The (In)visibility of Race in the 2020 Elections

I seem to have a lot of white friends who don’t think it’s necessarily a problem if the only viable candidates in the primaries are white. Identity politics is not the most important politics, they say, as long as we get a progressive leader who can fight for all of us. They also point out that it’s hard to get good representation when the stage has narrowed to just a few names.

But this is not just a problem of statistics. The current state of this election strikes at the heart of what is meant by “progressive.” We no longer have anyone counting criminal justice reform, immigration reform, racial justice in the economy or in health care, or refugee crises, among their highest priorities in our debates.

It’s not just that there’s no representation. Yes, white candidates can be collaborative and serious about racism, and can make a difference. But they give no serious voice to the issue. Race is still among the most powerful determinants of power in our aspirational but unachieved democracy, and yet in national news, and in our sense of how the candidates differ, we have made it effectively invisible. Meaningful solutions are no longer a part of the national dialogue. As a party, Democrats seem to know vaguely that we are against racism, but want to invest no political capital in serious discussion.

Fortunately, it is not invisible in the candidate-websites’ declarations of priorities. Bernie Sanders’ website lists “A Welcoming and Safe America for all” as its first priority item, and highlights specific problems there, on racism in the politics of our borders. Item 15 is “Racial Justice”: there he suggests a commitment to serious policy changes in our criminal justice system and in our enforcement of antidiscrimination law.

Elizabeth Warren’s site places “A Fair and Welcoming Immigration System” in its second position, but in the specifics, she suggests ways of prioritizing “fairness,” “cost-effective security”; her emphasis on “economic growth” seems designed to dog-whistle paranoid voters interested in the “right” immigrants. Her seventh item is “A Working Agenda for Black America”, but it is a “work in progress.” (Should we wonder if the “working agenda” is to make sure more black people are working?) In the details of item 9 — about discrimination against farmers of color — and 13 — on criminal justice reform, we see a more comprehensive and honest address of racism in the United States.

Biden’s “vision for America” has three major (and vague) categories of priorities, which break down into subcategories. The first category concerns the middle class as America’s backbone. The modules within it are filled with contradictions. Every mention of “a nation of immigrants” includes a mitigating mention of “secure borders.” Every mention of criminal justice includes a backhand reference to putting people to work. Every mention of refugees is tainted with a reference to prosperity. Criminal justice reform is subcategory six under the middle class module, and mentions “eliminating racial disparities,” in the same sentence that it imagines people serving fair sentences and then “returning to participate in … our economy.”

The first item in the third category, called “We’ve got to make sure our democracy includes everyone”, is “Protecting the Right to Vote” and compares contemporary voter disenfranchisement to Jim Crow, but it also implies color-blindness and is not specific about race.

Buttigieg is obviously fighting hard to combat an impression that he doesn’t have anything meaningful to offer Black American voters. Some of this “Douglas Plan” feels a little hollow and overly intellectual — including a cringe-worthy and mechanistic series of anonymous “pregnant woman” icons — disproportionately people of color — who die of complications in childbirth. In contrast, though, I was grateful for Buttigieg’s insistence that contemporary racial inequity is the result of present injustices, and system racism prevalent in our lifetimes.

Aside from Yang’s admirable but hyper-focused language on reducing incarceration rates (his issue #10), I see little reason to distinguish the approaches of lower-polling candidates, like Klobuchar and Styer, from Biden’s. And Bloomberg’s rise in popularity after entering the Democratic ranks can only signal that Americans responding to these polls regard his long legacy of racism as a marginal and negligible issue. As a party, Democrats seem to know vaguely that we are against racism, but want to invest no political capital in serious discussion.

What would it take to convince American voters that race and racism remain the deepest scars on our democracy, and the most potent barriers to the success of what Biden calls the American “idea”? What would it take to convince Sanders, Warren, and Buttigieg to make their written commitments to racial justice more explicit in their public appearances? Marianne Williamson, who at nearly every other juncture in her less-than-viable campaign has been impossible to take seriously, recognized what is plain about race in America: that Black Americans, past, presented and future are owed a tremendous “debt unpaid.” Why have no other white candidates seen this problem plainly?

[Photo: Supporters of Andrew Gillum at a rally in Miami in 2018. Credit: Scott McIntyre for The New York Times]

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Ben Leeds Carson

Data-driven piano music. Post-secondary public education. Post-primary public wellness. Mindlessness therapy. <http://benleedscarson.com/>