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Applause for Reparations at CNN’s Democratic Presidential Debate: raceAhead

July 31, 2019, 7:01 PM UTC

CNN’s first of two presidential debates went off without a hitch (or much drama) last night. In many ways it was business as usual: a convening of all white candidates with no women of color as moderators. 

A recent TIMES UP report notes that 86% of the presidential debates since 1996 have had no women of color asking questions. Since black women are a vital and deeply engaged part of the Democratic party, and the democratic system, the absence seems particularly notable.

Race was part of the conversation, however. 

Big applause went to author Marianne Williamson for calling the country’s legacy of race and enslavement, “an injustice that continues to form a toxicity underneath the surface, an emotional turbulence that only reparations will heal.” 

And, she sort of had a plan for that. 

“If you did the math of the 40 acres and a mule, given that there were four to five million slaves at the end of the Civil War, it would be trillions of dollars,” she said, referring to the radical post-war plan to provide physical reparations to the formerly enslaved, with a little property appreciation magic thrown in. “I believe that anything less than $100 billion is an insult,” she said.

It was a clear differentiator, I’ll give her that. 

Race-fluency is going to be an essential skill in this presidential campaign. The incumbent candidate is centering white grievance in increasingly dangerous ways, and the political media, along with establishment politicians, seem wholly unprepared to lead or course-correct the conversation. 

It’s like a long, national test about race that everybody now has to cram for: Understanding how to engage without becoming complicit; how to surface issues and solutions without pandering; how to listen and learn in real time; and how to confront hatred, bigotry, and xenophobia without triggering an explosive reaction.

We’re all going to need a bigger boat.

While Williamson deserves credit for using her platform to represent, she’s not quite the mathematician she thinks she is. And she’s accused of being dangerously “anti-science” in the past, including referring to vaccine mandates as “draconian.” She’s since apologized, saying she misspoke.

I will also give her credit for calling out the infrastructure problems in Flint, Michigan; she was right when she said that they would never have happened in her former stomping grounds of Grosse Pointe. (See below.)

But on the issue of reparations, she’s got company. Other candidates, including Senators Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren, along with former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, have also signaled support for the idea—in Warren’s case, they must include Native Americans. Along with Senator Sanders, they all agree that a serious process to study them is required. 

It’s a complex issue, and simple slogans or formulas won’t work.

But complexity doesn’t play well in tweets, 30-second debate bites, or for long-shot candidates. While it’s important that issues of racial equity are coming up in the primaries, it’s everyone’s job to keep the conversation going both in the general election, and in our lives in general. 

On Point

Ronald Reagan’s racist conversation with Richard Nixon It’s odd to have 49-year-old breaking news, but that’s life on the race beat. In this case, it’s a newly released audio of a taped phone call between Governor Ronald Reagan and President Richard Nixon. It was October, 1971, and Reagan had called to vent about the countries who failed to support a key U.N. resolution. “Last night, I tell you, to watch that thing on television as I did,” Reagan said. “To see those, those monkeys from those African countries—damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes!” Nixon laughed. History professor Tim Naftali notes that the racist portion of the exchange had been withheld to protect Reagan’s privacy; he asked the National Archives to review the issue and they released the full version. “The most novel aspect of President Donald Trump’s racist gibes isn’t that he said them, but that he said them in public,” writes Naftali. The Atlantic

A Fortune 40 Under 40 star has a new sports sponsorship deal Allyson Felix just signed a multi-year sponsorship deal with Athleta, the first ever for Gap’s athletic wear brand. Felix, an Olympic champion and one of the most celebrated track and field athletes in history, is now equally known for her gender equity creds. In May, she published an op-ed in the New York Times accusing Nike of wanting to pay her 70% less after she gave birth. The opinion piece came on the heels of similar revelations from runners Alysia Montano and Kara Goucher. No terms have been disclosed, but we now know what brand Felix will be wearing in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. CNBC

A grim diversity report for State Supreme Courts Here’s the breakdown: State courts hear 95% of all cases filed in the U.S. White men make up less than a third of the U.S. population. More than half of all state court justices are white men. A quarter of states have never had a black supreme court justice. These are just some of the findings of a new report from the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. Small and steady gains in representation haven’t been enough to close the gap. “It matters tremendously for the public legitimacy of our courts when the judges that are making these really important decisions don’t look anything like the people who are affected,” says the Center’s managing director. Mother Jones

On Background

How Grosse Pointe stayed so white In 1960, the Grosse Pointe Brokers Association (GPBA), which served the tiny Detroit suburb, was sued for their questionable practices vetting potential homebuyers. First, a private investigator to make sure they were “Americanized,” and had good “general standing.” Then, a point system was applied. "The screening process was not required for persons of Northern European ancestry, e.g., Anglo-Saxons, Germans, French, Scandinavians, etc. Out of a maximum 100 points, Poles had to score 55 to pass, Southern Europeans 65, and Jews 85. Negroes and Orientals were not eligible for consideration, their disqualification being automatic." Brokers who sold to unacceptable people had to forfeit their commissions. You’ll never guess what the court decided! History News Network

Lizzo’s Tiny Desk Concert will be good for what ails ya You don’t have to be an established fan to get the glory she exudes. The gushing intro to her mini-concert is well-deserved. “In rehearsal, Lizzo belted out ‘Cuz I Love You,’ the title track from her wonderful new album, with nothing off her fastball; if you were standing six feet away at the time, you'd swear the gale force of her voice was blowing your hair back.” No lies detected. If you’ve not seen one, the Tiny Desk series is a lovely conceit, an intimate performance that takes place at a truly “tiny-ass desk" in NPR’s offices. It’s amazing to see what artists do to make use of the space. Chance was a poet, Adele kept her gloves on, and Lizzo will never evah evah evah EVAH EVAH BE OUR SIDE BITCH! Damn. NPR

An apology to Anthony James Williams

raceAhead is a huge fan of Williams’ work, so it was particularly upsetting when we inadvertently misgendered them while referencing a comment they made in a piece about living with mental illness in The Outline. We’ve apologized to them directly, and promise to do better. Here are some resources everyone can use to make sure they’re up to speed. The transgender language primer can help you unpack some common (and offensive) terms; the LGBT Resource Center at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee has a helpful gender pronoun usage guide; the Human Rights Campaign has a terrific resource on handling gender and “gender expansive” identities in the workplace. In addition to being an excellent writer and researcher, Williams is also a power on the social—they co-created #MasculinitySoFragile and #BlackWomenDidThat. Anthony James Williams

Tamara El-Waylly helps produce raceAhead.


“When such violent dehumanizing words come from the President of the United States, they are a clarion call, and give cover, to white supremacists who consider people of color a sub-human ‘infestation’ in America. They serve as a call to action from those people to keep America great by ridding it of such infestation. Violent words lead to violent actions.”

The Right Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington; The Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, Dean of Washington National Cathedral; The Rev. Canon Kelly Brown Douglas, Canon Theologian of Washington National Cathedral