5 Ways Our Presidential Debates Can Discuss Race—Beyond Crime

By Marybeth Seitz-Brown, Joelle Gamble |

This past Sunday marked the second of three presidential debates. So far, discussions of race in these debates (and in our broader electoral discourse) seems exclusively focused on the inherent criminality of communities of color, despite efforts from young people of color in social justice movements to shift the conversation. Black folks are only discussed in the context of police and gun violence, the Latinx community is only mentioned in relation to some of its members’ undocumented status, and the Muslim community (used as a proxy for any brown person who could “look Muslim”) is only valuable if it can provide intelligence on terrorist activity in the Middle East.

But we know this picture is incomplete. By only discussing people of color in the context of criminal activity, we both further racist tropes and ignore the myriad other issues that concern race in this election.

Though our political system and civic engagement can and should be about much more than this election, we know that presidential elections are a crucial national dialogue. The way we talk about race, gender, and the economy in the context of who should be our nation’s next leader matters.

Systemic racism impacts every area of policy, from the economy and jobs to healthcare to housing and transportation. To make our political conversation truly inclusive, and to find the solutions that will lift up everyone, the candidates need to incorporate a racial equity lens throughout their policy agendas and rhetoric.

Here are five policy ideas that would put a dialogue about race front and center in this election (for more detail, check out Rewrite the Racial Rules):

  1. 1. Use a massive infrastructure investment to lift up the poorest communities.

The most asset-poor communities in this country are not “hell” or “ghettos,” they are the results of decades of neglect and a lack of public investment. We echo many in the racial justice community who call for a “domestic Marshall Plan” that commits real resources ($200 billion a year) to building and investing in long-term infrastructure in the poorest communities of color. A project of this size would expand access to public goods like universal broadband, public transportation, green buildings, and high-speed rail, all of which have universal benefits while targeting those who have been neglected by public investments historically.

  1. 2. Expand access to voting and democratic participation.

Our current system of voting shuts out young people and people of color, especially black and Latinx voters. By instituting automatic voter registration for all citizens at the age of 18, eliminating voter ID requirements, and passing legislation like the Voting Rights Advancement Act, we can ensure full access to voting. We should also institute more participatory budgeting processes at the local and state level to facilitate divestment from the private prison industry and investment in public goods.

  1. 3. Expand healthcare for all.

Black women face worse rates of maternal and infant mortality than any other developed country in the world (and worse than many countries in the global South). Trans people of color are especially discriminated against, with little to no coverage for transition-related medical care and a biased medical system. By fully expanding Medicaid (and including transition-related care), investing in community health centers in underserved areas, and overturning the Hyde amendment, we can improve health equity outcomes for people of color.

  1. 4. Raise the minimum wage for all, with no exceptions.

For decades, tipped workers, domestic workers, and agricultural workers—all groups that are disproportionately people of color—have been left behind from minimum wage increases and labor protections. It’s time we gave real consideration to how to protect those who work in the lowest wage professions. For example, we can eliminate the subminimum wage for tipped work and pass a Domestic Workers Bills of Rights for workers in all 50 states.

  1. 5. Make the finance sector serve people of color, not exploit them.

Currently, our financial system extracts money in the form of rents from our economy, rather than putting money into it to help it run. Banks to this day discriminate against people of color in mortgage and other lending and target them for predatory loans. Financial reform is also a racial justice issue. A public option for banking run through the postal service can reach underbanked communities, both urban and rural, from which banks have withdrawn. The Federal Reserve can shift its focus from low interest rates to full employment, which benefits everyone while lifting up those whom the recession has left behind (black unemployment is twice that for whites). And we can use the revenue from restructuring the tax code to invest in policies like those outlined above that will lead to economic and racial justice.

Black and brown people in this country experience unequal treatment from virtually every “race-neutral” policy on the books, and that won’t end until we adopt a race-aware approach to all policymaking, not just to criminal justice. These are just some of the ways to talk about the economy and race simultaneously. It’s time to hear even more.

Marybeth Seitz-Brown is a Roosevelt Program Associate.

Joelle Gamble is a Senior Advisor to the President & CEO of the Roosevelt Institute.