Brown Is the New White (part 2)

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Having shown how demographic changes are enabling Democrats to put together a coalition of progressive Whites, Blacks, Latinos, and Asian Americans, Steve Phillips discusses what this means for political strategy and policy. He believes that Democrats must acknowledge how much they have been “blinded by the White”: “Even at this time, when a racial demographic revolution has transformed the composition of the electorate and elected and reelected a Black president, much of the progressive movement and many progressive campaigns are still dominated by White leadership, fixated on White voters, and focused on policies preferred by White people.” Until that changes, the progressive movement cannot reach its full potential either in popular appeal or social impact.

Part of the argument for refocusing Democratic strategy and policy is practical. The Party has been concentrating too much of its attention on the small and shrinking proportion of White swing voters in the electorate, while failing to mobilize the growing segments of the population. When Democrats win the Presidency but then lose the next midterm election, the pundits assume that too many White voters shifted Republican, instead of noticing that too few people of color turned out to vote. The Democratic base is now large enough to win more elections just by motivating existing supporters to vote, even if support from White working-class voters remains under 50%. Money that is spent on campaign ads trying to sway undecided voters might be better spent on door-to-door voting drives targeting minority neighborhoods. But when 97% of the Party’s political consultants are White, outreach to minority communities may not get the attention it deserves.

As long as Democratic leaders believe that their success depends on appealing to White swing voters, they may fail to develop policies that excite progressives and bring them to the polls. President Obama developed a very moderate position on immigration reform, trying to bargain with conservatives by getting tough on border security and deportations in the hope of gaining their support for a path to citizenship. He wound up with neither Republican cooperation nor enthusiastic Latino support. Phillips feels that Democrats would have done better by taking a bolder position and turning out their base to vote for it.

Beyond the practical argument that Democrats ought to pay more attention to growing minorities, there is a deeper argument about social justice. “The New American Majority is inherently progressive because it is a direct outgrowth of centuries of exclusion and exploitation.” Americans who care about social justice should make common cause with historically marginalized and oppressed peoples. Phillips quotes sociologist Joe Feagin on the subject of racial inequality: “Social science research is clear that white-black inequalities today are substantially the result of a majority of whites socially inheriting unjust enrichments (money, land, home equities, social capital, etc.) from numerous previous white generations— the majority of whom benefited from the racialized slavery system and/or the de jure (Jim Crow) and de facto overt racial oppression that followed slavery for nearly a century, indeed until the late 1960s.” Social science research also documents the persistence of subtle forms of discrimination. For example, a recent study sent out job resumes with identical credentials but different names. “Those with more ‘Black-sounding’ names such as Lakisha and Jamal received 50 percent fewer callbacks for interviews than those with more ‘White-sounding’ names such as Emily and Greg.”

The country’s changing demographics create an opportunity to rectify such injustices, by reconsidering policies that impact most heavily on minority communities. For example, a majority of those who live within two miles of a toxic waste dump are people of color. Bill Clinton now acknowledges that the tougher federal sentencing guidelines he approved contributed to the over-incarceration of African Americans. And Phillips wants to change the narrative that we like to tell about poverty “from one in which poverty is seen as an individual failing to one that connects modern-day poverty to more than four hundred years of systemic, intentional injustice against people of color as a group.”

If one takes this quote and a few others too literally, they make it sound as if only people of color are poor, and only communities of color are victims of injustice. A close reading of the book reveals that this is not Phillips’ intention, since he also mentions social reforms that could benefit all groups, such as larger investments in public education and universal voter registration. Nevertheless, he seems most interested in “making major changes in priorities so that time, attention, and massive amounts of resources are directed toward the country’s communities of color.” He does not discuss the historical struggle of working-class White ethnic groups for decent wages and working conditions. He seems content to assemble his progressive majority without increasing White working-class support. Although that is mathematically possible, wouldn’t it be even better if the Democratic Party could appeal to more working-class people across the racial divide? Too many working-class Whites vote Republican because Democrats have not shown them how they would benefit from Democratic economic policies. Surely Democrats can do a better job in that department without sacrificing their progressivism.

Although Phillips sees a great potential for Democrats to benefit from the “New American Majority,” he warns that conservatives can also count. Republicans have been using two main strategies to counter the growing numbers of minorities: “suppression and seduction.” First, they pass restrictive voting measures that impact more heavily on the poor and minorities, many of whom lack government-issued IDs. Second, they seek out unusually conservative members of minority groups (that is, those who oppose progressive policies to combat inequality) and back them for public office. Some moderate Republicans are willing to entertain more authentic minority appeals. After President Obama’s reelection in 2012, the Republican Party’s “Growth and Opportunity Project,” popularly known as the “autopsy,” recommended more outreach to people of color and specifically endorsed comprehensive immigration reform. Phillips warns Democrats that they could miss an historical opportunity here, if Republicans nominate a moderate like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio and get serious about appealing to Latinos. So far, the Republican base doesn’t seem to be getting the message, since their favorite presidential candidates are those with the most restrictive immigration policies. At this time, the prospects for a “New American Majority” to elect another Democratic president seem pretty bright.

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