Extraordinary moment on race in veep debate

Story highlights

  • Peniel Joseph: Struggle for black dignity in U.S. criminal justice system took center stage during vice presidential debate
  • Candid discussion of racial equality in criminal justice system bodes well for meaningful political reform, Joseph says

Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Political Values and Ethics and the Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently "Stokely: A Life." The views expressed here are his.

(CNN)The struggle for black dignity in the nation's criminal justice system, which has contoured this presidential election cycle, took center stage once again during Tuesday night's vice presidential debate in Virginia between Virginia Senator Tim Kaine and Indiana Governor Mike Pence.

Peniel Joseph
Moderator Elaine Quijano asked both candidates whether law enforcement had been asked to take on too much in the aftermath of the tragic Dallas police shootings this past summer.
    Senator Kaine, who came across as highly intelligent, personally approachable, and slightly nervous, acknowledged that police shouldered burdens of addressing mental health issues, poverty, and other social and economic ills that went beyond their job description as crime fighters. He advocated community policing as the answer to increased tensions between law enforcement and African American and Latino communities around the nation and decried Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's support for "stop and frisk" tactics that critics and at least one New York City judge have called racially biased.
    Stop and frisk "polarizes the relationship between police and community," argued Kaine, suggesting a focus on mental health assistance, ending gun violence, and community policing as better alternatives that would be institutionalized in a Clinton-Kaine Administration.
    Governor Pence, who projected an endearingly folksy sincerity for much of the evening, countered by questioning critics who suggest that the entire criminal justice system suffers from racial bias, insisting that the Trump-Pence ticket's support for "law and order" resulted in the enthusiastic endorsement of 330,000 law enforcement officers around the nation.
    Pence decried the "badmouthing" of police officers in the wake of shooting tragedies around the country, pointedly accusing Hillary Clinton of playing politics with the recent shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, North Carolina, which sparked days of urban unrest exactly two weeks ago. The "broad brush" alleging racial bias in the justice system, Pence suggested, divides the nation at a time when unity is more necessary than ever.
    "People shouldn't be afraid of bring up issues of bias in law enforcement," responded Kaine who used the story of Philando Castile's shooting by police officers in St. Paul, Minnesota days before the Dallas tragedy, as an example of racial bias in policing. Castile, who neighbors called "Mr. Rogers with dreadlocks" had been "stopped by police forty or fifty times" suggesting a pattern of racial profiling. Kaine poignantly describe Castile's death as having occurred "for no apparent reason," an assertion that Governor Pence did not dispute.
    "We need criminal justice reform," conceded Pence who conveyed genuine empathy during this exchange, although no support for policy reforms that could mitigate the institutional racism that Kaine so readily acknowledged.
    The riveting, 10-minute portion of the debate signaled the singular importance that racial justice struggles now occupy in American political discourse. Specifically, efforts to combat anti-black racism in national politics and policy have not received this kind of public attention in a half century.
    While Black Lives Matter went unmentioned in this exchange, both candidates wrestled with the movement's core theme of institutional racism and inequality in criminal justice and America's democratic institutions in a manner that no recent vice-presidential debate ever has.
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    Kaine's best moment of the evening came as this section concluded, when he discussed the importance of presidential leadership in order to have people respect the law and be treated with respect by the law. In an elegantly compact rhetorical flourish Kaine ticked off a litany of Trump's demeaning, sexist, and racist transgressions against undocumented Latino immigrants, women, blacks, and President Obama via his birther lie. "If you want to have a society where people are respected and respect laws, you can't have somebody at the top who demeans every group he talks about." And with that a surprisingly energetic Kaine dropped the mic on the night's discussion of race relations, criminal justice, and policing.
    The biggest victory of the night in regards to the discussion on race relations did not belong to either candidate or party but the entire country. The brief but candid discussion of racial equality in the criminal justice system bodes well for meaningful political reform at the national level.
    The struggle for black equality is deservingly taking center stage in national politics, a focus rooted in tragedy that may end in triumph for the American democratic experiment if we have the courage to boldly confront a crisis that has become too important to ignore.