Our panel on the 3rd Democratic presidential debate takes a closer look at how the candidates look at and overlook crucial issues related to inequality and education in the United States
GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore.
This is our second segment on the Democratic Party’s third presidential debate, which took place last Thursday in Houston, Texas. Joining me here in the studio to analyze the debate are Real News host and producer Jacqueline Luqman, and New Republic staff writer Osita Nwanevu. Joining us remotely is human rights lawyer and University of Illinois-Chicago Professor Helena Olea. Thanks again to all three of you for being here.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Thank you.
OSITA NWANEVU: Thank you.
HELENA OLEA: Thank you.
GREG WILPERT: So in this segment, we’ll take a closer look at the how the candidates discussed inequality, racism, and immigration.
SENATOR KAMALA HARRIS: I have, as part of my proposal, that we will put $2 trillion into investing in our HBCUs, but also—
LINSEY DAVIS: Thank you, Senator.
SENATOR KAMALA HARRIS: But this is a critical point. If a black child has a black teacher before the end of third grade, they are 13% more likely to go to college. If that child has had two black teachers before the end of third grade, they are 32% more likely to go to college.
SENATOR CORY BOOKER: My kids are not only struggling with racial segregation and housing and the challenges of underfunded schools, but they’re also struggling with environmental injustice. If you’ve talked to someone who’s a parent of a child who has had permanent brain damage because of lead, you’ll know this is a national problem because there’s over 3,000 jurisdictions in America where children have more than twice the blood lead levels of Flint, Michigan.
LINSEY DAVIS: Thank you.
Please help us make real news!
SENATOR CORY BOOKER: And so if I’m President of the United States, it is a wholistic solution to education— from raising teacher’s salary, fully-funded special education, but combating the issues of poverty, combating the issues of racial segregation, combating the issues of a criminal justice system that takes—
LINSEY DAVIS: Thank you, Senator.
SENATOR CORY BOOKER: Parents away from their kids and dealing with environmental justice, is a major pillar of any climate policy.
LINSEY DAVIS: In a conversation about how to deal with segregation in schools back in 1975, you told a reporter, “I don’t feel responsible for the sins of my father and grandfather. I feel responsible for what the situation is today, for the sins of my own generation, and I’ll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago.” You said that some 40 years ago, but as you stand here tonight, what responsibility do you think that Americans need to take to repair the legacy of slavery in our country?
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Make sure that we bring in to help the teachers deal with the problems that come from home. We bring social workers into homes with parents to help them deal with how to raise their children. It’s not that they don’t want to help; They don’t know quite what to do. Play the radio. Make sure the television, excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night. Make sure the kids hear words. A kid coming from a very poor school or very poor background will hear 4 million words fewer spoken by the time they get there.
GREG WILPERT: Okay, so there’s quite a bit to unpack here, but let’s take it from the top. And Jackie, I want to turn it to you to talk about specifically Kamala Harris’s a proposal on the HBCUs.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: You know, the HBCU discussion is really interesting in political discourse because people focus solely on providing more funding to HBCUs that’s going to unilaterally help every black kid who goes to college. And I preface what I’m about to say by saying that it’s not that HBCUs do not deserve and need additional federal funding— they do. The issue is that most black kids who go to college don’t actually attend an HBCU. Most black kids who go to college attend predominantly white institutions. So while additional funding for HBCUs is critical to continue the mission that HBCUs have to be a safe and robust and culturally relevant educational environment—Even though, yes, HBCUs produce almost every black doctor in this country, it’s also true that for most black students, they’re learning on the campuses of predominantly white institutions, so where is their assistance coming from? Where are they getting help if – not if, but when HBCUs are getting additional assistance? That’s a real issue that I think certainly plays well on a debate stage at an HBCU, but when you look at the reality of the statistics, it raises questions about how genuine these politicians really are in closing every gap in inequality or every gap in quality of education between black and white students on college campuses, all of them across this country.
GREG WILPERT: This also raises the issue, I think, or is related to the issue of reparations in a sense because, of course, some have proposed that it would go specifically towards higher education for particularly the African American population in the United States. Now, I’m just wondering though, what do you make of this, Osita, this debate, and particularly also how it might relate to reparations, which came up very briefly? We don’t have a clip of it, but Beto O’Rourke did mention that he supported that, at least in a very general sense. Of course, nobody’s specific about it. What do you think of that?
OSITA NWANEVU: Yeah, the non-specificity is very important I think across the entire— I mean, the HBCU thing, HBCUs, as was just said, are absolutely wonderful institutions, but it’s a very narrow discussion. It’s a discussion narrow enough in fact, that the Trump administration has made a lot of gestures towards HBCUs over the past couple of years just because it’s such a non-controversial, kind of very small part of the education situation in this country.
If you want to deal with structural inequities that really impact most African Americans in the education system, you have to look at sort of the root alignment, the root structural systems that define education funding in this country. And that’s something that presidential candidates have often struggled to talk about in any kind of serious way because in this country, education is a state responsibility. A lot of the policy is set up at state and local level, so people can come out on the national debate stage and say this and that, but most of what you get in policy are sort of incentive programs from the federal government to get schools to adhere to certain standards. They’ll put out these carrots for federal funding, but that doesn’t actually change the fundamental aspects of education in this country.
It doesn’t change the fact that we become a country that’s re-segregated a lot of its schools. That’s going to take a lot more structural attention, and I think it ties into the reparation discussion too because in the exact same way, you have to think a lot bigger than the candidates are willing to really think right now and willing to talk about openly. I don’t know how anybody could oppose studying the issue. My suspicion is that when you study the issue, it’s going to become very obvious, empirically, as it’s become obvious to a lot of people that reparations make a lot of sense to close the racial wealth gap. The question then becomes what do you actually do? What kinds of sweeping proposals do you actually put forward? How do you make them work politically?
But everything is happening at the surface-level discussion where people are being more forthright about the history of racism in this country, that legacy of slavery, all the structural inequities. People talk with the right kind of talk, but the solutions are still very limited. You see that in education. You see that to the extent to which people are talking about reparations. It’s still a kind of inchoate policy conversation.
GREG WILPERT: Yeah. This goes also to the issue of, like you mentioned, the economic issue of inequality, which as I mentioned in the beginning in the first segment, it didn’t come up directly at least, and certainly not in the context of overall economic policy. Helena, I’m wondering what do you think of this lack of discussion of economic policy and how to address that in a larger, structural sense?
HELENA OLEA: I think that that’s a very good point because when we are discussing a number of issues such as healthcare, for instance, we are in a way kind of tapping on economic policy, but we are really not discussing it in deep. I think that that’s a crucial element of the debate and I think it’s related to the format that was used as well. I would like to point out a couple of things in this regard. It’s interesting that their choice was to bring the Latino journalist to ask questions about immigration, as if that was only an issue that affects Latinos, where it affects the population from all over the world. Similarly, when we’re talking about education, everyone is thinking about racial segregation and discrimination against African American students, and we should be thinking of education and discrimination from a wider stance.
And so just as equally as it’s important for African American kids to have African American teachers, it’s equally important for Latino children to have Latino teachers, and we should be able to look at these issues from a broader perspective. I think we’re leaving that element out in this discussion. We are tapping onto it.
Similarly, I also want to point out that when we’re talking about reparations, it’s interesting also to consider where are we cutting the line? Are we only going to refer to slavery, or are we also going to address the continuous discrimination that has affected African Americans in the US until today? I think that the issue is much more complex. We definitely need a wide, open and long debate on this issue. So I agree absolutely with Osita, with the political correct point of saying, “Yes, I agree,” but that is a very empty comment. We really have to grapple with the basic and most important elements of this discussion on reparations.
GREG WILPERT: I want to turn now to the other part of the clip that we saw, which was particularly the one of Biden where he talks about the need for a different kind of education at home. What do you make of that, Jackie?
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Okay, I have to breathe. Biden’s comment came in response to a two-part question that was asked of him. One, that he had to – what was his response to his previous comments, which were problematically racist, about the role that America has to play for addressing the legacy of slavery. And two, what does he see now 40 years later after his initial comments, how does he feel about that now? His response was that America has to basically help poor, black families raise their children because they don’t know how to. In a nutshell, in a nutshell, that is what he said. He said we need to send social workers in to help people raise their kids because it’s not that they don’t want to raise their kids, they just don’t know how, and they need to have the record player on at night so the kids can hear words.
And people don’t quite know what that is in reference to, but it’s in reference to a 40-year-old debunked study— “study,” I say that in quotes— that I think University of Kansas researchers did where they went to 42 families and followed their children from the ages of 16 months to 18 months for four years. And they came up with this bizarre conclusion that rich families, the children of rich families were exposed to hearing 30 million more words over that four years than the children of poor families did— the 42 families they’d studied over four years. That study has since been debunked for a number of reasons: because it didn’t account for all of the different people outside of parents that children have around them in different perspectives, didn’t account for different cultural environments where language is different and words may be different, didn’t account for the time spent with children and parents based on economic situations where wealthier families may have more time.
So it didn’t account for a lot of things, but Joe Biden is still relying on this idea that poor families just don’t talk to their kids. And especially in the context of this question, poor black families. That’s his idea of addressing the legacy of slavery. So that is the contrast that we are facing in dealing with this legacy of slavery and racial injustice, where you have one candidate, Beto O’Rourke, who rightfully does mention I support, if I’m president, I am going to sign HR 40 into law, and HR 40 does exactly what you say. It documents this history of not just slavery, but also, Helena, the continuing discrimination that is endured after slavery. But then at the other end of the spectrum, you have Joe Biden who is the so-called frontrunner who still believes that one of the problems of slavery is that black people don’t know how to raise their children.
GREG WILPERT: I also thought it was interesting that he seems to have this idea that you can fight poverty with social workers, but what do you think, Osita?
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Yes.
OSITA NWANEVU: This is what’s so interesting about this primary. I mean, across all kinds of issues, there’s been a breathtaking series of sweeping proposals advanced not just by Senators Sanders and Warren that you would expect to be the most ambitious, but even the moderate candidates have moved well left on a lot of different issues. Even Joe Biden on an issue like climate puts out a respectable plan. But when it comes to this core issue of antipoverty policy and in dealing with some of these inequities you’ve been talking about, the party still doesn’t exactly know what to do. It hasn’t matched the level of ambition that we’ve seen in other policy areas.
Biden’s answer was something that you would have expected somebody like him to say in the 90s. It’s obviously important to read to your kids and spend time with them. That’s not the reason why we see all these inequities. We know, given social science research, that even black parents who do everything right and kids who work hard at school, they’re still suffering from the same inequities that we see across the racial spectrum for them. We know that African Americans who are high-income or higher income than lower income white people, will often live in neighborhoods that are still underfunded, that still lack certain resources. There are racial components of inequity in this country that we haven’t really taken seriously outside of academia.
So as far as this idea that you’re going to solve those inequities by sending social workers into these communities and teaching parents how to raise their kids right, if you want to look at the most ambitious thing somebody said on poverty on the stage last night, it was actually Andrew Yang, Andrew Yang’s UBI. The idea of doing a universal basic income gives all Americans a certain level of income. They can use it to pay rent. They can use it to pay for childcare, whatever they find most necessary in their lives. That is a more serious solution that would help more black people than the Joe Biden’s idea of lecturing black parents that they’re not doing things right. Give people material resources and they will have the power to change the things in their life that they find the most burdensome.
Now Yang is not offering reparations specifically for African American people. There’s a narrowness to what he’s saying, but I think that the core idea that the thing that is hurting people the most is structural inequity that can be solved by improving people’s material situations. That is what the party has to dial into, just the way that it’s dialed ambitiously into the healthcare situation or the healthcare reform proposals. There needs to be some kind of commensurate interest and really rethinking antipoverty policy in this country, really reinvigorating the welfare state in a big way.
GREG WILPERT: I mean, just turning also to a clip that we saw from Corey Booker. I mean, what I thought it was interesting about his clip is that he did address the issue of inequality, of systemic inequality. He didn’t provide any solutions or answers in so far as I know his platform doesn’t really either, but at least he raised it as the core of the issue. That’s something that, at least in this debate, hardly anyone else really did. Although I would say that Sanders and Warren probably come closest to actually offering some solutions or some responses to that issue. I want to turn to you, Helena, what do you think of that? What was your reaction to Cory Booker and the possibilities of addressing this topic of inequality?
HELENA OLEA: Well, I do believe he deserves to be acknowledged for trying to understand education from a broader perspective and not giving the simple answer that we heard from many on the stage about teacher’s salaries. You know, that’s it. Education, teacher salaries, and we’re done with the topic. I do appreciate considering other factors and so I think he must be praised for that. I appreciate the inclusion of environmental justice, which I think is an important element and also including – it’s an interesting way to also mention criminal justice reform, which I think is also a plus in this aspect in particular. I think it’s the beginning of new conversations that we should be having on how to really address the needs in terms of education.
We should also move, hopefully in the future debates, to addressing access to higher education. More than that broader promise of “we’re going to eliminate all loans,” but something more concrete. How can we ensure that our college students do not have to work at least 40 hours a week? Because it’s impossible to obtain an education of quality when you have other burdens. How do we protect our students who are also parents at the same time? There are other issues on the table that I think we’re leaving out.
GREG WILPERT: Well, unfortunately, we can’t take up every issue in this discussion either, but we’ll continue to cover it as best we can. So this concludes our second segment on the third Democratic presidential debate. Join us for the next one. We will take up the issue of foreign policy and socialism. Thanks for joining The Real News Network.