The Vice Brown and Black Forum: A Chaotic, Collaborative Job Interview

Posted: January 28, 2020 | By: Emilyn Crabbe Tagged: Blog

One by one, eight Democratic candidates crossed the stage at the Brown and Black Forum in downtown Des Moines earlier this week. The forum, which is the oldest of its kind dealing with minority-focused issues, has come a long way since its humble beginnings in 1976. When former state representative Wayne Ford first organized the forum over 40 years ago, all of the candidates in the race didn’t even show up, choosing instead to send surrogates to answer questions on their behalf. 

Today, the forum is held in much higher renown. This year’s forum was broadcast through Vice News to audiences all around the world. The topics raised to the candidates call to mind questions of whether or not Iowa’s outsized electoral influence results in less attention being paid to issues that matter to voters of color. These questions are raised often in this election cycle, sometimes even straight to the faces of Iowa caucus-goers, prompting many to wonder if Iowa will soon lose its caucus, its first-in-the-nation status, or both. 

The moderators were persistent, asking pointed questions that made it difficult for an audience member to leave the forum (which lasted four hours) thinking that any candidate really sailed through their portion of the event unscathed. It seems safe to say that the moderators’ overarching question, asked without being directly asked, was: “How did a historically diverse field of Democratic candidates become these eight that we have before us?” Seven of the eight candidates that appeared at the forum were white, and none were brown or black. 

The forum was unique in that it gave frontrunners like former Vice President Joe Biden the same platform and speaking time as longshot candidates such as former Maryland Congressman John Delaney. Despite this, I believe I speak for many in the audience when I say that it was the lowest-polling candidates whose performances were blurred by a sense of uncertainty as to why they were there – both Delaney and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennett haven’t qualified to appear on a debate stage since last summer and were two of the candidates with the worst performances at the forum. 

The forum was more than a little disorganized and I was more than a little disappointed with the inconsistency of substantial questions across the slate of candidates, but it spotlighted issues that I, as a white Midwesterner, tend to forget are missing from the 2020 conversation. I have seen eight months’ worth of Democratic primary debates, but during this forum, I really felt like I was learning new things. Moderators pressed Andrew Yang to dive deep into the possible harmful effects of his campaign’s use of Asian-American stereotypes to market himself. Later on, they pressed Joe Biden to elaborate on his assertion that black voters trust and support him because he understands them the most out of the field of candidates. 

Americans were called upon by the moderators to listen to brown and black voices by holding our candidates to the highest possible standard when it comes to their potential administration’s treatment of minority Americans. The Brown and Black Forum embodied the spirit of Iowa politics – with our unparalleled access to the presidential hopefuls, we are responsible for conducting a comprehensive job interview for the highest office in the land.