How NBC Whitewashed African-American Issues at Sunday's Democratic Debate

Amidst outrage about the Academy Awards whitewashing the Oscars, NBC News has managed to commit a similar misstep by largely whitewashing a Democratic presidential debate hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute. Held on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr.’s holiday, the debate was presumably intended to uplift and highlight issues facing the African-American community.

Yet the NBC News debate moderators, Lester Holt and Andrea Mitchell, committed a disservice to African Americans and the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. by failing to ask any questions — beyond gun safety, black males and police reform — that focus on the myriad of issues facing black America.

This is a critical moment in time for African Americans.

On the economic front, blacks have been devastated by and have not recovered from the effects of the housing crisis and the Great Recession. Yet, there were no debate questions about the candidates' plans for creating jobs, addressing predatory lending, reversing the drop in homeownership rates, expanding Social Security, or closing deeply disturbing poverty, income and wealth disparities experienced by black Americans.

On the health front, black Americans live sicker and die younger than almost all other racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. Our rates of HIV/AIDS rival that of third-world countries and our rates of obesity and Type II diabetes are at epidemic levels. Yet the moderators posed no questions about these critical issues.

On the political front, our right to fully participate in U.S. democratic processes has been threatened by the gutting of the Voting Rights Act and other voter suppression and disenfranchisement tactics being committed in states around the country. Yet, the debate moderators didn’t see the need to ask questions about ensuring African Americans their right to vote, an issue on which our country has historically wavered.

Indeed, Supreme Court decisions concerning affirmative action and union membership will likely have far reaching consequences for African Americans as well. However, you guessed it, there were no questions regarding these critical issues from NBC News moderators.

Fortunately, the candidates managed to step up where the moderators fell short. With the condition of Baltimore and Detroit and the general state of urban America on many minds, Governor O’Malley argued for the need to create a new urban agenda with appropriate investments.

Secretary Hillary Clinton brought up her desire to address poverty — incredibly not mentioned once by the debate moderators — and highlighted what she did to champion the cause of the beleaguered, predominantly black and poor, residents of Flint, MI, whose lives have been endangered by the negligent actions and dismissive attitudes of the state’s Republican governor.

Senator Bernie Sanders mentioned his push for debt free higher education in the absence of any debate questions about the decline of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, the negative effects of some for-profit colleges on black students, or the need for improvements in primary and secondary public education.

The socioeconomic, political, legal, and social status of African Americans is as great a concern today as it was when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. African Americans face very specific issues that must be addressed by the next president of the United States if we are to move towards a fair and inclusive society that serves all.

News organizations, like NBC, and institutions like the Academy Awards must understand that they have a responsibility to be sensitive to the needs and experiences of diverse populations if we are to move forward on our nation’s path towards a more perfect union. It’s time to leave the whitewashing behind.


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