We lost the most in the Black/Brown Debate

By Rinku Sen Jan 18, 2008

Watching the so-called Black/Brown debate was so frustrating that at one point I thought, I am the one who’s going to cry. I expected Tim Russert and Brian Wilson, with Natalie Morales in for token color, to start with last week’s ado about their interpersonal racial conflict. It quickly became clear, though, that MSNBC had weeded out any question with racial substance except for those on the agenda of white people. The only questions that fit this bill reflected white fear of the Black man. First, they asked Obama what he’d do about Black males dropping out of school at such high rates. He managed to connect that to Latinos having the same problem – no access to early childhood education (although, what about inequitable funding of schools and criminalization of black boys from the earliest age)– but ended his response with a version of “black fathers have to be real parents.” That gave Clinton the space to point out that families need support, they shouldn’t have to do it all themselves. Russert followed that up by repeating every lie told by white supremacists about Obama (I’m not going to do the same here) and then making him defend himself. It was depressing to think that Clinton would actually win the Black/Brown debate, since she was also the first to say, “this is supposed to be a Black/Brown debate,” while pointing out that the subprime mortgage crisis affects African Americans and Latinos disproportionately. And she was the only one to return to the purpose, saying “this was supposed to be a Black/Brown debate and I regret that we haven’t talked more about those issues,” near the end. Even more depressing was the punditry after the debate, in which Russert said the debate showed Clinton and Obama’s attempt to “get over the issue of race and get into substantive issues.” Russert has no idea that the substantive issues are the race issue, and that last week’s personal attack business is a big media creation. This is so common that it calls for racial justice activists to craft a serious intervention. Racism isn’t a matter of whether we get along, it’s a matter of whether our public policies ensure that everyone is included in the rewards and responsibilities that make up this society – everybody means everybody including those who are currently reviled. Some of the questions we worked on with our Nevada friends (see Bob’s post below) were about whether their vision of universal health care would make sure that large numbers of people of color weren’t left out through supposedly race-neutral exemptions (a danger in most state health coverage bills in the current debate), whether they would stop feeding anti-immigrant racism by dropping the words “illegal immigrant” from their policy debates, and how they would rebuild the capacity of the Department to Justice, which George W. has gutted, to focus on racial discrimination. As all the candidates are talking about loosening up billions of dollars for green jobs training, what are their plans to ensure that people of color get their fair share of those jobs? None of that has anything to do with how well people “get along.” For more examples of such substance, take a look at ARC’s Legislative Report Cards on Racial Justice. I’m often told that this is too complicated for Americans to understand – that there’s some link between society’s rules and real peoples’ experiences — but anyone I talk to can see it immediately. Why can’t the U.S. press? We are entitled to far better.