Democratic ‘08 hopefuls hit top court’s schools ruling

Last night’s third nationally televised Democratic presidential debate was dominated by issues of race and class in which the top candidates agreed with one another, particularly on yesterday’s Supreme Court decision that sharply limits the use of race to assign schools to students.

The discussion was congenial, as the candidates were nearly unanimous in their answers to questions on the need to bring equality to the education system, the work force, taxes and the judicial system, and on discrimination and disparities between whites and minorities being one of America’s top challenges.

The candidates denounced the Supreme Court for striking down Seattle and Louisville, Ky., school-assignment systems, with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York saying, “The decision flew in the face of the reality we’ve seen that children are better off if they are part of an integrated society.”

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. went further, blaming President Bush and judicial appointments of which the Delaware senator had been sharply critical in confirmation hearings.

“This was a wrong-headed decision, but we can do something about this. And the place to start is to choose the next president of the United States. Many criticized me for being tough on Justices [John G.] Roberts [Jr.] and [Samuel A.] Alito [Jr.], and the problem is that some of the rest of us were not tough enough, because these guys have turned the court upside down,” he said.

The question of what to do to stop the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan produced overwhelming agreement that the U.S. should establish a no-fly zone in the region, backed by threats of force against Sudan’s government.

“We must create a no-fly zone with the force of military jets if need be, and let them know that if any planes enter we will shoot them down,” said Mrs. Clinton, endorsing an act of war against a sovereign government over internal human rights abuses.

Again, Mr. Biden went further, saying a no-fly zone should have been established “two years ago,” buttressed with troops on the ground.

Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois was clearly a favorite among the audience at historically black Howard University, with several chants of “Obama, Obama” breaking out when he walked onstage. But the debate produced little noticeable disagreement among the candidates, who frequently followed one another’s answers with a formulation like “I agree with that and we need to” do something else about the issue in question.

Mr. Obama did receive another compliment from Mr. Biden for agreeing to be tested for AIDS to encourage young black people to become educated about the virus and get tested themselves.

“I’ve had an AIDS test, and I know Barack got tested for AIDS,” Mr. Biden said, drawing both laughter and inquisitive stares from the audience, including Mr. Obama, who quickly drew the night’s biggest laugh by “clarifying” that “I got tested with my wife Michelle when we were in Kenya” and not as part of a couple with Mr. Biden.

The Illinois senator went on to answer the question about how to slow the AIDS rate, saying that the single-largest contributor is the taboo about homosexuality in the black community.

“We don’t talk about it in schools, we don’t talk about it in our churches, and many times this lack of communication is a product of homophobia,” he said.

All three questioners were journalists of color, and the debate was moderated by prominent black television and radio host Tavis Smiley. The event brought out black leaders from across the country, including several members of the Congressional Black Caucus, the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, and National Urban League President Marc Morial.

Throughout the debate racial disparities were mentioned as a key problem in the lack of educational and employment advances in minority communities. There was a consensus by all to end the Bush tax cuts, and give businesses incentives to remain in the U.S. particularly in poor communities, urban and rural.

One issue that never came up was immigration, which like the court decision, was the subject of major news earlier in the day — the defeat of Mr. Bush’s bill that provides a path to citizenship and a guest-worker program.

One of the most raucous reactions was the standing ovation for Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio when he denounced federal-mandatory-minimum sentences for felonies and drug crimes.

“We need to end the federal death penalty, and remove the disparity of sentences between crack cocaine and powder cocaine,” Mr. Kucinich said, as the crowd rose to its feet.

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