Am I the only one who noticed that the only time race and racism in America were mentioned during the Democratic Presidential Debate was when the candidates were asked to choose between the hashtags Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter?
Not even typical race questions: mass incarceration; police brutality; unequal pay for Black women; the unemployment rate for Black youth; the school-to-prison pipeline; redlining and redistricting; predatory lending; housing discrimination; voting irregularities; segregated and unequal education, etc…
Somehow, all of the institutionalized issues, which plague Black America (and the community of color at large) had been magically reduced down to a couple of phrases. Two phrases that are more reflective of a Twitter beef than actual political discourse.
In a way, I can see its brilliance. Theoretically, we all have a good idea of what the hashtags are supposed to mean. To be Black Lives Matter is to recognize the institutionalized oppressions, social, economic and political, which impede the ability of Black people to have full autonomy and justice in this country.
To be All Lives Matter is to be contrary to that.
Still, the question feels like an oversimplification. For one, it does not take into account the nuances and debates around those hashtags, which are currently happening within our own community. There are folks who are concerned about police brutality but support the idea of “All Lives Matter” for non-demoralizing reasons. For instance, people who have lost family and friends to gun violence, or who even live in areas with a high propensity toward street violence, feel that particular narrative is missing from the current Black Lives Matter movement (cue Richard Sherman).
Likewise, there are the more radical among us who do not like the Black Lives Matter movement for what they believe is a failure to define a clear agenda. However, they also do not fall for the jive of “All Lives Matter.” I am not one of them; I’m just mentioning those individuals.
Therefore, if Black folks haven’t quite figured out what it means to be “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter” (or neither), how can asking this question at the debate accurately inform us about where the candidates stand on issues that actually affect Black lives?
Consider for a moment the candidates’ responses to the question itself, which mostly felt canned and rushed. For instance, Bernie Sanders said unequivocally that Black lives matter. He also said that we need to combat institutionalized racism and reform the criminal justice system. And if elected president, he planned to tackle that issue by ensuring that people have education and jobs rather than a jail cell.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley said Black lives matter and agreed that we need to reform our criminal justice system. But then he went on to put himself front and center in the issue by talking about the time when he was running for mayor and made mention of the number of Black men dying from street violence. Senator Jim Webb avoided the question altogether and instead talked about how he had always fought for the African-American community, particularly Black veterans.
Hillary Clinton didn’t get a chance to offer up her support of either “Black Lives Matter” or “All Lives Matter.” Anderson Cooper redirected the question to ask what she would do differently from President Obama to address race relations. But she did talk about the need to reform the criminal justice system and how “communities of color” need a “new New Deal” that addresses housing and education disparities.
Still, Anderson Cooper offered no follow-up questions to any of the candidates about what those “reforms” they all said needed to happen would look like as policies. Nor did he challenge any of the candidates on how well their past records and platforms matched their rhetoric. In particular, it would have been nice if he’d asked why Sanders continues to promote this belief that education and jobs are the answer to institutionalized racism and mass incarceration. Or if he would have pushed Clinton to account for her support of “Three Strikes You’re Out,” as First Lady. And also get her to explain why some of the most dedicated contributors to her presidential campaign are lobbyists for private prisons.
The Black Lives Matter movement is probably at the center of the biggest domestic issue facing this country right now. Not one particular policy or bill currently working its way through Congress, which might directly affect or impede the lives of Black people, was mentioned during the debates. Moreover, none of the candidates interrupted each other or debated their voting records on certain issues, which at times, kept Black people’s lives from mattering. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that nobody asked former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee a damn thing on Black, or anybody else’s, lives for that matter.
Last night, we watched Sanders give a detailed assessment on income inequality and the effect it is having on the middle class. We listened as Hillary recounted the time when she and President Obama fought with resilience to get the Chinese to sign a deal that addressed climate change. But all told, the candidates were given less than five minutes to talk about any policy, which directly affected the lives of those living within the Black community.
I’m not quite sure if I learned that Black lives matter to any of the candidates. If anything, our lives felt like an afterthought.