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Why it's a big deal 2016 Democrats are participating in a 'Black and Brown Forum'

Issues that specifically affect minority communities will have a rare prime-time spotlight Monday.
Democratic presidential candidates attend the Iowa Brown and Black Presidential Forum in Des Moines, Dec. 1, 2007. (Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters)
Democratic presidential candidates attend the Iowa Brown and Black Presidential Forum in Des Moines, Dec. 1, 2007.

Issues that specifically affect minority communities will have a rare prime-time spotlight Monday, offering a side-by-side comparison of how Democratic presidential candidates stand on addressing racially charged tensions that have festered for generations.

All three Democratic presidential candidates -- Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley -- are participating in the Iowa Black and Brown Forum, which is set to air at 8 p.m. ET on Fusion. The issues raised Monday night could be a major litmus test in whittling down the Democratic field to a single nominee. Here's what to look out for:

Jorge Ramos is moderating the forum -- this is a big deal.

Jorge Ramos, a Univision anchor and co-moderator of Monday night’s forum, has emerged as a cult hero for his coverage of the GOP presidential race. He's like a muckraking David standing up to the Goliath of Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric and rising influence. At press conference after press conference, Ramos showered Trump with questions and demands, challenging key pillars of the candidate’s immigration platform and divisive rhetoric while refusing to let him move on without an answer. Ramos became such a thorn in Trump’s side that bodyguards physically removed Ramos from a press conference in August after the news anchor refused to back down.

Such heated confrontations are typical for Ramos. That truth-to-power style of reporting is how he’s earned the trust of more than 2 million viewers who tune into his program “Noticiero Univision” every night. It adds to an image explaining why Ramos is routinely referred to as the “Walter Cronkite of Hispanic News.”

Ramos’s brand of journalism blends public service with unapologetic advocacy for immigrant rights. He has played a central role in recent years in mobilizing Latinos to register to vote and to turn out on election day in record numbers. The power of his influence is what researchers at Cornell University have dubbed the “Jorge Ramos Effect” -- Latinos look to him as both a trusted news source and a marker of where the community stands on issues.

If Democratic candidates want to seize the Latino vote, they will need Ramos in their corner. But he’s not going to let candidates off easy. Expect Ramos to press hard and force candidates into outlining clear policy prescriptions for issues facing the Latino community. Democrats won’t get away by simply coming across as the anti-Trump candidate.

Deportation raids are terrifying immigrants. They want the operations cut off ASAP.

Clinton’s precise words are going to matter a great deal when it comes to how forcefully she condemns recent rounds of deportation raids. More than 120 immigrant women and children have been swept up in raids since last week; some 77 of those have already been deported. And while Clinton’s campaign has said that she does not believe the U.S. should be conducting large-scale round-ups, they’ve said little more.

Clinton is the only Democratic candidate to not expressly call on Obama to end the operations. And that distinction matters because there’s evidence that some of the most vulnerable immigrants are falling through the cracks of the legal system. Advocates want to hear that candidates are willing to go above and beyond in ensuring that the immigrants who likely qualify for asylum are protected and not deported back to the homes they fled.

They also want a dramatic dial-back of any aggressive enforcement measures. Many Latino households are mixed status, meaning some younger residents may be full U.S. citizens, but their extended family members living with them may be undocumented. That leads to many legitimate fears that undocumented immigrants may be swept up in deportation raids even when they’re not within the intended target group. It has left immigrant communities in a panic in recent weeks, stoking fears that the raids will tear whole families apart.

This is the first forum since the Black Lives Matter movement exploded.

The Black and Brown Forum has been around since 1984, making it one of the longest-running presidential events of its time. But Monday night’s forum in Iowa shows just how young the Black Lives Matter movement is in the context of past presidential races.

It’s been just a year and a half since unarmed black teen Michael Brown was shot dead by a Missouri police officer. The social movement that emerged out of Brown’s death has shone a spotlight on policing, long-standing racial unrest, inequities in criminal justice and a political machine that churns against minorities.

Monday night's event is dedicated solely to issues affecting blacks and Latinos. This is significant considering that Democrats have only six debates scheduled for the 2016 primary, leaving few opportunities to have a robust conversation about policy specifics or comparison. Republicans have more than double the number of debates on tap. 

Candidates struggled with the issue throughout 2015.

Black Lives Matter protesters have managed to crash events -- multiple times -- and interrupt every single Democratic candidate during major campaign stops. Demonstrators have stormed stages, commandeered microphones and cringed after hearing “all lives matter” uttered in response to their calls for change.

The disruptions have sent candidates scrambling to regain composure and footing with the base. They have come up with comprehensive plans for racial justice and criminal sentencing reform, and they've met with major activists in the movement. But candidates are working against a culture where the expectation is that campaigns must be willing to upend the existing system and structure while acknowledging the struggles that led to these festering problems.

This is an area where style could matter just as much as substance. By contrast to the candidates' early stumbles, President Obama has managed to both acknowledge the core message behind the movement and articulate what it means when activists say “black lives matter.” That type of recognition and sense of legitimacy was deeply profound for many who carry on the message. But it also highlights how Democratic candidates thus far have been unable to pull off the same.