What the white debate stage says about racial equity

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Gage Skidmore/Wikipedia/Creative Commons
By Zenobia Jeffries Warfield

My response to Cory Booker—the last self-identified person of color with real potential to win the nomination—dropping out of the presidential race is proof positive that I am an idealist. I forget sometimes that I and those who are on the journey to racial equity and anti-racism are but a few. The rest of the people in this country either don’t know they should be on that journey, don’t want or care to be, or both. 

People in the United States complain daily about their government and the conditions in which they live, but when they have the opportunity to do something about it, well, they just don’t! Maybe for some, it’s fear of the unknown—“the devil you know,” right? But if we really wanted change, even if for our own selfish gain, why not do something differently?

How did we go from 20 candidates—including four people of color, and one White candidate whose platform spotlighted reparations and historical injustices—to six White ones; four of them men. Kamala Harris was a strong—not perfect, but strong—candidate who had to drop out because she ran out of money. Juli├ín Castro, just as strong. Cory Booker had name recognition as a progressive Democrat. He has been strong on criminal justice reform, supported a signature policy—baby bonds—to close the racial wealth gap, and sponsored the companion to HR 40 in the Senate—the only reparations bill ever to be introduced in the post-Reconstruction U.S. Senate. Each of these candidates of color were at least as strong—some arguably stronger—than those who remain in the race.

Where was the money?

The termination of their campaigns shows that for most people in this country, diversity and inclusion are nothing but lip service, buzzwords. If self-proclaimed progressives truly believed in the values of diversity, inclusion, and welcoming people historically excluded from such leadership, they’d put their money where their mouths are. They’d back campaigns from strong candidates whose own experiences would return fresh momentum to anti-racism work in the Oval Office.

Instead we’re left with Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Tom Steyer, and Amy Klobuchar on the debate stage. Of the six, Sanders and Warren are the only ones who’ve introduced policies aimed at addressing racial inequity, but many folks of color are skeptical of their commitment to those policies. 

For good reason. Joblessness. Homelessness. Illness. Mass incarceration at an all-time high.

Poverty is pervasive in this country—the land of plenty. A third of the nearly 40 million people in poverty in the U.S. in 2017 were children. Our children are the poorest group in the nation. And although the numbers declined slightly for Black and Brown children over the last several years, the numbers of Black, Indigenous, and children of color in poverty are still double—or triple in the case of Native children—that of White children.  

Global disasters abound, and the United States has much to do with that. 

Immigrants and refugees are being criminalized, and their families separated. We have no provisions in place to help those fleeing war-torn, or climate-devastated countries. We’re experiencing our own environmental and climate violence. No oversight in place to hold those accountable for the dangerous conditions in which many of our citizens live—a reminder that Flint, Michigan’s water crisis is still, well, “complicated.”

And yet, we continue to maintain the status quo. When will those who have the money step up to help make change? Grassroots efforts are plentiful. Organizers and activists are doing their part. We publish these amazing stories daily.

If those with the resources to assist, say they are really about anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-gender violence, really invested in climate and environmental justice, actual legal justice, and economic equity, then why isn’t that showing up for the candidates entering the presidential race, and more importantly for the ones who get to stay?

Whether we like it or not, it takes capital—and not just the human kind, or mere social media support, but money—to have longevity in these races. And it may be that way for awhile, especially with decisions like Citizens United blocking meaningful campaign finance reform. In the meantime, surely, we can choose the strongest candidate and hold that person accountable to the progressive policies we know can change our country—and the world—for the better. 

But we aren’t doing that. 

Even if the sole goal is to get Trump out of the White House, how many of us believe that will happen with Biden or Sanders as the Democratic nominee? Or with Warren? Surely not the others. I’m by no means questioning either candidate’s capability, because certainly they could­—they’re far more experienced and, hell, just smarter than the current president. But what is the likelihood of that happening? We’re right back where we were in 2016, debating “electability” and who can most appeal to the “forgotten” White working class voters. 

This may not be the “Yes we can” message that some may be looking for. But it is the reality for people working toward racial justice. There’s no doubt we’re capable. We absolutely can! Unless we start to back up our talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion with action, and our money, this is the rabbit hole we’ll continue to spiral down: just more of the same.

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