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Kristen Welker and what it means to stand on the shoulders of giants

A star was born during the final presidential debate, and it wasn’t either of the candidates.

Moderator Kristen Welker is seen through a window at a watch party for the final presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday.
Moderator Kristen Welker is seen through a window at a watch party for the final presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday.
Sergio Flores / Getty Images

I hope Carole Simpson is feeling the love from the sisterhood right now.

As the first woman and person of color to moderate a presidential debate, Simpson blazed a trail for NBC’s Kristen Welker, who is getting rave reviews for how she executed her duties as moderator of Thursday night’s final presidential debate.

“Such an amazing moment for her and for all who know of her hard work and dedication to journalism. Go girl,” tweeted Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for “PBS NewsHour.”

NBC’s Andrea Mitchell noted Welker’s “poise” and “authority.” Fox News anchor Chris Wallace — who had a heck of a time getting a question in edgewise during the raucous first debate — admitted he was “jealous” of Welker’s “master-class” performance.

It had been nearly 30 years since a woman of color played such a pivotal role in a presidential contest. Simpson, then a star at ABC News, moderated the town-hall-style faceoff involving George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot in 1992. The late Gwen Ifill of “PBS NewsHour” moderated two vice presidential debates in 2004 and 2008.

Simpson, who was the first African American woman on a national network, has long expressed her concerns about female journalists being overlooked when it comes to presidential debates.

“Men tend to be more concerned about topics such as national security and the military, while women ask more questions about family life,” she told Toronto’s CTV News earlier this year. “These are not female questions. … [Women] will ask about the poor and the hungry and the sick.”

Welker’s performance is a good example of what Simpson was talking about. She brought her Blackness and her womanhood to the presidential debate and demonstrated in prime time why diversity matters.

With less than two weeks till the election, we have heard where President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden stand on health care, climate change, the coronavirus pandemic and the economy.

But it took Welker to ask the question that is on Black America’s mind: Do these 70-something white men really get why the racial divide is widening?

Part of the Black and Brown experience in America is something called “The Talk,” Welker said, setting up her question.

“It happens regardless of class and income,” she said. “Parents who feel they have no choice but to prepare their children for the chance that they could be targeted by the police for no reason other than the color of their skin.

“Mr. Vice President, in the next two minutes, I want you to speak directly to these families. Do you understand why these parents fear for their children?”

Biden fumbled through an answer that showed he at least understands what “The Talk” is about.

“I never had to tell my daughter if she is pulled over make sure she puts those hands on top of the wheel and don’t reach for the glovebox because someone may shoot you,” Biden said.

“But a Black parent, no matter how wealthy or how poor they are, has to teach their child: When you are walking down the street, don’t have a hoodie on.

“In fact, if you get pulled over, just ‘yes, sir,’ ‘no, sir,’ hands on top of the wheel, because you are, in fact, a victim whether you are a person making $300,000 a year … or someone who is on food stamps,” Biden said. “The fact of the matter is there is institutional racism in America.”

Trump’s response, in which he repeatedly hammered Biden on his vote on the crime bill in 1994, showed he didn’t have a clue about what Welker was asking.

“Yes, I do,” Trump said defiantly.

“He’s been in government 47 years,” the president said. “He never did a thing except in 1994, when he did such harm to the Black community, and he called them ‘super-predators.’ ... Nobody has done more for the Black community than Donald Trump, with the exception of Abraham Lincoln.”

Welker didn’t laugh in his face.

Simpson must be proud.