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In debate questions, race should be at the top of the list

Police fired teargas as protestors converge on downtown Charlotte, N.C., on Sept. 21.
Police fired teargas as protestors converge on downtown Charlotte, N.C., on Sept. 21. Gerry Broome/Associated Press

It is the most searing issue facing the nation, as unarmed black men and boys are being shot to death all over the country and unarmed black women and girls have been viciously thrown to the ground in videotaped police altercations.

Holt, the country’s first African-American solo weeknight network news anchorman, is well positioned to ask it. In a 2004 Democratic primary debate in Iowa, he asked the field about the most pressing racial issues, including controversy about the Confederate battle flag. In 2012, he conducted an interview with Rodney King on the 20th anniversary of the 1992 acquittal of the police officers who were videotaped beating King.


There is no telling what Trump and Clinton will say about the police killings. Trump is trying to ratchet down his rhetoric from his racially incendiary primary campaign, with recent visits to black churches in battleground states. He voiced some concern about brutality in the fatal Tulsa shooting of unarmed Terence Crutcher. But the forces of ignorance and insensitivity he unleashed are largely uncontrollable.

This week, an Ohio county chairwoman of the Trump campaign resigned after saying, “I don’t think there was any racism until Obama got elected.” Vice presidential running mate Mike Pence said, “Donald Trump and I believe that there’s been far too much talk of institutional bias or racism within law enforcement . . . We ought to set aside this talk, this talk about institutional racism and institutional bias.” Trump raised more questions about his coddling of institutional bias by reasserting his support of “stop and frisk” policing that amounts to profiling.

On the Democratic side, Clinton is saying we must talk about “systemic racism,” and that she would like to speak “directly to white people, say, ‘Look, this is not who we are.’ ” Holt should ask her how and where she would speak to white people. It was teary moment when the mothers of dead black boys and men spoke at this summer’s Democratic National Convention. But Holt should grill Clinton on how her Justice Department would punish police departments that provoke those tears.


Otherwise, Clinton may rest on platitudes, mouth “Black Lives Matter,’’ and hope Trump implodes, as Rudolph Giuliani did in the 2000 race for the US Senate. Clinton trailed Giuliani in the polls in that race until the New York City mayor was heavily criticized for his crude handling of the police shooting death of an unarmed black man, Patrick Dorismond. In a clear attempt to smear Dorismond’s name and deflect attention from police actions, Giuliani released court-sealed juvenile criminal records and exaggerated the extent of his crimes.

Today, Giuliani is a top adviser to Trump, feeding him stop-and-frisk and law-and-order rhetoric, stoking white resentment, and largely turning a blind eye to the quick trigger fingers of too many police officers.

As a president who could bridge the racial divide, Trump seems beyond hope. But given the near dead heat in the polls, Clinton has not made a clinching argument to be healer in chief.

That makes it imperative that Holt start the debates with the question he asked in 2004 of eventual Democratic nominee John Kerry: “Does any candidate on this stage have the moral high ground on the issue of race relations in this country?”


Derrick z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.