I have a confession to make: I spent nearly two decades in a mostly white evangelical church in South Carolina. The staff was mostly white. The pastor was white. The music was, well, mostly white. My son and daughter, now 17 years old and 14 years old, respectively, were dedicated in that church. My wife’s literacy non-profit got a strong start at that church. I still have friends, black and white, who attend that church.
I say this to say that I know—intimately—the kind of Trump supporters the writer of this piece, “Calling Out Racist Voters Is Satisfying. But It Comes at a Political Cost,” is talking about. I know them personally, as well as professionally, given that I was also a leading journalist in that part of South Carolina for two decades. That’s why even though I sympathize with her point, I know it is wrongheaded and futile. There is no safe, or effective, way for a politician to skirt the issue of racism when it comes to white voters who might consider the Democratic Party if politicians did not point out their racism.
You can read what Briahna Gray of the Intercept has to say here.
But here’s a taste of her argument:
Like it or not, the opinions of white voters matter, and politicians have to balance the validation that marginalized communities deserve against the anxieties of white voters. As Cheney-Rice noted, it’s frustrating that white voters’ sensitivity about being called racist often becomes a more central part of the national conversation than the actual consequences of experiencing racism. But the consequences of not considering white voters in one’s political messaging strategy are more than just frustrating. To millions of black and brown people, LGBTQ Americans, women, immigrants, and differently abled people, they are existential. In just the last two years, voting protections have been bulldozed, transgender rights stripped, and the deficit exploded on a tax giveaway to the rich — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If Democrats can’t win in 2020, things will only get worse.
Gray acknowledges the well-documented racism that’s running rampant among Trump supporters, including those who may have voted for Barack Obama once, if not twice. She is clear-eyed that the issue needs to be confronted, in no uncertain terms, when it comes to racist dog whistles from politicians and the like. She even recently chided Bernie Sanders, a man she has defended several times over the past two years, for not being straightforward about racism in comments he made shortly after the midterms while discussing the performance of Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum. (Neither Abrams nor Gillum shied away from calling out racism. Though they didn’t win their respective races, they had strong showings in really difficult circumstances, given that each was trying to do something no one like them had ever done in Georgia and Florida.)
It’s just that Gray also seems convinced that making non-apologetic arguments about that racism—calling it how it is and for what it is—can lead to political defeat for Democrats, which could mean, as we’ve seen the past couple of years, the rollback of programs and policies that have helped level the playing field for people of color and others in this country. That’s why I’m sympathetic to her concerns because electoral outcomes matter and matter most to the most vulnerable among us. We should never forget that even while we remain clear-eyed about the Democratic Party’s many flaws.
I’m just not convinced that forcing politicians to moderate their frankness about racism will help more Democrats win. Why? Because I know the kinds of voters Gray believes will be moved by such tactics. I know they won’t be. I spent nearly two decades in that mostly white evangelical church, and during much of that time I defended them against charges of blanket racism, prayed with them, broke bread with them, spoke about the complexities of life with them.
And yet, when Donald Trump showed up in our area for well-attended rallies during the 2016 presidential primaries, they flocked to him and his open bigotry. Nothing I had said over those two decades meant a thing. Not even the killing of nine black people in a church a couple of counties over convinced them that rejecting the kind of bigotry Trump was espousing should be a priority for any right-thinking person—especially people who claimed they wanted equality for families like mine. We couldn’t even get a jury to convict a white cop of murdering a black man even though the killing was recorded on clear video—the cop shooting the black man in the back several times as the black man was running away.
They. Did. Not. Care. All that mattered was that Trump was saying things they wanted to hear. That’s it. And there’s nothing we can do about that. Does that mean they are irredeemable? That they are forever lost to those of us agitating for more justice, racial and otherwise? No, it doesn’t. But it definitely means they have to do the kind of soul-searching they have yet to commit to. And until that changes, nothing—and no one—can convince them to rethink the choices they’ve been making the past few years.
That’s the cold reality I had to learn the hard way, living as a black man in Trumpland. It would be unwise for Democrats to risk alienating their true base—which is the most diverse coalition of voters in U.S. history—by moderating their views on race to appease white voters who will choose to prioritize racial justice when they are good and ready, and not a day before—if ever.