For the first time in history, there was more than one woman on stage this week for the Democratic presidential debates. There were also people of color, and a candidate who identifies as a member of the LGBTQ community. And this representation mattered.
Some of the most powerful moments at the Democratic debates came when candidates spoke about their personal experiences, from a perspective that hasn’t been given space on the presidential debate stage in the past.
They could call out policies that were put in place decades ago, when Congress was even more dominated exclusively by white men. Not only could they talk about why they were harmful or should be changed, but they could talk about how they were personally affected by them.
That’s not something that happens when everyone on the stage is the same.
The most dramatic moment of the two nights in Miami came on Thursday, when Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.) confronted Joe Biden. The former vice president has boasted about working with segregationists as an example of his ability to find common ground. And one of the issues that he teamed up with them on was opposition to busing, the imperfect and controversial means of desegregating public schools by transporting children to schools farther away than their neighborhood ones.
“As the only black person on this stage, I would like to speak on the issue of race,” Harris said, cutting in during a discussion of racial justice.
She talked about how as a child, she had neighbors who wouldn’t let their daughter play with her and her sister because they were black. And she recounted her own experience with busing.
Growing up, my sister and I had to deal with the neighbor who told us her parents couldn’t play with us because she ― because we were black. And I will say also that ― that, in this campaign, we have also heard ― and I’m going to now direct this at Vice President Biden, I do not believe you are a racist, and I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground.
But I also believe, and it’s personal ― and I was actually very ― it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country. And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing.
And, you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.
So I will tell you that, on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously.
It was a powerful, historic moment. A leading candidate for president ― who is the second black woman ever elected to the Senate ― went after an elder statesman for his record on civil rights and race. She called on him to account for decades of policy-making that personally affected her.
″[A]s an African-American man in an African-American-dominated community, I knew one of the biggest issue was criminal justice reform, from police accountability to dealing with the fact that we have a nation that has more African-Americans under criminal supervision than all the slaves in 1850,” Booker said.
Booker also was the 2020 candidate most willing to first call out Biden on his comments on segregation last week, when he proudly noted that one of those segregationist senators called him “son,” rather than “boy.” While many Democratic politicians jumped to Biden’s defense, Booker ― the only black man who is a serious presidential contender ― chastised him, explaining the racist, condescending historic usage of the term.
When Washington Gov. Jay Inslee was talking about his record on women’s rights, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) cut in: “I just want to say, there’s three women up here that have fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose. I’ll start with that.”
And on immigration, some of the most powerful exchanges came from Julián Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio who is the only Latino candidate in the 2020 field. Castro pushed his fellow Democrats to get behind his call to repeal the law that criminalizes unauthorized border crossings, and he was the first candidate to put forward a comprehensive immigration plan.
That’s not to say that the other 2020 candidates don’t care about women or people of color. Much of the discussion this cycle has been on progressive plans with racial justice components, like forgiving student loan debt. And some candidates of color have faced criticism, like Harris for her tenure as a prosecutor and the effects on black communities.
But it’s unmistakable that having people who look different, from different backgrounds, changed the conversation on the stage this week.
“The women and people of color on stage represent the half of the Democratic party struggling to be seen and heard,” said Aimee Allison, the founder of She the People, a group that elevates women of color. “The exchanges that elevated our national conversation ― on racism, immigration ― were powered by their lived experience and identity oft-dismissed. Finally, we have big ideas on the table and a moral clarion call to govern with humanity. Suddenly, electability looks a lot like a person leaning into identity to effectively inspire millions and challenge Trump.”