Color Them Democrats: Diversity at the DNC

Edward Wyckoff Williams
Michelle Obama; Julian Castro; Emanuel Cleaver (Getty Images)

(The Root) — Change comes in many colors. And the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., has proved to be a brilliant display of American diversity — blurring the lines between black, brown, white and every hue in between.

The delegates have gathered to re-elect the nation's first African-American president — a historic moment — but what is most striking is the visible difference between the Democratic alliance and their Republican rivals, who just a week ago nominated Mitt Romney in Tampa, Fla.


According to Gallup, more than 90 percent of registered Republicans are white, despite the fact that white Americans are only 63 percent of the general population. This point isn't lost on either voters or elected officials, since a lack of diversity among conservatives has helped fuel a racially tinged, anti-Obama campaign and xenophobic rhetoric that alienate the growing and politically important Latino population.

Republicans' atmospheric problem is that for the past four years, many in the party have actively attempted to divide white voters from everyone else. The strategic attacks on President Obama had proved successful during the 2010 midterm elections with the Tea Party factions and far-right base, many of whom still harbor racial anxieties and prejudice. But even South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham — a GOP stalwart — was forced to admit that this divide-and-conquer strategy is not sustainable. "The demographics race we're losing badly," he told the Washington Post. "We're not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term."

Graham's statement was a rare moment of honesty. Just last week at the Republican National Convention, two attendees were removed after throwing peanuts at an African-American camerawoman for CNN, yelling, "This is how we feed the animals."

Republican leadership is not blameless. Even Romney has used race-baiting tactics in an effort to appeal to disgruntled white voters, the best examples being his recent foray into Birtherism and the fallacious attack ads accusing Obama of gutting welfare reform.


If there was any doubt about the racial subtext, Romney told USA Today that Obama was using welfare waivers as a political calculation to "shore up his base." This, of course, is the same man who appeared before the NAACP convention and later said of the crowd, "If they want more stuff — more free stuff — tell them to vote for the other guy."

The race-baiting is mind-numbing. But it has its consequences.

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 According to a NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, Obama leads Romney 94-0 among African Americans. And an August Washington Post-Kaiser poll had the president receiving 74 percent of the Latino vote. It is nearly impossible for Romney to win with such a deficit among minorities, and that is why the Republican strategy has been to encourage a wave of impassioned, angry white voters while suppressing minority votes through new voter-ID laws.


But Republicans haven't abandoned the politics of perception. Although last week's convention was much ado about whiteness, the speakers were selected to appear otherwise. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and former Democratic Rep. Artur Davis all spoke to minority independents who may find Romney's promise of economic hope and change appealing.

But Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, chair of the DNC, boldly addressed this display of faux diversity. He told reporters last week that "you can't just trot out a brown face or a Spanish surname and expect people are going to vote for your party or your candidate." Villaraigosa, who is of Mexican descent, went on to explain: "Window dressing doesn't do much for a candidate. It's your policies, your platform."


And that is where Democrats have Republicans beat. The DNC stage has been graced with the likes of first lady Michelle Obama, who told her story of the all-American dream — of growing up on the South Side of Chicago to working-class parents whose values and commitment led her to the Ivy League and beyond. She appealed to everyone — from the poor and the middle-class to those who have achieved wealth — by explaining the dignity there is in hard work.

"For Barack, success is not about how much money you make but the difference you make in people's lives," she said. Her words resonated with the crowd of many colors, who might find the GOP's celebration of individualism and its "We built this" mantra to be antithetical to the concepts of community, shared sacrifice, shared rewards and equal opportunity.


The Democratic rainbow coalition also included San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, the grandchild of a Mexican immigrant and the first Latino to give the DNC keynote address. "My mother fought hard for civil rights so instead of a mop, I could hold this microphone," he said.

This is where Democrats have finally found their voice: speaking to the very people whose lives their progressive policies affect.


Lilly Ledbetter, Sandra Fluke and Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren all spoke across color lines — offering a voice for the women whose choices are limited and often overlooked.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker gave fiery addresses that only served to fuel speculation about the possibility of a second African-American president.


Though Republicans have not done enough to reach minority voters, Democrats have been careful not to make the same mistake with white working-class voters. One of the draws of former President Bill Clinton's seminal speech at the DNC was his appeal to working-class white males — a demographic that the latest NBC-Wall Street Journal poll shows favors Romney.

Clinton clearly had the most memorable speech of the second day of the convention, but Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, solidified the Democratic message in his spirited address. "If being liberal and progressive means that I care for children and whether they go hungry," he said, "color me! Color me a Democrat!"


As television cameras panned the convention hall, they strategically highlighted the multiracial, multicultural group that makes up the delegation. But unlike in Tampa, where all the diversity was on the stage, these people are the majority of the Democratic alliance, working alongside their white brothers and sisters to re-elect a biracial president.

By embracing the diversity of its base, the Democrat Party is finally tapping into that power. And with eloquent spokespeople representing the melting pot, the Democrats are presenting a new face for an old American dream.


Edward Wyckoff Williams is contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on MSNBC, Al-Jazeera, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

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