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Ben Langford, moderator Lee Banville and Lillian Alvernaz, from left, discuss the impact of racism and sexism in the 2016 presidential campaign at the YWCA on Thursday afternoon. The discussion was part of the YWTalks series.

TOMMY MARTINO, Missoulian

Panelists dove into racism and sexism in this year's presidential campaign on Thursday, pointing out flaws not only in sound bites, but deep-seated racism and sexism in the United States, how it influences today's political conversation, and biases in their own worlds.

On the heels of the third and final presidential debate, in which GOP candidate Donald Trump called Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton "such a nasty woman" and said "we have some bad hombres here, and we're going to get them out," YWCA Missoula hosted a panel to discuss racism and sexism in the 2016 election.

The panel featured Ben Langford and Lillian Alvernaz, both University of Montana law students and both of whom are Democrats. It was moderated by Lee Banville, associate professor of journalism at UM.

Members of Missoula Republicans and Western Native Voice were supposed to be on the panel, but had to drop out at the last minute.

Banville asked how the national political discussion can possibly delve into the complexities of race and gender when much of this year's presidential campaign has been candidates "pummeling" each other.

"One thing I was troubled by ... is the emails that discussed how the Democratic Party was approaching the Black Lives Matter movement," Langford said. "What that speaks to is it does play into the narrative, while I don't think it's true, that the Democratic Party wants to use that as a way to win ... without getting too close to alienating the people that might alienate."

He worries that while Democrats voice support of BLM and other social justice movements, it's sometimes "disingenuous" and only to win votes, rather than to enact real change.

"It's, 'We're not saying as terrible things about you as the other guys.' That's not solidarity," he said. "That's not you solving the problem, that's you letting the other side give you an advantage you're happy to use."

But he understands why.

It translates to Denise Juneau's campaign, Langford and Alvernaz said. Juneau has gained national attention this year; if she wins Montana's sole House seat held by Republican Ryan Zinke, she would be the first Native American woman elected to Congress.

While she champions Native issues, she has not taken any position on the Standing Rock protests along construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

It's an unfortunate reality, Langford said, but if Juneau were to publicly support Standing Rock, she would lose scores of votes.

***

The theme of this election has been picking the "less bad" candidate, Banville said.

That's come out in part around the issue of sexual assault, which Langford said has become "so weaponized," rather than talking about solutions.

More and more sexual assault allegations against Trump have come to light. He has denied all of them, instead deflecting to allegations against Clinton's husband, Bill, as he did during Wednesday's debate.

"One guy is saying, 'I may sexually assault you, but I'm not as bad as your sexually assaultive husband,' " Langford said. "That isn't a discussion that gets to the issue of wow, we have an incredibly high number of sexual assaults."

It feeds into gender's role in the election, something that is perhaps most obvious, Langford said, in the fact that there's been so much focus on Clinton's appearance and the way she dresses.

Banville called this a "bizarrely historic" moment: the possibility of moving from our first black president to our first female president.

"And yet we're talking about core dysfunctional problems and how we deal with these issues of sexism and racism," he said. "How much of American politics is driven by ... embedded sexism and racism? Or is it more this is something that individuals and voters deal with but the system isn't built by it?"

Langford referenced a belief among some white people who believe President Barack Obama has favored minorities at the expense of white people.

"There's never the inverse thought," Langford said. "Doesn't that mean that 40-plus presidents who looked a lot more like me maybe skewed it? That disconnect, I think, shows why it's embedded."

***

While both Langford and Alvernaz took issue with the news media's coverage of this presidential election, part of the problem, they said, lies with the consumers.

Most Americans, they said, consume news media that mirrors their beliefs and values.

"People don't like policies they can't see helping them," Langford said.

Democrats are seen today as the party that supports minorities. Why hasn't the GOP pushed the issue? Banville asked. 

Alvernaz said it's because the GOP doesn't have to, since it appeals to the majority: white voters.

It's not as if racism is new this year, they said.

"I've always known that racism is alive and well," said Alvernaz, who is Native American.

But, she said, Trump has enabled it throughout this election.

Is it starting a much-needed national discussion about racism in America, Alvernaz wondered, or is giving racist views a platform "enabling these people and saying it's OK."

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Reporter for the Missoulian