Gwen Ifill came to slay.
At Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate in Milwaukee, Ifill, a veteran PBS journalist, flipped the typical narrative of race in the U.S. on Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) with a vital question about what it means to be white in America.
“Let me turn this on its head, because when we talk about race in this country, we always talk about African-Americans, people of color,” Ifill began, in all her black girl glory. “I want to talk about white people, OK?
“So many people will be surprised to find out that we are sitting in one of the most racially polarized metropolitan areas in the country,” Ifill continued, after reassuring the audience and the candidates that she really did want to talk about white people. “By the middle of this century, the nation is going to be majority non-white. Our public schools are already there. If working-class white Americans are about to be outnumbered, are already underemployed in many cases, and one study found they are dying sooner, don't they have a reason to be resentful?”
Wow. Ifill, who made history with co-anchor Judy Woodruff as the first all-female team to host a major presidential debate, took an important step in advancing mainstream narratives on race and racism. As America becomes less white, many white people are becoming more conservative on race relations. This may explain some of Donald Trump’s appeal to white middle-class voters.
Alas, the candidates' responses were typical, reeking of “all lives matter” without deeply engaging the question.
“I am deeply concerned about what's happening in every community in America, and that includes white communities, where we are seeing an increase in alcoholism, addiction, earlier deaths,” Clinton said.
“And I'm going to do everything I can to address distressed communities, whether they are communities of color, whether they are white communities, whether they are in any part of our country,” she added. “I particularly appreciate the proposal that Congressman Jim Clyburn has -- the 10-20-30 proposal -- to try to spend more federal dollars in communities with persistent generational poverty. And you know what? If you look at the numbers, there are actually as many, if not more white communities that are truly being left behind and left out.”
Sanders asserted the more general aspects of economic inequality.
“African-Americans and Latinos not only face the general economic crises of low wages, and high unemployment, and poor educational opportunities, but they face other problems, as well. So, yes, we can talk about it as a racial issue. But it is a general economic issue,” Sanders said.
When the question of what it means to be white is left out, conversations surrounding race and racism can end up preserving white comfort. Whiteness has played a critical role in America’s racial dynamics and continues to do so. Ifill's question on whiteness -- and her strong, consistent presence throughout the debate -- shows why black politics reporters are vital to digging deeper into issues on race.
More coverage of the Democratic debate: