This year's two presidential debates gave people of color little idea of how either candidate would shape policy that directly affects their lives, even as disproportionate numbers of Black and brown Americans die from COVID-19, suffer the economic fallout of the pandemic, and continue to be targeted for police violence.
Instead, the debates, which each featured sections on race, took on a familiar pattern of how politicians speak about race-related issues in this country — in platitudes and broad statements — with just days left to go now until voting ends.
Questions about the issues Black and brown people deal with devolved into finger-pointing about the term “superpredators,” what each candidate has said and done in the past to hurt people of color, and, somehow, foreign influence in the election.
While the second debate on Thursday took a more informed approach to police violence and racial inequities in the US, neither candidate offered up a clear vision that addressed the specific and pressing issues facing people of color in their daily lives.
Trump did not even attempt to address what the future looks like for people of color in the US, instead reverting to accusations against Biden about his history with crime legislation and a claim that “Nobody has done more for the Black community than Donald Trump.”
The president pointed to opportunity zones — a tax break program that is supposed to help disadvantaged communities but has also been used by wealthy Republican donors — and repeated his exaggerated claims about having rescued HBCUs.
He didn’t talk about the historic protests against police brutality that swept through the nation this summer, under his presidency, though during the first debate he pointed to demonstrations in Ferguson, Oakland, and Baltimore under the Obama administration as signs of “tremendous division.” He referred to Black Lives Matter just to tie the movement to an anti-police chant.
Again, the conversation on race stalled on finger-pointing and claims about each candidate’s track record, rather than offering up a road map for how they would address police brutality and racial tension.
During the beginning of the segment, Trump pushed at a point that he’s made over the course of the election, accusing Biden of doing nothing for the Black community aside from pushing the 1994 crime bill, which disproportionately led to the mass incarceration of Black Americans.
“They were called and he called them superpredators and he said that. He said it. Superpredators. And they have never lived that down,” Trump said nearly repeating the exact lines he said during the first presidential debate. Biden never called Black Americans “superpredators” while leading the push for the crime bill, but said that “predators” on the streets were “beyond the pale” during a 1993 speech on the Senate floor.
Biden, who has spoken broadly about the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 and police brutality on people of color, said on Thursday that he thinks institutional racism exists in the US and acknowledged the shortcomings of the ‘94 crime bill, calling it “a mistake.” “We can deal with the systemic racism,” he said at the end of the debate, when asked how he would address Americans as president.
He also said he understands the burden on Black parents who worry about their children being attacked by police and acknowledged that he never had to worry about that with his own children. Trump, when asked if he empathizes with those parents, said, “Yes, I do,” before immediately switching to attack Biden again on the crime bill.
But on the debate stages, there were few substantive explanations from Biden either on what exactly he would do as president to address those inequities, though he has released policy plans that detail some ways he would address inequities in healthcare, the economy, education, policing, and how Native American tribes are treated by the government.
At one point during the section on “race in America,” Trump once again turned the conversation to Biden’s son Hunter and his work in Ukraine.
"President Trump, we're talking about race right now, and I do want to stay on the issue of race," moderator Kristen Welker interrupted, trying to return to the subject.
After the first debate skipped the topic entirely, the second also briefly focused on issues of immigration, in which Biden briefly shaded former President Barack Obama’s deportation policies and promised a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people within the US while again mostly sticking to attacks on Trump’s record. Trump, for his part, blamed Obama and Biden for the plight of immigrants in the country, including the children separated from their parents under his administration’s policies.
Later in the debate, the president was asked about his negative rhetoric about the protest movements that surged across the country over the summer as white nationalist paramilitary groups showed up at demonstrations across the country and clashed with protesters.
The president told the moderator that he didn’t “know what to say” about his comments and pointed to the criminal justice reform initiatives and funding for HBCUs as examples of what he’s done for Black communities during his presidency.
“I am the least racist person. I can't even see the audience because it's so dark, but I don't care who's in the audience,” Trump said, looking out into a crowd that included members of the Biden and Trump families. “I'm the least racist person in this room.”