For instance, in a nation that will soon have a majority population comprising racial and ethnic minorities, how could it be that Michael Jones was the lone black person allowed to pose a question at the debate?
Sure, the Gallup Organization was charged with selecting an audience of undecided likely voters. But as blogger Chris Petrella — a doctoral candidate in African-American studies at the University of California, Berkeley — pointed out after the debate, "The crowd was almost entirely white."
Petrella, who is also white, noted that failing to assemble a more diverse audience for the debate ensured a limited choice of questions and "distorted the racial composition of the American electorate in front of 60+ million viewers. Misrepresentations such as these insidiously reinforce the notion that only racially privileged bodies (read: white) are worthy of democratic participation and capable of self-governance."
That line of reasoning prompted Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change — a grassroots community organizing and political activist group — to issue a statement to Politico, complaining about the lack of diversity in the debate audience:
While the audience was meant to reflect undecided voters, the lack of diversity among the town hall participants — and with it the perspective of the vast majority of the questioners — pointed to a different problem altogether: a failure on the part of the Gallup Organization and the Presidential Debate Commission to select a more representative group. This combined with the all-white cast of debate moderators points to a clear issue the debate commission will have to address if they want to produce forums that truly represent the diversity of our country.
In response to Robinson's concerns, Gallup told Politico it followed the procedures to select only undecided voters that were followed by the Commission on Presidential Debates and approved by both the Obama and Romney campaigns. "Uncommitted voters do not necessarily share the overall demographic characteristics of the total electorate," the Gallup spokesperson wrote to the online publication.
Whatever. The composition of the debate audience doesn't excuse the exclusion of questions regarding two of the nation's most pressing issues. Even without prompting or a question from a racial or ethnic minority voter, both the Obama and Romney campaigns should have offered the entire electorate an opportunity to hear their specific visions on how best to alleviate persistent poverty in America as our nation becomes more and more racially and ethnically diverse.
To be sure, the presidential candidates owe voters an honest and candid discussion of poverty that isn't muddled by racial stereotypes. For example, political leaders rarely talk about the white poor, who comprise the largest number of people living in poverty. Writing on TheRoot.com, commentator Zaheer Ali made clear that viewing poverty exclusively through a racially coded lens is a grave mistake:
Our national conversations about poverty — so entangled with race in unspoken ways — have rendered the white poor invisible and the black poor pathological, and undermined our attempts to gain majority support for antipoverty programs. Led to believe that the poor are "other people's problems," a significant portion of Americans have come to view social welfare programs designed to assist the poor as attempts at wealth redistribution — not just across class lines but across the unspoken, coded racial lines.
But a recent study released by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a Washington, D.C.-based media watchdog group, "found poverty barely registers as a campaign issue." The organization noted that mainstream reporters have used "rules [that] are selectively applied," permitting discussions of poverty only after a candidate has brought it up. As a result, less than 1 percent of presidential campaign coverage between January and June of this year focused on poverty. "In the current election year, when neither the incumbent Democratic president nor any of his challengers in the GOP primary have been making poverty even a minor issue, such "˜rules' are relegating tens of millions of struggling citizens to virtual invisibility," the report stated.