Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst said Thursday she does not believe systemic racism exists in Iowa when pressed to give a direct answer during the final U.S. Senate debate before Election Day.
“To be clear, do you believe that systemic racism exists here?” a debate moderator asked Ernst.
“No, I don’t,” Ernst replied. “I believe that you will find racist individuals in those systems, but I don’t believe that entire systems of people, of people, are racists. There are racists out there, yes, there are.”
The debate, hosted by the Des Moines Register and KCCI, focused for more than 10 minutes on racism and social justice, something voters have not seen as much of in other debates between the two candidates. They were asked about systemic racism, white privilege and Black Lives Matter protests that erupted across the country this year after the death of George Floyd.
The conversation began with a question from Rheya Spigner, a Black news anchor at KCCI.
“Most people of color in this country have no doubt that systemic racism exists here,” Spigner said. “Do you agree?”
Ernst told voters she believes “there are many challenges that we have in various systems, but I would not say just broadly that we have systemic racism across the board. Certainly, we have good people that are working in all career fields and I think it’s important to stress that.”
The senator then repeated a false line of attack against her Democratic opponent, alleging that because Greenfield acknowledged the existence of systemic racism in law enforcement, and in various aspects of American life, “she believes our law enforcement officers in Iowa are systemically racist.”
Greenfield refuted Ernst’s misrepresentation of her past statement, saying that “discussing systemic racism does not mean that any one individual is a racist, but rather that we have to take a look at the discrimination across our systems … Black and brown communities have faced discrimination and systemic racism for generations. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, they should be alive today. Their families deserve justice.”
The candidates also were asked during Thursday’s debate — which suffered numerous technical glitches before finding its footing — whether they have benefited from white privilege.
Ernst said that was “difficult to determine,” instead implying that the challenges people of color face in the United States are due to poverty, not racism.
“I would say it’s difficult to determine,” Ernst said when asked whether she has benefitted from white privilege. “Again, I think it goes back to, maybe not necessarily racism, but issues of poverty within our communities. I largely grew up in a community of white individuals, but when I joined the military I was a member of a very racially diverse, but inclusive system, so I understood that working very hard would help me get ahead. I don’t know that I benefitted from that (white privilege), but certainly it’s possible that it exists out there.”
Greenfield said “absolutely I have,” referring to the Social Security benefits she received as a young woman after the death of her first husband.
“I’m not convinced that that system would have worked for a young, widowed Black woman with a 13-month-old and another one on the way,” Greenfield said.
By Elizabeth Meyer
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