Democrats need to talk honestly about race. But can they?

Art for Beating Trump editorial series —Day Four — Dems talk about race. (John W. Tomac / For The Times)
(John W. Tomac / For The Times)

Race is going to be a crucial issue in the 2020 election. Or if it isn’t, it ought to be.

Partly that’s because of Donald Trump. He has shamelessly exploited ethnic and racial divides for cynical political reasons, using code words and dog whistles to drive Americans farther apart. (Remember, to name just a few examples, the Mexican “rapists,” the “very fine people” in Charlottesville, and the four nonwhite members of Congress he told to “go back” to the countries they supposedly came from.)

But on this subject, Trump is only a visible expression of our bigger, older, deeper problems. He has brought our ugly feelings to the surface, unmasking long-standing resentments and prejudices that we usually prefer to ignore. He is a symptom rather than a root cause.


The growing anger and frustration at the killing of unarmed black men by police officers, for example, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement began well before Trump took office. Criminal justice reform has, rightfully, become an important part of the national conversation in recent years, focused on race-related issues that go back decades and in some cases generations, including the disproportionate incarceration of people of color, the policing of black communities, and the disparate application of the death penalty to nonwhites.

Racism has stymied and shamed us as Americans since our country’s founding. But perhaps the depressing backward steps of the Trump era can be put to good use, concentrating the 2020 candidates in a more positive way on the issues. Kamala Harris was right to raise the subject of Joe Biden’s opposition to federally mandated busing, starting an important, if brief, nationwide conversation about school integration, what it accomplished and where it failed.

That was a relatively easy subject: It was an issue from 40 years ago. Candidates need to talk about what’s happening today. They should talk about fair housing protections, some of which are being eroded by the Trump administration. They should talk about ongoing de facto school segregation — are Californians aware that most Latino students in our state attend what the Civil Rights Project at UCLA calls “intensely segregated” schools? They should discuss the future of affirmative action, the persistent racial disparities in income and life expectancy, the fact that the population of homeless people across the nation is disproportionately black. What exactly is pushing so many people of color out of their homes and onto the streets?

And of course: Should we have reparations for slavery? That is a challenging question that Americans are seriously discussing. So should the candidates.

According to a 2018 report by the Anti-Defamation League, the alt-right segment of the white supremacy movement, galvanized by the 2016 election of Trump, has moved from mostly online activities into “real world” activism on college campuses and elsewhere. That obviously should not be ignored.

Four hundred years after black people were first brought to this country against their will as slaves, institutional racism — and in many cases, more overt forms of racism — against African Americans, Latinos and other nonwhite minority groups have not been eliminated, and that’s a travesty beyond words. But here are two important changes: First of all, there are five nonwhite candidates in this race — Harris, Andrew Yang, Cory Booker, Julian Castro and Tulsi Gabbard. Second, nonwhite voters are expected to account for a third of eligible voters in 2020, their largest share ever.

Those facts, if nothing else, should help ensure that the subject of race gets the attention in the campaign that it has long deserved. If it does not, more shame on us.