“I am so frustrated with the obvious changes going on between my dad’s age and now,” said Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) delivering a stem-winder of a midday keynote address Tuesday at the Ideas Conference, hosted in Washington by the Center for American Progress to celebrate its 15th anniversary. “It’s like we inherited this incredible house from our parents and we trashed it.”
Booker is, of course, black. His dad, Cary Booker, was born in 1936 in North Carolina and grew up under a brutal Jim Crow system that systematically disenfranchised people like him. Virtually any other Democrat speaking in 2018 would have dwelled at length on the progress America has made since Cary Booker’s time on racial issues rather than a narrative of decline. But not Booker.
Without stinting the importance of the civil rights movement, he also argued Tuesday that “you don’t even need to use race as one of the lenses” to understand how kids born into low-income families are disadvantaged in life. He said explicitly that when he read Hillbilly Elegy and other work about poor rural whites, it reminded him of his neighbors in Newark. “My neighbors are incredible folks who work hard — in many cases, they work harder — than their parents did, but they’re making less money.”
It’s a pitch that sounds incredibly novel in a post-Obama, post-Trump Democratic Party that’s obsessed with the political power and significance of race and racism. But Booker’s argument — that race is a superficial thing that is cynically deployed to divide Americans and distract them from their common interests — is really the argument Democrats from Lyndon Johnson through Barack Obama have long employed. In the modern day, it may take a candidate of color to pull it off.
Beyond the “economic anxiety” debate
Ever since the 2016 campaign, the left-of-center community has been obsessed with an often tedious debate about the role of economic concerns versus politely phrased ways of saying “racism” in inspiring people to vote for Donald Trump. This debate is often conducted as if it’s identical to a debate about the best way for Trump’s opponents to campaign against him — with economic anxiety theory taken as underwriting a populist pitch on economic policy, counterposed to a call for bold confrontation with the forces of white supremacy.
Booker’s speech, implicitly, draws a different line between these concepts. It’s precisely because racial resentments are such a powerful motivating force in American politics that dwelling on racial division inherently benefits the white people’s party.
So he very pointedly drew on references to the more radical later turn in Martin Luther King Jr.’s thinking to make a case for class politics, quoting him as having argued, “What’s the sense of being able to sit at a lunch counter if you can’t afford to buy what’s on the menu?”
We got a race-blind pitch for criminal justice reform — “we have a nation that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent” — that even featured an aside in which Booker identified the affluent neighborhood he grew up in as an example of the kind of privileged place where smoking marijuana won’t land you in jail. He went so far as to mention co-sponsoring a bill with Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), one of two other African Americans in the Senate, but described him as “the other big bald guy in the Senate.”
Which isn’t to say that Booker doesn’t think about the problems that affect black people. His Marijuana Justice Act would, in practice, have a significant impact on closing racial disparities. There are more poor white people than poor black people in America, but the poverty rate for blacks and Latinos is more than twice as high as it is for whites.
Booker said that “we’ve destroyed the dignity of work by commoditizing workers,” going on to discuss some of the main themes of David Weill’s book The Fissured Workplace through which companies increasingly outsource the low-status job functions inside their own workplaces. So whereas Kodak’s office might once have been cleaned by janitors who were employed by Kodak, and seen as members of the team by their colleagues, today’s firms would more likely subcontract to a building services company that would employ low-wage workers who lack the benefits and job security of their white-collar not-really-colleagues.
This, like the rest of most of what Booker talked about, is unquestionably an issue that disproportionately impacts black and Latino workers. But it’s not an explicitly racial issue, so Booker didn’t racialize it.
A way out of the “identity politics” trap?
There’s of course nothing particularly novel about the idea of Democrats trying to emphasize cross-racial shared economic interests.
Indeed, one might say that the dominant theme of American politics for most of the past 50 years has been Democrats trying to do exactly this while Republicans instead insinuate that Democratic programs are a covert effort to tax white people in order to help nonwhites. But Hillary Clinton changed that in 2016 in two ways.
First, she beat Bernie Sanders in the primaries by very explicitly arguing that his brand of left-wing economics was insufficiently attentive to race-specific forms of disadvantage. At times, this struck comical tones (“if we broke up the banks tomorrow, would that end systemic racism?”), but it also raised valid points — it’s hard to squeeze police brutality or inhumane treatment of asylum seekers into a political worldview that insists all problems stem from the political dominance of economic oligarchs.
Second, she ran against Trump, who completely jettisoned the notion of racial dog whistles in favor of a form of aggressive, overt racism that we hadn’t seen in American politics since the end of the Jim Crow system.
But while the argument about race that resulted from this won Clinton a primary, it didn’t work in the general election. Not just because Trump pulled a substantial number of white working-class voters away from the Obama coalition, but because Clinton’s arguments failed to generate any gains in terms of turnout or persuasion from black or Latino voters either.
Sanders himself now regularly incorporates explicit discussion of the racial wealth gap into his broad indictments of the American economy, but it’s somewhat awkward and risks repeating exactly what was problematic about Clinton’s performatively woke messaging — if Democrats explicitly endorse the idea that politics should be about racial conflict, then they’re stuck with the blunt reality that white people are a numerical majority whose demographic weight is further inflated by the malapportionment of the Senate and the Electoral College.
The traditional path out of this box for Democrats is to argue that racial division is a distraction, created and exploited by nefarious elites for their own purposes. But it can be hard for a white politician to say this without coming across as naive (or worse) and likely to ignore the real needs and interests of people of color. Booker’s solution is essentially the one Obama offered — reassure voters of color by putting one of their own in charge, and then let the politician spend his time making his case to white swing voters.
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