Here’s why Democrats still need ‘identity politics’

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

As the Democrats retool, reboot and decide what it is they need to do to rebuild as a party, there is a lot of talk about the need to move away from identity politics and towards economic and (white) working class issues.

But don’t fall for the okie-doke. The debate is a way to erase the concerns of black folks, other people of color and marginalized groups. The fact is: we need identity politics and economics.

Bernie Sanders, who focused a great deal on economics and class in the presidential primaries, brought attention to the issue in a speech he recently gave in Boston. Making the argument for more women and people of color in Congress, and speaking out against Trump’s racism and misogyny, Bernie broached the subject of identity politics.

While some interpreted his speech to mean that Democrats should ditch identity politics altogether, he made the point that we “need all of those candidates and public officials to have the guts to stand up to the oligarchy,” that those new people who are brought into the political process must also be “candidates who stand with those working people.”

Sanders — who was schooled by Black Lives Matter during the primary campaign season and struggled to wrest black voters from Hillary Clinton — should have learned something about the limitations of a purely economic message in a racist nation. He had started his campaign speaking almost exclusively in terms of economic justice, then found himself addressing racial justice, police violence, mass incarceration and the like. But the point he made in Boston — that it doesn’t get us anywhere to have a black person in a high place, or a woman, if that person is looking out for Wall Street — is something worth exploring.

On the other hand, Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) — who is seeking the leadership of his party in the House — blamed the Dems for failing to talk to everyone and for separating people into subgroups and interest groups rather than having a unifying message for all people. “We need to talk to working class people,” Ryan said. “Those people in that county, the average median household income is $57,000 a year, which means a husband and wife with a couple of kids each make less than $30,000 a year, and they think that Democrats don’t care about them, and they went in droves to Donald Trump,” Ryan said on CNN Monday. “We need to speak to their economic interests, that we get it, that we understand, that we talk about those things and we try to fight hard for those things.”

Ryan’s approach is wrong for so many reasons. First, he conflates working class with white working class, as if only white people are working. In the black and Latino communities, everyone we know is working hard, and working multiple jobs at once, so let’s shut that down right now.

Second, Ryan seems to want to revert to some colorblind society, a fantasy world where race, gender, sexual orientation and other identities don’t seem to matter, but whiteness — America’s default setting — means everything. He would take a big jug of Clorox and whitewash the political process, bleaching out black folks and their struggle for justice and empowerment. The police don’t kill us because of the amount of money in our bank account. And the courts don’t fill the prisons with black and brown bodies based on what’s in our wallet or our paycheck. To be sure, economic exploitation is intertwined with race and is very much a part of the mix. But black people are catching hell because they are black, in a nation where institutional racism is rampant, and society is in denial about white privilege. There is no colorblind America, but there is a nation that is blind to what is facing people of color. I don’t want you to pretend you don’t see my skin; just don’t punish me for my beloved melanin.

Finally, those who would throw away identity politics are sorely misreading the election results. Trump ran on a message of phony populism, of which he has no intention of translating into policies of economic populism. More importantly, his platform was one of raw and naked white nationalism, of white identity and taking the country back from the inevitable multicultural majority.

While income played a factor among support for Trump, the notion that Trump rode to victory thanks to the so-called white working class is overblown. Even as Trump won white voters overall, we need to examine the role that less educated whites — resentful towards immigrants and racial minorities — played in his victory. These are the folks who consistently vote against their economic interests with the promise that they will remain one rung above black people. And throughout history, they had a choice between, on the one hand, fighting with African-Americans against slavery and poverty in order to improve the lot of all and, on the other hand, being deputized by wealthy whites to become the overseers, the slave patrols that monitor black bodies. Uneducated whites always chose the latter.

In the coming years, white people in the U.S. will become a minority, and that is terrifying to some. After all, what happens when the former slaves take over the plantation? Will they treat whites the way whites have treated them? So, the way to fight against the rising tide of color is to reduce our numbers through deportations, imprisonment and murder; eliminate our political power through Jim Crow voter suppression; and keep us socially marginalized and terrorized through heightened police repression and Klan violence.  That is why America is witnessing the rise of fascism in the White House, of Nazis with their “Sieg Heil” salutes celebrating Trump, of segregationists, anti-Semites and Islamophobes as cabinet picks and presidential advisers, and an increase in hate crimes.  Meanwhile, the struggle to maintain and restore civil rights—the righteous battle against all this madness–is what we know as identity politics.

There has been quite a bit of post-election analysis of what went wrong for the Democrats, and lots of overconfident strategists and numbers crunchers are out of a job.  We realize Hillary won the popular vote by over 2 million, but lost to a slave state-skewed Electoral College and possibly even vote tampering in key battleground states. We also know that the Democrats are perceived as a party of corporatism and neoliberalism, turning their backs on labor in favor of Wall Street, and losing also control over the White House, Congress, and most state houses.  And there is no question that black voters and voters of color remain the most loyal constituency of the Democratic Party and cannot be taken for granted.

Going forward, the Democrats must go to every community with policies that embrace economic and racial justice and equity.  This is not an either-or situation.  Because white voters need an education on how they’ve been duped by Trump and the Republican Party.  And in the process, maybe some white votes are simply not meant to get.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter @davidalove