Well, it was a question inspired by "Avenue Q," the Broadway musical.
More than an hour into Sunday night's debate in Flint, Mich., CNN's Don Lemon, apparently the network's in-house expert on race and politics, asked the two Democratic candidates onstage a question. It was a question that, because of its contents, cannot be answered honestly.
LEMON: In a speech about policing, the FBI director borrowed a phrase from "Avenue Q" saying, "Everybody is a little racist." So on a personal front, what racial blind spots do you have?
A true personal blind spot is typically not known to the holder, thus making it a blind spot. And the odds that anyone on any debate stage ever will manage, in just a few seconds, to dive deep into their psyche and experiences to recognize and then tactfully admit to their own racism? Well, that's just about never going to happen. Still, that's what Lemon asked.
Again, it was not a good question. But it was a wise attempt to get at something scarcely, if ever, mentioned during one of the many Republican debates. It also seemed to have been aimed at provoking the candidates' and viewers' thoughts about something more substantive than the often-referenced, exceedingly nebulous term "race relations."
How Americans feel about one another matters little in comparison to how honest Americans are about the persistence of laws and practices that transmit opportunity and disadvantage along racial and ethnic lines. The ways in which Americans personally benefit, struggle or suffer because of who they are is, indeed, a much bigger deal.
To put that in more concrete terms, whether white and black Americans sometimes engage in casual cross-racial conversations pales in importance, for example, to whether black and Latino home buyers with incomes and credit scores similar to white home buyers can reliably access the same mortgage interest rates. Paying a higher interest rate for a home, a car, or on a business loan doesn't just take more money out of a person's pocket in the short term. It curtails that person's ability to save, to borrow, or even decide where to live and work. It also means that he or she is less likely to have the savings needed to prevent a college-age child from leaving school with nearly insurmountable debt. It means that one is always at greater risk of foreclosure, eviction, repossession and less able to seize all that proverbial American opportunity then build.
Now, contemplate the patterns that you see in almost any measure of social or economic welfare in the United States. White Americans up and down the income ladder, have access to better housing, neighborhoods, schools, health care and more. And the results are clear: Structural inequality matters far more than our feelings or even our personal choices. Laws, accepted public practices and policies extend to almost every area of all American's lives. And only something that applies or influences events and experiences so uniformly can create such overwhelming and persistent disparities.
But given the rather large, shall we say, blind spot, in Lemon's question, it's not at all surprising that what those watching got from former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.). They offered just a little insight into each candidate's mind and not much about each candidate's policy ideas to address racial inequality.
Clinton offered up a less-than-specific example. But she said that she takes seriously the struggles that nonwhite Americans face, as well as the worry this injects in their lives. She alluded to the pain and fear suffered by the parents of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager killed by a neighborhood watchman in Florida in 2012, and many others like him and said that she has tried to encourage other white Americans to give that some thought. And she said this ranks among the reasons that she realizes that racism continues to "stalk" the country and systemic barriers to equality will have to be torn down.
Depending on how voters feel about Clinton, that answer merits a grade of B or C-plus. It came across as reasonably sincere and is supported by the content of her campaign speeches. But she also may have revealed her actual racial blind spot or something that she knows many white Americans do not like to acknowledge: white privilege.
Black Americans not only live with the added risk and fear that police, or a self-appointed neighborhood watchman, might end their own or their children's lives; black Americans also have to make all manner of daily decisions -- when and where to drive and walk, how insistently to assert their rights or defend themselves during an assault, how to parent and prepare their children for the real world, how much identification to carry and where to put and keep their hands during a police stop, just to name a few-- that white Americans simply do not. There are also proven racial disparities in the way that the criminal justice system functions, at nearly ever step of the process.
Operating without that burden is, indeed, a form of privilege. Clinton has used that term before in a debate. But, that was not among the things Clinton said Sunday night.
And much like Clinton, Sanders delivered an answer that will be deemed a B-minus by his supporters and probably a solid D-minus by those who don't. Still, Sanders's response was a little worse than Clinton's but nonetheless, it did seem sincere.
Sanders talked about something personal. And that was what Lemon appeared to ask for. But when Sanders talked about his shock that 20 years ago a black colleague and congressman in Washington stopped trying to hail taxis to avoid what Sanders described as the humiliation of taxi drivers's refusal to pick him up, he kind of turned left. (For those unfamiliar with how this experience typically works, it's usually something like this: Taxis with their rooftop available signs turned on refuse to stop, speed up or turn off the sign as they approach a black person trying to hail a cab.)
In fairness, there probably isn't a lot of street hailing activity in Vermont. But because Sanders spends most of his time in Washington, he should probably at the very least be aware that no part of his story lives only in the past. Black Americans living in many other major metropolitan areas about their transportation experiences today. This is an ongoing problem, not one that existed 20 years ago that has since faded away.
Then, while mentioning a host of structural inequalities that need to be addressed in the United States, Sanders said something that almost certainly caused even his most ardent supporters to cringe. That, of course, would be the phrase, "When you're white, you don't know what it's like to be living in a ghetto." Sanders may have been leaning on a little hyperbole to make his point in brief. But, again, that is what he said.
And, that answer is all kinds of bad. First, there are the simple but not widely known facts. They happen to contradict about several stereotypes, some of which Sanders essentially described like fact. Numerically, there are more poor white Americans than any other group (Click here, see Table 3). In fact, there are nearly three times as many poor white Americans than poor blacks. That's largely because white Americans comprise a shrinking majority of the population. It is true that blacks and Latinos are disproportionately poor and more likely to live in a high-poverty neighborhood.
However, nearly 74 percent of black Americans are not poor (See Table 3 again), and some share of these people have never lived in a ghetto either. Yet middle-class black Americans are more likely than their white peers to live in a neighborhood with lower-quality facilities (think parks, libraries, schools, stores, etc.) than white Americans with less income. This pattern points directly to the continued existence of housing discrimination and the uneven distribution of public resources, but we digress.
Also true: Black Americans up and down the income and education scale are far more likely than white Americans to experience some form of hostile, unethical, inappropriate or illegal contact with the police. So the other part of Sanders's answer, the part when he implied that some person told him that black people are mistreated by police only in certain neighborhoods; well, that's also false.
Like stories about race-related taxi pass-bys, if we wanted to, we could collect 100 such personal tales from black Americans who have been middle class or more all their lives in a single hour. That's the thing about policing that differs according to the color of a person's skin. That's an immutable part of one's appearance. And it's skin color and the links that some officers believe exist between race and criminality that shape who gets stopped by the police most often and what happens once such a stop occurs. It is not one's income, not one's address or deportment and certainly not one's outfit. It is skin color and stereotypes.
When police stop someone, they run a warrant check. They don't ask for or try to gauge the content of anyone's resume. Quite frankly, that's the kind of thing that someone running for president in 2016 should be able to demonstrate that they know.
Of course, Sanders fans will insist that he doesn't think that the old taxi-hailing problem is gone. They will also probably advance some alternative read of Sanders's comments about "a ghetto" and the connection between poverty and police mistreatment. But again, we have to point you to what Sanders did and did not say. That was his answer. Read the transcript.
And, given how frequently Sanders has been rightfully critiqued for leaning a bit too heavily on his 1960s civil rights demonstration record and has struggled to appeal to nonwhite voters and appear aware of issues shaping black American's lives today (beyond poverty and imprisonment), this answer had some problems.
Again, in all fairness to Clinton and Sanders, the question didn't really make it very easy for the candidates to turn toward their specific policy ideas to reduce racial inequality. But neither mentioned specific structures -- laws and accepted practices -- that sustain it. A better debate prompt -- one that needs to be asked of both Democrats and Republicans -- might be this:
Please identify three things that would rank among your top presidential priorities if elected that would reduce structural racial inequality.