The Democratic Debate Stage Was Mostly White — And It Showed

The 2020 presidential candidates spoke to people of color and spoke about them, but those personal stories were fundamentally missing.

The Democratic presidential debate Thursday in Los Angeles was the least racially diverse since the start of the primary campaign — and it showed. 

Moderators from Politico and PBS NewsHour fired questions at the seven candidates, six of whom were white, about immigration, reparations for slavery, the murders of trans women of color and about the whiteness of the debate itself.

But other than Andrew Yang, who talked about being subjected to slurs as a child, none of the candidates spoke personally about issues involving race. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), former Housing Secretary Julian Castro, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) all failed to qualify, meaning no one was giving voice to the personal experiences of nonwhite voters as the candidates continued to fight before an audience of millions over what defines the Democratic Party.

“I’ll answer that question, but I wanted to get back to the issue of climate change for a moment,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), when asked to address the dwindling racial representation on the stage. PBS NewsHour moderator Amna Nawaz chided him into answering the question — which he did with a sweeping acknowledgment of the dangers of climate change facing minority communities — but the moment was clarifying.

It’s a sharp turnabout from this summer and fall, when the debate stage was the most diverse in history.

There were no flashes on Thursday like “That little girl was me” — the moment in a June presidential debate when Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) personally and powerfully confronted former Vice President Joe Biden on his legacy of opposing busing. 

“It’s personal,” Harris said in that second debate, describing the hurt she felt when Biden bragged about his friendly relationships with segregationists. “There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day, and that little girl was me. So, I will tell you, that on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats.”

The whiteness of the debate stage on Thursday didn’t prevent the candidates from pitching their core beliefs and policies, in a glancing way, to Black and brown voters.

Warren framed her ambitious free college plan as a way to make an enormous investment in historically Black colleges and universities and a solution to the student loan debt crisis disproportionately affecting Black and brown students. Sanders responded to a question about immigrants protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program with a call for racial solidarity in order to defeat President Donald Trump. 

Biden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) made ardent appeals for a melting-pot America in response to questions about immigration. “I say this is America, you’re looking at it, and we are not going to be able to succeed in the world if we do not invite everyone to be part of our economy,” she said. 

But except when the moderators prompted deeper discussions, race and racism came up only in these passing mentions.

That’s in contrast with past debates, when the nonwhite candidates used questions about broad Democratic priorities to center the experiences of minority voters.

In the October debate, when Anderson Cooper asked the candidates a question on gun control, Harris, Booker and Castro zeroed in on the disproportionate suffering of people of color. 

“There was a young man in my neighborhood, I watched him grow up, I lived in some high-rise projects with him, named Shahad, and he was murdered on my block last year with an assault rifle,” Booker said. “I’m living with a sense of urgency on this problem because when I go home to my community, like millions of Americans, we live in communities where these weapons, where these gunshots are real every single day.”

Castro spoke about growing up in a neighborhood where it wasn’t uncommon to hear gunshots at night. “And I can remember ducking into the back seat of a car when I was a freshman in high school, across the street from my school, my public school, because folks were shooting at each other,” he said.

Although the white candidates on that stage had plans to reduce gun violence, they framed their policies as ways to prevent mass shootings and suicides — events with a preponderance of white victims.

What message is that sending that we heralded the most diverse field in our history and now we’re seeing people like her dropping out of this campaign? Sen. Cory Booker on Kamala Harris

In the months since, Booker, Castro and Gabbard have all fallen off the stage after failing to meet the Democratic National Committee’s qualifications. Harris met the donor and polling thresholds for Thursday’s debate, but a dwindling campaign bank account forced her to drop out. Patrick, who is Black, has yet to qualify.

This week, Castro and Booker agitated for the DNC to drop requirements that amplify the power of white voters. To qualify for the stage on Thursday, candidates needed to poll at a certain threshold in four early-nominating states — two of which, New Hampshire and Iowa, are overwhelmingly white — or meet a higher threshold in national polls. 

Booker, after Harris dropped out, asked a question similar to the one Sanders would brush aside on Thursday: “What message is that sending, that we heralded the most diverse field in our history, and now we’re seeing people like her dropping out of this campaign?”

Yang said Thursday, “It’s both an honor and disappointment to be the lone candidate of color on the stage tonight.”