How Democrats Can Make Race A Winning Issue

A problem and an opportunity.
Democratic candidate for Georgia governor, Stacey Abrams.
Democratic candidate for Georgia governor, Stacey Abrams.
Paras Griffin via Getty Images

A year ago, in my interview that cost Steve Bannon his White House job, Bannon said the following about race:

“The Democrats ― the 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.”

Is Bannon’s dream and the Democrats’ nightmare about race coming true this election year? Or have Democrats found a way of talking about race that is both inclusive and effectively mobilizes the African-American vote?

They managed that balancing act, of course, in the era of Barack Obama. Candidate Obama took pains to run as a reformer who happened to be African-American rather than as an African-American candidate, though his identity and the racial significance of his election were inescapable.

Obama’s greatest yearning as president was to bridge divides. He seldom spoke about race. A lot of good it did him. The haters demonized Obama anyway, and the hater-in-chief is now president.

This year, there are three black Democratic candidates running for governor. All are impressive, quite apart from what they represent as racial breakthroughs.

Former NAACP national president Ben Jealous, in normally Democratic Maryland, is up against a very popular governor, Larry Hogan, an anti-Trump Republican. In Georgia, Stacey Abrams, a Yale Law graduate and former Democratic leader in the Georgia Senate, is running against a Trump clone, Secretary of State Brian Kemp.

Georgia has elected black officials with some crossover white votes in cities like Atlanta and in certain congressional districts, but almost never statewide. Polls show that the race is basically a toss-up.

Andrew Gillum faces Trump loyalist Ron DeSantis in the Florida gubernatorial election.
Andrew Gillum faces Trump loyalist Ron DeSantis in the Florida gubernatorial election.
Joe Raedle via Getty Images

In Florida, a state with a disgraceful history of voter suppression, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum won an upset campaign for the Democratic nomination, running more as a Bernie Sanders-style economic progressive than as a black candidate. But the Republican nominee, Trumpian Ron DeSantis, has already begun race-baiting. In an interview with Fox News the day after the primaries, he referred to the state’s economy, and declared, “The last thing we need to do is monkey this up…”

This kind of talk might backfire. An early Democratic poll showed Gillum with a narrow lead.

If black candidates in the Trump era can defeat far-right Trumpians with some support from white moderates and liberals, that would be stunningly redemptive. But black candidates in the South also draw out white nationalist haters.

Here’s the rub. The more that Trump and his allies encourage white racists and the more that police brutalization of blacks goes unreformed, the more race remains America’s urgent unfinished business. But the more that elections are about race per se, the more challenging it is to build a trans-racial progressive coalition nationally. America may be a majority-minority nation soon, but it’s not there yet.

“Democrats need to back new and recurring claims for social justice, while never forgetting to define and emphasize commonalities.”

In Boston, city councilor Ayanna Pressley is running to unseat incumbent Democratic Congressman Mike Capuano in next Tuesday’s Democratic primary. The district, which includes Cambridge, Somerville and parts of Boston, has a narrowly non-white majority.

Pressley, who would be the first black woman to win a Massachusetts Congressional seat, is being billed as the latest insurgent to follow in the footsteps of rising superstar Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. There is, however, one key difference. Ocasio-Cortez ousted a machine Democrat, Joe Crowley; Mike Capuano is a resolute progressive and civil rights champion, who garnered the endorsement of the Congressional Black Caucus.

The Boston Globe, which endorsed Pressley, stopped just short of urging voters to support her because she is black. Noting the fact that the legislature had deliberately changed the district’s boundaries in 2011 “precisely to make it more competitive for candidates of color,” the Globe called Pressley “an advocate in touch with the everyday experiences of the district’s residents, including the most vulnerable.”

Is this view of race a problem ― or an opportunity? It’s surely both. Racism remains a festering sore, and minorities are indeed underrepresented in elective office. Yet it’s also a shame to throw longtime white allies under the bus.

In the context of a primary fight, there is no getting around the fact that only one candidate wins. But more broadly, the Democrats need to back new and recurring claims for social justice, while never forgetting to define and emphasize commonalities.

Nobody has navigated these tricky shoals better than the senior senator from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren. Here is what she had to say in a speech to the Netroots Nation annual gathering Aug. 3:

In Trump’s story, the reason why working families keep getting short end of the stick isn’t because of the decisions he and his pals are making in Washington every day. No, according to Trump, the problem is other working people, people who are black, or brown, people born somewhere else … and it comes in all sorts of flavors, racism, sexism, homophobia …

It all adds up to the same thing ― the politics of division. They want us pointing us fingers at each other so that we won’t notice that their hands are in our pockets. That stops here. That stops now. We say, no, you will not divide us.

If Democrats of all backgrounds can remember to talk like that, they just might turn the potentially divisive rainbow into a real source of unity and strength.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. His new book is Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism? Follow him on Twitter at @rkuttnerwrites.

CORRECTION: This piece previously stated that Georgia has never elected a black candidate to statewide office. In fact, Thurbert Baker was elected state attorney general three times ― in 1998, 2002 and 2006.