The most telling moment at the Flint debate had nothing to do with water

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Both candidates in the Democratic presidential primary have talked about wanting to end structural racism in America. But during Sunday night's debate, it got personal—and a little uncomfortable.


At the CNN debate in Flint, Michigan, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton were asked to discuss their own "racial blind spots." Moderator Don Lemon, borrowing a phrase from the musical "Avenue Q," noted that "everyone's a little bit racist." The question for the candidates: How are you racist?

Sanders told a story about going to a meeting in Washington 20 years ago with a fellow congressman who was black. "He was sitting there waiting, and I said, 'Let's go out and get a cab.' He said, 'I don't get cabs in Washington, D.C.,'" Sanders remembered. "He was humiliated that cabdrivers would go past him because he was black."


Then Sanders recounted a more recent story, about a discussion with a young woman in the Black Lives Matter movement. He said she told him that "you don't understand what police do in certain black communities. You don't understand the degree to which we are terrorized. I'm not just talking about the shootings we have seen that we have to end, I'm talking about everyday activities where police officers are bullying people."

Sanders struck an odd note at one point in his answer when he said that "when you're white, you don't know what it's like to be living in a ghetto. You don't know what it's like to be poor."

On social media, some people pointed out the obvious: Of course there are white people who live in ghettos and are poor.


Clinton was more general when she was asked about her racial blind spots.

"Being a white person in the United States of America, I know that I have never had the experiences that so many people in this audience have had," she said. "What I have been trying to talk about during this campaign is to urge white people to think about what it is like to have "the talk" with your kids, scared that your sons or daughters, even, could get in trouble for no good reason whatsoever like Sandra Bland and end up dead in a jail in Texas."


Clinton repeated a story she told during Fusion's Black and Brown Forum in January about babysitting the children of migrant farmworkers and later studying juvenile justice in South Carolina.

"That got me thinking about what I needed to do to try to fulfill my faith," she said.


Neither candidate seemed to have an especially thorough or well-thought-out answer about their own specific racial biases. Sanders' "ghetto" comment was especially uncomfortable. But the simple fact that the question was asked, that two presidential candidates had to debate their own racism, shows that the issue is finally center stage in 2016.

Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.

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