Frank conversation at debate - Democratic hopefuls discuss AIDS threat, racial profiling
By Christi Parsons and Mike Dorning
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
Published June 29, 2007
WASHINGTON -- In a blunt conversation before a largely African-American audience, the Democratic presidential candidates on Thursday occasionally departed from polite talking points as they discussed everything from the spread of HIV and AIDS to racial profiling in the criminal justice system.
Sen. Hillary Clinton asserted that if white women were dying of AIDS at the same rate as black women, there would be an "outraged outcry" in the country instead of the current response, which she suggested is tepid.
Sen. Barack Obama, the only African-American candidate on the stage, blamed "homophobia" and other stigmas for the failure to stop the spread of the disease in "our communities" -- an assertion followed quickly by an admiring reminder from Sen. Joseph Biden that Obama himself had been tested for AIDS.
That prompted Obama to jump in immediately and clarify that he had done so with his wife, Michelle, at his side, as a public demonstration of the importance of AIDS testing while on a trip to Africa.
"I've just got to make it clear, I got tested with Michelle when we were in Kenya and Africa," Obama said, as his wife waved her arms in the audience and nodded her head in agreement. "I don't want there to be any confusion about what happened here."
The exchange came to a close only after Biden mentioned that he recently went around his hometown "trying to get black men to understand it is not unmanly to wear a condom."
Like several exchanges of the night, the back and forth between Obama and Biden drew a mixed reaction from the crowd, as some audience members laughed and applauded the candor but others, such as Rev. Al Sharpton, sat silently with furrowed brows.
The response was a testament to the uniqueness of the forum thus far in the debate season, which has included spirited and confrontational interactions but never such blunt conversation about the most sensitive issues in churches, homes and communities across the country.
But that was the stated goal of the event's organizers, who held the debate at historically black Howard University and invited only journalists of color to sit on the panel of questioners. The 90-minute meeting was moderated by PBS host Tavis Smiley, who told candidates in advance that the conversation would focus exclusively on issues outlined in the essays of "Covenant With Black America," which he edited.
And the audience included some of black America's leading thinkers, among them provocative academic Cornel West, prominent children's rights activist Marian Wright Edelman and former Surgeon General David Satcher.
With that crowd, and with Smiley demanding succinct answers, the Democratic presidential candidates at times spoke directly about issues of concern to demographic minorities.
A black president
Obama hinted at concrete benefits for African-Americans from the symbolic impact of electing a black man president in answering a question on criminal justice. The candidates were asked to explain statistics showing that blacks who are arrested are sent to prison in greater numbers than whites who are arrested.
"The criminal justice system is not color blind. It does not work for all people equally," Obama said. "That is why it is critical to have a president who sends a signal that we are going to have a justice system that is not 'just us,' but is everybody."
Clinton seized the opportunity from a question about the genocide in Darfur to demonstrate to viewers her steel and readiness to use U.S. force abroad. While she was joined by most of the other candidates in advocating a no-fly zone to deter attacks in the region, she laid out the military threat in explicit terms.
"We should make it very clear to the government of Khartoum," Clinton said. "We are putting up a no-fly zone. If they fly into it, we will shoot down their planes."
Tough talk on Sudan
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who also supports a no-fly zone, defended a threat he made in a previous debate to pull out of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing if the Chinese government continues to fight sanctions against Sudan.
"You know, I believe fighting genocide is more important than sports," he said.
Richardson argued that the next president should "speak passionately" about the need for dialogue among people of diverse backgrounds.
"Issues of diversity for me, the first Latino to run for president, are not talking points," he said. "They are facts of life."
Organizers emphasized that none of the candidates should take for granted the support of the African-American voters.
"Black America stands united on many of these issues, but not all," said radio host Tom Joyner. "That's why our votes cannot be taken for granted."
Smiley set the agenda this way:
"You can't save people if you don't serve people," he said. "We ask tonight, 'What's the depth of your love for people?' "