In the first debate of an election marked by a tumultuous summer of protests over racism and police brutality, the presidential candidates debated whether “systemic racism” existed in America.
The two presidential candidates addressed the issues in wildly different ways.
President Donald Trump, who has centered racist rhetoric and attacks on people of color in both his campaigns, implied that Democratic nominee Joe Biden is racist, referring back to his work on the 1994 federal crime bill. He also characterized anti-racism protests and the Black Lives Matter movement as violent, driving home a point he’s made for the past several months in overtures to conservative and white, suburban voters.
Biden focused on calling the problems that Black Americans encounter "systemic injustice" and talked about the disproportionate number of Black people who have died of COVID-19.
The part of the debate that was, ahead of time, billed as “race and violence in our cities,” focused on anti-racism protests and the Black Lives Matter movement — a framing that echoes the way Trump has talked about the protests, in line with his strategy to stoke racist fears among white voters.
Chris Wallace, the Fox News anchor who moderated the debate, asked several questions that hewed closely to the right-wing views of the anti-racism demonstrations as violent behavior rather than democratic protest. And he focused extensively on areas of the country where demonstrations have turned violent. At one point, he asked Biden if he had “ever called the Democratic mayor of Portland or governor of Oregon and said, ‘You have to stop this. Bring in the National Guard. Do whatever it takes. Stop the days and months of violence in Portland.’”
Trump repeatedly used the phrase “the China plague,” a racist description of COVID-19 at a time when Asian Americans are dealing with a rise in hate crimes, without being challenged by the moderator. Wallace ahead of the debate had said he believed a moderator’s role should be to be “as invisible as possible.”
Wallace asked each candidate why Americans should trust them to “deal with the race issues facing this country over the next four years.”
Trump pointed to a speech that Biden gave as a senator in 1993 in support of the crime bill, which as a law resulted in the mass incarceration of Black men in particular. He then immediately pivoted to talk about his own support among “military generals and law enforcement” and said he thinks Democratic mayors of some cities where protests happened should have used the threat of force to end demonstrations.
“He did a crime bill. 1994. Where you called them superpredators, African Americans. And they have never forgotten it — they’ve never forgotten it, Joe. You did that. And they call you superpredator and I'm letting people out of jail now — you have treated the African American population, community — you have treated the Black community about as bad as anybody in this country,” Trump said.
In the speech, Biden said there were "predators on our streets" who were "beyond the pale" and could not be rehabilitated by the criminal justice system. He did not refer to “superpredators,” something Hillary Clinton had once done. He has since tried to distance himself from his involvement in aspects of the 1994 crime bill.
Biden, who won the Democratic primary in large part thanks to the support of older Black voters in the South, pointed to large rallies of white supremacists across the country in places like Charlottesville and to Trump’s comments after those rallies, and added that Trump has done “virtually nothing” for Black Americans.
During the segment, Trump continued to mention the destruction of the suburbs, a racist attack line he’s pushed against Biden for weeks in an attempt to bring suburban voters back to his campaign.
“If he ever got to run this country and they ran it the way he would want to run it, we would have — our suburbs would be gone,” Trump said. “You would see problems like you have never seen.”
“This is not 1950. All of these dog whistles and racism don’t work anymore,” Biden responded, pointing to the integration of many suburbs.
For weeks, Trump has attacked Biden and warned suburban voters that their communities would be destroyed by plans to build low-income housing in their neighborhoods. The attack most notably surfaced when Trump and the Republican National Committee invited the McCloskeys, a St. Louis couple who were charged with unlawful use of a weapon after they aimed guns at Black Lives Matter Protesters outside their property, to speak at the party’s convention about the threat of the movement. In their speech, they warned Trump supporters that what happened to them could “easily happen” to anyone.
Wallace raised another issue Trump has used in recent weeks to ramp up his racist rhetoric: the administration’s plan to direct federal agencies to halt training sessions on racial sensitivity. And he asked if Trump believed that systemic racism existed in America.
“I ended it because it's racist,” Trump responded. “I ended it because a lot of people were complaining that they were asked to do things that were absolutely insane. It was a radical revolution that was taking place.”
“They were teaching people that our country is a horrible place, that it is a racist place,” he added.
Wallace ended the segment by asking Trump if he would condemn white supremacists and the violence groups of armed civilians have caused at protests across the country.
Trump, who said he was “willing to do that,” then told white nationalist groups like the Proud Boys to “stand back and standby” before adding that most things he saw were from the “left wing.”
“Somebody has to do something about antifa and the left. It’s not a right-wing problem. It’s a left-wing problem,” the president added.