A warning: Democrats should not take Black and brown voters for granted

The 2020 presidential election has been a nail-biter of a race, especially as those of us hoping desperately for a change collectively held our breaths as mail-in ballots were counted. Some called it carry-over trauma and anxiety from 2016 when poll after poll showed Hillary Clinton leading Donald Trump in key states. Despite poll after poll showing Joe Biden ahead of Trump in purple, battleground states, we were too anxious to even be cautiously optimistic.

And with Joe Biden and Kamala Harris now confirmed as the winners of the 2020 Election, we are again hearing a chorus of Democrats saying that we owe Black and brown voters, especially Black women, our thanks for pulling us through to the finish line. This is especially true in Georgia, where Stacey Abrams, the first Black woman to become a major party’s gubernatorial nominee in 2018, founded an organization to fight voter suppression after losing to now-Gov. Brian Kemp. Already, we are seeing images, memes, and praise of Stacey Abrams making the rounds on social media and the news.

While we should most definitely give credit where credit is due, I am wary, once again, of performative allyship and appreciation, while forces are at work to shift focus more to winning back white voters.

Democrats lost Black, Latino, and Asian votes to Trump

If Democrats learn anything from the 2020 election, it is that the party owes Black and brown voters far more than a pat on the back. Already, the exit polls and results show Democrats losing ground when it comes to Black and brown voters, particularly among Black men and Latinos.

New York Times columnist Charles Blow expressed his disappointment on Twitter, citing a New York Times exit poll that showed President Trump increasing his share of the Black male vote from 13% in 2016 to 18% and the Black female vote from 4% to 8%.

Trump also increased his share of the Latino and Asian vote from 29% to 32 and 31% respectively. Another worrying number is that Trump increased his share of the LGBTQ vote from 14% in 2016 to 28% in 2020.

While seemingly small percentages, it could spell trouble for the Democratic Party if it doesn’t get its sh*t together.

Black and brown voters are not a monolith. President Trump’s campaign engaged in a concerted and deliberate effort to sway Black male voters, and touted endorsements from Lil Wayne, Ice Cube, and 50 Cent. The Trump campaign also doubled-down on anti-socialism rhetoric and targeted the message especially to Cuban and Venezuelan American voters in Florida (hence why the results from Miami-Dade were underwhelming for Biden).

If Democrats want to win those voters back, then the party needs to get serious about pushing forward some real changes, rather than engaging in performative allyship and appreciation.

‘We need to win more white voters’

On the flip side, I have heard subtle rumblings among some Democrats that the party should do more to win over white voters.

While the Democratic Party should and ought to be a big tent party and continue to grow, whenever I hear that “more should be done to appeal to white voters,” I remember the period leading up to the Jim Crow Era when many in Lincoln’s Republican Party said much of the same.

The Civil War was becoming a distant memory. Reconstruction was beginning to wind down. Republicans, seeing slimmer and slimmer margins of victory in the South in the face of an onslaught of voter suppression and intimidation (sound familiar?), began to shift the message from defending Black voting and civil rights and Reconstruction to “Reconciliation.”

Reconciliation was acquiescence on the part of the Northern states and Lincoln’s party to the onslaught of white supremacist and racist laws, policies, and violence that was sweeping the South. Under the guise of “unity” and ending sectional divisions between North and South, all parties involved in pushing forward Reconciliation engaged in whitewashing of the true purpose of the American Civil War and depicting it more as a squabble between family members. At one Reconciliation reunion in 1913, it was noted that there were no Black veterans in attendance. No doubt meant to put the minds of former Confederate veterans and Southern leaders at ease.

All of this helped usher in the Jim Crow Era, aided by the Republicans’ abandonment of Black voters.

As Michael Klarman wrote in his book, From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality:

As Civil War antagonisms faded, the sectional rift [between North and South] gradually healed, often at southern Blacks’ expense … A final cause in the worsening of race relations was the evisceration of the Republican party’s historical commitment to protecting Black rights … The party now seemed able to maintain national control without southern electoral support, thus removing an important incentive to defend Black suffrage in the South … Republican parties in northern states became less inclined to run Black candidates, and Black representation at party conventions declined.

Unity without truth to power and action is a false peace

All of this is to say that we should be wary, at the very least, when some in the Democratic Party say that the party should do more to win over white voters. For me, that is often code for “We should talk less about race and identity, and talk more about issues that unite all of us.” Oftentimes, that means boilerplate messages about the economy and how “a rising tide lifts all boats.” It often means painting with broad strokes that ignore disparities and inequity.

We must recognize that, historically, appeasing white voters without demanding a commitment to racial justice and civil rights often comes at the expense of Black (and brown) voters.

It is why I took President-Elect Joe Biden’s message of unity with a grain of salt, especially in a day and age when a great number of white voters view Black Lives Matter and calls for racial justice and equality as “divisive.”

I think that for many, “unity” is synonymous with “comfort” and “camaraderie.” Unity, for many, does not include the very uncomfortable truths and conversations when it comes to complicity with white supremacy and racism, white privilege, and white fragility. White voters have for the vast majority of American history held the reigns of power and have wielded it in such a way as to preserve and protect their power. When truth is spoken to power, especially political power, power often responds by suppressing truth. Its inclination is not to share power but to further consolidate it.

Since the Supreme Court’s decision in 2013 to strike down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, many states have passed laws that make it harder and harder to vote. The brunt of these laws have been felt, disproportionately, by Black and brown communities. Georgia was one of those battleground states where this happened, which Stacey Abrams witnessed firsthand and mounted an extraordinary campaign to remedy.

I hope that the Democratic Party will not simply engage in performative praise and appreciation of Black and brown voters and leaders, but will listen and take action on their demands for truth and reconciliation, reparations, and policing and criminal justice reforms—which may not be popular with white voters. At an organizing level, it goes beyond just having a diverse staff and representation, which all too easily becomes trappings for tokenization. Black and brown organizers and staff must be empowered, listened to, lifted up, and given adequate resources to succeed. That means that white people must make space or take a step back.

Building a long-lasting, multiracial and multigenerational unity necessarily means that some will be uncomfortable with ceding and sharing power.

Otherwise, simply having a Black or brown person on your team or offering verbal support and appreciation amounts to nothing more than thoughts and prayers and performance.


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Loving v. racism in gay sex and dating in Maine and beyond

People often wonder why Maine remains one of the whitest, least diverse states in the nation. I could talk about how politics, policies, and systemic racism, but there are also less obvious things that have an impact on whether Black and brown people choose to stay and make their home here.

I’m talking about the sex and dating among gay men in Maine. It’s an issue that doesn’t quite get as much attention given recent police shootings and focus on systemic racism, but for the many white people wanting to join the anti-racism movement, dating and relationships also need examination.

Personally, this was one of the reasons I almost stayed in Washington, D.C., in 2016. Compared to Maine, both the people and the dating scene was vastly more diverse. It was completely different energy and I felt my body, heart, and mind alive in a way I haven’t felt. Professionally I was doing better. Academically (I was a visiting student at Howard University School of Law), I excelled. And personally, I felt that there were those around me (Black and brown gay men, for the most part) who understood what it was like being a queer person of color.

I didn’t realize how constrained my dating life was in Maine until I lived a year in D.C. And only upon returning to Maine in 2017 did I have some measure to go by.

But first, a little housekeeping.

For this particular piece, I will be focusing on racism in the queer sex and dating scene in Maine (a lot of the research I reference are studies of gay and bisexual men). I use queer as an umbrella term to refer to LGTBQ+ people. For readers who have only known “queer” as a slur, there has been movement toward reclaiming the word and using it positively and proudly to refer to the LGBTQ+ community.

This piece will also refer to “white standards of beauty,” which has its roots in scientific racism in the 18th and 19th  centuries. In a nutshell, some of the founders of scientific racism, like Johann Blumenbach (who counted Karl Marx among his fans), proclaimed the skulls of white people as the most symmetric and beautiful. If you’d like to learn more about scientific racism, listen to NPR’s Code Switch episode Is Beauty In The Eyes Of The Colonizer?

Now, let’s face the facts.

Stonewall survey in 2018, for instance, found that 51% of queer people of color experience racism in the LGBT community. This is one of a number of studies that show that racism is prevalent in the queer dating scene, especially in an age when we are reliant on dating apps like Tinder and Grindr (a dating app for gay, bisexual, and trans men). Recent studies take it further in showing the real, harmful effects racism is having on Black and brown LGBTQ+ people.

One of the ways in which racism manifests in queer sex and dating is through “personal preferences.” In in-depth interviews of gay males in 2015 revealed that some men applied filters that showed them mostly white men while excluding men of color, especially Black men.

In data published by OkTrends (an OkCupid blog), a look at the reply rates show the trends in terms of response rates by race. White, gay men are the only ones who are more likely to respond to someone of the same race, clocking in at 44%. They are least likely to reply to Black males, with a reply rate of 32%. Gay men of other races are more likely to respond to males who are not the same race. Both Black and Asian gay men, for instance, are more likely to respond to Middle Eastern men. Black, gay men also are more likely to respond to “other males,” which I assume are mixed-race or biracial men.

In a 2019 study of gay and bisexual men, researchers broke down sexual racism into four categories, exclusion, rejection, degradation, and erotic objectification, and found that objectification (i.e. seeing Black men as more dominant and aggressive or Asian men as submissive and compliant) led to elevated levels of both depression and feelings of lower self-worth. This was somewhat surprising to the researchers because erotic objectification on its surface seemed to provide an opportunity for Black and brown gay and bisexual men compared to outright exclusion and rejection.

This goes to further the argument made in Robinson’s 2015 law article, in which he states that “sexual racism does not exist simply as a categorical exclusion, such as ‘no Blacks or Asians,’ but may permeate long-term relationships. For instance, a man of color may be deemed desirable only insofar as he adheres to sexualized racial stereotypes.”

In many ways, the real, harmful effects of erotic objectification aren’t all that surprising because it is rooted in white supremacist ideas centered around the colonization, subjugation, exploitation, and exoticization of Black and brown people. Consider, for example, an instance when a white, gay male refers to Asian men as “rice,” Black men as “chocolate,” or Latino men as “spice.” Consider also that Black men are usually confined to being “tops” (code for more masculine) and are seen as larger, more aggressive, and dominant, while Asians are confined to being “bottoms” (code for more feminine) and seen as more submissive. White, gay men, however, are free to choose a top, bottom, versatile without being confined by racial stereotypes doled out to gay men of color.

What about lesbian, bisexual, and trans people of color?

While these studies mostly examine gay online dating and sex, it does not erase the fact that racism and discrimination exist for lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people of color. In the Stonewall survey referenced earlier, one respondent commented that “it’s not just white cis abled people who are LGBT+. I am an Arab, ex Muslim, autistic, mentally ill, poor brown girl who is also bi. No LGBT+ supports me or accommodates, I am invisible to you.’” There is also a small but growing body of research on trans people of color. One study on youth revealed an alarming trend showing that racism combined with transphobia correlated with more than half of trans youth of color experiencing forced sex and nearly 60% having traded money for sex and resources.   

The fact remains that more research needs to be done specifically on racism in sex and dating among lesbian and trans people of color.

So what do we do?

To be honest, I am not entirely sure. As pointed out in the VICE article How Queer People of Color Are Combating Sexual Racism, the answer isn’t simply for queer people of color to stop dating white people.

“No matter how they go about accomplishing it,” the author writes. “[M]ost QTPOC share the same goal: finding politically and racially conscious partners who will validate them as people. And that doesn’t always mean writing off white people altogether.”

And as Per$ia, a San Francisco–based Latinx drag queen, put it in the same article, “Be more open. Don’t let societal bullshit prevent you from trying something new. There’s more out there than Cliff, who works at Google and takes selfies hiking with his dog.”

With that said, what we must do is continue to recognize, unearth, and uproot racism in all its forms. The answer is not passivity or silence.

As Kimberle Crenshaw succinctly stated, “We are a society that has been structured from top to bottom by race. You don’t get beyond that by deciding not to talk about it anymore. It will always come back; it will always reassert itself over and over again.”

Links to Learn More

BIOGRAPHY

Marpheen Chann is a Portland, Maine-based thinker, writer, educator and speaker on social justice, equity, and inclusion. As a gay, first-generation Asian American born in California to a Cambodian refugee family and later adopted by an evangelical, white working-class family in Maine, Marpheen uses a mix of humor and storytelling to help people view topics such as racism, xenophobia, and homophobia through an intersectional lens. Marpheen is the Development, Communications, and Education Associate at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. Marpheen holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of Southern Maine and a law degree from the University of Maine School of Law (but does not practice law).


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‘A few bad apples’ is a cop-out deflecting from the rot of systemic racism

We live in an age dominated by call-out and cancel culture and fueled by the potential virality of an image, video, or written post on social media. At times, the tools of call-outs, boycotts, and social ghosting do serve a purpose, but problems arise when we laser-focus on an individual and forget our aim toward systemic change.

When it comes to the disproportionate killing of Black and brown people by the police, focusing too heavily on the actions of one or two cops can inadvertently make the issue too small. That is when we’ll hear detractors deflect, saying that it’s only “a few bad apples” or “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

We saw this with the focus on Derek Chauvin. Those resistant to the idea that structural and institutional racism exists and resistant to calls for systemic changes and reforms were quick to join the public shaming of the former Minneapolis police officer.

Derek Chauvin is a symptom of an illness or cancer inherent within the institution of American policing and society writ-large, but too much focus on an individual gives fodder for folks to see the problem as only a “few bad apples.”

The message that needs to get across is that officers like Derek Chauvin are not the problem, but that they are part of a larger, deeper, more systemic problem.

Bad apples are a symptom of a larger problem

Back in 2019, I had stumbled on an article about a mysterious illness infecting American apple trees, known as rapid tree decline. Apple farmers and researchers like Kari Peters at Pennsylvania State University and Awais Khan at Cornell were befuddled andcouldn’t find any connection to extreme weather patterns, frost and drought, and herbicides.

That article led me down a rabbit hole of learning more about apple tree rot. Without boring you with the details, essentially  the symptoms are bad apples caused by issues with fungi in the rootstock. I’m sure you get my drift by now.

Throughout American history, we have time and time again we look at what is most visible, the fruit-bearing scion or budwood, to determine the reforms and changes we need to address the “bad apples.” Things such as legislation, Supreme Court decisions, and reforms in education and policing, etc.

At times, we look slightly more toward the root of the problem, at the interstock or interstem sections in the chart, to make larger changes in the form of Constitutional amendments such as the 13th Amendment (abolished slavery), 14th Amendment (citizenship, voting rights, and representation for those born and naturalized in the U.S.), and the 15th Amendment (prohibited states from depriving people of their right to vote based on race, color, or former slave status).

Getting to the root of the problem

Today we hear and see a growing chorus of academics, faith leaders, community organizers, and protesters who are trying to direct our collective attention to the root of the problem, rather than pruning and trimming or grafting on new laws and reforms that serve only as band-aids.

Rather than look at the isolated incidents of a bad apple here and there, this growing, multiracial chorus is expanding and driving the conversation and the country to look at how widespread the problem is. It’s not just a few bad apples dropping here and there. It’s not about good cops and bad cops.

The problem of racism is in our roots. Everything on top, the laws, reforms, amendments, and the Constitution itself have not solved the underlying rot deep in the roots.

White supremacy, racism, and slavery built the America we know today, beginning in the 1600s. White supremacy, racism, and slavery is the rot in the roots that starves our efforts of the necessary nutrients to truly create a multiracial and equitable society.

This may seem radical, especially to those who benefit from the existing system, but perhaps we need a new constitutional convention. A multiracial one with Black, Indigenous, and brown people at the table. It is not impossible, but it will take time and energy.

But in the meantime, we must start to see the problem for what it really is: It’s not just a few bad apples, it’s a sickness in our roots.


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Image by Maria Teneva via Unsplash