Primary debates threaten to leave people of color behind

Primary debates threaten to leave people of color behind

Seven candidates recently took the stage at the sixth Democratic presidential debate in California, and despite California being one of the most diverse states in the nation, the debate stage did not reflect its diversity nor that of the nation. Instead, the primary field looked a lot whiter and less ethnically diverse than the sixth Republican debate in 2016. While racial or ethnic identity is not a fair or guaranteed corollary to voter preference or policy priorities, the on-stage visuals surface an underlying tension for both parties.

Shifting voter demographics and recent electoral outcomes provide a roadmap to the White House with two clear, distinct onramps. The next president of the United States will be a candidate who either gains the support of voters of color, or benefits from successfully disengaging these communities from the electoral process altogether. As it stands today, both sides of the aisle are unconsciously fostering their pathway to victory by the latter.

The United States is a diverse nation, and the 2020 electorate will be the most diverse pool of prospective voters to date. Combined, black, Latinx and Asian voters will represent nearly one-third of all eligible voters. Latinx voters alone make up almost half of this powerful voting block of people of color. 


Both parties are struggling with how to handle this growing, ethnically diverse pool of voters, and perhaps to their demise, or possibly on purpose, both sides overwhelmingly ignore talking about or addressing race or ethnicity directly. 

Certainly, no one person is representative of an entire race or ethnicity or gender. The truth, however, is Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisBiden joins calls to release racial breakdowns of coronavirus cases, deaths Harris, Ocasio-Cortez among Democrats calling for recurring direct payments in fourth coronavirus bill On The Money: Mnuchin, Schumer in talks to strike short-term relief deal | Small businesses struggling for loans | Treasury IG sends Dems report on handling of Trump tax returns MORE (D-Calif.), Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerBiden joins calls to release racial breakdowns of coronavirus cases, deaths Bipartisan lawmakers call for global 'wet markets' ban amid coronavirus crisis Former Clinton staffers invited to celebrate Sanders dropping out: report MORE (D-N.J.), and former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julian CastroJulian CastroMichael Bloomberg is not our savior The Hill's Campaign Report: Bloomberg to face off with rivals at Nevada debate How the media fall in and out of love with candidates MORE have played critical roles in pushing debates where other candidates prefer not to tread — from Harris confronting former vice president Joe Biden’s record on busing to Booker reminding voters he, too, is a Rhodes Scholar and a former mayor of a big city, and challenging Biden’s stance on the war on drugs. Castro also went where no candidate has gone before — decriminalizing border crossing — and  repeatedly has raised concerns about police shootings

These debate exchanges drew significant media attention and spurred debate about how we address our nation’s history of systemic racism and persistent inequality. By contrast, the impact of two primary developments within the past month — Castro’s and Booker’s absences from the debate stage in California and Harris’s decision to end her campaign — went by without much pause to reflect and garner the necessary attention that they deserve.

One would be remiss to ignore the effect that Castro failing to qualify for the last Democratic debate has on potential Latinx political engagement, at a time when Latinxs arguably have their greatest political influence. The same can be said about Booker and African American voting power. Similarly, the ending of Harris’s presidential campaign means black women — the backbone of the Democratic Party in critical races in the South — once again will vote in a primary election without a nominee who looks like them.  

The current, arbitrary qualifiers that limit participation in national debates for presidential candidates such as Castro, Booker and other minority candidates hinder an opportunity to amplify issues that are important to minority communities. Prioritizing polls from predominantly white primary states also dilutes the historical, national political influence that communities of color have recently gained and risks suppressing their political participation by disengaging them from the outset. 


Conversations about the critical role an increasingly diverse electorate plays in national elections often end with imploring voters of color to exercise their constitutional right to vote. Do not get me wrong, investments in voter engagement and organizing to ensure fair census counts play a critical role in expanding democracy. 

It is equally paramount for each political party to be cognizant of how the policy priorities of primary candidates and debate models reflect the diverse fabric of the United States. If the recent debates are an indicator of what is to come in the January debate, I fear an absence of racial diversity means black and Latinx voters will not hear their story represented in our democracy. 

Jorge Luis Vasquez Jr. is an associate counsel at LatinoJustice and chair of the Hispanic National Bar Association’s Voting Rights Section. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeVasquezNYC.