Racially Right Mixes of Debaters?

I’ve been thinking about the controversy, in some quarters anyway, over how Andrew Yang, who’s Asian-American, was the only person of color in the Democrats’ presidential debate earlier this month in Los Angeles.  Meaning, no Kamala Harris or Corey Booker, both African American.

More broadly, I’ve thought a lot about affirmative action for a long time, writing a dissertation about it 40 years ago.  As opposed to most friends and colleagues on the right over this period, I’ve been more open when it comes to taking race and ethnicity into account in various situations where the allocation of benefits and burdens are concerned (to use the jargon).

For example, I’ve believed it would have been impossible for colleges and universities, going back to the 1960s, both politically and morally, not to take any account of race in admissions, as many institutions of higher education at the time were nearly bereft of people of color.  But (the point is pivotal) that was more than a half-century ago, and unless we are willing to make racial preferences an everlasting feature of American life, it’s well past time for colleges to stop granting bonus points to some students based on complexion.

Still, there are situations, including public ones, where it’s entirely appropriate to take race into account.   My favorite is the Kennedy Center Honors, which virtually every year makes certain that at least one of the five honorees is black.  I know of no “unqualified” or “underqualified” recipient of color since the program began more than 40 years ago.  Quite the opposite.  But putting matters crassly, perhaps unfairly so, it’s as if officials are determined that when cameras pan the Presidential Box, occupants are not exclusively white.  Not a good show or celebration that would be.

An awards program, however, is fundamentally different from a political debate.  Could it possibly be wise to give one candidate, but not another, an eligibility boost because the debate stage would not be “reflective” of the nation otherwise?  Especially when all candidates are exceptionally successful grown-ups?  When all have competed by the same objective and well-understood rules?  But when some simply have done better than others in meeting specific polling and funding benchmarks in order to qualify for the debate?

Granted, many people were seriously offended by the demographic makeup of the debate stage in Los Angeles.  But what to do about it?  How literally should the implication of their displeasure be taken?  Are we getting to the point where debate organizers, in tandem with party leaders, will see it necessary and okay to ignore fundamentally fair rules in order to assure racially right mixes of candidates?


Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore