Debate gives Democrats a chance to focus on unaddressed issues of concern to black voters
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In the face of a once-in-generation election, this year’s debates have been a letdown in both the “fight night” format and the narrow substance of the questions. That’s not simply unhelpful to the public discourse, it’s a disservice to all voters, in particular black voters.

With this week’s Democratic debate in Atlanta, there’s an opportunity to break new ground by discussing issues critically important to black voters in greater detail. The moderators could redeem their colleagues in the media by diving deeper on top issues that are front of mind for black Americans, whose votes we know are critical to winning both the 2020 primary and to defeating Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrats ask if they have reason to worry about UK result Trump scramble to rack up accomplishments gives conservatives heartburn Seven years after Sandy Hook, the politics of guns has changed MORE in the general election.

We’re four debates into a presidential campaign cycle, yet there have been no direct questions on voting rights and voter suppression. That’s malpractice. With rates of voter roll purges surging astronomically higher since the Shelby County decision, and new, increasingly nefarious efforts to block black voter participation, voting rights ought to be central to every debate.

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When it comes to health care, an issue that consistently polls among the most important to black voters, we’ve had the same, one-note conversation repeatedly. Black voters want to hear about how candidates’ plans will actually change coverage and improve outcomes, not just about the cost. Voters also want to know candidates’ plans to combat racial disparities in the system that have resulted in shockingly high black maternal mortality rates and lower life expectancy for black men, especially given the recent notable passing of Rep. Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsCongressional investigation finds Coast Guard leadership fell short on handling bullying Trump request for Ukrainian 'favor' tops notable quote list Impeachment can't wait MORE (D-Md.) at age 68 and Kaiser Permanente CEO Bernard Tyson at age 60.

We’ve talked about the future of the working class, but we haven’t talked about how black working people are as much a part of the Rust Belt’s economic devastation as white workers. Black wages are failing to keep pace with the rest of the economy and yet, there’s been relative silence on this front.

And when criminal justice reform has come up, there hasn’t been a substantive conversation about how the Democratic candidates are distinguishing themselves from Donald Trump on this issue. This distinction is critical given that Trump believes that his meager credentials in this area are strong enough to open a lane for him to win over black voters. Reform is a core part of Trump’s messaging, designed to increase his support among black voters for whom this remains a top issue and raise doubts about the Democratic candidates’ ability to meaningfully address the problem.

In my conversations with black voters, I’ve found that while most black voters take note of a candidate’s particular brand and rate their ability to take down Trump, they also really care about a candidate’s policy platform. Black voters keep expressing a deep concern about the rise of white supremacy, soaring wealth inequality, and ongoing attacks on our democracy. In talking to voters across the country from Louisiana to Texas to Michigan to Virginia and beyond, black voters say they care about the specific, unique policy solutions to entrenched issues that often impact black communities in disproportionate and devastating ways.

This is what we should be talking about on Wednesday night, because everyone knows that black voters are critical to Democrats winning elections.

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We saw black voters deliver wins in 2017 in Virginia, for Doug Jones’ Senate campaign in Alabama, and in 2018’s midterms across the country. In statewide elections this month in Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and this past weekend in Louisiana, black voters delivered monumental victories.

Black voters’ impact is even more pronounced in the Democratic primary contest. In 2008, black voters propelled Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaModerate or left of center — which is better for Democrats in 2020? Obama: Countries facing severe effects of climate change offer 'moral call to rest of the world' Democrats' self-inflicted diversity vulnerability MORE to victory in a primary where he won 78 to 91 percent of black voters in states with a black population of 20 percent or greater. Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMore than 200,000 Wisconsin voters will be removed from the rolls Trump is threatening to boycott the debates — here's how to make sure he shows up Trey Gowdy returns to Fox News as contributor MORE’s 2016 primary race told a similar story. 

One thing is clear through it all: Black voters remain highly engaged and ready for an end to the Trump era.

Recent wins in Louisiana, Kentucky and beyond are providing a spark, energizing the black electorate that makes up a sizable portion of the Democratic base. This momentum can continue through the primary and into the general election, but only if the candidates lean in to the issues black voters care about, making clear distinctions between themselves and the current occupant of the White House, and use the expanded conversation to reach new voters and those who chose to sit out of 2016 or cast third party protest ballots.

Since black voters may make or break a White House bid, there is endless debate and criticism over who is and how often they are reaching out to black voters. But the discourse often stops there. It’s time to go further.

We should not have had to wait until we arrive in another southern black city to thoroughly discuss black voters’ concerns, but here we are. Time is running out to capture the imagination of black voters and lock in their support in an ever-expanding Democratic field.

Adrianne Shropshire is executive director of BlackPAC and the affiliated nonpartisan Black Progressive Action Coalition.