Oxford, ENGLAND – The first votes have not even been cast, and the campaign season has already gone on for almost seven months. This campaign has been about many things, money most importantly. Yet for all its faults, the candidates have for the most part stuck to issues in order to define themselves. From tax cuts and the budget surplus to whether homosexuals should be able to serve in the military, most issues have received far more than just the usual window treatment. But one subject has really gone without any substantial discussion and that is race.
I discussed this with my roommate the other night. He was curious as to what the next president would do to better the current situation. He was curious as to whether we were on the right track or whether we had stagnated on the issue. He wanted to know whether it was possible for the government to do anything to actually improve the situation.
It strikes me that these are all valid and important questions, questions that those seeking the presidency should probably have to answer. But no one is asking them. At the all too numerous debates these questions never come up, and instead we’re left with symbolic issues of race, that while perhaps important, should not substitute for a real dialogue.
In the Republican Party, issues of race circle around South Carolina’s flying of the Confederate flag. Last week, 40,000 people demonstrated at the South Carolina statehouse for the removal of the flag. Yet, if as progressives we are reduced to concentrating our attention on issues such as this flag, then clearly the agenda has shifted away from us. What is more, on such a simple issue, the Republican candidates are incapable of coming up with a suitable answer. Instead, they shirk the question, referring to the issue as a local matter.
This is a no-brainer. Whether or not the flag is intended as a tribute to those who died in the Civil War is irrelevant. It has become a symbol of slavery and oppression and as such it should not fly over a seat of government. South Carolina first raised this flag in 1962 in response to the budding civil rights movement. We have made progress since 1962 and we should demonstrate that we have made that progress.
On the Democratic side, the issue receives a similarly disappointing treatment. Only recently did the issue of racial profiling come up, and it was quickly dropped. One of the only questions on race to be asked of the Democrats at a debate was whether, as president, they would meet with the Rev. Al Sharpton. I harbor a deep dislike for this man, dating back to the Tawana Brawley affair and the libel suit following. I would have liked to hear each of these candidates say no they would not meet with him, yet, like the Republicans, they punted. Each said they had met with the reverend previously, declining to comment on the future.
Neither of the Democrats presents a real platform on race. Instead, Bill Bradley plays lip service to the issue by posing with friends Bill Russell and KC Jones. He claims that his experience playing professional basketball gives him insight into racial issues. I’m not sure I draw the same conclusion.
For most candidates, race is an issue to be avoided. It cannot help them, but only hurt them. Hence, we watch as our candidates do their best to straddle the line, trying to appease everyone and offend no one. Yet it may not be their fault. Candidates only talk about what the electorate is interested in. Maybe it’s actually our own shortcoming that we’re not interested in listening.