Racism May Have Gotten Us Into This Mess, But Identity Politics Can’t Get Us Out

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Photo: William Manning/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s presidency has made white supremacy as apparent to white liberals as it has always been to black Americans — as stark as a beige Band-Aid on a brown child’s knee. Gauche in every aspect, from his tamarin blowout to his gilded parlor, Trump’s lack of subtlety has had the effect of making racism feel fresh again.

The immediate threat posed by Trump has caused many black Americans to ping-pong between declaring our cynicism (“we tried to tell you America has always been racist!”) and combating the complacency to which cynicism often leads.

In a much-praised excerpt from his forthcoming book We Were Eight Years in Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates seems similarly caught between the instinct to sound the alarm, and a desire to point out that the bell has long been ringing. Tracking white supremacy through history into the present, Coates frames Trump as the apotheosis of America’s racial legacy — its first president for whom whiteness is so essential that he might be considered our first white president, rather than our 44th. This provocative description of Trump feels calculated to inject urgency into an argument which otherwise leans heavily on the banality of political racism.

That instinct is an understandable one — Trump’s threat does feel both particularly exigent and especially racialized. But Coates’s other narrative, which rightly casts racism as a historical constant, proves that racism alone is an inadequate explanation of America’s current political predicament.

The intellectual context for Coates’s essay is a debate that has been boiling over since the election: To what extent was Trump’s election attributable to racism as opposed to other factors, including class? Coates argues, persuasively, that race has been used to derail class equality since America’s inception: “The tightly intertwined stories of the white working class and black Americans go back to the prehistory of the United States — and the use of one as a cudgel to silence the claims of the other goes back nearly as far.” Coates describes a “bargain” in which poor whites were promised salvation from the lowest rung of American society — that occupied by black slaves — in exchange for white identity. The presence of a racial underclass transformed the status quo into a prize worth defending: Poor whites who might otherwise have asked to be freed from their poverty were instead appeased with the gift of relative superiority. “Whiteness” was intended to prevent the formation of a multiracial economic coalition that might have served to create a version of America which hewed much more closely to its foundational ideals than does the country we live in today.

Of course, racism is central to understanding Trump’s election, as it is to diagnosing what ails American politics more generally, but Coates takes it a step farther, casting those who focus on the role economic anxiety played in 2016 as disingenuous “apologists” who only emphasize class in order to avoid their own complicity. He characterizes such thinkers as indifferent to the “monstrous incarceration of legions of black men,” the “destruction of health providers for poor women,” the “effort to deport parents,” excessive police force, and the punitive treatment of black schoolchildren — in short, those policy concerns that are inextricably racial in nature.

Coates is right to highlight how race affects the level of public sympathy for those who suffer (for example, the opioid epidemic is a crisis while crack babies were a scourge); Obama would never have been elected if he, like Trump, compared his penis size to that of his political opponents; the struggles of the black working class are considered pedestrian, while the concerns of the white working class launched a thousand think pieces.

Coates reads “economic anxiety” as a “red herring” because, historically, it has been used to leverage sympathy for, as Hillary Clinton once described them, “hard-working Americans, white Americans.” But he errs in allowing history to wield too much power over an as yet unwritten future. The racist nature of Trump’s agenda has had another effect: It has primed some liberal activists and writers to be distrustful of any political coalition which fails to center race. But it is class, not race, that is the best basis on which to form the foundation of a progressive coalition.

Barack Obama’s two campaigns are a powerful model for what a presidential pitch centering economics, rather than race, sounds like. As Michael Gerson, a speechwriter for President George W. Bush and Bob Dole observed, Obama’s 2012 stump speech was “very much an FDR Democratic class-warfare speech … He’s very much running on economic populist themes in tough economic times.” Highlighting class, Obama was able to win decisive numbers of white voters in crucial midwestern states. Despite his own identity, he won. Twice. Democrats should not let Trump’s racism drive them away from that effective strategy.

It’s often argued that centering economics means abandoning racial or other identity groups that have fought hard for unprecedented (and well-deserved) political leverage over the past few decades. (Perhaps Obama’s race allayed those fears.) But political messaging is not a zero-sum game. The question is not “identity politics or economic justice,” but how to adopt a complementary union of the two.

Identity is a crucial part of policy development and implementation, and it will continue to be as long as historical (and contemporary) prejudice yields racial disparities which can be either redressed or exacerbated by government policies. There is also significant symbolic value in the success of diverse political representatives: Last Tuesday’s electoral results in Virginia reflected an increasing acceptance of nontraditional (read: non-cis white male) candidates that is rightly heartening.  But while it may be tempting to take Tuesday as a lesson in the power of identity, it’s worth noting the political substance behind those identities. Danica Roem, celebrated as one of the first openly transgender legislators in America, confronted her opponent’s bigotry with a campaign rooted not in her identity, but the local issue of her district’s traffic concerns. If anything, Roem’s success, and the success of nearly two dozen Our Revolution candidates who embraced Sanders’s economic justice message, speaks to the power of centering policy.

This doesn’t mean that identity should be downplayed or erased either, but that, especially on a national level, identity politics should play a more strategic role in political messaging.

For example, Democrats should consider whether it’s a good idea to emphasize the “white people in the top 1%,” when the complaint is chiefly about wealth, power, and corruption. Accurately identifying the role of racism in wealth inequality is crucial for policy development and political redress, but when appended to an otherwise broadly inclusive class critique, centering race can reinforce the false identity of interest between poor and wealthy whites that early American elites cultivated for their own self-interest, and which Coates cynically describes as unshakable. This type of empty virtue signaling isn’t just irritating. It can actually hurt the cause.

One particularly revealing study, by the political scientists Edward Carmines and Geoffrey Layman, suggests that, regardless of their racial attitudes, Republican voters are unlikely to support government programs. But while Democrats in general view such programs more favorably, those who express antagonistic attitudes toward blacks are much less likely to support government programs if they are framed in racial terms.

In other words, racial signaling isn’t likely to have much of an effect on the Republican base — they are already ideologically predisposed to reject government help for the problems of minorities. But it does have an effect on those voters who would support progressive policies if not for their racial animus. It’s the “progressive deplorables” in our midst who are the real problem — at least from an electoral perspective.

And there are a significant number of progressive deplorables, as evidenced by the 25 percent of Hillary voters who believe that black Americans are more lazy than whites. Although the Reuters/Ipsos poll, which showed that an even greater percentage of Trump voters held racist attitudes, was used as proof that Trump voters were beneath political notice, no one has suggested that the Democratic “deplorables” be purged from the party, and with good reason: Democrats can’t afford to leave those votes on the table. Of course, some people are forever beyond the party’s reach, but that’s no reason to abandon all efforts to secure those swing voters whose support helped win elections in 2008 and 2012, but who, in 2016, gave the presidency to Trump. (I suspect this is what Steve Bannon had in mind when he claimed: “[T]he longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”)

Examples of this phenomenon abound: Forty-six percent of registered voters famously viewed “Obamacare” unfavorably when polled, compared with only 37 percent when asked about the “Affordable Care Act.” The means-tested program Aid to Families With Dependent Children was designed during the New Deal era to help white mothers while excluding black families. It became increasingly reviled when civil-rights gains gave greater access to black Americans, about whom white Americans developed “punitive and antagonistic” attitudes.

None of this should be surprising after reading Coates’s historical account — tragically, in America, black lives don’t matter. But given this political reality, progressives should think hard about whether it’s good strategy to make black faces the singular mascot of a broader and more inclusive movement. Race is an important factor in this narrative, but centering it exclusively risks shifting focus away from those voter concerns that politicians can actually control. Personal prejudice, unfortunately, is not one of them.

And yet the tacit prescription offered by some Democrats to remedy the ills of white identity politics is, inexplicably, to double down on identity-based messaging. Some Democrats even take this so far as to argue that the party should not reach out to Trump voters at all because they are racist —- advocating by implication that we cede those voters completely to the right. This is where identity politics, despite its benefits, has the potential to be most dangerous.

Photo: John Taggart/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Centering race as paramount, Coates is dismissive of the leftist critique that Democrats have abandoned labor, and their status as “the party of the working people,” in favor of empty identity politics. He chides Sanders for finding fault with the Democratic Party’s inability to communicate with the white working class, and characterizes the left’s suggestion that Democrats have a class issue as a “category error.” The real problem, he says, is that “white workers are not divided by the fact of labor from other white demographics,” he argues. “They are divided from all other laborers by the fact of their whiteness.” In other words, Coates argues, “The Democrats aren’t the party of white people — working or otherwise.” Certainly, a substantial portion of the white working class has been persuaded to identify as white first and working class second. But how does scoffing at economic anxiety — which is at times wielded as a pretext for racism, but is also an expression of legitimate concern — help reverse that trend?

On the other hand, Coates vastly overstates the work done by identity politics. Confusingly, he credits the empty performativity of the Clintons’ racial outreach while dismissing economic-justice efforts as insufficiently deferential to America’s racial legacy. He lumps “New Democrat Bill Clinton” and “socialist Bernie Sanders” together as similarly complicit in failing to center race, calling their approaches “raceless anti-racism.” By contrast, he praises Hillary Clinton for acknowledging the existence of systemic racism, despite the fact that her rhetorical gesture had no discernible effect on voter turnout, and didn’t appreciably shape her largely-centrist-until-nudged-left-by-Sanders policies. By contrast, Sanders and the progressives who support his movement argue that unifying objectives like universal health care, free education, and a living wage provide greater potential to build a broader, stronger political coalition.

Economic justice isn’t a panacea. Criminal-justice reform, immigration, and voting rights, for example, are all crucial progressive issues rooted in identity which would become less visible if we didn’t “see race.” But without a strong class-based argument, Democrats will be left to rely on the twin engines of demographic change and racial solidarity to win in the future. Unfortunately, neither is reliable.

Although identity can, at times, serve as shorthand for political views, it provides no more certainty than a stereotype. Racial groups are not monolithic — nor are their voting patterns written in stone. It is the height of hubris, for example, to assume that non-Hispanic immigrants and non-immigrant black Americans would be equally invested in immigration activism as are certain recently arrived Latinx communities. Latinx communities are themselves quite politically diverse, with an incredible 34 percent of Latinx voters choosing Trump in 2016 — a significantly larger proportion than won by Mitt Romney in 2012.

And as depressed voter turnout among African-Americans and Latinx voting trends suggest, all Americans, regardless of color, need a principle to vote for, not just an enemy to resist. For those living on the margins, incremental change is a life sentence to inhumane conditions, and Democratic candidates whose biggest selling point is being not as-racist-as-the-next-guy are unlikely to secure the voter investment Democrats need in 2018 and 2020. Simply put, relying on identity alone is a bad bet.

My ultimate quibble with Coates’s piece is with its pessimism — the presumption that the union between rich and poor whites, forged in the heat of antebellum anti-black antipathy, is America’s destiny as well as its past. Coates argues that admitting race, rather than class, was the proximate cause of Trump’s electoral victory would mean that leftists “would have to cope with the failure, yet again, of class unity in the face of racism.” But that presupposes that class unity was attempted by the Democratic Establishment in 2016. Tragically, it was not. Perhaps, if it had been, there would be no need to address the phenomenon of our “first white president.” We’d be discussing our first female president instead.

Identity Politics Can’t Get Us Out of the Mess Racism Made