The Democratic presidential contenders had their first debate last week. It was held in Charleston, S.C. — but you would not have known from the questions. The moderators — even the local NBC moderator from South Carolina — virtually ignored their surroundings.
South Carolina is an early primary state, along with Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. South Carolina and Nevada were added by Democrats to ensure that the early primaries reflected the diverse electorate that Democratic candidates seek to inspire. South Carolina has a large African American population, and minorities make up a large portion of the Democratic vote in the state.
Imagine if Brian Williams — who moderated the debate — had noticed where it was taking place. Rather than wasting time on "gotcha" questions, he might have focused on poverty and what could be done about it. South Carolina has the third highest unemployment rate in the country. It's near the bottom in per capita income. According to Kids Count, over one in four mothers in South Carolina receive less than adequate pre-natal care, leading to less healthy babies. Nearly one in five children are raised in poverty — a stunning 40 percent by single mothers.
Poverty — and the gilded age of inequality that marks this time — has been largely ignored at the national level since Reagan mocked "welfare queens" and Clinton signed off on repealing welfare. Katrina and the shame of New Orleans brought the stark reality of our cities before Americans for a moment. Alone of the presidential contenders, John Edwards has made poverty and empowering workers a centerpiece of his campaign, even locating his headquarters in New Orleans. Williams might sensibly have asked the candidates what they would do to address poverty in South Carolina and across the country. How do we provide a hand up? How do we save poor children, get them ready for school and provide them with the small classes and skilled teachers they need to overcome the barriers that they were born into? Poverty is the true "elephant in the room," but in that section of the debate, Williams asked Joe Biden about his tendency to talk too much instead.
Crime, incarceration and our racially scarred criminal justice system might logically have been on the agenda. South Carolina ranks first for its violent crime rate, and fifth for property crimes. It's seventh in the percentage of its population that is incarcerated. African Americans are incarcerated more than four times the rate as Whites. Prisons are one of the fastest rising costs in the South Carolina budget. There are more jobs now in prisons than there are in cotton.
This isn't just a South Carolina challenge. This country has the highest rate of imprisonment in the world. We lock folks up at five to eight times the rate of other industrial countries. States are still taking non-violent drug offenders, locking them up into what can only be called crime training centers, and often stripping them of their rights even after they serve their sentences. They end up back in prison repeatedly in both South Carolina and across the country. Only the staggering costs of prisons are beginning to force states to look at sensible alternatives to incarceration. But the prison industrial complex wasn't on the NBC agenda.
South Carolina would be a good place to ask about trade and U.S. manufacturing. South Carolina has watched textile jobs flee the state. It has struggled with the loss of manufacturing and the decline of wages. The United States is now running massive and unsustainable trade deficits, leaving our economy vulnerable to the whims of Chinese and Japanese central bankers. We now have a rising deficit in high-tech goods with China. Even the former celebrators of free trade are having second thoughts, as they begin to realize that literally tens of millions of jobs are at risk of outsourcing.
South Carolina would have been a good backdrop for such questions. But Williams devoted the brief "domestic policy" portion of the debate largely to abortion and gun control. The economy fell through the cracks.
No debate has the time to review every concern. But Democrats chose South Carolina as an early primary state to elevate the concerns of African American voters. The networks responded by dispatching Whites-only anchors to cover the debate – and by ignoring the questions logically framed by South Carolina's realities. Hopefully, when the debate heads to Iowa, the next moderator won't forget to ask about farmers and rural communities.
Jesse Jackson is a longtime civil rights activist and founder/president of the RainbowPUSH Coalition.