It's telling that Marianne Williamson mentioned race before Kamala Harris did during Thursday night's Democratic debate: "When it comes to race in America, I don't believe the average American is a racist. I don't," Williamson said. "But I do believe the average American is woefully undereducated about the history of race in the United States, particularly since the Civil War."
It's also telling that the night before, presidential candidate Bill de Blasio, whose wife is African American, talked ruefully about raising a black son in a racially hostile world: "I have had to have very, very serious talks with my son, Dante, about how to protect himself on the streets of our city and all over our country, including how to deal with the fact that he has to take special caution because there have been too many tragedies between our young men and our police." And De Blasio is mayor of New York.
It's telling, too, that former Vice President Joe Biden mounted a vigorous defense of his civil-rights record and cozy relationship with Senate segregationists. ("He never called me 'boy,'" a tone-deaf Biden said of late Sen. James O. Eastland earlier this month. Right -- Biden isn't a black man. Should have been obvious.) But he grew uncomfortable under Kamala Harris' racial heat lamp and willingly cut short his comments.
Race remains a flashpoint in this fractured country and, therefore, in presidential politics. Barack Obama's election in 2008 may have ushered in an era of hope and change and optimism, but the nation's most intractable challenge, one the United States has faced for centuries, endured -- and endures.
Obama's ascent to the Oval Office was fraught with white fear, white doubt, white racism. During his first campaign, when it was disclosed that his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, had excoriated this country with the declaration, God damn America!" Obama was compelled to give a speech on race to mollify the skittish. (For context, Wright said: The government gives African Americans the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America.' No, no, no, God damn America ... ")
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Obama spoke thoughtfully, personally, honestly about the role of race in his life, even revealing his own white grandmother's biases.
Now, it's imperative that the candidates, particularly white hopefuls, running for the White House, come clean, too -- thoughtfully, personally, honestly -- about the role of race, race relations and privilege in their lives. How their thoughts and actions might have propelled -- consciously or unconsciously -- this country's injustices. African-American voters must demand those same reassurances that go beyond "some of my best friends" that white Americans sought from Obama more than a decade ago.
Biden, de Blasio and Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, have had the most public and obvious problems. Biden recently defended himself more forthrightly than he did during the debate. He continues to tout that he was No. 2 to America's first black president. He needs to let go of Obama's coattails and come up with his own, honest racial narrative.
Buttigieg hasn't shown much empathy for his African-American constituents until forced: He left the campaign trail to take the heat for a white-cop-black-man fatal shooting, but has done little to bring his troubled police department to heel; his focus on development in downtown South Bend has come at the expense of black neighborhoods, some complain. In Thursday's debate, he sounded sincere about his failures, but substance was missing.
Even de Blasio, he with the black wife and biracial children, has come under fire for a lack of police reforms and his administration's controversial foreclosure program that has confiscated homes -- and years' worth of equity -- from homeowners in predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods.
Other candidates, too, need to make clear where they stand on issues of race.