Commentary: Black Lives Don't Matter at the GOP Debate

Candidates barely touch the surface of issues facing African-Americans.

Right before the Republican presidential debate in Cleveland last night, Fox News reported that "racial issues" were the number one concern for voters in a Facebook survey from Ohio. Sadly, you would never know it watching the debate.

Here we are on the first anniversary of the Michael Brown shooting, after protests in Ferguson, after an uprising in Baltimore, following the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, after witnessing police brutality against a 14-year-old girl at a pool party in McKinney, after a white supremacist murdered nine churchgoers in Charleston, after the questionable death of Sandra Bland in Texas and the fatal shooting of Sam Dubose in Cincinnati, and still it took 92 minutes to ask a question about racial issues in the first presidential debate of the season.

But I suppose that's better than the junior varsity debate of the seven lesser candidates that took place earlier in the evening, when the question was never asked at all.  

There was a moment of hope in the main debate when a Black Facebook user, Alex Chalgren of Columbia, SC, got to ask a recorded question, but many concerned Black viewers were, no doubt, disappointed that he wanted to know how the candidates would "stop the treacherous actions of ISIS." Mind you, only a handful of Americans have been killed by ISIS but nearly 700 Americans have been killed by police this year alone.

I wish Mr. Chalgren had asked a deeper question about the Black Lives Matter movement, but it probably wouldn't have been broadcast. When Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly did turn to the subject, she asked one quick softball question to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, waited politely for his 30-second response and then cut to a commercial break featuring a promo of the new film Straight Outta Compton.

Gov. Walker spoke vaguely about "proper training" of police and then managed to answer the question without ever mentioning the word "Black" or "African-American." In fact, the word "Black" was only used twice in the entire debate, once in Megyn Kelly's question and once when Ohio Governor John Kasich refreshingly defended his state's Medicaid system, which he said was "$2 billion in the black."

Near the end of the debate, Fox News did find time to include a question from a Facebook user who wanted to know "if any of them have received a word from God on what they should do" as president. (Spoiler alert: God apparently doesn't like Democrats.)

Ted Cruz suggested that God wants the president to be "a fiscal conservative, a social conservative [and] a national security conservative." Walker admitted God hadn't given him Ten Commandments to deliver to the people but did assert he was following God's will by taking on labor unions in Wisconsin. And Marco Rubio, bless his heart, insisted that God had "blessed the Republican Party with some very good candidates," a statement he may live to regret if God's chosen candidate loses to Hillary Clinton.

Not to tokenize the only Black candidate in the race too obviously, Megyn Kelly asked Dr. Ben Carson the same God question but also threw in an opportunity for him to comment on what he would do to heal the divide in "race relations." Carson complained about people who "try to make a race war" out of everything and "want to divide us," a very comforting message from a man who once argued Obamacare was the worst thing since slavery.

Given the level of racial sensitivity in the GOP field, you can see why Donald Trump's xenophobic message has played well with the conservative Republican base. It's as if they live in an alternate universe where the cops are always good, the TV news anchors are always white and the civil rights demonstrators are always "race hustlers."

No one on stage last night ever acknowledged that the Black Lives Matter protesters had a point about police brutality or police shootings or criminal justice reform. Not Ben Carson. Not Scott Walker. Not Donald Trump. Not even Jeb Bush. A year's worth of protests and media attention from New York to Los Angeles barely even moved the needle on the scale of Republican issues of concern. If Black lives really mattered to Republicans, they failed to show it last night.
Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for each week.

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