Here's What Was Missing From the Democratic Debate's Discussion of Race

Here's What Was Missing From the Democratic Debate's Discussion of Race

Activists have been a strong force in the Democratic presidential race.

After a confrontation with Black Lives Matter activists in July, Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders quickly released racial justice platforms. Hillary Clinton is expected to release her highly anticipated racial justice platform soon, but in the meantime she has worked to keep activists sated through a series of closed-door meetings (including one that took place just last Friday).

But releasing policy platforms and openly debating issues on a nationally televised stage are two different things, and many were waiting for Tuesday’s debate with bated breath. So did their hard work pay off? Well, that depends on whom you ask.

For those eager to have race and criminal justice reform discussed at all, the candidates’ willingness to openly say “Black lives matter” and call for structural change to the criminal justice system was a slam dunk. As the dust began to settle in Las Vegas, Wednesday was full of feel-good headlines like “A New Emphasis on Race and Gender in Democratic Debate” (The Washington Post), “The Democratic Debate Proved that Black Lives Matter is Making a Difference” (Mic), and “The Future Democratic Presidential Nominee Thinks Black Lives Matter” (The Huffington Post). The Prospect’s Nathalie Baptiste pointed out that addressing such issues demonstrated the power of disruptive protest in effecting change.

But for those looking for specific policies intended to address racial justice, the limited debate of these issues on Tuesday night left something to be desired.

“Black voters aren’t looking for inspiration as much as we are looking for substance,” The New Republic’s Jamil Smith wrote on Wednesday. “I doubt black liberation activists have worked this hard to get these Democratic candidates merely acknowledging racial justice and making vague promises.”

Others echoed Smith’s frustration. Over at Buzzfeed, news reporter Darren Sands noted that “some activists expressed disappointment that the issue of police brutality failed to come up in a meaningful way during the debate”, while The Guardian added that outside of one question about the Black Lives Matter movement “issues related to race were only broached on a handful of other occasions”.

Anyone hoping that the limited time spent on Black Lives Matter would be partially mitigated by an expanded conversation on criminal justice reform was equally let down. Christie Thompson of The Marshall Project was especially disappointed in Clinton’s response to a question on marijuana legalization, calling out the Democratic frontrunner’s claim that “we have a huge population in our prisons for nonviolent, low-level offenses that are primarily due to marijuana” as being overly reliant on a “fallacy about who, exactly, is filling prison beds.” Criminal justice experts have thoroughly debunked the assertion that the imprisonment of nonviolent drug offenders is the leading factor in the growth of mass incarceration, although that hasn’t stopped other candidates from saying it.

To be fair to the candidates, the first Democratic debate should be seen as a warm-up of sorts, so it is entirely possible that more aggressive policy proposals  aimed at racial justice and dismantling the prison system will make an appearance in future debates. But even with questions on O’Malley’s legacy of zero-tolerance policing in Baltimore and Jim Webb’s dislike of affirmative action in the mix, race and criminal justice reform stood out as areas where a surprisingly scant amount of actual debating took place. Looks like activists still have a lot of work to do.