Julián Castro and Sen. Cory Booker speak during the first Democratic presidential debate in June. Both candidates will appear in Wednesday night’s debate.
DETROIT — Tonight’s Democratic debate will be the first time in presidential campaign history that the majority of participants aren’t white.
And the timing couldn’t be more striking.Story Continued Below
A reckoning inside the Democratic Party on racial identity is underway, as President Donald Trump unleashes racist tweets, attacking lawmakers of color and stoking fear among his base about primarily Latino immigrants. But Democrats are being forced to examine their own pasts, too — namely the party’s role in implementing policies that disproportionately hurt minorities for generations.
Former Vice President Joe Biden will stand between Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who are black. They’ll be joined by former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, the only Latino in the race, as well as Andrew Yang and Tulsi Gabbard, who are of Asian and Pacific Islander descent, respectively.
Booker, Harris, and Castro have attacked Biden in recent weeks over his record on criminal justice, busing, and immigration. But Biden has signaled he’s willing to hit back.
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Booker’s stewardship of the Newark police department and Harris’ record as a prosecutor are potential flashpoints in the debate. The potential showdown is something then-presidential candidate Jesse Jackson could have only dreamed of in 1984 and 1988 when he tried to put race and black voters front and center.
“Black voters are no longer allowing you to give lip service, are no longer allowing you to do photo-ops or show up at the church the weekend before,” said former South Carolina state Rep. Bakari Sellers, whose father worked on Jackson’s campaign and who supports Harris’ presidential bid. “There’s a lot of parallels to ‘88 and what Jesse attempted to do, and what Jesse attempted to do has come to fruition.”
The explicit debate around racial disparities is both about appealing to voters of color who are critical in the Democratic primary and addressing white liberals who have dramatically shifted on issues relating to race during the Obama and Trump eras, surveys and polling have shown.
“Race is an issue that historically everyone has turned away from unless they are creating this fear of the other, so for Democrats to be tackling that head on in a very diverse city is very very important,” said Laurie Pohutsky, a newly-elected 31-year-old Michigan state rep who won her district by 223 votes in 2018. “It shows that we are actually beginning to acknowledge the people who have done the majority of the work for the Democratic Party. And I say that as a white woman.”
But it also concerns Democrats’ response to Trump and the moral question he’s laid at their feet: Do they subscribe to conventional wisdom that talking excessively about black and brown voters will hurt them in a general election — or define their campaign by overtly addressing race and challenging Trump’s politics of white grievance.
“[Trump] frankly has juiced the issue of race as a political mechanism to motivate and inspire a portion of his base,” said former Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum. He summed up the president’s message as, “‘‘I’m one of you, I’m your guy — I’m the one who’s going to chase out black and brown people.’”
And for Democrats, Gillum added, it’s “not going to be good enough to just say the past is the past.”
Democrats’ ability to speak to minority communities, specifically black voters, could determine their ability to win in a state like Michigan. Trump won the state by just 11,000 votes in 2016. and in Detroit, where black people make up about 80 percent of the population, roughly 42,000 eligible voters sat out the election.
The emergence of race as a defining issue in Democratic presidential primaries began in 2016 when Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were repeatedly confronted by black activists pushing them to state directly that “black lives matter.”
The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and an emboldened activist base stemmed from Barack Obama’s presidency.
“Obama illustrated for a lot of people, particularly young black people, the limitations of representation,” said Rahsad Robinson, president of the nonprofit civil rights group Color Of Change. “That just having a black face in a high place doesn’t mean that you’re actually going to get everything that you want to achieve.”
The Black Lives Matter movement “forced a conversation about race in a way that I don’t think had happened before with a white candidate,” Theodore Johnson, senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, said of Clinton’s candidacy in 2016.
The discussion around racial identity has reached a turning point this cycle. Most of the Democratic presidential hopefuls are speaking explicitly about how their proposals would address minority communities affected by the racial wealth gap, higher maternal mortality rates, and the threat of deportation after living in the United States for years.
Biden and Booker dueled last week over their own records on criminal justice, with Booker calling Biden the “architect of mass incarceration” and Biden criticizing Booker for a federal investigation into the Newark Police Department during Booker’s tenure as mayor.
“His police department was stopping and frisking people, mostly African-American men,” Biden said last week.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg also did a flurry of media appearances to promote his “Douglass Plan” named after the famous abolitionist, which he calls “a comprehensive and intentional dismantling of racist structures and systems.” Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke frequently talks about how he benefits from white privilege and disclosed this month that he and his wife’s ancestors owned slaves. As his debate guests last night, O’Rourke invited three black high school football players from Michigan who were benched after they kneeled during the national anthem (two eventually transferred high schools).
“The very foundation of this country, the wealth that we have built, the way we became the greatest country on the face of the planet was literally on the backs of those who were kidnapped and brought here by force,” he said at the debate.
Johnson said he expected Biden to be the target of the discussion tonight and going forward.
“Race is going to be talked about more, and the more it’s talked about the more people are going to hit Biden on it because they’re after the black voters in his coalition,” he said.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has already signaled he will attack Biden over past comments on working with segregationist senators and may mention, as he did in the first debate, that he is the only one on stage with a black son. But De Blasio has his own vulnerabilities on race, such as the fact that the officer involved in the death of Eric Garner remains on the force in New York.
Black activists were frustrated by the lack of time dedicated to race on Tuesday night given Trump’s latest attacks on Baltimore and Rep. Elijah Cummings.
“Skirting around the issue of racism and its impacts will not help Dems and the media is doing a disservice to the country by diminishing this critical issue on the debate stage,” tweeted Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of the progressive BlackPAC.
Wednesday night is expected to be different, and a big reason why, operatives and activists say, is the Democratic base and grassroots groups that sprang up in response to Trump.
“This fight is coming to a head because our communities are finally saying, enough is enough, if you want us, if you want the Democratic Party to be our political home then prove it,” said Natalia Salgado, a Latina and national political director for the Center for Popular Democracy Action, a progressive group.
“It’s not enough to say I was friends with a black person,” Salgado said, referring to Biden’s oft-used rejoinder that he was Obama’s vice president.
But Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons offered a warning to Democrats who plan to dig into any of their opponents’ pasts concerning policies that have negatively affected minorities ahead of the second debate.
“The danger is that the candidates end up giving Donald Trump ammunition in his efforts to depress black folks while he tries to excite white nativist voters,” said Simmons.
The lingering question for Democrats is whether or not the party’s reckoning on how it addresses racial identity and Trump’s nativist appeals is resonating with voters — black, brown or white.
“I don’t know the answer to that,” said Sellers. “We probably won’t know the answer for a really long time.”
Sally Goldenberg contributed to this report.
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