Race continues to divide America, and for 90 minutes Thursday night during their third debate, the Democratic presidential hopefuls were forced to talk about it. With journalists of color posing questions to the eight candidates—a first in American political history—the forum steered away from the war in Iraq and focused on the topics most pressing to Black Americans, including equal education, criminal justice, poverty, AIDS, job outsourcing, Hurricane Katrina relief and Darfur.

Billed as the All-American Presidential Forum, the televised debate was held at Washington, D.C.’s historically Black Howard University and moderated by radio and television talk show host Tavis Smiley. The discussion opened with a question about whether the “color line” still exists in America, a query with ironic significance, given Thursday’s Supreme Court decision to clamp down on race-based school integration plans. New York Senator Hillary Clinton spoke against the ruling, arguing that it “turned back the clock on the promise of Brown v. Board of Education.” Other candidates echoed agreement.

The candidates were also united in their support for increased spending on schools in poor neighborhoods. “When you’ve got a bill called No Child Left Behind, you can’t leave the money behind,” said Illinois Senator Barack Obama. “ Unfortunately that’s what’s been done.” Obama also called for the funding of early childhood education, stating, “It starts from birth.”

On the subject of racial disparity in the criminal justice system, several candidates advocated cutting mandatory minimum sentences and eliminating the widely different sentencing standards used for crack and powder cocaine. “We also need to create an infrastructure for success for those who are convicted for the first time,” said former senator North Carolina John Edwards. “Job training, education. Help get them back in the community with some chance of saving their lives.”
Clinton drew the night’s loudest applause and brought many Black women in the audience to their feet with her response to the issue of the AIDS epidemic in Black America. “Let me just put this in perspective,” she said. “If HIV/AIDS were the leading cause of death of White women between the ages of 25 and 34, there would be an outraged outcry in this country.”

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Speaking on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Edwards argued, “We should allow the people to rebuild their own city instead of multinational corporations getting contracts to do it.” Obama also criticized the Bush administration’s response to Katrina. “Before the hurricane, there was an idea that everyone (New Orleans residents) could jump right into their SUV with their sparkling water and get out,” he said. “People were neglected prior to the hurricane.”

There were some lighthearted moments. When Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd went overtime, moderator Smiley quipped, “Senator Dodd, I was going to say were you Paris Hilton you could have an hour, but you’re not, so…”

And Obama drew laughs from the audience with his response to Delaware Senator Joseph Biden Jr.’s comment on the importance of HIV testing, in which he revealed that both he and Obama have been tested for HIV. After a quizzical look, Obama said with a grin, “I just want to make it clear: I got tested with Michelle, when we were in Kenya, in Africa.”

Among those in attendance were actor and activist Harry Belafonte, the Reverend Al Sharpton, scholar Cornel West and Children’s Defense Fund president Marian Wright Edelman. The Republican All-American Forum is scheduled for September 27 at Morgan State University in Baltimore.

Discussion Question: Who do you think was the most impressive candidate?