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Commentary: All-American forum failed to address Hispanic issues

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Special to CNN
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San Diego, CALIFORNIA (CNN) -- Imagine a presidential debate where the moderator, as well as the panelists posing the questions, are all journalists of color.

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Ruben Navarrette Jr.: Journalists of color bring a different perspective on issues.

A few weeks ago, I was interviewed by a reporter, a white male, who asked why an event like this was even necessary.

I told him: "It's about bringing in different perspectives. If you look at the other presidential debates in recent months, you don't see any nonwhite people asking the questions or much attention being given to issues that concern nonwhites. Everything is generic."

You do things like this because change doesn't happen by accident. Someone has to force the issue. Otherwise, those with blind spots stay in the dark and our society will never become all that it could be.

So I was honored when Tavis Smiley, with whom I co-hosted a radio show in Los Angeles almost 15 years ago, invited me to join him, fellow panelists Michel Martin of National Public Radio and DeWayne Wickham of USA Today, and eight Democratic presidential candidates for the first "All-American Presidential Forum," which aired Thursday night on PBS.

It was a beautiful thing. Staring into the audience, I saw gray-haired African-American civil rights leaders and others, all of them proudly basking in how far they've come as a people, and how far we've come as a country. The debate itself was held at Howard University, the historically black college in the nation's capital.

Rightfully so. The African-American community has earned the attention, especially from Democrats who have benefited enormously from the loyalty of black voters over the past 50 years and yet often, regrettably, taken the black vote for granted. Events like this make that harder to do.

Yet, there were also two areas where the first All-American Presidential Forum came up short.

First, the event wound up reinforcing the notion of African-Americans as victims -- besieged by poverty and bad schools and outsourcing and higher rates of HIV infection, etc. That gave Democrats the chance to do what they love to do and that's ride to the rescue, as when Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, in a spasm of condescension that sparked groans from the audience, emphasized that he had ventured out into the black community to lecture black men on the importance of wearing condoms to stop the spread of AIDS.

Second, there needed to be more truth in advertising. The event was marketed to viewers at home as a forum for "people of color," but those who tuned in -- and listened to the questions -- only caught a glimpse of one color. Even if it was only supposed to be a black-brown forum, it still failed to meet that goal. The organizers tried to have it both ways, insisting that this had been a triumph for African-Americans but also making the occasional obligatory reference to Hispanics, who, for the record, now outnumber African-Americans in the United States.

In fact, as recent stories on CNN and other media outlets make clear, one of the big stories in the 2008 election will be whether Democrats can regain the Hispanic support they lost in the last two presidential elections.

One would hope that events such as the All-American Presidential Forum might help answer that question. It didn't.

So why raise a fuss? Because change doesn't happen by accident. Someone has to force the issue. Otherwise, those with blind spots stay in the dark and our society will never become all that it could be.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of The San Diego Union-Tribune and a nationally syndicated columnist. You can read his column here.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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