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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