'Identity Politics,' Not Trump Voters, Will Save Democrats
A woman at a 2016 Hillary Clinton event in Toledo, Ohio.
Views My Own

'Identity Politics,' Not Trump Voters, Will Save Democrats

I know lots of Trump supporters. Democrats aren't going to get them to switch sides by downplaying racism.

I could see a man like Donald Trump coming in November 2008. At the time, I was the lead columnist for the Sun News newspaper in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. A regular reader of mine left a frantic message claiming president elect Barack Obama would make white people slaves as payback for all that white people had done to black people.

I didn't know it would be Trump in particular, but I knew someone like him was on the horizon unless serious people began taking seriously the predictable anxiety accompanying our nation's transformation into majority-minority status. Serious people—friends, associates and colleagues, including an editor who told me race no longer mattered after the 9/11 attacks—instead kept telling people like me to stop "injecting" race into everything, to leave the past in the past, to embrace what was about to become a post-racial world. That reader of mine showed otherwise.


And now, even after a man became president while using openly bigoted rhetoric after spending five years spreading racist birther conspiracy theories, even after white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville, those same serious people, along with a growing chorus of white centrist and conservative pundits, as well as more than a few liberal political analysts and politicians, are still reducing the nuance of race and race relations into bold-sounding screeds against an "identity politics" they can never quite bring themselves to clearly define. They believe they are above the fray, but are essentially saying if black people keep defiantly fighting white racists that good white people will retaliate by rewarding Trump and his bigotry another four years in office. The idea seems to be that for white Americans—non-racist white people—being reminded of racial inequality is worse than racial inequality. That's why most white Americans seem more disgusted by Colin Kaepernick's peaceful protest to highlight police brutality than the injustices he is calling out.

This summer, Mark Penn, a former Clinton pollster, co-authored an opinion piece in the New York Times saying Democrats have lost recent elections because working-class voters felt "abandoned by the party's shift away from moderate positions on trade and immigration, from backing police and tough anti-crime measures." People of faith also feel marginalized within the party, Penn claimed—not seeming to realize, or care, that the bulk of working-class voters are people of color and are in favor of the shifts he disdains, and that black people, the core of the Democratic Party, make up the most religious racial group in the country. Columbia University professor Mark Lilla has made similar arguments against "identity politics" both in the Times and in a new book. Even leftist darling Bernie Sanders has made remarks about going "beyond identity politics," which he later had to clarify in order to emphasize he wasn't being anti-diversity.


"Generally speaking, white Middle Americans aren't racists. They don't long for a return to Jim Crow," Robert Robb recently wrote for the Arizona Republic in a column. "They're just sick of having identity grievance politics thrown in their faces all the time." That echoes the complaints of the anti–identity politics cohort: It seems that reminding people that 12-year-old Tamir Rice was gunned down for the sin of playing with a toy gun in a park in an open-carry state by a police officer who had previously been fired for being unfit to carry a gun is little more than "identity grievance politics."

Too often, white people who talked themselves into supporting Trump overlooked that racism because they simply weren't bothered by it.

I knew that regular reader of mine who messaged me in 2008 wasn't part of the fringe; neither was he racist. He wasn't rich, went to church regularly, and would give me the shirt off his back if I was cold, even though we had passionate disagreements about everything under the sun. He was just scared because change—good, bad, or boring—brings with it the unknown. Fear has a way of blinding a man to darker realities; he becomes so focused on protecting himself from imagined threats he can't see the real dangers facing others. I knew he spoke for many others in our newspaper market, which included a county on the coast of deep-red South Carolina that gave Trump nearly half the vote during a crowded GOP primary and 70 percent of the vote during the general election.


In August, after AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka decided to quit Trump's manufacturing council he lamented that people in the White House he agreed with on some issues "turned out to be racist." Too often, white people who talked themselves into supporting Trump overlooked that racism because they simply weren't bothered by it.

That's why pundits and political analysts demanding an end to "identity politics" have it wrong. The problem with those voters isn't that they are racist—though too many are—just that they aren't anti-racist enough. In many cases, no matter what Trump does, they will not be moved. I know this because I spent years doing what liberal pundits and policy analysts are claiming we must do to reach these voters—talking to them.

In August, NPR spoke to a white Trump supporter, Christopher LaMothe of Mineville, New York, and asked about the president's response to the white supremacist hate rally in Charlottesville. Was LaMothe as horrified as many others that Trump went the "both sides" route and claimed there were "very fine people" among the white supremacists? No. "He's in a no-win situation," LaMothe said. "What he did do—and no one's giving him credit for that—he called for unity. I never saw Obama call for unity."

A response like that is why the Democratic Party's top concern shouldn't be trying to bring back into the fold those who chose Trump in November or try to placate those, like Trumka, who embraced Trump—or allied with him conditionally—after the election because they believed they stood to gain something. Instead, Democrats need to convince people of color to stay in the fold and, yes, remain aligned with people who sold them out, because that's what just enough white left-leaning voters did in just enough states to make Trump president despite his bigotry.


Because of their delusion that their man would magically bring back the high-paying manufacturing jobs they have been losing for the past quarter-century, Trump voters have put roughly 800,000 DACA recipients are now in the crosshairs of ICE; they've endangered a criminal justice reform effort that had been gaining bipartisan support is on the rocks; and damaged civil rights enforcement. Though the country will survive a Trump presidency—it survived slavery, the Civil War, a century of lynchings and Jim Crow, after all—the damage being done to vulnerable people of color is real and will be felt for a generation, if not longer, all because just enough potential Democratic voters looked out for themselves instead of their neighbors. That's a reality that must be reckoned with and can't be papered over.

A 2016 protest against police violence in Denver. Photo by John Leyba/The Denver Post via Getty

I attended a mostly white, mostly conservative Christian church in the South for nearly 20 years. Many of the people I broke bread with in my home and prayed with voted for Trump, not despite his moral shortcomings, but because they believed he was sent by God to reset things in what they believed was a wayward country. They can cite chapter and verse of the Bible about how many deeply flawed men God used to do his bidding and convinced themselves Trump was just the latest. They swear up and down neither their vote for Trump in November, nor their continued support for him has anything to do with race.


In a sense, they are right. They aren't purposefully out to hurt black and brown people. A good number of them didn't vote for Trump because of his bigotry; it's just that it didn't concern them much that Trump was giving white supremacists wet dreams. And they still don't care, not really. God has a plan, liberals like to kill babies in the womb, and black people are the real racists. That's why Trump has gotten so much negative press, not because of any bigoted thing he has ever done or said or proposed. They believe such things to their core. That will not change because Democrats release a "Better Deal" policy plan or fight to keep a health reform law that has saved or improved many of their lives.

They will gladly sign up for and use Medicare for all if it becomes available, just as they eagerly embraced the Affordable Care Act in their private lives. If Democrats find a way to further increase income for the poor and middle class, either through a higher minimum wage or re-strengthening unions, they will happily pocket the resulting money. But none of it will convince them that defeating bigotry and righting racial wrongs should be a priority, or is even a worthy cause, especially when those wrongs are systemic and stitched into the fabric of the country.

That Obama oversaw the longest monthly streak of job creation in US history while the deficit was being reduced by more than two-thirds meant nothing to them. By the time Obama left office more Americans had health insurance than ever, but that didn't matter. Neither did the kind of Wall Street reform we hadn't seen in a generation being implemented during the Obama era, nor that Obama had checked every box they say they wanted checked. He was a Christian who got married then had kids, overcame a tough upbringing through education and frequently talked about the need for young black men to be better fathers. Neither did a record-low abortion rate, which can at least partially credited to policies the Obama administration put in place and Hillary Clinton championed, convince them.


A black man oversaw an astonishing turnaround of America's economy —restoring trillions of dollars of value to the stock market and elsewhere—and yet Trump voters supposedly motivated by economic angst eagerly handed the reins to a white man known for multiple bankruptcies and stiffing working-class people out of their wages or tuition paid to his university.

An August march in Pittsburgh held in response to the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty

In a quieter, less chaotic time, prominent white liberals like Mark Lilla writing books and making speeches decrying identity politics (whatever the heck that is) and preaching about the need to recognize class difference would make sense, and even be welcome. No group has a monopoly on morality. And yes, even those within the most vulnerable groups can make unfounded, hurtful accusations against allies and would-be-allies. People of color get it. They always have. Even during the revered Civil Rights movement of the mid-20th century, some activists went overboard; that also happened as our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters struggled for equality. We know during times like these passions sometimes boil over even among the most righteous—but progress is made anyway by those who keep their eyes on the prize.

It's true that working-class white Americans are struggling with addiction and the loss of good-paying jobs and a decrease in their average life expectancy. Too many poor whites are stuck in awful schools and are harmed by police abuses. Too many of them don't know where the next meal is coming from, are still suffering from the financial crash, and are unnerved by their changing country.


Yet on all those measures—and more—people of color have suffered longer and more profoundly and not once put a bigot in the White House. Things are tough for poor and working-class whites, but they remain on more solid footing than the average person of color. The US set a new record-high in middle-class household income during Obama's final year in office; and the black poverty rate drop to its lowest level ever, to 22 percent. But black Americans—not poor or middle-class whites—remained the only racial group still earning less than they did in 2000. If unfair economic outcomes really motivated non-college educated white people to gravitate toward Trump, wouldn't that have been an even bigger incentive for black people to do the same?

In normal times, we could stomach a routine political debate about the best way to punish Wall Street, or which elected official has been the most politically pure, even though for people of color, those "normal times" have always included enormous struggle and having to overcome unreasonable odds. People of color are used to swallowing hard while our white friends downplay the daily pain and strife too many of us face because we don't want to offend them.

But these are not normal times.

Let's be frank. People of color supported white liberals even as the labor unions they created prioritized the fate of white men and their families above us, or when New Deal programs were specifically designed to help white people and not us. We stuck with them even though they were quick to join those wanting to imprison us during the drug wars of the 80s and 90s, and even now as they empathize with white drug abusers—demanding better access to health care and treatment—in a way they could never muster the courage to do for crack addicts.


They say we are too focused on slices of the electorate and blind to more unifying issues. "We have to emphasize certain things and not emphasize other things," Lilla told Vox recently. "We compromise. We try to remain silent on things that will be too contentious. It's not about being morally pure."

Colorblind, class-focused policies have led to more segregation, not less. Why? Because racism and discrimination and bigotry are still real obstacles in too many of our lives.

How soon have liberals forgotten that people of color supported the Affordable Care Act—which has been improving and saving the lives of the Trump voters you say you want to attract and we supposedly don't care about—with a greater passion than they ever did. We agree with calls for higher wages for the low-income of all backgrounds and have made that clear. For several years, we have been arm-in-arm with the LBGTQ community, despite conservative religious roots that initially made many of us skeptical about such rights. We were in favor of the Wall Street reform of 2009 that has already helped millions of everyday Americans—black, white, Latino, Native American—as well as implementing the largest stimulus possible in the Obama era. Black Lives Matter have been among the first to cry out for white victims of police brutality.

During the 2016 election cycle, Hillary Clinton, whom we supported in large numbers in the primary and general election, adopted a platform that honored each of those issues. We didn't back her despite that, but because of it. And we know that no major national Democratic candidate will dare to not support any of those things, and more, going forward. Given that, why can't liberals prioritize making sure people of color aren't pulled back into a 21st-century version of Jim Crow? And, no, dealing with class differences alone won't cut it. Colorblind, class-focused policies have led to more segregation, not less. Why? Because racism and discrimination and bigotry are still real obstacles in too many of our lives.


Public schools are as segregated as they have been in my lifetime and is a major driver of achievement outcomes and inequality. Nearly a third of black men in Florida and a quarter in Virginia, two swing states, can't vote. Republicans in places such as North Carolina are trying to disenfranchise black voters with surgical precision. Black people are still more likely to receive harsher sentences for committing the same crimes as white people, such as ingesting and selling illegal drugs. Focusing on those "identity politics" issues would not only be the right thing to do, but also wise, electorally speaking, for Democrats.

If that makes you too uncomfortable because it feels too emotionally pointed and too race-specific, fine. Let's consider the naked political reality. This country is fast approaching majority-minority status, and with every election cycle comes a further diversification of the electorate. Because the GOP has thrown in its lot with Trump, it's ruined any chance of attracting a significant number of voters of color at least for a generation.

That means the numbers are on our side and will continue taking hold. Democrats have won the popular presidential vote all but one time since Bill Clinton beat George H. W. Bush. Despite all the handwringing about the 2016 election cycle, Democrats gained seats in both houses of Congress, won the popular vote by 3 million, and would have claimed the presidency for a third consecutive cycle—the difficulty of which many grossly underestimated—if not for 78,000 votes in three states. That happened despite James Comey, WikiLeaks, and everything else.

Yes, it is true Democrats have lost several hundred seats at every level of government the past several years. It is also true that some of the gains Republicans have been able to maintain are out of proportion to their performance during recent elections. For example, in North Carolina, a purple state where the GOP already has a veto-proof majority, the party is trying to draw legislative maps that will help it retain power even if it loses the statewide vote by up to 9 percentage points. Democrats' problems are largely rooted in 2010, when despair over an economy that still had a nearly 10 percent unemployment rate led to a wave of Republicans winning an election that helped determine which party would have control over voting districts and voting rights. The 2018 and 2020 elections can begin to reverse that imbalance—if Democrats don't overreact and stop demeaning their own base.

I know the things the anti–identity politics people are saying won't move those Trump voters. Because those Trump voters are my friends and associates. Because they are my colleagues and neighbors. Because no matter how respectable a life I've lived, no matter how much I've moderated my views on race to make them more comfortable—they know I spent years voting for as many Republicans as Democrats, including for George W. Bush and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham—no matter how many times I defended them against charges of racism from those who don't know them as well as I did, it never mattered. They ignored my warnings about Trump and even claimed to have not noticed any of Trump's bigoted sayings or proposals.

My raising a stink about racial disparities and the need for policing reform has bothered them more than the shutting down of the Georgetown steel mill and other manufacturing and textile plants in our area. When those industries were strong in our area—when the steel mill employed 1,400 (mostly male) workers and provided good wages and benefits—they didn't want to be bothered to make good on America's promise of equality. Even as they were cashing large, steady checks, they were OK with a hierarchy that meant their white skin made them supervisors and managers who had to rely upon their better educated, and worse paid, black counterparts to read safety instructions on heavy equipment. Now, with the steel mill closed, they seem to care about equality less, no more.

I know this because I've lived in Trumpland long before it was known as Trumpland.

It's because I've talked to them that I know something scares them more than unemployment: becoming a minority. They think that means they'll one day be in chains, figuratively if not literally. And until they are disabused of that notion, they will continue making the kind of choice the made in 2016.

The only way to deal with that is to confront race directly and passionately and smartly – and that means not only acknowledging, but prioritizing "identity politics"—just the thing pundits and analysts are telling Democrats not to do.

Follow Issac J. Bailey on Twitter.