In the wake of a Virginia gubernatorial loss and Jersey near-miss that were, upon reflection, perhaps not so catastrophic as originally framed, there’s been a lot of talk about Democrats having a problem with suburban voters (read: white people). There’s also been much analysis of Republican efforts to scare white voters using the critical race theory framework and Democratic angst about how successful that might be in 2022 and 2024.
One of the reasons I’m a Democrat is because the party is strong on civil rights and social justice issues, and I suspect that’s true of most of the people who read this blog. But is an intense focus on social justice and an insistence on telling the truth about our national history antithetical to winning votes from white people, which we need to be able to do to win elections?
Joe Biden proved its not, according to a great WaPo column from Magdi Semrau.* An excerpt:
Some made cranky calls to jettison “stupid wokeness.” Others counseled the Democrats to confront Republicans about their racially divisive tactics and then “pivot” to discussion of topics on which different racial groups have shared interests — such as reducing economic inequality. Underpinning all this advice was the premise that Democrats are simply bad at talking about race, and that, one way or another, they need to change the subject.
That conclusion is hasty. The presumption that frank discussions of racial inequity will backfire on Democrats neglects one recent, prominent example: President Biden, who during his campaign and since then has spoken with candor about the challenging topic. Given his electoral success, he offers an example other Democrats might consider emulating.
Go read the whole thing. It’s good!
Semrau cited Biden’s speech on the Tulsa Race Massacre, and as a white person who is related to many other white people, some of whom vote Republican, this portion of the speech struck me as a particularly deft way to frame the issue:
We can’t just choose to learn what we want to know and not what we should know. We should know the good, the bad, everything. That’s what great nations do: They come to terms with their dark sides. And we’re a great nation.
Remember active listening, the communication technique where people share what they hear when someone else says something so they can get past misunderstandings, i.e., “When you say X, I hear Y”?
Well, when we say “America has a systemic racism problem,” lots of white people hear, “America is bad and irredeemably racist.” They reject that notion and tune us out.
Should white people who reflexively get their hackles up when race is discussed examine why that is and do the work of educating themselves about the country’s founding and the structural inequities that have persisted for centuries? Yes. Have they shown an inclination to do that? Not enough, no.
But as Biden showed in the speech excerpted above, there may be a way to short-circuit the knee-jerk defensiveness, and that’s to appeal to national pride. As Semrau observes, in the Tulsa speech, Biden doesn’t shrink from correctly identifying the race of the victims and perpetrators, and he calls for general and targeted remedies to alleviate economic inequality broadly and build black wealth specifically. He frames combatting racism as a patriotic duty that citizens of a great nation should undertake.
I’ve sometimes marveled at how Germany, a country that loosed Nazism on the world within living memory, was able to evolve into a largely egalitarian democracy within my parents’ lifetimes whereas people in my disreputable Florida backwater still fly Confederate flags and become enraged at the suggestion that we have a white supremacy problem in the U.S. more than 151 years after the end of our Civil War.
I think I know why. The Nazis were utterly defeated and their leadership decimated. There was no tolerance or space for a mainstream “Lost Cause” lie to take root. But anyhoo, I digress, and since we haven’t got a time machine handy for a Reconstruction do-over, we’ll have to forge a different path.
So to sum up, we know there are plenty of white people who are actively or passively white supremacists, and Democrats won’t reach them no matter what because the only other major party in the country actively caters to their fears and prejudices. We can’t reach them without losing our own soul, so to quote a great man, “fuck ’em.”
Demonstrably, there are also lots of white people who aren’t immovable on the topic, and Democrats don’t have to deemphasize our commitment to civil rights or change the topic when race comes up to reach them. So let’s do that.
*Semrau is on Twitter at @magi_jay and is one of the best writers to follow on the platform, IMO.