During Thursday’s Iowa Senate debate, Sen. Joni Ernst and her Democratic challenger, Theresa Greenfield, were both asked a series of questions about racism. Most of their responses were standard: Neither candidate said she supported defunding the police, and both denounced the “looting” and “rioting” that took place during this summer’s anti-racism protests.
A moment of divergence occurred, however, when the candidates were asked if they’d ever benefited from white privilege. Greenfield gave a poignant answer explaining how she wouldn’t have been able to sustain her family on Social Security benefits following the death of her first husband without stigma if she were, say, a Black single mother of two. Ernst didn’t deny that she’d benefited from white privilege, but she also didn’t really answer the question.
In a question she did answer a bit earlier, she had staked out a more troubling position.
“Most people of color in this country have no doubt that systemic racism exists here. Do you agree, Sen. Ernst?” asked moderator Rheya Spigner.
Ernst, maintaining her signature unchanging, semi-cheery affect, replied: “I believe that there are many challenges that we have in various systems, but I would not say just broadly that we have systemic racism across the board. Certainly, we have good people that are working in all career fields, and I think it’s important to stress that.”
Ernst continued to equate systemic racism with racist individuals when she accused Greenfield of believing that police officers are racist, while saying that she herself trusts “in the goodness of the people that are protecting and defending our communities.” (In her rebuttal, Greenfield said she doesn’t think each individual officer is racist but that systemic racism does exist within law enforcement and America writ large.)
“To be clear, do you believe systemic racism exists here?” asked Spigner.
“No, I don’t. I do believe that you will find racist individuals in those systems, but I don’t believe that entire systems of people—of people—are racist.”
Ernst’s analysis of racism is wrong—the point of talking about systems is to look at actual effects, rather than debating people’s personal attitudes—and a plethora of existing quantitative, qualitative, and anecdotal data further disproves her outlook. But beyond that, what was clear is that Ernst hasn’t weighed the political risks associated with refusing to address systemic racism in a moment where many Americans are beginning to reckon with, and denounce, bigotry. This summer, former Rep. Steve King, a known racist, lost his reelection bid in Iowa.
Racism isn’t doing politicians as many favors as it did in 2016. But Ernst has yet to condemn President Donald Trump as a racist, and the allegiance is likely hurting her in the polls. The Black community leaders she touted meeting with several times on Thursday are livid that she’s been throwing misleading blows at Greenfield by claiming the Democrat said all police are racist when she made clear acknowledgment of systemic racism within policing. Ernst has also voted against several policy initiatives, such as Obamacare, that matter to her constituents, and there was an Iowa-specific flub during the debate when she couldn’t provide the price of soybeans.
The result of Iowa’s Senate race could determine whether Republicans maintain control of the chamber. Ernst, who joined the Senate in 2014 as a rising GOP star, is trailing by nearly 5 percentage points.
Support Slate’s politics coverage
Slate is covering the stories that matter to you. Join Slate Plus to support our work. You’ll get unlimited articles and a suite of great benefits.