At Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)’s roundtable at Youngstown, Ohio, on Thursday, a white woman holding a baby in her arms asked how Democrats could throw around the term “white privilege” when her community was struggling.
“Now this is an area that across all demographics has been depressed because of the loss of its industry and the opioids crisis,” she said. “So what do you have to say to people in this area about so-called white privilege?”
The woman was referencing Youngstown’s long history of suffering from deindustrialization: On September 19, 1977 — known as “Black Monday” in the town — 5,000 steel workers were laid off. About 50,000 more people working in steel and related industries would lose their jobs over the next five years. The town never fully recovered from the social and economic effects of the mass layoffs, and its people were once again hit with devastating news last year, when General Motors, the main employer, cut thousands of jobs.
Today in Youngstown, OH, a woman asked: "This is an area that, across all demographics, has been depressed because of the loss of industry and the opioid crisis. What do you have to say to people in this area about so-called white privilege?"— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) July 12, 2019
Here's what I answered: pic.twitter.com/M8Ld5yjVE6
But the question also hinted at a recurring theme in the conversation around the Democratic primary: Should Democrats try to win over the white working-class voters who flocked to Trump in 2016? Or should they instead focus on the concerns of their emerging coalition of younger voters, many of them people of color, who want to know what the candidates will do to fight systemic racism?
Gillibrand’s answer suggested a way to thread that needle. She made it clear the term white privilege isn’t meant to devalue the woman’s experiences: “I understand that families in this community are suffering deeply,” she said.
Here’s a full transcript of Gillibrand’s answer, per NBC News’s Amanda Golden:
Question: I hear you saying there is a lot of divisive language coming from Republicans, coming from Trump and that we are looking for ways to blame each other. But the Democratic Party loves to throw around terms like white privilege. Now this is an area that across all demographics has been depressed because of the loss of its industry and the opioids crisis. So what do you have to say to people in this area about so-called white privilege?
Gillibrand: So, I understand that families in this community are suffering deeply. I am fully hear from you and folks that I’ve talked to just in a few minutes that I’ve been here, that is devastating when you’ve lost your job, you’ve lost your ability to provide for your kids, that when you put 20, 30 years into a company that all of the sudden doesn’t care about you or won’t call you back and gives you a day to move. That is not acceptable and not okay. So no one in that circumstance is privileged on any level, but that’s not what that conversation is about.
Question: What is it about?
Gillibrand: I’m going to explain.
What the conversation is about is when a community has been left behind for generations because of the color of their skin. When you’ve been denied job, after job, after job because you’re black or because you’re brown. Or when you go to the emergency room to have your baby. The fact that we have the highest maternal mortality rate and if you are a black woman you are four times more likely to die in childbirth because that healthcare provider doesn’t believe you when you say I don’t feel right. Because he doesn’t value you. Or because she doesn’t value you.
So institutional racism is real. It doesn’t take away your pain or suffering. It’s just a different issue. Your suffering is just as important as a black or brown person’s suffering but to fix the problems that are happening in a black community you need far more transformational efforts that targeted for real racism that exists every day.
So if your son, is 15 years old and smokes pot. He smokes pot just as much as black boy in his neighborhood and the Latino boy in his neighborhood. But that black and brown boy is four times more likely to get arrested. When he’s arrested that criminal justice system might require him to pay bail. 500 bucks. That kid does not have 500 bucks he might not be able to make bail. As an adult with a child at home and he’s a single parent, if he is thrown in jail no one is with his child. It doesn’t matter what he says, I have to go home, I have a child at home, he’s only 12. What am I going to do. It doesn’t matter.
Imagine as a parent how you would feel so helpless. That’s institutional racism. Your son will likely not have to deal with that because he is white. So when someone says white privilege, that is all they are talking about. That his whiteness will mean that a police officer might give him a second chance. It might mean that he doesn’t get incarcerated because he had just smoked a joint with his girlfriend. It might mean that he won’t have to post bail. It means he might be able to show up to work the next day and lose his job and not be in the cycle of poverty that never ends. That’s all it is.
But it doesn’t mean that [doesn’t] deserve my voice, lifting up your challenge. It also doesn’t mean that black and brown people are left to fight these challenges on their own. A white woman like me who is a senator and running for president of the United States. Has to lift up their voice just as much as I would lift up yours. That’s all it means. It doesn’t take away from you at all. It just means we have to recognize suffering in all its forms and solve it in each place intentionally and with knowledge about what we are up against.
Gillibrand’s answer was met with applause in the room.
The discussion was a demonstration of how rapidly the Democratic Party has shifted on race in recent years, especially among white liberals like Gillibrand. Although black voters are a party mainstay, white liberal Democrats, some of whom have more liberal racial views than nonwhite Democrats, make up 40 percent of the party. Their eagerness to address racial inequality is one reason why discussions about diversity and institutional racism have entered the mainstream. Vox’s Matt Yglesias calls this the “Great Awokening”:
But the fundamental reality is that the Awokening has inspired a large minority of white Americans to begin regarding systemic racial discrimination as a fundamental problem in American life — opening up the prospects of sweeping policy change when the newly invigorated anti-racist coalition does come to power.
Both white and nonwhite presidential candidates like Gillibrand, Sen. Kamala Harris, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, and even former Vice President Joe Biden now speak to many of their constituents with the underlying expectation that they “will embrace the more institutional understanding of racism” — something that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. But it also means that they face questions from voters like the woman in Ohio, who aren’t as familiar with terms and concepts that are becoming increasingly mainstream in the party.