Race defined last week’s combative presidential debate. During Wednesday’s vice presidential debate, it was merely a footnote.
Though Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris argued — briefly — about the legacy of systemic racism, the topic was overshadowed by the coronavirus, the economy and health care. President Donald Trump’s refusal last week to disavow white supremacists during the first presidential debate — the major flashpoint of the evening — earned only a glancing mention from the vice presidential candidates.
Late in the debate, moderator Susan Page introduced the topic, invoking the summer’s most high-profile cases of police brutality, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, two African Americans killed by police. But there wasn’t a robust discussion of racism in America despite protests cropping up around the country.
What they said: Each candidate attacked the other on their records on race while defending their respective stances on police reform. (She’s for it; he’s against it.) When asked if she believed Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman who was shot and killed by police in her home, was served justice, Harris said no.
“[Taylor’s] family deserves justice,” Harris said. “She was a beautiful young woman. … Her life was taken. Unjustifiably and tragically and violently.”
Pence, posed with the same question, said he trusted the justice system and quickly pivoted to condemning the “rioting and looting” that took place in some cities in response to the cases. He also rejected the idea that some members of law enforcement hold an implicit bias against communities of color, calling it a “great insult” to police officers. (Black Americans are killed by police at more than twice the rate of white Americans, despite accounting for less than 13 percent of the country’s population.)
The precedent: Both Pence and Trump have denied the existence of systemic racism and been vocal allies of law enforcement in the wake of nationwide protests against police violence. When given the opportunity to disavow white supremacist groups during the presidential debate, Trump declined, instead telling them to “stand back” and “stand by.”
When Page asked Pence about President Trump’s refusal to disavow white supremacist groups, he said said that Trump had already “done so repeatedly,” echoing White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany’s talking points from the previous week.
“This is a president who respects and cherishes all of the American people,” Pence added.
The vice president has been careful to play the conciliator, more moderate in tone than his often bellicose boss. But he’s also careful not to contradict Trump’s law-and-order messaging on protests against racism. He once recommended Americans “set aside” addressing issues of systemic racism in policing.
Instead, he’s touted economic equality as the solution to racial inequities. Meanwhile, Trump denounced white supremacists last week only after being repeatedly asked and pressed on the matter. Trump’s failure to condemn white supremacy, use of dog whistles and attempts to stoke fear of minorities are features of his campaign tactics and presidency.
Both Trump and Pence paint Joe Biden’s pro-reform views as far-left extremism. During a speech in Gettysburg on Tuesday, the former vice president defended his stance on reforming the criminal justice system.
“I do not believe we have to choose between law and order and racial justice in America. We can have both,” Biden said.
“I think about what it takes for a Black person to love America — that is a deep love for this country that has for far too long never been recognized,” Biden added, addressing the pain many Black Americans vocalized as the country confronts a racial reckoning.
Harris as top cop: Harris’ prosecutorial record was used as both a weapon and a tool during the debate. She insisted that her time as a prosecutor proves her expertise on issues relating to the criminal justice system.
“I am the only one on this stage who has personally prosecuted everything from child sexual assault to homicide,” Harris said. She then underlined Trump’s record on race, including his debate comments, references to immigrants from Mexico as “rapists and criminals” and ban on asylum seekers from Muslim countries.
Pence took the offensive, arguing that as California attorney general, Harris incarcerated a disproportionate number of Black men. He also criticized her for not playing a role in the passage of the First Step Act, the bipartisan criminal justice reform bill passed in 2017 that she supported.
What it says: Biden and Harris’ pro-reform approach to criminal justice and willingness to acknowledge the legacy of racism in America contrasts sharply with the Trump administration’s disavowal of systemic racism.
Though Trump has repeatedly attempted to make some summer riots a key point of the election, in multiple national polls over the last month voters have favored Biden on the question of who they trust to handle public safety or crime. In a CNN national poll this week, voters favored Biden 55-43 percent on who they think would better handle crime and safety.
Laura Barrón-López contributed to this report.
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