We keep seeing political pundits condemning Democrats and progressives for embracing “identity politics.” This, they argue, alienates working class whites and the (largely mythical) “centrist swing voter.” They’re wrong.
Consider the screed written last November by the Washington Post’s Ed Rogers, blasting the “Democrats’ need to wallow in identity politics.” Or a piece from July by Bret Stephens of the New York Times, in which he speculated that President Donald Trump might be reelected in 2020 by mocking the Democrats’ allegedly excessive focus on things like “gender-neutral pronouns and bathrooms.”
Commentators like these urge Democrats to not talk about the specific concerns of African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, women, immigrants or LGBTQ people, and focus instead of the issues that matter to working class whites — things like jobs and financial security.
But the U.S. working class actually has a higher percentage of people of color than our population overall. And black and Latino household income and wealth still lag well behind whites — gaps that didn’t arise by chance.
You can’t address “good jobs and higher wages” for millions of economically struggling Americans if you ignore ongoing redlining and discrimination — including a criminal justice system that disproportionately saddles Americans of color with criminal records that crush job prospects, often for life. It’s fundamentally misleading to call such basic problem-solving “identity politics.”
The real “identity politics” comes from the right, tracing back to Richard Nixon’s 1968 southern strategy, which welcomed prominent segregationists like Strom Thurmond. More recently, Fox News has peddled feverish nonsense about the tiny New Black Panther Party, “illegal immigrants” and more.
Trump has turned racial dog whistles into fire alarms. From spreading hysteria about MS-13 to making dishonest claims that football players who kneel during the national anthem “don’t respect the flag,” the president has aggressively pushed the most divisive form of identity politics: white identity politics.
Many black, brown and young voters turned out for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 but stayed home in 2016. As Steve Phillips has noted, the Democrats’ “see no racism, say no racism” strategy is likely to keep those voters at home, as in the election that brought Trump to power.
As the Pew Research Center reported, black turnout tanked in 2016, dropping seven percentage points from 2012. And while Latino turnout dipped only marginally, Hillary Clinton’s share of Latino votes dropped five points compared to Obama in 2012 — even though her opponent literally called Mexican immigrants “rapists.”
If Democrats want to win, they can’t tiptoe around race. As the record Florida primary turnout for Andrew Gillum showed, millions of new and occasional voters stand ready to support candidates who call out the discrimination at the heart of Trump’s policies and show they’ll fight it.
Orson Aguilar is president of The Greenlining Institute.
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