The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Where the absence of diversity showed on the Democratic debate stage

The participants in the first Democratic primary debate of 2020 were all white. (Robyn Beck/Afp Via Getty Images)

Despite the 2020 Democratic presidential primary race beginning with the most diverse field of candidates, Tuesday’s debate featured no candidates of color, a fact we’ve noted on The Fix.

The hashtag #DebateSoWhite was trending Tuesday to draw attention to what some saw as flaws in the process of determining which candidates get heard. Former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, the only remaining black candidate competing for the Oval Office (he didn’t qualify for the debate), said, “America will not see herself in full on the debate stage.”

Even conservatives noted that the debates at this point in the 2016 GOP primary had more minorities than the 2020 Democratic primary debate.

The only explicitly race-based question from Tuesday’s debate went to former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg — and it was focused on his much-reported unpopularity with black voters, something with which every other candidate on the stage except for former vice president Joe Biden struggles, as well.

One could argue that every issue discussed at the debate — including health care, the economy and environmental issues — is race-related. After all, each of those topics concerns voters of color, as their communities are affected by them in significant ways — sometimes disproportionately so — when compared with white Americans. And although Tuesday’s debate stage did not reflect the racial diversity that voters on the left have said they yearn to see in their presidential field, candidates did make multiple attempts to incorporate race into their answers.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) said her wealth tax would provide universal pre-K, which would disproportionately benefit black and Latino families. Hedge fund manager Tom Steyer discussed the “need to redistribute money” to improve educational opportunities for children of color — “specifically black kids, specifically brown kids.” And Buttigieg mentioned the importance of helping black and Latino families particularly affected by climate-change-related issues, such as farming.

But the perception that candidates failed to address systemic racism as former housing secretary Julián Castro and Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.) and Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), who have all dropped out of the race, had done seemed prevalent among the political class most active on social media.

The actual — or even perceived — decline in conversations about the prevalence of racism is of great concern to some people of color because it reinforces fears that their votes are being taken for granted by the current candidates.

The Democratic Party has long won the support of black, Latino and Asian American voters — and that is likely to continue, given Trump’s low approval rating with voters of color, specifically black voters. But the party and its candidates should be aware of what can happen when black Americans question the commitment of the nominee to combating racism. Despite Hillary Clinton’s attempts to prove otherwise, there were reports that black turnout in support of her in 2016 may have dropped in part because her past comments about black people caused some to question her sincerity in fighting for racial equality.

Biden is leading the field with black and Latino supporters, and he claimed Tuesday to be the only candidate who could unify all wings of the party. And if his competitors want to put a dent in his support with voters of color, they may have to significantly improve how and how much they talk about racism in America.