A New Warning Against Taking Black and Brown Votes For Granted

Isaiah J. Poole

A new, deeply researched book to be published next month takes direct aim at much of the Democratic and progressive establishment, asserting that it is missing opportunities to build a durable political majority by not being fully engaged with the people of color at the core of the progressive base.

Steve Phillips, author of “Brown is the New White” and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, argued at an AFL-CIO presentation this week that the widespread preoccupation with white “swing voters” is a distraction from the work that needs to be done to solidify an already existing majority base of white progressives and people of color.

“We are wasting hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said at one point, “chasing a shrinking pool of voters,” while not doing the work, or promoting the policies, that would motivate the progressive base to show up at the polls.

He argued in his presentation and in the book that much of the money now spent in political campaigns need to be deployed “organizing the diverse communities that make up the New American Majority.”

“Too often, people in power in the progressive movement in general and the Democratic Party in particular … tend to see people of color and progressive Whites as nuisances who need to be silenced for fear of alienating White swing voters,” he wrote in the book’s introduction. The reality, he goes on to write, is that progressives “cannot win without large and enthusiastic support from people of color.”

In an interview after his book talk, he warned that such enthusiasm from black and brown people should not be considered a given – especially if a Republican candidate, instead of donning the persona of a Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, adopted a more inclusive-sounding version of Republican rhetoric around “opportunity,” “responsibility” and “family.”

“When I was putting this book together, I was like, ‘Why are they so racist?'” he said. “If they would stop being so racist, don’t they realize the impact they would have to make inroads into people of color?”

But Phillips argues that the revulsion in black and brown communities to the racism, xenophobia and hate of the Republican candidates will not be enough to drive turnout if progressives and Democrats run campaigns that run away from the concerns of people of color rather than run towards those concerns.

That starts, Phillips said, with communication and engagement. He said he wants to see progressive black, brown and white leaders interacting with each other and sharing power together. He lifted up the U.S. Students Association, with its multiracial staff and board, as an example.

Phillips was a California student coordinator for the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign. Jackson’s “rainbow coalition” was based on the vision of a common kitchen-table economic agenda that embraced the shared interests of the white working class, people of color, and progressive supporters of racial and social justice movements. What Phillips said he learned “is that a strong social justice message that is culturally resonant and culturally respectful can be a winning message. That is not current conventional wisdom in the progressive movement.”

And while Jackson’s campaign did not reach its ultimate goal, Phillips said it was the interim step that enabled the country to move from Martin Luther King in 1968 to Barack Obama’s presidential victory in 2008.

“Brown Is The New White” includes a chapter on “Policy Priorities for the New American Majority.” One of those priorities, as he told the AFL-CIO, is to refocus the conversation on “income inequality” to one of “wealth inequality.” That would lead to addressing the policy reasons why the median white household has more than $111,000 in wealth holdings while black households have just over $7,100 and Latino households have just over $8,300.

“I do think that we are in a moment in political history in this country in which, because of the sacrifices of the civil rights movement, we have the tools and the power to realize the vision of the dream” of King, Phillips said. “But we have to seize the moment and we have to go all in on recognizing and embracing these changes.”

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