What the Whitest Democratic Debate Stage Had to Say About Race

Most of the candidates of color were absent, but the issues remained.

Bernie Sanders speaks as Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, and Tom Steyer react during the Democratic presidential primary debate.
Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, and Tom Steyer on Thursday in Los Angeles. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Race was always going to be a topic in Thursday night’s Democratic debate, if only by omission. California Sen. Kamala Harris had already dropped out of the race, and under the more restrictive qualifying rules for this round, the low-polling but game Julián Castro and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker were left out—as was Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, though she said she would have refused to attend anyway. Only the last-minute qualification of Andrew Yang spared the party from presenting an all-white stage.

But confronted with the diminished diversity of the candidates, the moderators managed to hit the major talking points about race through the sort of substantive, well thought-out questions many of their predecessors failed to ask in prior debates. The results were largely unpredictable, with all-star moments and painfully awkward ones jumping out from unexpected places.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar took a break from repeating her sales pitch about how she is the best candidate to win back the Trump-friendly Midwest to give a fantastic response on the importance of protecting the voting rights of Black Americans. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders awkwardly made a joke about his whiteness at an inopportune moment. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg gave a yawn-inducing answer about his support for a study into reparations while carefully walking around any actual endorsement of cash payments.

Massachussetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren promised to annually read aloud the names of murdered trans women and people of color. Andrew Yang gave a requiem for the other candidates of color who weren’t on the debate stage for various reasons. And, with the exception of dodging a question on whether or not he supports reparations, former Vice President Joe Biden kept it cute and sidestepped any potential controversies.

The most profound remarks on the matter of race all evening came from billionaire Tom Steyer, of all people. He came out swinging on the magnitude of climate change on communities of color, and he bluntly said that President Donald Trump’s issue isn’t with immigrants as a whole—it’s with those who aren’t white. In the absence of a diverse stage, it fell to a white man in a plaid necktie to call attention to the insidious role of white supremacy plays in daily life as well as politics.

Here were the best moments for the candidates who had good moments, in chronological order, edited for clarity and length.

Tom Steyer

— On declaring a state of emergency during his first day in office to address the extensive, irreparable damage of climate change:

We have to deal with this crisis. I know that we have to deal with it from the standpoint of environmental justice. I’ve been working on this for more than a decade. I’ve taken on oil companies and beaten them on environmental laws. I’ve pushed clean energy across this country. I’ve prevented pipelines and I’ve prevented fossil fuel plants.

But what I know is this: Not only can we clear up the air and water in the black and brown communities where our pollution is concentrated, this is also the opportunity to create literally millions of middle-class union jobs, well-paid, across the United States of America.

— On immigration:

It’s important to note that this president is not against immigration. He’s against immigration by nonwhite people. This is his attempt to divide us, as Sen. Sanders said, on race. And that’s what he’s been doing since the very first day he started running for president. He’s been vilifying nonwhite people. He’s been trying to inflame his base and scare them that if, in fact, white people lose control of this country, that they’re going to lose control of their lives.

And as somebody who lives in a majority-minority state, which is California, what he’s doing is so wrong on so many different levels.

I agree with Sen. Sanders. We have to reframe this argument completely. We have to go back to the idea that every American is worth being a full human being on every right. This is a racial argument by a racist president who’s trying to divide us and who’s vilifying people. It’s absolutely wrong. And it’s led him to break the laws of humanity in our name.

Andrew Yang

— On being the only person of color onstage:

It’s both an honor and disappointment to be the lone candidate of color on the stage tonight. I miss Kamala, I miss Cory, though I think Cory will be back. I grew up the son of immigrants, and I had many racial epithets used against me as a kid. But black and Latinos have something much more powerful working against them than words. They have numbers. The average net worth of a black household is only 10 percent that of a white household. For Latinos, it’s 12 percent. If you’re a black woman, you’re 320 percent more likely to die from complications in childbirth.

These are the numbers that define race in our country. And the question is, why am I the lone candidate of color on this stage? Fewer than 5 percent of Americans donate to political campaigns. You know what you need to donate to political campaigns? Disposable income. The way that we fix it—the way we fix this is we take Martin Luther King’s message of a guaranteed minimum income, a freedom dividend of $1,000 a month for all Americans. I guarantee, if we had a freedom dividend of $1,000 a month, I would not be the only candidate of color on this stage tonight.

Bernie Sanders

— On Yang being the only person of color onstage:

(In response to this question, Sanders pivoted back to climate change. When he was stopped and told the question was about race, he then defended his pivot by bringing up the role race plays in experiencing the effects of climate change before ultimately answering the question.)

People of color, in fact, are going to be the people suffering most if we do not deal with climate change. And by the way, we have an obligation up here, if there are not any of our African-American brothers and sisters up here, to speak about an economy in which African Americans are exploited, where black women die three times at higher rates than white women, where we have a criminal justice system which is racist and broken, disproportionately made up of African Americans and Latinos and Native Americans who are in jail.

So we need an economy that focuses on the needs of oppressed, exploited people, and that is the African-American community.

— On President Barack Obama saying that old men should move aside in politics:

And I’m white as well! … Here is the issue. The issue is where power resides in America, and it’s not white or black or male or female. We are living in a nation increasingly becoming an oligarchy, where you have a handful of billionaires who spend hundreds of millions of dollars buying elections and politicians.

Amy Klobuchar

— On what she says to white people who are scared of being a racial minority:

Our Constitution says that we strive for a more perfect union. Well, that’s what we are doing right now. And to me, that means, one, that everyone can vote, and that includes our communities of color. This action that’s been taken by this president and his people and his governors all over the country is wrong. They have made it harder for African Americans to vote, as one court said, discriminated with surgical precision.

What would I do? As one of the leaders on voting in the U.S. Senate, 1) stop the purging. As Stacey Abrams said, you know, you do not stop having your right to assemble if you don’t go to a meeting for a year. Because you don’t go to a church or a synagogue or a mosque for three months, you don’t lose your right to worship. You shouldn’t lose your right to vote.

I would pass as president my bill to register every kid in this country when they turn 18 to vote. That would make all of these discriminatory actions in these states go away. And I would stop the gerrymandering, in addition to the agenda of economic opportunity, because as Martin Luther King said, what good is it to integrate a lunch counter if you can’t afford a hamburger?

Elizabeth Warren

— On Obama saying old men should move aside in politics:

I believe that President Obama was talking about who has power in America, whose voices get heard. I believe he’s talking about women and people of color and trans people and people whose voices just so often get shoved out.

— On violence against trans women of color:

I will go to the Rose Garden once every year to read the names of transgender women, of people of color, who have been killed in the past year. I will make sure that we read their names so that as a nation we are forced to address the particular vulnerability on homelessness. I will change the rules now that put people in prison based on their birth sex identification rather than their current identification. I will do everything I can to make sure that we are an America that leaves no one behind.

Pete Buttigieg

— On whether he supports reparations for the enslavement of Africans:

I support H.R. 40, which is the bill that has been proposed in Congress to establish a commission to look at reparations. But we shouldn’t wait for that commission to do its work to do things that are reparative.

Remember, we’re not talking about a gift to anybody. We’re talking about mending what was broken. We’re talking about the generational theft of the wealth of generations of African Americans. And just crossing out a racist policy and replacing it with a neutral one is not enough to deliver equality.

Harms compound, just like a dollar saved in its value compounds over time. So does the value of a dollars stolen. And that is why the United States must act immediately with investments in minority-owned businesses, with investments in health equity, with investments in HBCUs, and on the longer-term look at reparations so that we can mend what has been broken.