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Cory Booker bows out, Ben Carson backs off fair housing and issues of race recede in America

Latest Democratic debate was notable for what was not mentioned

With Cory Booker leaving the Democratic presidential race, following the exits of Kamala Harris and Julián Castro, issues of justice and inequality could get short shrift on the campaign trail, Curtis writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
With Cory Booker leaving the Democratic presidential race, following the exits of Kamala Harris and Julián Castro, issues of justice and inequality could get short shrift on the campaign trail, Curtis writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — It doesn’t take a candidate of color on a debate stage to raise issues of justice and inequality. But that has been the way it has worked out, mostly.

For example, it was exhilarating for many when then-candidate Julián Castro said in a Democratic debate, “Police violence is also gun violence,” while naming Atatiana Jefferson, killed in her Fort Worth, Texas, home by a police officer who shot through the window without identifying himself. Castro’s words were an acknowledgment of the lived experiences of many in America. He has since dropped out of the race, as has California Sen. Kamala Harris, who chided her party for taking the support of black women for granted.

It was a strong moment for Harris in a November debate when she said: “When black women are three to four times more likely to die in connection with childbirth in America, when the sons of black women will die because of gun violence more than any other cause of death, when black women make 61 cents on the dollar as compared to all women, who tragically make 80 cents on the dollar, the question has to be, ‘Where you been and what are you going to do? And do you understand what the people want?’”

Most recently, it was Cory Booker’s turn to leave, due to lack of funds and low polling numbers. The New Jersey senator got a laugh at a debate in the way he criticized Joe Biden’s position on legalizing marijuana, but he was making a serious point about punishment in a criminal justice system that is far from fair. Booker’s work on criminal justice reform has been serious, including a bipartisan bill that became law.

Will another candidate take up where the three candidates left off? It’s easier to stay quiet about such things when you’re looking for votes — easier, but dangerous since ignoring problems won’t make them disappear.

What gets left out

But they have been disappearing from the Democratic debate stage as the field grows less diverse. Tuesday’s debate was dispiriting in that regard, notable for what was not mentioned, though, of course, issues such as health care and war and peace affect Americans of every color.

As Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, tweeted during the debate: “voting rights, criminal justice, census & redistricting hijacking of the federal courts, no civil rights enforcement at DOJ. Not hearing much on issues that directly impact African Americans & people of color. This is the impact when we are excluded from the debate stage.”

It’s still too soon to know which Democrat will lead the ticket. But everyone knows the fight he or she will face. After eight years of President Barack Obama in the White House and a Cabinet and staff that looked more like the country, America elected Donald Trump, who reveled in his hateful and divisive views on women, African Americans and their homes, immigrants from Mexico and Muslim-majority countries, all deemed disloyal or “other.”

Knowing that this country’s history of progress is inevitably followed by pushback has not softened the blow of the current president’s words and actions.

Trump surrounds himself with those he considers tough guys — mostly guys, mostly white.

You see it in the tableau standing behind him at every policy rollout, for instance, when he ramps up conflicts that will result in deploying troops, some of them members of groups he disparages.

You see it in the makeup of the federal courts the president rapidly reshapes with each passing day and each vote rushed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. His administration has appointed nearly 1 in 4 of the nation’s federal appeals court judges and 1 in 7 of its district court judges, an NPR report last year found. Around 70 per cent were white men, it said, with dozens of those nominees refusing to answer whether they support the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling that racial segregation of public schools was unconstitutional.

You see it in regressive policies that are moving the country back, perhaps pleasing to “Make America Great Again” supporters, frightening to those who remember the old days as not so good.

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HUD step back

Ben Carson, head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the lone African American in Trump’s Cabinet, is enforcing parts of the rollback, audaciously subverting the language of housing discrimination as he dismantles progress made since the Fair Housing Act of 1968. That’s fitting, since Trump and his dad were New York landlords who did not let African Americans live in their buildings and were sued because of it. But the law passed just after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and it’s sadly ironic the attempted dismantling is happening as King is celebrated this month. 

On a recent visit to Charlotte, North Carolina, Carson talked about a HUD proposal that would undo an Obama-era rule (under then-Secretary Castro) that put teeth into the 1968 act, requiring municipalities to show what they would do to recognize and fight patterns of housing discrimination as a requirement for federal aid.

Carson characterized cities’ efforts to affirmatively further fair housing goals while providing affordable housing across neighborhoods as “redlining,” a term that has usually described government policies that kept minorities out. Clarke, of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, in a media call with fair housing advocates Wednesday, called on Carson to withdraw the “disastrous” HUD proposal, saying it also doubled “as a transparently ideological attack on equitable local policies that advance racial and economic justice.”

Of course, when he was a presidential candidate, Carson described the Obama policy as “social engineering,” when the reason why housing segregation is so entrenched is the “social engineering” of housing restrictions, set in law and enforced by violence against people that looked like him — and me.

I live in a Charlotte neighborhood where deeds once read (and some continue to read): “This lot shall be owned and occupied by people of the Caucasian race only.” It’s no coincidence that preferable perks of quality schools, roads, shops and resources followed, a pattern that’s tough to break, even when legal prohibitions fall.

Of course, one reason the Democratic stage now looks as it does is because African American voters, especially older ones, are sticking with former Vice President Joe Biden. Many I’ve talked with are truly fond of Biden and impressed with his experience.

It’s no longer “hope and change,” but back to “normal,” as a South Carolina voter told me, like other citizens who have heard the chants at Trump rallies, who suffer most with each policy retreat, who know how much is at stake.

For many, a Biden choice is a practical one, a safe one, one they think their white fellow citizens can live with, and so even if the view of the Democratic debate stage may not be great, it’s good enough.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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