WASHINGTON — Democratic presidential candidates won applause from a predominately black audience Thursday by accusing the Supreme Court of retreating earlier in the day from the goal of eliminating school segregation.
Sharing the stage at a Thursday night forum on minority issues, the candidates denounced the court's decision that struck down race-based plans to promote diversity in school systems in Louisville and Seattle. The 5-4 court majority concluded that considering race to integrate classrooms amounts to reverse discrimination.
The passions that split the court spilled into the nationally televised candidate forum, but the Democratic candidates seemed to be of one mind on the issue. Every candidate who expressed an opinion came down squarely against Thursday's ruling. Some vowed to seek its reversal.
Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York said the decision "turns the clock back on the promise" of educational equality that court called for in its landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling that outlawed school segregation. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio said he would push a constitutional amendment nullifying Thursday's decision.
Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut said he would "use whatever tools available" to reverse the ruling. Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware said the decision highlights the importance of Supreme Court appointments.
He criticized Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Sam Alito, President Bush's two appointees. Both joined the majority decision.
"They have turned the court upside down," Biden said, as Clinton nodded. "The next president of the United States will be able to determine whether or not we go forward or continue this slide."
Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois didn't specifically address Thursday's ruling, but he paid tribute to the civil rights lawyers who handled the 1954 school segregation case.
"If it hadn't been for them, I would not be standing here today," Obama said.
The 90-minute forum at Howard University, which was broadcast live on PBS stations across the country, was intended to highlight domestic issues of particular concern to minority communities. Republican presidential candidates are scheduled to participate in a similar event in September.
Democrats agreed that racism remains a serious problem, despite progress toward equality. Evidence of progress was visible on the stage — a woman (Clinton), an African American (Obama) and a Hispanic (Richardson), all vying to become president.
"Issues of diversity, for me, the first Latino to run for president, aren't talking points. They're facts of life," said New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who was born to a Mexican mother.
Clinton elicited one of the night's strongest reactions by noting the toll that HIV/AIDS takes among African Americans, especially women. African Americans account for more than half of the new cases of HIV infections, even though they are only about 13 percent of the population.
"Let me just put this in perspective: If HIV-AIDS were the leading cause of death of white women between the ages of 25 and 34, there would be an outraged, outcry in this country," Clinton said.
Some audience members jumped to their feet and applauded.
The candidates were in agreement on several issues, including their desire to roll back tax cuts for wealthy Americans, the need to do more to help working Americans cope with globalization, and their condemnations of the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina.
Obama said the images of African Americans left to fend for themselves after the devastating storm reflected an attitude of neglect toward urban areas.
"There are potential Katrinas all across this country," he said.
The Democrats all took a hard line on Darfur, the region in Sudan where militias aligned with government have targeted civilians for attacks that have been widely condemned as genocide. Nearly all of the candidates advocated strong military action to stop the violence.
"We should have a no-fly zone over Sudan," Clinton said. "We should make it very clear to the government in Khartoum_ we're putting up a no-fly zone. If they fly into it, we'll shoot down their planes."
Biden said the United States should send troops to intervene.
Richardson said the U.S. should threaten to pull out of the Olympic Games to be held in China unless China exerts economic leverage against Sudan.
"I believe that fighting genocide is more important than sport," Richardson said.
Former Sen. Mike Gravel, a long-shot candidate, offered some unconventional proposals. He challenged his rivals to join him in promising to end the war on drugs.
"All it does it make criminals out of people who are not criminals," he said, contending that drug abuse is a health issue, not a criminal one.
The other candidates declined to endorse his idea.