Democrats Misunderstood Racial and Class Divisions but Cannot Reject Inclusiveness Now

Democrats Misunderstood Racial and Class Divisions but Cannot Reject Inclusiveness Now

As we wrestle with the consequences of a Trump presidency, Democrats, especially progressives, risk whitewashing the American electorate. In a blind rush to appeal to the voters the Democrats lost, we risk not comprehending and embracing the experiences of the millions of people we won. It was not Hillary Clinton’s message of inclusiveness that cost us the White House, but a major miscalculation of the depth of America’s racial and class divide.

This white identity crisis, tied to a newly ascendant white supremacy, is a psychic struggle that is as old as this country. Our insistence on downplaying this struggle fuels our misunderstanding of the politics of race and racism. For the past 240 years, we have assumed that white men are at the center of the American experience—and as a result, we treat everyone else as a deviation from this “norm.”

Yet ignoring our differences won’t grow the Democratic Party contrary to what Columbia University political scientist Mark Lilla suggested in his recent New York Times piece, “The End of Identity Liberalism.” Instead it is imperative that we, as Democrats, examine whites’ fears of no longer being the default “majority” and their assumptions of what it means to be a minority.

Does minority status for whites mean their voices no longer matter? My nine-year-old daughter has never been asked to reflect on her identity as a white person, nor on her identity as a girl in our society—as Lilla claims is common even among preschoolers. Yet, many people of color, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities live their lives as “the other” and get treated poorly at times as a result. The reverse won’t necessarily be true when we become a “majority-minority” country, but based on the current treatment of Americans who are not straight white males, that is the fear.

Seizing the mantle of white male identity politics, Trump won by stoking those fears and by blaming immigrants, Muslims, African Americans, and women for the struggles and alienation of white men. Given this message, it is not surprising that Hillary Clinton was the one whose rallies resembled America today, attracting men and women of different races and ethnicities, people who indeed believe their commonalities are more important than their differences.

Republicans, not Democrats, have convinced white Americans that they are now a disadvantaged group. Since the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Republican Party leaders have been on a mission to convince white people that the government overwhelmingly benefits people of color. They have relied on subtle feints, and then, more overt appeals to racism to unravel the New Deal coalition and its programs—even though most of the beneficiaries are white.

As my Demos colleagues, President Heather McGhee and Senior Fellow Ian Haney Lopez, pointed out in "How Populists Like Bernie Sanders Should Talk About Racism":

Conservatives have been working hard to convince white people for decades that addressing racism is itself anti-white discrimination. For 50 years, conservatives have hammered the message that liberalism is excessively sympathetic to people of color, claiming that major institutions—from the Democratic Party to the federal government, from universities to unions—care more about people of color than about white people. In this context, when [Senator Bernie] Sanders repeats the refrain that Black Lives Matter, many white people hear him as kowtowing to a powerful special interest, or even engaging in a form of racial betrayal.

We cannot fully understand the progress that still needs to be made without fully appreciating how deeply embedded racism, sexism, and homophobia is in our country’s political systems. To pivot to a conversation about our nation’s economy—which both Democratic and Republican leaders aim to do—we must recognize that our identities are often the very reason why class divisions grow by the day.

In these volatile times, we should not try to sell the idea that whiteness is equal to or the same as being an American—and Democrats cannot afford to buy that vision as they find a new path forward.