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People of color really should worry that Democrats will abandon them after 2016

Democrats may rely on cold political calculus to justify neglecting people of color in favor of white voters that went to Donald Trump in 2016.

A protester holds up a sign calling for Bernie Sanders to run in 2020. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

After Donald Trump’s election, there’s a concern not just that Republicans will turn against minority voters — but that Democrats may follow suit as well.

By several measures, Trump’s advantage on Election Day came from his big support in white, rural parts of the country. As Nate Cohn wrote at the New York Times, Trump’s gains over previous Republican nominee Mitt Romney among white voters without a college degree was just enough to cancel out demographic shifts that have favored Democrats in recent years.

The question now is what lesson Democrats will draw from this loss — and what changes they could make in future campaigns. Will they continue to build on their growing coalition of minority voters, given that minority groups are expected to outnumber white Americans by 2055? Do they tune their message to become more economically populist — and potentially less focused on “identity politics,” as Sen. Bernie Sanders suggested — in an effort to reach out to the white working class and mitigate their losses with that demographic? Perhaps a little bit of both of these approaches?

But among people of color, there’s a worry that more outreach to white working-class voters could effectively throw people of color under the bus. Not only has this happened before, but there’s a plausible, if cynical, political calculation behind it: Even if Democrats do neglect people of color, it’s not like people of color will have anywhere else to go, especially if the only realistic alternative is the political party led by Trump.

Political parties have consistently abandoned people of color in their outreach to white voters

Hillary and Bill Clinton. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The fear is not strictly a hypothetical. Throughout American history, the progressive party of the time has abandoned and neglected people of color after deciding they need to reach out to white voters.

New Yorker writer James Surowiecki gave a few examples in a series of tweets: when Republicans abandoned Reconstruction following the abolition of slavery, leaving black people to “fend for themselves” in the South; during the New Deal, when Democrats excluded predominantly black farmers and service workers from Social Security; and in the 1990s, when the Clinton administration and Democrats embraced “tough on crime” and anti-welfare rhetoric that led to criminal justice policies that disproportionately hurt people of color.

Paul Frymer, director of the Program in Law and Public Affairs at Princeton University, points out that Hillary Clinton did this kind of racially lopsided outreach as recently as 2008, when she campaigned against President Barack Obama in the Democratic primaries.

“She won Pennsylvania when Obama was ahead, when she was starting to come back,” Frymer said. “She identified with the working class, said he’s too elitist. She used a lot of racial undertones. She pushed him on Rev. [Jeremiah] Wright. And made some headway that way.”

The issue with Wright, Obama’s former pastor, was a particularly telling moment. Back in 2008, the media uncovered sermons in which Wright, among other things, declared, “Not God bless America. God damn America.” The intense media scrutiny was laden with racial overtones from the start, with the implicit suggestion that Wright — and Obama by association — must hate America because of the country’s long history of racial oppression. The controversy eventually led Obama to give his biggest speech on race.

The Clinton campaign played into the racial overtones throughout the campaign, as reporter Michael Hastings noted at the time:

[Clinton supporter Tom] Buffenbarger launched into a rant in which he compared Obama to Muhammad Ali, the best-known black American convert to Islam after Malcolm X. “But brothers and sisters,” he said, “I’ve seen Ali in action. He could rope-a-dope with Foreman inside the ring. He could go toe-to-toe with Liston inside the ring. He could get his jaw broken by Norton and keep fighting inside the ring. But Barack Obama is no Muhammad Ali.” The cunning racism of the attack actually made my heart start to beat fast and my ears start to ring. For the first time on the campaign trail, I felt completely outraged. I kept thinking, “Am I misreading this?” But there was no way, if you were in that room, to think it was anything other than what it was.

Minority Americans don’t want to live through this nightmare again. After a campaign in which they got Hillary Clinton to admit that “black lives matter,” vow to protect the rights of undocumented immigrants, and stand up for Muslims under attack by Trump, they don’t want Democrats to slide back to a colorblind era — or worse — that neglects or outright abandons the needs of people of color.

Will it happen again?

A Black Lives Matter march in Washington, DC. Mladen Antonov/AFP via Getty Images

Frymer said that it’s possible, however, that Democrats will pull the same stunt again. As he described it, the party’s thinking could come down to a cold political calculation: Sure, pushing more toward the white working class could put off some minority voters, but it’s unlikely that those minority voters will suddenly go to Republicans, given the Republican Party’s — and now Trump’s — history of standing against, for example, civil rights legislation, criminal justice reform, and immigration reform.

Democrats look at Republicans’ wins with the white vote and “think two things. One, they think it’s a critical vote, which it is,” Frymer said. “And two, they think, where are African Americans going to go? Latinos to a certain extent have a little more room to maneuver — and Latinos are much more diverse, from Cubans to Puerto Ricans and so forth. But I think the Democrats think the strategy they use — appeal to this white majority and rally minority voters on Election Day by getting them out to vote — has been sufficient.”

Frymer noted that this kind of strategy is essentially what Barack Obama did in his bids for president in 2008 and 2012. Back then, Obama and his Republican opponents, John McCain and Mitt Romney, went through great pains to avoid making the election about race. Instead, Obama campaigned largely on economic issues that appealed to white working-class voters in the Rust Belt — voters that Trump later won — while his own race and get-out-the-vote operation helped rally minority voters to him on Election Day.

Clinton couldn’t leverage her race to turn out people of color. So she instead relied on a message built largely on identity politics — such as her big campaign speech in Harlem, in which she called on white people to help end systemic racism. And that may have come at the expense of her outreach to white voters.

Some Democrats have acknowledged the tension between appealing to white voters and people of color. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who’s become a prominent leader in Democratic circles after his bid for president, did so during a talk on Sunday, in which he acknowledged that “you may not be happy with” his response:

One of the struggles that you’re going to be seeing in the Democratic Party is whether we go beyond identity politics. I think it’s a step forward in America if you have an African American head or CEO or some major corporation. But you know what? If that guy is going to be shipping jobs out of his country and exploiting his workers, [it] doesn’t mean a whole hell of a lot if he’s black or white or Latino.

And some people may not agree with me, but that is the fight that we’re going to have right now in the Democratic Party. The working class of this country is being decimated. That’s why Donald Trump won. And what we need now are candidates who stand with those working people. … We need candidates — black and white and Latino and gay and male — we need all of that. But we need all of those candidates and public officials to have the guts to stand up the oligarchy. That is the fight of today.

Privately, Sen. Elizabeth Warren has reportedly made similar comments, with Gabriel Debenedetti reporting for Politico that Warren told donors that “Democrats need to step up their economic appeal to everyday voters.” (Phrases like “everyday voters” and “working class” are often coded to mean “white.”)

It would be one thing if this were a mere shift in rhetoric. But in the past this kind of approach has led to real policy changes that disproportionately hurt people of color, such as “tough on crime” laws and welfare reform signed by President Bill Clinton in the 1990s.

And issues linked to identity politics need serious policy attention today, including criminal justice reform, immigration reform, and anything that addresses the racial gaps in wealth, income, and educational attainment. A Democratic Party that’s speaking less to these issues may be more likely to neglect them.

But it’s hard to imagine the Democratic Party just ditching minority voters altogether at this point, given that the coalition it’s built over the past few years, which relies so much on people of color, is only going to grow bigger and bigger over time. Center for American Progress senior fellow Ruy Teixeira recently pointed out that if you held patterns of support from the 2016 presidential election steady to 2020, Democrats would win the election just from demographic shifts — more minorities, fewer white voters — even if the white working-class surge for Trump were replicated. So perhaps Democrats will find a way to engage in both economically populist outreach and identity politics in their messaging.

Still, that the pendulum may swing too far in the direction of empathizing with white working-class voters remains a concern for people of color. And some political observers think it’s a real possibility.


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