Friday’s Democratic debate in New Hampshire featured some of the most substantive rounds of questioning about racism when compared to recent presidential debates.
In critiquing former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s response to a question about his controversial handling of racial disparities in his city’s criminal justice system, Elizabeth Warren started a deeper discussion about systemic racism. The senator from Massachusetts called out the fact that race is often mentioned only within the context of criminal justice when, in fact, it affects everything.
“We cannot just say that criminal justice is the only time that we want to talk about race specifically,” Warren said, calling for “race-conscious laws” on issues like housing, education and employment, in order “to make this country a country of opportunity for everyone, no matter the color of their skin.”
But entrepreneur Andrew Yang disagreed, telling Warren: “We can’t regulate away racism with a patchwork of laws that are race-specific.”
Yang then touted his signature campaign promise to give every citizen a universal basic income of $1,000 a month, citing “the writings of Martin Luther King.”
“We can’t regulate that away through any other means except putting money directly into the hands of African Americans and Latinos, to people of color, to allow businesses to actually flourish and grow in those communities,” Yang said. “The only way that will help is if Black and Latino consumers have buying power.”
Yang’s simplistic answer failed to address the larger point of the discussion: Laws have actively contributed to that lack of “buying power” in the economy. The country has a long history of policies that have institutionalized racism, creating discrimination in housing, education, health care and voting, among other aspects of society.
Friday’s round of questions on race inadvertently laid bare the glaring lack of diversity on stage and the dwindling number of people of color in the Democratic presidential field.
Yang was the only candidate of color to qualify for Friday’s debate after not making the last debate in Iowa, which featured an entirely white field of candidates.
Crucially missing from Friday’s debate and its exchange on racism were Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), as well as former Housing Secretary Julián Castro, who all have dropped out of the race.
Though Yang has spoken candidly on the campaign trail about facing racism and discrimination, he has also faced other criticisms of his handling of race, such as his self-deprecating jokes about Asian Americans, which have sometimes perpetuated negative stereotypes, including the “model minority” trope.