been able to tap dance around racial problems. Reagan's administration was embroiled in affirmative action battles. Bush Sr.'s administration was tormented by urban riots following the beating of black motorist Rodney King. Clinton's administration was saddled with conflicts over police violence and racial profiling. Bush Jr.'s administration has been confronted by the HIV/AIDS pandemic, voting rights and reparations battles. By ignoring, or downplaying these issues until they burst into flashpoints of national debate and conflict, presidents have been ill prepared to craft meaningful legislation and programs to deal with them.
In their last debate and in the last days of campaigning, millions will be watching and listening to Bush and Kerry. They need and deserve to hear them spell out what they plan to do about the racial disparities that still nag America.