My original plan was that I would not write anything on this blog about the Presidential Election. Yet, here I am, writing about the first Presidential Debate between Republican Nominee, Donald J. Trump, and Democratic Nominee, Hillary Clinton. I am not going to delve into the logistics of the debate or say who I believe “won” the debate. The truth is probably that, as many people have already pointed out, that the American people are the losers here, not only of last night’s debate, but also of this election cycle in general. Over a year ago, we met a full slate of Republican candidates encompassing everyone from career politicians to surgeons to business people. Many of them represented policies that harm women, black and brown people, and the LGBT community. After eight years with a relatively popular Democratic President, many of us expected that the Democrats had found more young, promising, charismatic young people to lead our party. Instead, we met three candidates, all long-time career politicians, only one who represented a platform that could be called particularly progressive. Especially within my generation, there was a sense of restlessness and hopelessness.
In spite of the disappointments, as a young black American woman, I know the importance of my vote in a nation that worked tirelessly to make sure I would never have one. Especially today, on National Voter Registration Day, we must remember the long struggle for voting rights in this country, especially for people of color, and that voting rights are still contested in so many communities. So, it is important that everyone in this country who has the right to vote takes the time to read about the issues that matter to them. Learn about candidates other than the presidential candidates. We need effective leaders in our schools, neighborhoods, and towns too. Not only do I see this as a moment to become educated voters, I see it as an opportunity to become better-informed citizens of this country. Now is the time for us to become more deeply involved in the political process rather than being satisfied to be critical observers of the status quo.
So, while I watched the debate, I was watching for moments of hope. What troubled me most about the debate was the fifteen-minute section in which both candidates were asked to focus on race in America. I was not troubled by the answers either candidate gave during the debate, for they both answered in ways that were predictable based on the trajectory of their campaigns thus far. I was much more troubled by what their answers to questions about race in America today represent. I should begin by saying that I was excited when the moderator, Lester Holt, stated that there would be a set of questions dealing with race. For too long, we have allowed the issue of race and racism to be the elephant in the room when it comes to politics. It has become expected that the “African-American vote” will swing in favor of the Democrats. Until members of the Black Lives Matter movement demanded it this year, I don’t remember a time in my life in which politicians genuinely worked for the vote of my community. As a voter, I have been left feeling virtually ignored by one party and taken for granted by the other. Race is not a hot-button issue in this election cycle because of all of the violence being done to black and brown bodies in this country. Extraordinary violence has been done to black bodies from the beginning of American history. Rather, race is a hot-button issue because of the persistence of courageous, young black and brown activists who crashed Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton campaign stops, demanding to be heard. For once, the Democratic Party was told without reservation that if they did not seriously engage with the issue of racism in this nation, they could not expect to receive black votes.
And so, Former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, stepped up to the plate. The woman who once called black and brown youth “Super Predators,” now knows and uses the term “systemic racism.” She insists that there are biases that all of us hold against black and brown people living in this country. And, while businessman Donald Trump denied many a factual statement during the debate, he did not deny that racism is a real issue in America. Rather, he asserted that he could deal with racism better than his opponent. He lunged into a discussion of stop and frisk laws and protecting black communities because they are all such horrible and dangerous places to live. When Lester Holt challenged Mr. Trump about the constitutionality of Stop and Frisk laws, Trump recoiled at the suggestion that such laws encouraged racial profiling, citing the importance of “law and order.” Holt also challenged Mr. Trump on his contributions to the so-called birther controversy. Beginning in 2011, Mr. Trump engaged in a public campaign questioning the citizenship of the first black President of the United States. When Holt asked why it was only recently that Mr. Trump admitted that the current president was indeed born in the United States, Trump stated that he believed he had done the right thing because he was the one who finally got the President to release his birth certificate!
His assertion that his quest for so-called “truth” had been appropriate was an uncomfortable one because black Americans have been struggling since the beginning of American history to be recognized as full citizens of this nation. First, we were considered only to be three-fifths of a person, then, we were prevented from voting at the expense of our lives. Our bodies, throughout American history, have been political objects existing at the behest of the state, even when a black man sits in this nation’s highest office because, well, maybe he is not even a citizen. Maybe he was . . . God forbid . . . born in Africa! Secretary Clinton quickly chimed in, quoting First Lady Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention, in which Mrs. Obama explained that the Obama family motto is that “When they go low, we go high.” Borrowing Mrs. Obama’s now well-known phrase, Secretary Clinton applied it to the way that the current president has dealt with Mr. Trump’s constant questioning of his citizenship. The former Secretary of State also challenged her opponent on the idea that black communities are all dangerous, encouraging him to look at the black church as an example of the positive sides of blackness. As a black person sitting at home, I was underwhelmed. A conversation about race was shifted to become a conversation about the nature of policing. The biggest problem facing black and brown people was the killing of black and Hispanic men (no mention of the violence done to black and brown women and especially trans women in this country). When something positive was finally said about black communities, it was that we have some great churches. So, in order to be good, the black body must find itself in the church. We cannot simply be people like any other group, deeply flawed and wonderfully made. We have to drop our weapons, although weapons are being used to destroy our bodies without cause, and we have to find ourselves a home within churches that are distinctively black.
I don’t think Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton represented only themselves in their discussion of race in America, and that’s the problem. I think even the most progressive non-black and Hispanic people understand us only to be good when we are praying. Plenty of non-black and Hispanic Americans who believe because of constant miseducation that we all live in ghettoes where we live in constant fear that some other black or Hispanic person is going to kill us. Many people in this country still don’t understand the concept of systemic racism or why stop and frisk laws are essentially legalizing racial profiling. And, I base my ideas here on the fact that I watched the debate on NBC and that immediately after the debate, journalist Tom Brokaw expressed surprise that Secretary Clinton did not bring up black-on-black crime because that is what “a lot of people” are concerned about. As a black woman living in America, I don’t live in fear that other black people are going to kill me. I live in fear of a system that has taught me and so many other black women in this nation that we cannot succeed, that we are not worthy, that we are not intelligent, that we are not capable, and that the best way for us to thrive is by destroying one another. These teachings are not our fault, but they are our reality, and they are ours to either defeat or continue to be defeated by.