Washington CNN  — 

To riff on a popular construction: our debate stage, ourselves.

Four people of color, four women and one gay man squared off during Wednesday night’s Democratic presidential debate. The field’s diversity is unprecedented – but how it played out in real time reflected some of the persistent problems in American society.

Perhaps the most jaw-dropping moments from the debate were thanks to Joe Biden’s clumsy grasp of gender and race.

When asked about the #MeToo movement and how he’d address sexual violence, the former vice president, who highlighted how he championed the original Violence Against Women Act, said: “We have to just change the culture, period, and keep punching at it, and punching at it, and punching at it.”

It was an astonishing misstep – using violent language to condemn violent behavior.

In addition, Biden remarked that he “(comes) out of the black community in terms of (his) support” and has an endorsement from “the only African American woman that’d ever been elected to the United States Senate.”

But he wasn’t standing far from the second black woman elected to the Senate and the only one currently serving: Kamala Harris.

Not missing a beat, she said: “No … the other one is here.”

The exchange stressed Democrats’ perennially fraught relationship with black voters – how candidates frequently take them for granted, grappling with their interests and issues in earnest only in the run-up to an election. It also struck a note of dark irony: that in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, when slogans such as “black women will save us” and “thank black women became popular, someone would claim black support in the same breath that he ignored the only black woman in the race.

Other uncomfortable race-based disparities were also on display.

At one point during the debate, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, taking a swipe at South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, quipped that he was the “other Rhodes scholar mayor on the stage,” referring to the prestigious scholarship for study at Oxford University in England.

It was a joke with a sting in its tail.

As HuffPost’s Amanda Terkel wrote earlier this week, Buttigieg “isn’t the only brainy person in the race. In fact, he isn’t even the only Rhodes scholar.” Still, Buttigieg regularly receives more attention than Booker for having won the award. The possible reasons for this disparity are numerous – “there’s likely more fascination with Buttigieg’s background, because he’s a newer face on the scene,” Terkel wrote.

But a more sobering one is this: Buttigieg is white; Booker is black.

Uneven treatment was underscored in other ways, too.

The question that was hanging most heavily in the air early in the night: Would the candidates pile on the new early states front-runner Buttigieg? It made sense to wonder, given that rivals aimed salvos at Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts during the October debate, when she was in a similar position.

But if there was a target on Buttigieg, no one tried to hit it – at least directly.

For instance, when asked about the mayor’s anemic reception among black voters, Harris zoomed out to indict the Democratic Party’s penchant for neglecting black women.

While some say that the other candidates approached Buttigieg with a wait-and-see attitude, you could understand how the broader tendency to shy away from pillorying a new male front-runner recalled the complex gender dynamics that have been litigated and re-litigated throughout the 2020 race.

(Think of something Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said on Wednesday: “Women are held to a higher standard. Otherwise, we could play a game called name your favorite woman president, which we can’t do because it has all been men.”)

Taking place in Atlanta, the debate was rightly praised as an improvement over previous iterations. Helmed by four women – MSNBC anchors Rachel Maddow and Andrea Mitchell, Washington Post White House reporter Ashley Parker, and NBC News White House correspondent Kristen Welker – it explored issues that had been largely absent on previous occasions, including sexual harassment and paid family leave.

There certainly was progress on that stage. But the night also extended a challenge: that it ought to be the start of so much more.