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Democrats Face Questions On Diversity After Sen. Kamala Harris Exits 2020 Race


The Democratic primary campaign began with a historically diverse field of candidates. But now that Senator Kamala Harris has dropped out of the race, it's plausible the next Democratic debate will feature only white faces. NPR's Asma Khalid reports on why candidates of color have struggled and what that means for a party that relies on minority voters.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: When news broke that Kamala Harris was dropping out of the presidential race, one of her fellow 2020 candidates, Julian Castro, quickly began ringing alarm bells. Harris was the only non-white candidate to have qualified for the December debate.


JULIAN CASTRO: What we have, what we're staring at is a DNC debate stage with no people of color on it. That does not reflect the diversity of our party or our country.

KHALID: The DNC has no plans to revise the rules ahead of the December debate. But Castro's message tapped into Democratic voter concern, or guilt; whatever you may call it. Yesterday, his campaign says it raised more money than any other day in the past four months. Still, Castro was not the only voice warning that an all-white stage would send a dangerous sign to a party that relies on diverse voters to win elections.

Progressive activists chimed in. Aimee Allison leads a group called She The People that works to elevate the political power of minority women.

AIMEE ALLISON: I think my biggest concern is if you have an all-white stage, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that you have white candidates at the top of the ticket. And in 2016, we saw what an all-white ticket's limitations were.

KHALID: Allison's theory is that diversity in 2016 could have energized more black voters. Higher black turnout could have resulted in a Democratic victory. The tricky part of that equation is that it does not mesh with current 2020 polling.

NEERA TANDEN: Voters of color are supporting, you know, white, male, straight, older candidates.

KHALID: That's Neera Tanden. She's president of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. Polls consistently show black voters prefer former Vice President Joe Biden. Latino Democrats favor Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

TANDEN: I think a lot of voters of color feel particularly targeted by Trump and feel that, you know, white candidates might be safer to take him on.

KHALID: Safer because, she says, President Trump exploits racial division.

TANDEN: Voters of color are anxious about white voters voting for a person of color in the general election. I think there is a lack of trust that - against Donald Trump.

KHALID: And consistently, both our reporting and polling has shown that Democratic voters are preoccupied with finding the candidate best positioned to beat Donald Trump. Biden and Sanders both seem to do well in hypothetical head-to-head matchups with the president. But some activists say this idea of electability is a mythical trait. Here's Leah Greenberg, co-founder of the progressive group Indivisible.

LEAH GREENBERG: When we think about electability, a lot of times, people go to their images of who's held power and who's held authority in our society before. And the way that our society is structured, that's disproportionately white men.

KHALID: When the campaign season first started, there was an assumption that high-profile black candidates like Kamala Harris or New Jersey Senator Cory Booker benefited by following in Barack Obama's footsteps. But...

ANDRA GILLESPIE: Obama had an easier political climate to operate in.

KHALID: That's Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University.

GILLESPIE: He didn't talk about race because he needed to put a multiracial coalition together. And, you know, that's a classic de-racialized strategy.

KHALID: Gillespie says trying to run while downplaying race won't work in 2019, in part because of Donald Trump.

GILLESPIE: Also, there are young, vocal African Americans who are not content with people not talking about race.

KHALID: We saw glimpses of that with Harris' campaign. At times, her record as a prosecutor in California was criticized severely by young black voters. Gillespie, like a true political scientist, says Harris' campaign ended for a lot of reasons. Maybe racism was a part of it. Maybe it wasn't. She would have to study that. Plus...

GILLESPIE: Voters of color pick candidates for reasons other than the fact that they share a racial and ethnic background with them.

KHALID: Making it all the more complicated to figure out why candidates of color aren't doing better in the primaries and what that might mean for Democrats in a general election.

Asma Khalid, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.