Talking About Race in 2020

The Democrats are engaged in an important debate about the direction the party should take discussing race and racism in 2020. The debate pits so-called ‘centrists’ seeking to win back white industrial workers in the midwest against progressives with a far more radical strategy in mind.

The starting place for the debate is over how the Democrats lost in 2016. According to ‘centrist’ Democrats, Trump won by peeling off disaffected white workers in the upper Midwest and Pennsylvania. To the ‘centrists’, the strategy for 2020 is based on winning these voters back, and not alienating them by appealing to ‘identity politics.’

But Trump did not win the votes of white workers: he won the votes of a majority of whites at every income level. Clinton won far more votes of poor and working-class Americans than did Trump. Trump barely broke through the “blue wall” of the upper Midwest and did so by getting a larger white turnout at every income level than had Bush, McCain or Romney. Certainly, the racial gerrymandering of Wisconsin and Michigan by the Republicans played a role as well. Class had nothing to do with Trump’s victory.

Understanding that Trump’s appeal was entirely based on white supremacy (and national chauvinism, misogyny and homophobia) and not on class is important for the Democrats looking to 2020. Trump cannot be defeated by appealing to a small group of white male industrial workers in the Midwest. Democrats are going to have to directly take on his toxic appeals to white people. And when they do this, they will show us something important: it is possible to take on racism while at the same time winning the majority of all voters. To win in 2020, the Democrats will have to mobilize women of all races, people of color, immigrants, queer and straight folks, workers and young voters. They will have to talk about universal themes that bind us together (such as remedying environmental crises, providing access to health care, improving public education, and raising wages) while articulating the specific needs of different communities for these things. As Stacy Abrams puts it, we want universal health care, but the health care needs of black women and Appalachian whites are not the same.

The new progressive politics challenge whites to discover that they are not just white: they are also women, workers, immigrants, queer, and young. White people can and need to find their place in the story of the emerging American majority. They just cannot so by holding on to their whiteness. Whites need to learn to welcome the seemingly threatening idea that their own experiences and opinions should not center every conversation. When they let go of their fantasies of their superiority, and learn to listen to and value the experiences and opinions of people of color, whites too can find their places in a diverse society as women, as workers, as young or old, as queer or straight, as immigrants or indigenous, or just as humans who want to live in a rich and multi-centered world. When white people give up their defense of whiteness, their personhood becomes far richer and more complex. (Indeed, many will find their ancestors include people of color). When whites give up their defensiveness, they can live in the world with hope instead of fear.

We cannot let the tired putdown of “identity politics” deter us from discussing our different needs.

Stacy Abrams and others are teaching us that we can talk about our differences and commonality at the same time. We cannot let the tired putdown of “identity politics” deter us from discussing our different needs. For, it only through an embrace of our differences that unity is possible. We need a candidate who can articulate this vision, not just to win the Presidency, but to set this country towards a new humane future.

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