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The debate’s segment on race was doomed before it even began

The first presidential debate of the 2020 general election, which featured a segment on “race and violence in our cities,” centered Donald Trump’s racism.

President Donald Trump speaks during the first presidential debate against former Vice President Joe Biden at the Health Education Campus of Case Western Reserve University on September 29, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio.
Olivier Douliery/Getty Images
Fabiola Cineas covers race and policy as a reporter for Vox. Before that, she was an editor and writer at Philadelphia magazine, where she covered business, tech, and the local economy.

At the first presidential debate of the 2020 general election on Tuesday, President Donald Trump was given ample room to dog whistle, stoke racism, and encourage white supremacists in response to a series of questions from moderator Chris Wallace.

When Wallace, who hosts Fox News Sunday, announced the debate topics on September 23, he immediately faced criticism for planning to devote time to “Race and Violence in Our Cities.” Critics argued that associating race and violence in that way — conflating the two, even — was racist in and of itself, creating the implication that violent crime is a matter of skin color. The topic played into anti-Black fearmongering, the progressive Jewish organization Bend the Arc said, as well as age-old stereotypes about Black people being inherently more violent and prone to crime.

And Wallace’s framework was filled with exactly the sort of rhetoric activists were worried about; Trump answered a question about why he was the better candidate on race with an extended statement on his support for the police, before going on to decry anti-racism training as a “racist” and “insane” scheme that is “teaching people to hate our country,” and characterizing Biden’s presidency as one under which “our suburbs would be gone.”

In answering Wallace’s questions this way, Trump prioritized pandering to white supremacists, skirting what’s at the center of one of the largest civil rights movements in American history: the enduring impact of systemic racism.

The questions allowed the president to embrace his ugliest impulses, but overall, the structure of the conversation meant it was dominated by surface-level ideas and falsehoods about the nature of most of this year’s protests, leaving little room for consideration of how violence in cities on the part of the state disproportionately affects Black Americans.

The debate gave Trump a platform to move his divisive rhetoric out of his rallies and Twitter feed and onto the international stage

When Wallace launched into the topic of race, he failed to provide important and timely context.

Protests erupted across the country in late May after the police killing of George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis officer held a knee to his neck for nearly nine minutes. Video of the incident went viral, galvanizing millions to take to the streets in favor of justice for Black lives and intensifying attention on numerous police killings that followed. The movement has pushed America to rethink its relationship with the police, and led to ongoing protests and uprisings.

Rather than giving this vital background before asking his first question on race — “Why should voters trust you rather than your opponent to deal with the race issues facing this country over the next four years?” — Wallace instead noted that Biden has said he was driven to launch his campaign due to Trump’s response to racist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 and that Trump has claimed he’s done much for Black Americans.

Ultimately, by failing to specify which “race issues” he was referring to, Wallace created an opportunity for the candidates to merely face off and point fingers about who was worse than whom.

Biden was first to answer. In his response, he didn’t talk about his plans to address racial inequality, but targeted Trump for failing to support Black communities, recalling the moment Trump gassed protesters in Washington, DC’s Lafayette Square, and citing the scary but true statistic that 1 in 1,000 Black Americans have died of coronavirus under Trump’s leadership.

In response, Trump also didn’t talk about why he’d be better on race but immediately called out Biden for his role in crafting the 1994 crime bill that contributed to mass incarceration in the 1990s (Black people are disproportionately likely to be incarcerated) and made misleading comments about Biden calling Black people superpredators. Then things took a turn.

In the middle of chastising Biden for his role with the crime bill, Trump, unprompted, shifted to talk about the amount of support he said he has received from law enforcement, and highlighting unrest in cities across the country. “The people of this country want and demand law and order and you’re afraid to even say it,” Trump told Biden.

Wallace responded to these comments by telling the president he only wanted answers focused on race, but by grouping the topics of race and violence together, he’d linked them before the debate even started, making this request a fool’s errand.

When Trump did attempt to focus on race, he did so by defending his decision to sign an executive order that cut funding to anti-bias training programs.

“I ended it because it’s racist,” Trump said. “A lot of people were complaining they were asked to do things that were insane, that it was a radical revolution that was taking place in our military, in our schools, all over the place.”

Trump went on to suggest that his biggest problem with the trainings is that they reject white supremacy, explaining that the courses posited a “sort of a reversal” that meant “if you are a certain person, you had no status in life.” This, he said, was unacceptable, because it led to instructors “teaching people that our country is a horrible place, it’s a racist place, and they were teaching people to hate our country.”

In perhaps the most memorable exchange of the night, the president refused to condemn white supremacy. Instead, pressed by Wallace and Biden, he told the far-right group the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” before saying, “somebody’s gotta do something about antifa and the left.”

Wallace failed to seek clarity on Trump’s message to the Proud Boys, but in the absence of further debate on the issue, the group reportedly took the remarks as a call to action.

Wallace’s framing of the debate topic doomed the discussion from the start

It was not just the framing of the topic that provided an arena for statements seeming to support white supremacy and racism; the way Wallace asked his questions also failed to provide much-needed nuance to the nominees’ conversation.

For instance, when Wallace asked a question about ongoing protests in Portland, Oregon, he incorrectly claimed that many of the protests “turned into riots,” and asked Biden whether he’d made calls to elected officials to “knock off 100 days of riots.”

But few of the summer’s protests became “riots.” According to a September report from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project, more than 93 percent of the ongoing protests have been peaceful. In fact, the report noted that violence only escalated with the increased police and National Guard presence Trump has touted.

Language like this reflects activists’ concerns that the race segment would be a partisan one. Wallace is a Fox News anchor — albeit one of the network’s most critical personalities on Trump — and the network has repeatedly equated race with violence amid the summer’s unrest.

Trump has done the same, calling protesters “thugs” and insisting they be met with force and “law and order.” In May, Trump notoriously tweeted that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” in response to unrest in Minneapolis.

For Fox News, Trump, and conservatives to equate race with violence only serves as a reminder why millions of people have chosen to join together and make their voices heard in the first place: The “violence in our cities” against Black Americans has long come from the state. And any discussion of that violence must reflect that.