2020 Candidates Focus on Criminal Justice, White Supremacy at Forum Before Black Journalists Convention

August 12, 2019, 1:03 PM UTC

AVENTURA, Fla. – Three Democrats and one Republican seeking to unseat President Donald Trump told the largest-ever meeting of black journalists in the United States that they would beat back voter suppression, balance the country’s correctional system, and target systemic racism.

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont represented the Democratic side in a series of interviews Thursday at the National Association of Black Journalists convention, while former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld represented Republicans. The candidates sounded a more professorial tone Thursday at the forum at the J.W. Marriott Turnberry Resort than they did at the last set of debates or the NAACP convention, both last month in Detroit. 

Instead of jabbing Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden about “dipping into the Kool-Aid, Booker referenced writers Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison. Instead of referring to Trump as a “raging racist,” Weld reviewed his record of political corruption convictions when he was U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts in the 1980s.

Buttigieg outlined his “Douglass Plan,” named for late abolitionist and journalist Frederick Douglass, that he says would operate under the assumption that society’s imbalances are all related.

For instance, Buttigieg said, food deserts—neighborhoods that lack access to grocery stores and fresh food—have a relationship to redlining, a practice in which lending organizations will decline mortgages for certain areas.

Buttigieg also said he would push for the Department of Homeland Security to focus on violent extremism and that he sees a way to cut incarceration by 50% with no increase in crime. 

Regarding race, Buttigieg called President Trump a white supremacist. The midwestern mayor talked of a 14-year-old student of color in his area who was being abused verbally by schoolmates

“We have to ask at what point do you accept this kind of racism?” Buttigieg said. “That’s not racial tension, that’s abuse.”

Sanders made himself at home in front of the crowd, asking to stand up as he answered questions. The candidate decried economic inequities and touted his Medicare-for-all plan.

“Today, we are living in a country where white families own 10 times more wealth than black families,” Sanders said. 

Half of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, he added, promising to pass a mandatory minimum wage of $15.

Sanders said his health plan would be paid for through public financing.

“Health care is a human right not a privilege,” he said. 

The candidate also supports student loan forgiveness. When asked by NBC’s Craig Melvin—one of three questioners hosting the forum—about why people who struggled to pay their own student loans should support such a plan, Sanders said that the young people in today’s times are not faring well.

“The truth is that the millennial generation … will have a lower standard of living than their parents,” he said.

Booker encouraged journalists and the public to look deeper into the ongoing race debate in the United States to see clear to a solution.

Americans should not focus as much on “who is or isn’t a racist but who is or isn’t doing something about racism,” he said. “What are we doing to address the legacy of white supremacy?”

He talked of his pushes in the U.S. Senate that now require senators to reveal the diversity of their hiring practices.

Channeling civil rights leader John Lewis’ references to the “beloved community,” Booker said the country is far from that ideal right now and that people must remain hopeful, like the people in his Newark neighborhood who have been affected by violence and loss.

“The question is not can we, it’s to marshall our collective will,” he said.

When asked whether he was concerned about his poll numbers, which are not in the top five of Demoratic candidates, he pointed out that the same was true for Barack Obama and Bill Clinton this early in the race. 

“In fact, I’d be worrying this far out if I was polling ahead,” he said. 

Weld said that as U.S. Attorney under late President Reagan, he succeeded in achieving 10 convictions in political corruption cases out of 11 cases.

When it comes to the criminal side of the law, he said that he would address criminal justice disparities as president. Weld pointed out that black people are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in the United States over white people. Weld also said that when black people are convicted, they receive sentences that are four times as long. 

Weld also addressed voter suppression, an issue typically focused on by Democrats. He said he would work to end it through the legal system.

“I think it’s so brazen it’s going to be easy to prove,” Weld said.

The National Association of Black Journalists is a nonprofit organization that advocates for fair coverage of people of color and also supports diversity in the journalism industry. This year’s convention has nearly 4,000 attendees—a record for the organization. 

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