South Carolina Debate Touches on Race, Equity on MLK Day

Down one podium, the fantastic five took to South Carolina for yet one more GOP debate on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. But different from previous debates, remarks on racial equality, unemployment and voting implications for minorities brought "color" to the race, so much so that even challenges on Romney’s Mexican roots were brought up.

Was their acknowledgement simply a good gesture honoring the late Dr. King? Possibly, but the facts and demographics of the state certainly called for an increased sense of acknowledgement for an important voter base. According to the U.S. Census, one third of South Carolina is Black and Hispanic, 27.5% and 5.1% respectively. Also, South Carolina is one of the states showing 10-year triple digit population growth for Hispanics at a rate of 147.9%, versus the national rate of 43%. The non-Hispanic population grew at a rate of 12.1% in the state. However, besides obvious facts and demographics, the state has a long history of civil rights issues that still to this day motivate the NAACP's annual rally on the Confederate flag still waving outside the Statehouse.

So here are the highlights:

1. Felons: “Do you believe that felons who have served their time should be given the right to vote?” Santorum questioned Romney. A major dodge then prompted Santorum to remind Romney of the holiday, “Why don’t you just answer the question? It’s my time and you should answer. This is Martin Luther King Day and it’s a huge thing in the African American community — this targets African Americans to let them have their voting rights back when they complete their sentences,” Santorum said.

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2. Voter ID: “I’m saying that the state of Texas is under assault by the federal government, South Carolina is at war with the federal government and this administration,” Rick Perry said. While Perry turned the subject of voter ID law into somewhat of a glorious moment to highlight the administration as “out of control,” deep inside this topic has been one of contention for minorities. Voter ID laws place obstacles that Democrats argue are potentially discriminatory --making voting harder for minorities, elders and the youth. The question presented was a prime opportunity to make a connection with a community concerned with this law.

3. Mexican Mitt: While the blogosphere and Latino political junkies have been chatting about Romney’s Mexican roots, it finally made prime time during the debate. Known for his extreme right-wing position on immigration, Romney was publically reminded of his roots and how his stance on immigration and the DREAM Act may alienate an important voter base. While he had a chance to shine and demonstrate some acknowledgement and respect, Romney diluted his response by emphasizing his support for “legal immigration.” While the answer sounds “ok” to most, and even got the audience excited, what many fail to understand is that the path to “legal” citizenship is so limited, convoluted, bureaucratic and broken, that the path leaves many who ought to qualify for legalization out of options. He compared his position to the early years of America and how immigration was what made America great, a parallel that appeared ignorant and short-sighted. Very little remains from an open and simple Ellis Island process to the piles of paper work, requirements, obstacles and fees posed by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. But in the midst of it all, the Mexican in Romney has at least sparked the creation of a parodic alter-ego on Twitter @MexicanMitt --who came out of the closet last week…just in time for the Florida primary and to entertain us all!

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4. Work is good: Gingrich not only rallied up the crowd with the first standing ovation in any debate, but he also weaved in the diversity and inclusion card nicely into the topic. “More people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any other president in American history…So here is my point; I believe every American of every background has been endowed by their creator to pursue happiness. I am going to continue to help poor people learn how to get a job, get a better job, and one day own the job,” Gingrich said. However, his comment on Obama as the “food stamp president” could certainly be interpreted as racially charged.

5. Ron Paul wins on race: When asked about disparities with incarceration in the U.S., Ron Paul was quick to agree on the seriousness of the issue. When posed with the question abound blacks being jailed at 4x the rate versus whites, Paul shined a spotlight on what he felt was an important distinction: “Rich white people are not going to jail.” Paul’s bold statements granted him the best twitter ratings reported by Fox News after the debate on the topic of race. He even said Dr. King would be proud of his statements.

One more state, one more primary and one more debate that demonstrates how each state brings its own color and flare. After this one, ¡vamos a la Florida! where one in four to five people are Hispanic, ¡pero en Miami 65%! We will certainly be tuning in.

Lili Gil is an award-winning business and Hispanic market expert and business and political media contributor. She is also co-founder and managing partner of XL Alliance a business strategy and marketing firm dedicated to help business leaders and corporations navigate and enter emerging multicultural markets. Gil was recently selected by the World Economic Forum as one of only 190 Young Global Leaders identified across 65 countries for her leadership, community and business impact. You can follow Lili on twitter @liligil

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