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No Black Candidates, No Black Viewers: Democratic Black Caucus Chair Calls for A Presidential Debate Blackout

The Democratic Party, a political party with black voters as it’s core constituency, will have no black candidates on the stage at the next debate. Let that sink in for a minute. When asked to address the lack of black candidates on the debate stage, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) argues that its process to determine which presidential candidates make it to the debate stage is fair.  They point out that the process was known to all the candidates in advance and that each candidate has an equal opportunity to qualify for the debates. Their argument proves, yet again, that there continues to be a failure to understand the difference between equity and equality. They are arguing that no one should complain because the process is neutral on its face.  

Yet, the fact that the process outlined by the DNC appears neutral on its face, should not be enough to maintain it once it became clear that the process was flawed. The DNC developed the process. It was they who decided how candidates would be selected for inclusion in the debates. Once they realized the shortcomings of their process, it was well within their latitude to modify it accordingly. A process that appears neutral on its face but has a discriminatory impact is ipso facto discriminatory. In short, the debate rules, set by Tom Perez, the chairman of the DNC, have disproportionately affected black candidates. 

Several politicians have already decried the outcomes of the DNC’s process and their unwillingness to address its deficiencies. 

Rep. Marcia Fudge has said, “We have a system designed by our own Democratic National  Committee that is not in any way intended to elevate the most qualified candidate but designed to elect the person with the  most money or most access to it.” “That’s why you’re going to see an all-white debate stage.”

Presidential candidate Senator Cory Booker will not take part in the December 19 debate and has said that the DNC rules are “going to have the unintended consequence of excluding people of color.”

Presidential Candidate Representative Tulsi Gabbard will also be missing from the debate stage. However, she has already made it clear that she has no plans to participate even if she meets the criteria citing her concerns that the DNC is trying to hijack the election.   

Tom Steyer, a Presidential candidate who has qualified for the December 19 debate, also voiced his concerns and issued a formal call to action asking the DNC to revise their debate requirements stating, “One of the strengths of the Democratic Party is that it represents every community in our great nation. In order to defeat Donald Trump, Democrats need to engage voters from every part of the country, and that means making sure voters hear from a diverse group of candidates before they select our nominee.” 

So what’s the big deal? What is wrong with an all-white debate stage?  The big deal is that black voters are, once again, left out in the cold.  I suspect, as we’ve seen in previous debates, Black Democrats’ issues of concern will likely not be addressed beyond brief passing references to criminal justice reform and the like with little consideration of policy issues that address the needs of black Democrats.  Except this time, there will be nobody on stage to call that out and speak from experience. What is most striking about this situation is that our party proclaims itself to be the party of diversity and inclusion but it could not find a way to ensure diversity on the debate stage.  In any event, a party that prides itself on fairness should be ashamed of what it has wrought. 

Let me be clear, facially neutral policies have historically been the hallmark of discrimination against black people in America. So forgive us if we are not impressed with the argument that neutrality is tantamount to fairness.  We have heard this argument before. Grandfather clauses and Poll taxes come immediately to mind. As does the Anti-Drug abuse act of 1986 (the crack law) and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 and gerrymandering – the list goes on. A law or policy or debate criteria that is racially neutral on its face but in practice has a discriminatory impact is nonetheless discriminatory. In the case of presidential debates, it is no less onerous than any run of the mill voter suppression scheme of which there are many. 

Those who are unable to raise sufficient capital to purchase air time are doomed to obscurity.  Those whose constituents are low income and who are living from paycheck to paycheck can ill afford to continuously donate to campaigns. Lack of financial resources sufficient to contribute to a campaign is not necessarily indicative of a lack of support.  

Also, people who do not have landlines are less likely to be contacted.  I for one have never been polled by any national polling organization. I am a politically active registered voter and have both a landline and a cell.  I’m still waiting.  

Of course, the DNC’s argument is that if you want to be President of the United States you must be able to raise funds and have a well-organized ground team. Interesting indeed.  The problem is neither of those are the qualifications to become President of the United States. Thirty-five years of age and a natural-born citizen. 

So the DNC argument that the criteria for inclusion are neutral is not persuasive.  Participation in the debate also implies that if you are not on the stage you are not a serious contender and not worthy of support or consideration.  But I digress. The issue here is that the DNC implies that the only worthy candidates are those on the stage. I contend, however, that what truly makes a candidate worthy is their willingness to stand up for what they believe, be a voice for the voiceless, and speak truth to power. 

We saw this with Tom Steyer who had the courage of conviction to issue a public statement challenging the DNC to rethink their policy.  Going forward, I should hope that other candidates have the political will to be an advocate for equity.

For these reasons, I end with the question with which I began. What if black voters refused to watch any further Democratic Presidential Debates that didn’t include black candidates? We could call it a Debate Blackout, No black candidates, No black viewers. If D.C. insiders and the Democratic elites continue to ignore the concerns of the most loyal constituency in the Democratic Party, then the black constituency should ignore the Democratic Party. Fair is Fair. 

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Johnnie Cordero

Johnnie Cordero is an African American thought leader who identifies as a Radical Centrist. He is the current Chairman of the Democratic Black Caucus of South Carolina. Cordero is the host of the “Radical Review” podcast and is a frequent political contributor and commentator for The MinorityEye. Cordero holds a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and a Doctorate in Jurisprudence. He is the author of ‘Total Black Empowerment: A Guide to Critical Thinking in the Age of Trump.’ His new book ‘Theodicy and The Power of the African Will’ is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other online book sellers.

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