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Joe Biden’s and Pete Buttigieg’s Records on Race Come Under Scrutiny at 5th Democratic Debate

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Image Credit: MSNBC

Presidential candidate Joe Biden claimed on the Democratic debate stage Wednesday that he has broad support from black voters and the only black woman elected to the Senate, seemingly forgetting that 2020 candidate Kamala Harris is a California senator. Biden’s comment came amid multiple blunders during the debate, hosted by MSNBC and The Washington Post in Atlanta. For more on the 2020 candidates’ discussion of race in their campaigns, we speak with Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, and Ryan Grim, D.C. bureau chief for The Intercept.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we continue on the fifth presidential primary debate — Democrat — in Atlanta, Georgia.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We’re now joined for a roundtable on last night’s debate — in Washington, D.C., we have Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and author of several books, including Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer. In Berkeley, California, Gabriel Zucman is with us. He’s professor of economics at UC Berkeley and the co-author of The Triumph of Injustice: How the Rich Dodge Taxes and How to Make Them Pay. And in Atlanta, Georgia, we’re joined by Ryan Grim, the Washington, D.C., bureau chief for The Intercept, who was at the debate last night.

AMY GOODMAN: And here in New York City, Rashad Robinson is with us, president of Color of Change, his latest piece for The Nation headlined “Forget About Plans, Which Candidate Can Get Things Done?” Let’s begin with former Vice President Joe Biden speaking last night.

JOE BIDEN: I’m part of that — that Obama coalition. I come out of the black community in terms of my support. If you notice, I have more people supporting me in the black community, that have announced for me, because they know me, they know who I am — three former chairs of the Black Caucus, the only African-American woman that’s ever been elected to the United States Senate, a whole range of people. My point is —

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: No, that’s not true.

SEN. CORY BOOKER: No, that’s not true. That’s not true.

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: The other one is here.

JOE BIDEN: No, I said the first. I said the first African American elected, the first African American. So my point is…

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Kamala Harris is putting her hands up, and she’s the one who corrects him: No, you don’t have the support of your rival – right? — Senator Harris. What are you talking about? Rashad Robinson, can you explain what happened there?

RASHAD ROBINSON: Yeah. I think it’s always tricky when white folks try to outblack black folks. And I think Biden would do his self a favor at looking what Bill Clinton did back in '07 and ’08 in South Carolina, where he sort of talked about his history and support with the black community, to undermine the insurgent candidacy of President Obama at the time, and folks began to turn on him and began to push back on that. Hillary Clinton enjoyed a lot of support back then from a wide range of black folks. But what she enjoyed and what Biden enjoys is a lot of support from insiders, from the establishment, from folks that are looking at sort of the calculation and think that this is the candidate that white people will accept and white people will vote for. And as we get closer and closer to Election Day, if Biden is not willing to consolidate support, when — we're going to see people moving away. And we already see that in terms of young black folks, in terms of the activist community, and many others that just simply don’t think that Biden has the range.

And he hasn’t been there. He hasn’t showed up. Biden is the only candidate that we have not been able to get a sitdown meeting with. It’s absolutely outrageous that we, like, have reached out multiple times, and it’s almost like a joke now with his folks, where they say, “Oh, well, maybe. Well, sort of.” And I can’t even think of any next-generation black leader or organization in the movement right now that’s had a sitdown conversation with Joe Biden. If this is what he does when we’re dating, what’s going to happen if we marry? This is actually a really big problem. If he’s not willing to sit down and have conversations, to hear from us about our priorities, then we’ve got a lot of concerns about what the future looks like.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, let’s go to an exchange between Senator Kamala Harris and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. This is co-moderator Kristen Welker.

KRISTEN WELKER: Senator Harris, this week you criticized Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s outreach to African-American voters. You said, quote, “The Democratic nominee has got to be someone who has the experience of connecting with all of who we are as the diversity of the American people,” end-quote. What exactly prompted you to say that, Senator Harris?

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: Well, I was asked a question that related to a stock photograph that his campaign published. But, listen, I think that it really speaks to a larger issue, and I’ll speak to the larger issue. I believe that the mayor has made apologies for that.

The larger issue is that for too long, I think, candidates have taken for granted constituencies that have been the backbone of the Democratic Party, and have overlooked those constituencies and have — you know, they show up when it’s, you know, close to election time and show up in a black church and want to get the vote, but just haven’t been there before. …

KRISTEN WELKER: Mayor Buttigieg, your response to that?

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG: My response is I completely agree. And I welcome the challenge of connecting with black voters in America who don’t yet know me.

And before I share what’s in my plans, let me talk about what’s in my heart and why this is so important. As mayor of a city that is racially diverse and largely low-income, for eight years I have lived and breathed the successes and struggles of a community where far too many people live with the consequences of racial inequity, that has built up over centuries but been compounded by policies and decisions from within living memory.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, that’s South Bend Mayor Pete speaking last night at the debate. Ryan Grim of The Intercept, you were there, and you’ve written a lot about the mayor. Your response to what he said and his performance last night?

RYAN GRIM: Well, it was interesting that Kamala Harris decided to kind of take a pass on coming directly at Mayor Buttigieg in that exchange. And nobody else really came at him throughout the entire debate. I think he was prepared for an onslaught, given that there had been recent polls showing him up in New Hampshire and Iowa, and normally the front-runner gets piled on. That may have been delayed until the next debate.

What she was referring to as a stock photo was related to a broader controversy over the way that he presented what’s known as his Douglass Plan for Black America. This is the primary piece of outreach that he has to the black community. And when he rolled it out, yes, it was kind of funny that he used a stock photo from a Kenyan woman and her little brother to kind of promote the project for Black America.

But, you know, more damaging to him, and which Harris did not get into, is that he listed 400 supporters of this plan, the top three of whom were leaders of the black community in South Carolina. You know, after it came out, they told The Intercept, two of them — Johnnie Cordero, who is the chairman of the South Carolina Black Caucus, said, “I explicitly told them I do not endorse this plan, and they used my name anyway.” State Representative Ivory Thigpen said the same thing. He explicitly told them that he was not endorsing the Douglass Plan, and they put his name on it anyway. He, in fact, is the co-chair of the Bernie Sanders campaign in South Carolina. The third endorser said, “I told them that it was OK to use my name for the Douglass Plan, but I said, 'Please don't make it look like I’m endorsing your candidacy.’” And she felt like they were intentionally vague in the way they rolled it out, to make it look like they had done that. And it’s very difficult to imagine a politician doing that sort of thing to a white state senator in Iowa or New Hampshire, for instance. It’s really difficult to imagine that happening to any community other than the black community in American politics.

And so, Harris pivoted to a conversation about what is your authentic connection with the black community. And Booker also hit later on a related point, which is if you can’t bring together the Obama coalition. And that was kind of a code for bringing together white progressives, LGBT community and the black community together — and the immigrant community — together into that coalition that’s able to get more than 50% of the vote. If you can’t make that entire coalition whole, you’re going to fall short. But they didn’t kind of name him when they were making that argument.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Rashad Robinson, I mean, the significance of this? Because you have Mayor Pete now polling number one — in one of the whitest states in the country, Iowa, number one. He has jumped something like, if you believe the polls, roughly 10%, against Warren, Sanders and Biden, which is why everyone was going after him last night, yet polling at almost zero within the black community.

RASHAD ROBINSON: Yeah, I mean, I’ve had some time to talk with Mayor Pete, and, you know — and really have pushed him. I don’t even understand why he named his plan the Douglass Plan. Like, can you explain? Is Frederick Douglass someone that is really inspiring to you? Why? What is your relationship with the community? I think, you know, the problem that Mayor Pete has is that he comes across as a very good student, someone who has deeply studied and can understand issues, but doesn’t have a context oftentimes or a story to back it up. And people realize that and recognize that. He is a millennial who does not have right now black friends out there talking about him. And that’s worrisome, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, explain what happened in South Bend, Indiana — 

RASHAD ROBINSON: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: — during his campaign, the killing of an African-American person there.

RASHAD ROBINSON: Absolutely, absolutely. The killing — both the police killing and the ongoing way that he’s had problems with police-community tension, the firing of the black police chief, who was working to expose racism in the force. You know, this is someone who’s had deep challenges with racial justice, in a relatively small city that most people probably can’t point to at the map — on the map, who now wants to be president of the United States.

Racial justice is not a side piece. It’s not charity. And while it is moral, it is actually strategy. It’s a strategy to actually win. And it’s a force multiplier for the type of change that we need on our side to get people mobilized out to the polls, to expand the base. If a candidate actually does not have the type of relationship where people feel like they’re known, like they’re going to actually be engaged and they’re going to be prioritized, then they’re not going to show up in big numbers. And I think the challenge for Mayor Pete is that the Douglass Plan, on paper, seems like a lot of good —

AMY GOODMAN: Of course, named for Frederick Douglass.

RASHAD ROBINSON: Named for Frederick Douglass — seems like a lot of good information — I’ve read through it, I’ve talked to him about it — but there is no story or context behind it. There’s also not a history of him implementing it and executing it. And with all of these candidates, I am not interested, and folks are not as interested, in the what, but the how. What is your experience and your relationship to movements to actually getting this done? We have a history, hundreds of years, of stalled progress, of inequality on race issues in this country. And we need someone that actually has experience, the ability to mobilize people and the ability to move people. And we need to know that it’s a priority, not something you have to do to check off a box. He still has some work to do in that regard.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to discuss this fifth Democratic presidential debate that took place in Atlanta, Georgia. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: iLe, singing “Temes” in our Democracy Now! studio. Her latest album, Almadura, was just nominated for a 2020 Grammy Award. To see her full performance and interview here at Democracy Now! about the protest movement that took down Puerto Rico’s governor last summer, visit democracynow.org.

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