Sunday, January 25, 2015

Dog Whistles from the Left (updated)

I've written before about how uncomfortable I am with the idea that Democrats need to figure out how to appeal to working class white voters. It's not that I object to building a bigger coalition. My concern is the often unspoken message that appealing to the unique concerns of people of color is the wrong message.

In an op-ed in the NYT today, Noam Scheiber makes that often unspoken argument overtly. He's writing about Mayor Bill DeBlasio's drop in the polls. But I don't want to get distracted with analyzing DeBlasio's performance. Instead, let's pay attention to the overall message.
From the get-go, Mr. de Blasio’s campaign fused two distinct strands of progressivism. The first was economic populism, not least his criticism that Michael R. Bloomberg had placed the interests of Wall Street and the wealthy above those of average New Yorkers.

The second was what some have called “identity group” liberalism, which appealed to black and Latino voters as blacks and Latinos, not on the basis of economic interests they shared with whites. The centerpiece of Mr. de Blasio’s identity-group agenda was his promise to win better treatment for minorities at the hands of the police.

The problem for Mr. de Blasio is that only the first approach has widespread appeal...

If you were to rank issues by their potential to unite whites and minority voters, the most promising would be populist economic issues like raising taxes on the rich. Somewhere in the middle would be an issue like health care, which has large economic benefits for both whites and nonwhites, even if opponents can portray it as a sop to the latter. At the very bottom would be issues with little economic content, but which different racial groups view in radically different ways.
What Scheiber is basically saying is that if you want to unite whites and minority voters, you have to focus on the issues that are a priority to whites. That's pretty much white supremacy in a nutshell. His big "tell" comes in what he leaves out of that last sentence. The reason racial groups view the issues he places at the bottom differently is because they affect racial groups differently. White people never had to be concerned about "stop-and-frisk" because it almost never happened to a white person. White mothers/fathers, wives, siblings don't spend much time worrying that their son, husband, brother will be harassed/beaten/killed because some police officer jumped to the conclusion that he was a "dangerous black/brown man." But that is exactly how police actions become a priority for voters of color. The fear of what can happen becomes a life-and-death issue for them - as we've seen lately.

White people were just as oblivious to the priorities of African Americans during the Jim Crow era. One of the reasons Dr. Martin Luther King was so revolutionary and successful is that he believed white people would reject the treatment of African Americans if they could see it...really see it. Here's how Ta-Nehisi Coates talked about that.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. may have led African Americans out of segregation, and he may have cured incalculable numbers of white racists, but more than all that, he believed that the lion's share of the population of this country would not support the rights of thugs to pummel people who just wanted to cross a bridge. King believed in white people, and when I was a younger, more callow man, that belief made me suck my teeth. I saw it as weakness and cowardice, a lack of faith in his own. But it was the opposite. King's belief in white people was the ultimate show of strength: He was willing to give his life on a bet that they were no different from the people who lived next door.
For Scheiber, understanding and validating those priorities in today's America is a losing strategy for Democrats.
The real lesson is that Mr. de Blasio’s brand of liberalism isn’t a basis for Democratic dominance, as his boosters once enthused. Politically, economic populism trumps identity-group appeals.
I'll simply remind you that Scheiber himself described DeBlasio's brand of liberalism as a fusion of economic populism with things like a promise to end "stop-and-frisk." So it is that fusion politics championed by people like Rev. William Barber and the Moral Mondays Movement that Scheiber is rejecting - Democrats shouldn't embrace both. To rephrase what he said: "Politically, white people's priorities trump people of color's priorities." If it makes you uncomfortable to hear it said that way, you are tuned in to the dog whistle by which white supremacy is often communicated. Those messages are not the exclusive domain of people on the right.

UPDATE: On twitter Scheiber is responding to a critique of his op-ed (which I didn't make - but his response is still instructive) by saying that it was meant to be "descriptive, not normative." In a sense, he's right about that. What he did was describe how politics on the left looks these days from a white privileged perspective. I simply reject that perspective.


  1. Lol I liked his tweet response to this criticism, along the lines of "it's ok - I'm not TRYING to be racist"

  2. The work of "Race Forward", formerly the Applied Research Center, has been outstanding in promoting issues that both highlight disparities and promote fusion. They are like Rev. Barber in this respect. I have a powerful alliance with them as well as with white ethnic populations destroyed economically by deindustrialization, and it has never seemed to me that one needs an 'either or' but 'both and' approach. White populations don't generally get targeted for extinction by the police or called 'deportables'. But they do share the common destruction of their economic well being. These issues must all be addressed. As Race Forward has shown us, there are ways to fight for all these concerns and, when done in that manner, bind people in alliance even when the issue is not their immediate problem. Building on Rev. King's commitment to universality of worth, this is not even all that hard as Rev. Barber has shown. We can do this. We don't have to rank problems, pick deserving populations, live in a world of preference. Thank you, Nancy. You've articulated this beautifully as always.

  3. Thanks for pointing this out - again. Frankly I'm tired of only pointing fingers at the right - as if the left, and liberals are immune to racism and the dog whistles that sing along with it. It is one of the reasons I dismiss a purely class analysis - which never takes into consideration the intersections between race, ethnicity and gender.

  4. all the bluedoggs lost their Senate did courting that white vote work out for did running from The President work out for them...

    rw/professional left...2 sides of the same coin

  5. This is such a big problem among white Democrats..that they don't see their own white privilege. I happen to believe King when he believed that if white people SAW what was happening to black people, to any minority, they would support what he was trying to do; It should not be so difficult. Thanks again for your most excellent post. Love your writing...

  6. I want to thank you for pointing this out. The mere thought that non-White people need to keep quiet about what problems we have that seem to be specific to our being non-White.

    No thank you.