Posted on August 8, 2018

Progressive Activists to Democratic Leaders: Talk About Race or Step Aside

Alex Thompson, VICE News, August 6, 2018

Progressive activists at Netroots Nation in New Orleans this past weekend had a message for the establishment of the Democratic Party: start talking about race or step aside.

{snip} “Democrats must abandon the myth of the white swing voter and invest in the multi-racial, multicultural coalition of voters that make up the majority of our electorate.”

But some Democrats are better prepared for this than others. In a pair of keynote addresses Friday by possible 2020 presidential candidates Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kamala Harris of California, Warren stuck to her well-honed message of colorblind economic populism while Harris repeatedly leaned into race.


By contrast, Warren called out Trump for racially divisive attacks but mostly focused on her signature issue of how crony capitalism undermines working people of all races. “[W]e can’t afford to waste our time arguing about whose fight matters most. It’s one fight. And we have to stand with one another, for one another,” Warren said, which struck some activists as tone-deaf for a conference with “New American Majority” as its dominant theme.

“The movement expects our political leaders to hold race and class narratives in the same space. Senator Harris did that today and Senator Warren fell short,” said María Urbina, the political director of Indivisible, a leading “Resistance” group with over 5,000 local chapters. Warren’s office declined a VICE News request for a brief interview about race specifically, saying they weren’t granting interviews.

Race matters

The different reception to Warren and Harris is emblematic of a much larger conflict and transformation on the left that could affect the party’s electoral chances in 2018, 2020, and for decades to come.

The election of Donald Trump — who swapped out many of the Republican Party’s past dog whistles for some bullhorns — has thrust race front-and-center in American politics. That in turn has provoked a reckoning within the Democratic Party which has long relied on overwhelming majorities from people of color for their votes while the party’s leadership has largely remained white and afraid of alienating whites.


People of color are intent on changing that with a surge of candidates in 2018 and driving signature progressive events like Netroots to make race a centerpiece of their agenda. {snip}


Some white candidates at Netroots such as New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon told VICE News that they have evolved in the way they speak about race over the last few years. “It’s not a space in which white progressives are always so comfortable but we just need to get comfortable,” she said, adding that black voters are the backbone of Democratic Party. {snip}

And Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan, another possible 2020 candidate at Netroots, told VICE News that “anytime you’re a white guy in America you’re always learning and trying to better understand what people of color are going through and I don’t know if that journey ever ends.” {snip}


“Walk the f— out”

Some activists, however, still felt frustrated by the party’s colorblind muscle memory. “We are tired of this conversation that’s trying to say ‘It’s class. It’s not race.’ That’s bullshit, we all know it!,”as Yahné Ndgo, a 46-year-old chief visionary officer at Deep Blue Womyn Company which focuses on Liberation, put it in a protest speech on the main stage Saturday night arguing that Netroots had not matched its own standard of inclusiveness. “If [a candidate does] not speak in a way that is honoring what is really true racial justice, walk the f— out.”

Some Democrats and left-leaning pundits have been wringing their hands and churning out think pieces about the political risks of the Democrats focusing on so-called “identity politics,” especially given the fact that the United States is still majority-white and will be for decades to come. In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s “rhetoric of diversity” was a “strategic mistake,” as Columbia Professor Mark Lilla argued in The New York Times shortly after Trump won.


Wake up call

Mariana Ruiz, the Co-founder and Executive Director of the Kairos Fellowship which is dedicated to improving diversity in digital campaigning, says that the 2016 election has been a wake up call for some white progressives but many are still stuck and people of color are taking note and pushing back. “We aren’t interested in progressive organizations run by and for white people who are not addressing racism internally or moving anti-racist campaigns in support of the leadership and power building of people of color,” she said.


Ndgo and five other black activists went on stage Saturday night and pre-empted Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to call on the convention to do more to reach out to the local activist communities in host cities and to ensure that panels focused on race were given better promotion (several had been scheduled at the same time, making it impossible to attend them all).


But it was clear that some in the audience were uncomfortable, a fact that delighted one of the protestors Ashton Woods, a lead organizer for Black Lives Matter.

“Your white fragility is showing,” he said.