When Conversations about Race Get Reduced to Republican vs. DemocratTerry Young, Jr. I Race & Ethnicity I Commentary I July 9th, 2014
When I registered to vote, there was no question which party I would register under. I was not and am not a fan of war. I believe that the government should help those in need. As a gay man, I was not and am not a fan of anti-LGBT policies. Also, as a black man, I was not and am not a fan of policies that target black and brown bodies, such as the 'war on drugs.' Needless to say, I checked Democrat on my voter registration form.
For the last 50 years, the Republican Party has been on the forefront of policy and ideas that have been detrimental to African Americans, including the painting of black women as "Welfare Queens," school zoning laws, mandatory minimums for victimless crimes, and a number of others. In contrast, Democrats have often combatted these initiatives and championed efforts like increases in minimum wage, increased access to healthcare, and more investment in public schools. As a result, the vast majority of African Americans are registered Democrats. In a number of Southern states, the Democratic Party is almost entirely black. As a result, what often occurs in conversations about race is that terms like "Democrat" and "liberal" get thrown around when they are not even really relevant. For example, when Crystal Wright of conservativeblackchick.com called out her fellow Republicans for embracing people like Cliven Bundy, a number of people who typically eat up anything that she says accused her of sounding "like a liberal." People of this school of thought ignore an array of nuances. First of all, white supremacy and racism existed before either the Republican or Democratic Party. Secondly, there are issues that both parties have not addressed in any meaningful way. Also, being a Democrat does not foreclose the capacity for white supremacist thinking. Finally, pushing back against white supremacy does not automatically signal an allegiance to the Democratic Party.
I had a conversation with one of my former colleagues who is white and with whom I became friendly. She just could not understand why the majority of the other black people in the office valued their own Alma Mater-Southern University, an HBCU (Historically Black College/University)-over the state flagship and PWI (Predominantly White Institution) Louisiana State University. I was at a phone banking event where one of my co-volunteers, who is white and a teacher at a majority black elementary school, could not stop talking about how "ridiculous and hard" it was to pronounce the names of some of his students, expressing his assumption that the reason many of their parents did not return his phone calls was because "they feared" he "may be the police." I had a conversation with a white Iraq war vet who told me that, since he fought for all Americans, he did not think that black people should be concerned with solutions for problems that disproportionately impact our community, but instead just be concerned about "all" people. I engaged in a very heated debate with a black male who insisted that law enforcement treated everyone "the same" and that I should just stop "looking for racism."
What, may you ask, do all of these individuals have in common, aside from discussing race and racism in problematic ways? They are all registered Democrats. You see, being a Democrat and supporting policies advocated by the party does not automatically translate into having good racial politics. People choose their party affiliations for a number of reasons, and those reasons are only personal. If a white gay man or lesbian wants to be married and wants safety from being fired due to their sexual orientation, he or she will most likely vote Democrat. If a white woman wants her employee health plan to cover a certain form of birth control and/or values her reproductive autonomy, she is going to likely vote Democrat. If a white person believes that global warming is real and they refuse to throw anything away unless there is a nearby recycling bin, he or she is likely going to vote Democrat. All of the above causes are causes that I support thoroughly. However, not one of them indicates an interest in issues specific to black people, nor does being interested in them preclude anti-blackness. Made simple, you can still vote Democrat and be a racist.
Another assumption that is often made is that anyone who speaks against white supremacy is automatically a Democrat. It has happened to me on numerous occasions via Twitter, where random white people that I don't know show up in my timeline talking about Obama when nothing that I have said indicates support of the POTUS and/or his policies. Trudy of the Gradient Lair blog -who is an independent voter--discusses similar experiences in this article.
Perhaps one of the most prominent examples of this phenomenon occurred in 1992 when then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton was applauded by many on the right for calling out the "extreme elements of his party" and labeling Sister Souljah a racist for comments that she had made about the L.A. riots - she said that black people had been dying for years so she didn't understand why it became a big deal when white people may die. What seemed to be lost in that conversation was that Souljah has never been, in any way, affiliated with the Democratic Party. In fact, the only evidence of her being involved with a political party was when she was intern at the House of Representatives for the Republican Party. Moreover, anyone who knows her work knows that anti-government, almost Libertarian, sentiments are a major theme. In conversations with random eggs on Twitter, I have found that they are of the mindset that the New Black Panther Party, Barack Obama, and Al Sharpton are part of a single entity-never stopping to think that the NBPP rejects the laws of the land all together and does not endorse politicians, and that President Obama often shies away from candid discussions of race all together. For such people, the idea that race in America is more complex than a two-party system is too complicated an idea to fathom.
What also goes unnoticed and undiscussed often is the fact that neither party is eager to explicitly discuss race, and often use terms such as "urban" and "inner-city" instead. Though there have been efforts by Democratic officials on state levels and at the federal level to re-think drug and sentencing laws, the party has not called the war on drugs what it is-a war on African American and Hispanic people. In fact, Bill Clinton (someone who is treated as a God by many white liberals) rejected key reforms such as eliminating the disparities in sentencing between crack offenders (who were mostly Black) and cocaine offenders (who were mostly white and/or affluent). Despite the idea perpetuated by some people that President Obama is somehow only concerned about African Americans and is "racist" against white people, even he has handled race problematically since taking office. Who could forget his speech at the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington where he basically said that Black people are completely to blame for anything that we have faced post-Civil Rights movement, and refused to even entertain the notion that policy has played a role in the unemployment, incarceration, and poverty that plagues much of the community. I say all of this to illustrate how Democratic officials-even Black ones-do not automatically 'push back' against systemic factors that hurt Black people.
At the end of the day, I am a Democrat because I believe that for any progressive change to take place in America, it will likely require the backing of the party. I also understand that a major faction within the GOP is highly invested in maintaining white supremacy. However, I understand that they do not have a monopoly on that. People select their party affiliations and candidates for a myriad of reasons. Someone who votes Democrat because they hate offshore drilling cannot automatically be assumed to not clutch their purse when they see a Black man with dreadlocks walking down the street. Some neighborhoods in our nation's cities are being gentrified by liberal hipsters just the same way others are being gentrified by Republicans. In a nutshell, being progressive on issues that are important to you does not automatically translate into being invested in dismantling white supremacy, and being invested in finding solutions to the problems that it has caused.