We all knew he was going to do it, and yet, just knowing that speaking Spanish is one of Beto O’Rourke’s favorite crowd-pleasing moves didn’t stop me from groaning as he began his opening statement on Wednesday night’s Democratic debate.
It wasn’t the Spanish that made me feel conflicted. Cory Booker also spoke Spanish to address what he’d do on his first day as president—reform immigration—and Julián Castro left his Spanish for his final statement, pointing to his ability to introduce himself in the language as indicative of the United States’ progress as a country. (Unsurprisingly and also indicative of “progress,” the New York Times and Washington Post transcripts failed to translate, or even include, the remarks candidates and moderators made in Spanish. Diversify your newsrooms, folks.)
No, O’Rourke’s use of Spanish—seen in last year’s Senate race as a welcoming gesture inclusive of people who had been demonized by the Republican Party—felt (and looked) like a rehearsed party trick on the national debate stage. At one point, when moderator Jose Diaz-Balart asked O’Rourke a question in Spanish, you could see O’Rourke, his face frozen, working very hard to translate in his head before hearing the question again in English.
There was plenty of this kind of posturing from the candidates throughout the night, some more effective than others, and though these rhetorical cues might have been a genuine attempt to connect with marginalized Americans, a candidate’s intent isn’t nearly as important as the impact it has on the people listening.
Yes, quite a few of the white guys whose names I confused last night tried to talk about race. One of them just listed races, as if that was enough. Some other moments that stood out from Wednesday night’s debate (transcripts once again provided by the Times and the Post):
Warren: So I think of it this way, who is this economy really working for? It’s doing great for a thinner and thinner slice at the top. It’s doing great for giant drug companies. This is not doing great for people are trying to get a prescription filled. It’s doing great for people who want to invest in private prisons just not for the African-Americans and Latinx whose families are torn apart whose lives are destroyed and whose communities are ruined...
Warren was the only candidate to use the term Latinx on stage (Castro mentioned Latinos once, and moderator Rachel Maddow used the term Latinos several times). Latinx has become a more widely accepted gender-neutral term to refer to Latinos, Latinas, and non-binary people within the community as a whole (we too use it at Splinter News dot Com), and it’s welcoming to see a term of inclusivity get used more often within a political field that often doesn’t prioritize Latinx people.
Booker: ...And I will tell you this, I live in a low-income black and brown community. I see every single day that this economy is not working for average Americans. The indicators that are being used from GDP to Wall Street’s rankings is not helping people in my community. It is about time that we have an economy that works for everybody, not just the wealthiest in our nation.
It’s absolutely wild to me that through the entire night the word “black” was only said five times. Booker also spoke about African-Americans the most (the term only getting 12 mentions). This stage of nearly all white male candidates didn’t want to talk about race, and when they did, they mostly fucked it up by saying nothing at all (more on that later...).
Inslee: I am the only candidate here who has passed a law protecting a woman’s right of reproductive health in health insurance, and I’m the only candidate who has passed a public option. And I respect everybody’s goals and plans here, but we do have one candidate that’s actually advanced the ball. And we’ve got to have access for everyone. I’ve done it as a public option.
At least the audience got a good laugh in early on. Amy Klobuchar immediately took Inslee down a peg, reminding him: “There’s three women up here that have fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose. I’ll start with that.” Jay, sit down!!!
Castro: [...] I don’t believe only in reproductive freedom, I believe in reproductive justice. And, you know, what that means is that just because a woman — or let’s also not forget someone in the trans community, a trans female, is poor, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have the right to exercise that right to choose. And so I absolutely would cover the right to have an abortion.
This was the first time in the evening that candidates mentioned transgender people and the trans community, who would only come up one other time. However, Castro’s intent to be inclusive of his answer on reproductive rights was overshadowed by his misstatement on a trans woman’s “right to choose”—some trans men have ovaries and a uterus and are capable of becoming pregnant. It matters, and it’s important that candidates prioritize including the transgender community in their policies and get it right.
De Blasio: ...Look, I run the largest the police force in America too and if we are going to stop these shootings and get these guns off the street we have to have a very different relationship between our police and our community. And I also want to say there is something that sets me apart from all of my colleagues running in this race and that is for the last 21 years I have been raising a black son in America. And I have had to have very, very serious talks with my son Dante, about how to protect himself in the streets of our city and all over our country including how to deal with the fact that he has to take special caution because there has been too many tragedies between our young men and our police too—as we saw recently in Indiana...
As a multiracial person, I can recognize De Blasio’s intent here. But again, it’s not the intent that matters. Yes, unlike the other candidates, De Blasio is the one white man in this field who has been forced to confront racism and racial dynamics on a more personal level than most of his white counterparts in the race.
There are also, however, three black candidates running alongside De Blasio. And while two of them don’t have children themselves, they’ve seen black children and families in their lives suffer the behavior of racist neighbors or cops or community leaders.
To be white and think that having black family members somehow gives you insight into the black American experience that black people in America don’t have themselves is not the same as being white, understanding the role you play in racism against your black family members, and elevating their experiences with your own privilege.
Ryan: In South Carolina.
Todd: Thank you.
Ryan: So, all I’m—all I’m saying here
Todd: Thank you, Congressman Ryan.
Ryan: All I’m saying here is
Todd: Thank you, Congressman Ryan.
Ryan: So, all I’m saying is—here, if we don’t address that fundamental problem
Todd: I understand
Ryan: With our connection to workers, white, black, brown, gay, straight working-class people
Todd: Thank you, Congressman
Ryan: None of this is going to get done, Chuck.
Castro: Chuck, your question’s about
Todd: Thank you very much.
Todd: Thank you, Congressman Ryan.
Ryan: None of this is going to get done, Chuck. Chuck.
Ryan just couldn’t let the question pass without getting his identities checklist in! And later on:
Ryan: There’s—there’s nothing worse than not being heard, nothing worse than not being seen. And I know that because I’ve represented for 17 years in Congress a forgotten community. They’ve tried to divide us, who’s white, who’s black, who’s gay, who’s straight, who’s a man, who’s a woman. And they ran away with all the gold because they divided the working class.
Someone please tell this man what to think.
Klobuchar: You would give them the offer to buy back their gun, but I’ll say this. I look at these proposals and I say, does this hurt my Uncle Dick and his deer stand coming from a proud hunting and fishing state? These proposals don’t do that. When I was a prosecutor, I supported the assault weapon ban. When I was in the Senate, I saw those moms from Sandy Hook come and try to advocate for change and we all failed. And then now, these Parkland kids from Florida, they started a literally a national shift. You know why? It’s just like with gay marriage. When kids talk to their parents...
Gun culture is not like gay marriage because gay people weren’t out here murdering others with assault rifles. Next question!
Booker: Because this is not enough. Look, civil rights is the place to begin. But in the African African-American civil rights community, another place to focus on was to stop the lynching of African-Americans. We did not talk enough about trans Americans, especially African-American trans Americans And the incredibly high rates of murder right now. We don’t talk enough about how many children, about 30 percent of LGBTQ kids who do not go to school because of fear. It’s not enough just to be on the equality act. I’m an original cosponsor. We need to have a president that will fight to protect LGBTQ Americans.
Booker gave us our second mention of transgender Americans of the night, invoking the horrific murders of black transgender people at that. He stopped short of saying their names, including Muhlaysia Booker, who was beaten a month before she was found murdered in Dallas.
The LGBTQ community was mentioned only one other time: Right before Booker’s comment, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (sort of) answered for her previous work demonizing the community—but neither she, nor moderator Chuck Todd, ever actually said what she did: worked closely with her father, an anti-LGBTQ crusader whose PAC promoted conversion therapy.
Booker tried to jump on Gabbard’s recommitment to protecting the community by saying that she wasn’t doing enough, but didn’t actually say what he would do to protect queer Americans, aside from mentioning that he was an original co-sponsor of the Equality Act. Was he pressed for time? Sure. They all were. But in trying to criticize another candidate for her failures, he missed an opportunity to share how he’ll actually protect queer Americans.
The good news? We still have 460ish days until election day for candidates to get this shit right. The bad news? We have to do this all over again tonight.