There was that awkward moment at the Democratic Debate in Las Vegas last night when moderator Anderson Cooper turned to the Black guy, Don Lemon, for a question about race that should have been anticipated by every candidate on the stage.
Lemon introduced a video question from an African-American audience member who asked, "Do Black lives matter or do all lives matter?" Cooper then put the question to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who knocked it out of the park with three simple words: "Black lives matter."
It was a stunning turnaround from his answer in July, when Sanders was shouted down by protesters at the Netroots Nation convention. "Black lives, of course, matter," he responded reluctantly back then. "But if you don't want me to be here, it's OK. I don't want to out scream people," he added. Back then, Sanders was clearly more comfortable talking about income inequality than racial inequality.
Tuesday night in Vegas, however, Sanders was the most direct candidate on the stage in endorsing the Black Lives Matter cause. Former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley gave a long-winded answer to make the same point. "Black lives matter, and we have a lot of work to do to reform our criminal justice system, and to address race relations in our country," he said at the end of his lengthy remarks.
But for some reason, when Cooper turned to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he changed the question and never asked her about "Black Lives Matter." Instead, he asked, "What would you do for African-Americans in this country that President Obama couldn't?"
Clinton, who spent much of the night aligning herself with Obama, wisely resisted the push to distance herself from the popular Democratic president on the issue of race. Instead, she described the nation's first Black president as a "great moral leader on these issues" and called for enactment of the recommendations from the president's own commission. She also spoke about body cameras and mass incarceration and called for a "new New Deal for communities of color."
Although she endorsed the goals of the movement, she never actually mentioned the words "Black Lives Matter." Nor did she mention the words "Black" or "African-American" at any time during the entire debate. Instead, she deployed the less specific phrase "communities of color."
Part of Clinton's omission was possibly a reflection of the limited question that Cooper asked her to answer, but she still missed an easy opportunity to connect with Black voters simply by being more specific. It's hard to determine why Clinton didn't go there, especially since she just sat down with Black Lives Matter activists last week, and surely she was prepared with a quick response if anyone directly asked her about the movement or her meeting.
When it came time for former Virginia Senator Jim Webb to speak, he wasted the first part of his answer by whining, as he did repeatedly throughout the debate, about the lack of air time he was getting. But then he tried and failed to thread the needle of the original question by declaring that "every life in this country matters."
Yeah, we get that, Senator Webb. Of course, every life should matter. However, the point of the Black Lives Matter movement is that every life actually doesn't matter. The movement is not an attempt to deny the importance of non-Black lives. The point is to get people to understand that Black lives have not mattered for centuries with American policy makers, and only by specifically declaring that Black lives do matter are we able to get our nation to address the ongoing crises in Black America.
If white people were unemployed, uninsured, undereducated and over-incarcerated at the rate that Blacks are in America today, our leaders would race into action with sweeping government programs to fix the problems, just as the nation did with Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, the G.I. bill, the bank bailout and the stimulus. But when African-Americans experience Depression-like conditions in this country, it's just considered business as usual.
Unfortunately, except for the exchange on Black Lives Matter, African-American issues didn't come up much during the debate. The word "Black" was used just 10 times in the two-hour debate; "African-American" was used only eight times. That's unusually low, considering Blacks make up 13 percent of the U.S. population and an even larger share of the Democratic base.
But the one good thing Democrats have in their favor is the Republican Party. When positioned next to the bitter, mean-spirited, anti-immigrant, anti-minority rhetoric coming from the GOP debates, even the weakest Democratic candidates look better in comparison.
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(Photo: John Locher/AP Photo)