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Progressive activists to Democratic leaders: talk about race or step aside

But don't call it "identity politics."

NEW ORLEANS — Progressive activists at Netroots Nation in New Orleans this past weekend had a message for the establishment of the Democratic Party: start talking about race or step aside.

The marquee annual conference for the left — a key stop for possible presidential candidates since its first meeting in 2006 — made it clear in their program at the outset, that “Democrats must abandon the myth of the white swing voter and invest in the multi-racial, multicultural coalition of voters that make up the majority of our electorate.”


But some Democrats are better prepared for this than others. In a pair of keynote addresses Friday by possible 2020 presidential candidates Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kamala Harris of California, Warren stuck to her well-honed message of colorblind economic populism while Harris repeatedly leaned into race.

“We shouldn’t just be thanking women of color for electing progressive leaders, in 2018 we should be electing women of color as those leaders,” Harris said. “Now, I’m aware that some people will say that what I just said is playing, ‘identity politics.’ I have a problem with that phrase, ‘identity politics.’ When people say that, it’s a pejorative! That phrase is used to divide and used to distract.”

By contrast, Warren called out Trump for racially divisive attacks but mostly focused on her signature issue of how crony capitalism undermines working people of all races. “[W]e can’t afford to waste our time arguing about whose fight matters most. It’s one fight. And we have to stand with one another, for one another,” Warren said, which struck some activists as tone-deaf for a conference with “New American Majority” as its dominant theme.

"The movement expects our political leaders to hold race and class narratives in the same space. Senator Harris did that today and Senator Warren fell short,” said María Urbina, the political director of Indivisible, a leading “Resistance” group with over 5,000 local chapters. Warren’s office declined a VICE News request for a brief interview about race specifically, saying they weren’t granting interviews.


Race matters

The different reception to Warren and Harris is emblematic of a much larger conflict and transformation on the left that could affect the party’s electoral chances in 2018, 2020, and for decades to come.

The election of Donald Trump—who swapped out many of the Republican Party’s past dog whistles for some bullhorns—has thrust race front-and-center in American politics. That in turn has provoked a reckoning within the Democratic Party which has long relied on overwhelming majorities from people of color for their votes while the party’s leadership has largely remained white and afraid of alienating whites.

Despite voting overwhelmingly for one of the two major political parties and making up about 40 percent of the country, people of color only make up 19 percent of Congress. The most loyal Democratic voters, black women, only make up 3.6 percent of Congress and 3.7 percent of state legislators despite being over 6 percent of the population.

People of color are intent on changing that with a surge of candidates in 2018 and driving signature progressive events like Netroots to make race a centerpiece of their agenda. Unlike the early years of Netroots Nation that were more focused on blogging and online messaging strategies, this year was heavy on intersectionality and race with panels like “Dear White Progressives” and “Brown is the New White.” Of the 28 main stage keynote speakers and panelists over the three days, 22 were people of color.


I think the best thing we can do is get more people of color elected to office because that would be true representation of the communities they serve,” Deb Haaland, who is favored to become the first Native American woman elected to Congress this fall, told VICE News.

Some white candidates at Netroots such as New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon told VICE News that they have evolved in the way they speak about race over the last few years. “It's not a space in which white progressives are always so comfortable but we just need to get comfortable,” she said, adding that black voters are the backbone of Democratic Party. “Look, if white women had voted the way black women had voted, Hillary Clinton would be our president right now,” she said.

And Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan, another possible 2020 candidate at Netroots, told VICE News that “anytime you're a white guy in America you're always learning and trying to better understand what people of color are going through and I don't know if that journey ever ends.” He opened up his keynote address Saturday night by saying Trump had been engaging in “race-baiting” over the weekend when he called Lebron James dumb on Twitter.

“In the past, folks of color knew what these Republican policies meant but white Democrats kept saying ‘Give them the benefit of the doubt’ and ‘They’re not racist,’” said Georgia State Rep. Renitta Shannon, a black woman who won her seat in the state legislature in 2016 and sat on a panel called “Black Women Teach” with three other black women state legislators. “I think that’s changing,” she said.


“The party is finally beginning to use terms that would be in any ‘Race 101’ textbook like ‘implicit bias’ or ‘stereotype anxiety’,” agreed fellow panelist and Georgia state Rep. Park Cannon.

“We are tired of this conversation that’s trying to say ‘It’s class. It’s not race.’ That’s bullshit, we all know it!”

“Walk the fuck out”

Some activists, however, still felt frustrated by the party’s colorblind muscle memory. “We are tired of this conversation that’s trying to say ‘It’s class. It’s not race.’ That’s bullshit, we all know it!,”as Yahné Ndgo, a 46-year-old chief visionary officer at Deep Blue Womyn Company which focuses on Liberation, put it in a protest speech on the main stage Saturday night arguing that Netroots had not matched its own standard of inclusiveness. “If [a candidate does] not speak in a way that is honoring what is really true racial justice, walk the fuck out.”

Some Democrats and left-leaning pundits have been wringing their hands and churning out think pieces about the political risks of the Democrats focusing on so-called “identity politics,” especially given the fact that the United States is still majority-white and will be for decades to come. In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s “rhetoric of diversity” was a “strategic mistake,” as Columbia Professor Mark Lilla argued in The New York Times shortly after Trump won.

But good politics or bad, activists and elected officials were clear over three days in New Orleans that they believed the debate is already over among the people that matter most, the party’s base voters. 84 percent of black voters identify as Democrats, 63 percent of hispanic voters, and 65 percent of Asian Americans, per Pew. And a series of recent surveys also show white Democrats becoming far more aware of systemic racism.


As such, any serious and ambitious Democratic politician in the Trump era must address race head-on and can no longer rely on the promise of “changing demographics” for victory, they say.

“Given how prominent white supremacy is in the Republican party, that is by definition identity politics”

“Given how prominent white supremacy is in the Republican party, that is by definition identity politics,” argued Amanda Litman, the co-founder of Run for Something which recruits young and diverse progressives to run for office. “To not engage is that broader conversation is not to participate in a big part of the political debate and, you know, reality.”

The liberal think tank Demos along with its political arm Demos Action have caught the attention of a number of progressive candidates with a recent body of research arguing that a race class narrative is not a political liability but a benefit.

“The notion that we must avoid race with the middle is wrong: remaining silent on this helps our opposition’s toxic worldview gain primacy,” the group said in a recent report that urged Democrats to be explicit about race (say “working people, whether white, Black, or brown” instead of just “working people,” for example). They have also begun briefing dozens of campaigns on this strategy, including at standing-room only panel at Netroots.

Wake up call

Mariana Ruiz, the Co-founder and Executive Director of the Kairos Fellowship which is dedicated to improving diversity in digital campaigning, says that the 2016 election has been a wake up call for some white progressives but many are still stuck and people of color are taking note and pushing back. “We aren't interested in progressive organizations run by and for white people who are not addressing racism internally or moving anti-racist campaigns in support of the leadership and power building of people of color,” she said.

All that is to say that politicians in America—Republicans and Democrats alike—may not be able to avoid race. The combination of the first black president and then electing the most prominent birther-agitator appears to have racialized the partisan divide over the past decade to a new level.


Since 1994, Pew Research Center has been asking respondents whether discrimination is the “main reason many blacks cannot get ahead.” The gap between how Republicans and Democrats answered that question was just 13 points in 1994. By Obama’s first year in 2009, the difference had crept up to 19 points. But by the summer of 2017, the partisan gap on the question was 50 points with 64 percent of Democrats saying that racial discrimination is the main reason blacks can’t get ahead compared to just 14 percent of Republicans.

And that divide may get even starker. Even with Netroots organizers making a conscious efforts to be more inclusive, many people of color said the left has a long way to go.

Ndgo and five other black activists went on stage Saturday night and pre-empted Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to call on the convention to do more to reach out to the local activist communities in host cities and to ensure that panels focused on race were given better promotion (several had been scheduled at the same time, making it impossible to attend them all).

Similar protests had happened in years past and Netroots organizers suggested that they embraced the demonstration, telling VICE News that “protest is progressive.”

But it was clear that some in the audience were uncomfortable, a fact that delighted one of the protestors Ashton Woods, a lead organizer for Black Lives Matter.

"Your white fragility is showing,” he said.

Cover image: U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris (D-CA) speaks at the Netroots Nation annual conference for political progressives in New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S. August 3, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman