Pollical debates in such a polarized landscape do not care the same weight as they once did. Did you watch the 2016 debates? Did you see the result in the election? This post is not really about the debates as much as the obvious, latent framing of race in society. A framing that reinforces the seemingly intractable connection between Black people and problems for the mainstream audience.
Chris Wallace released the topics of the first presidential debate: The Trump and Biden records, The Supreme Court, The Economy, The Integrity of the Election, Covid-19, and Race and Violence in our Cities. That last topic really got under my skin because it, once again, reinforces how implicit bias permeates our society. Connecting two themes together, race and violence, removes the critical nuance required — and lacking — to address the important critical and social issues worthy of discussion. Race, as used loosely in the United States, is nearly always a reference to non-white people. Conversations on race or topics of racial issues inherently other individuals as whiteness is not thought of with the same certainty as Blackness. The connection to violence also limits, implicitly, narrows the grounds for conversation as it is the connection between race (read: Black or non-white) as tied to a negative theme, violence. That the violence is “in our cities” continues to lean into tropes of cities as havens for non-white populations. Urban centers. Inner cities. All clear, coded language.
There are incredibly important issues to be discussed as it relates to racial injustice or racial inequality that would be worthy of a presidential debate. Inequalities in policing, access to resources, impacts of the virus, representation, etc. I would like to see two people discuss their understandings of how we continue to see disparate outcomes by race and what they would do to fix it. But “Race and Violence in our Cities” is not the path to that topic. It is the path towards a debate about crime. It is adjacent to “Law and Order” because connecting the two topics is, implying, that race talk (read: Black folks) is tethered to talk of destruction and violence.
This is, by the way, how biases conveyed to the public and reinforced. They happen all around you. Huff Post’s Marina Fang highlights a study that shows immigrant characters on mainstream television are more associated with crime and negative stereotypes that are not representative of their lives. In sports, soccer commentators across the world unconsciously use different language to discuss darker skinned players (emphasis on power, athleticism) than lighter skinned players (intelligence, work ethic).
These are ways that people consume what is in front of them and source these opinions in how they build their own thoughts, beliefs, and arguments. The summer of 2020 highlighted, among the other topics, the deeply systemic racism and significant fault lines around racial inequality in this country. Those are worthy topics. But if race talk is only going to be attached to violence talk, then we (un)knowingly prevent ourselves from having the long overdue conversation we claim to want. That is weak leadership and irresponsible. It is also the 2020 election.