An Open Letter to Lester Holt

Dear Lester,

As the principal anchor for the Democrat’s second-to-last primary debate on Sunday, you have an opportunity to prompt Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Martin O'Malley to address a fresh set of issues and go deeper on topics that they have only nominally addressed in previous debates.

You have an opportunity to push these candidates to talk candidly about race in America.

As you know, the last four debates have received symbolic, not substantive, questions about race, equity, and justice. In Sunday’s debate, you have an opportunity to change this.

I’ll be there, in Charleston, in person. And I know many others will be at home watching, too.

Framing the discussion

For the past 19 months, our country has been discussing race — race at the intersection of safety, criminal justice, structural inequity, identity, and inequality. The real-world impact of these issues is rooted in America’s history of racism.

Right here in Charleston, Walter Scott, a U.S. military veteran, was unarmed and running away from a police officer when he was gunned down. And exactly seven months ago, nine African Americans hosting a bible study were murdered in their church by a Confederate flag-waving domestic terrorist. The context and location of Sunday’s debate cannot be ignored.

The discussion on Sunday — the day before this country celebrates the life and advocacy of Dr. Martin Luther King — should not continue the pattern of ignoring these issues. Too much is at stake. Whenever someone asks me to encourage people to vote, I remind them that candidates need to be worth voting for, first.

Protesting is political

Protest is the original political act — there is no transition from protest to politics. Protest is political. At its core, protest is the visceral withdrawal of consent from the state; it is a challenge of the legitimacy of the state itself; it is a reminder that the power of the state is derived from the consent of the people.

But protest is not the solution — it is the solution’s necessary precursor. Protest is a tactic and strategy that creates space for solution-work. We protest because we know that a better world is possible, and we are willing to fight for it.

Protest demonstrates a demand for dialogue. It creates space for solutions to emerge and for those proposals to be vigorously debated. Protest provides the context for the urgency of these conversations.

Sunday in Charleston

At their best, debates can be forums where those who aspire to lead are held accountable to the issues that speak to the lives of the people they want to lead.

We have yet to see a debate at its best with regard to the issues of race, criminal justice, and policing. You can change that.

Now, I acknowledge that you are in a tough position, working with a set of people skilled at using many words to say very little — politicians.

Bernie has articulated a sweeping plan, covering many important topics related to racial and economic justice. But questions remain as to how he plans to implement the things that he’s proposed. Please don’t let him off the hook.

Hillary has focused on a handful of issues with a handful of proposals, in a markedly more detailed way that speaks to implementation. However, she has not addressed a variety of issues such as community oversight, the racial wealth gap, and economic justice. Please push her to address the issues that she’s heretofore chosen not to discuss.

O’Malley’s campaign platform is broad in scope, though he has not yet clearly explained how to reconcile his progressive platform with his tenure as the mayor of Baltimore. Please push him beyond the talking points.

Given the opportunity to pose one question to the candidates on Sunday, I would ask them:

Given your understanding of issues ranging from police violence to criminal justice reform to the racial wealth gap, what will be three key priority areas of your administration and how do you plan to measure success?

I’m looking forward to the debate. See you there.

// DeRay