Julian Castro Says the Democratic Primary Isn’t Fair to Black Folks. He’s Right and Here’s How You Fix It

People vote in the Super Tuesday primary at Centreville High School March 1, 2016, in Centreville, Va.
Photo: Paul J. Richards (AFP via Getty Images)

For weeks now, former Housing and Urban Development secretary, presidential candidate and one true heir to the Obama legacy, Julian Castro, has been pointing out the obvious: It’s peak hypocrisy that the Democratic Party, whose base is largely black, starts the primary process in Iowa and New Hampshire, states that are 90 percent white.

The first two contests, which receive a disproportionate amount of power in determining the eventual Democratic nominee, are whiter than the United States as a whole and much whiter than the present and future of the Democratic Party. Iowa and New Hampshire are Taylor Swift riding a polar bear through a cotton field into a lake of sour cream levels of whiteness. It would be easy to discount Castro’s criticism as sour grapes—he’s doing poorly in Iowa, and won’t make the November Democratic debate this week, but he’s making both a practical and political argument that the DNC would be wise to listen to.

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As a practical matter, the African-American base of the Democratic Party is locked out until the third primary contest (South Carolina), a point where many candidates may have already dropped out of the race. As a political matter, states with larger, more diverse black populations come so late in the primary calendar, black votes are essentially rubber stamps on a “frontrunner,” or worse, get lost in the shuffle of half a dozen Super Tuesday states that see more commercials than candidates on the ground. A small population of white people basically get to tell black voters who their candidate is, and black voters in Illinois, Maryland, Michigan and Alabama are being told they should rally behind a candidate they’ve hardly seen. It’s like when I was a kid; I didn’t know anybody who watched Friends, yet somehow all you ever heard on talk shows and in magazines was that it was the No. 1 show in America for Gen X. (I still don’t believe it; I think it was being amplified by ’90s bots).

No candidate is willing to criticize the primaries except Castro, even big “structural change” candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have been silent because they don’t want to rock the traditionalists in the media or anger party bosses in the early primary states. When Warren was asked about changing the order of Iowa and New Hampshire to more demographically relevant states she pivoted faster than Chandler and Ross moving that couch (See what I did there?).

Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ campaign manager, basically argued that Iowa and New Hampshire are small, mostly rural states that allow candidates with less money and name ID to compete compared to say, starting in California. You know what state would be just as cheap and small as Iowa but has a lot more black people? Mississippi. This isn’t that complicated and Castro shouldn’t be the only one speaking truth to power. There are three easy steps that could be taken to increase the influence of black voters on the nomination process if the DNC were willing to try.

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1. Switch out South Carolina.

I love the Palmetto State as much as the next person—the vaguely racist South of the Border mall, all of the various Meat and Threes, the beauty of the Lowcountry—it’s a nice place to visit. However, as the “black primary,” South Carolina is woefully lacking. About 23 percent of African Americans have a bachelor’s degree, in South Carolina that number is 15 percent. The average African American is 27 years old, in South Carolina it’s 33. The only area where South Carolina matches the average black population is in the percentage of people living in poverty—which is about 27 percent in the state and nationally. This is all before you get into more granular issues like black South Carolinians being more conservative than black Americans as a whole. States like Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina or even Georgia have more diverse African-American populations that hew closer economically and ideologically to black folks across the United States. Plus, imagine having an actual swing state with an influential number of black primary voters.

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2. Replace early states with regional primaries. 

Imagine a Southern primary with South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Kentucky. These are states where the majority of the Democratic electorate is black and candidates would be forced to campaign to a wide and diverse array of black voters and issues for months. There is a huge difference between campaigning in the suburbs of Atlanta and retail politics in rural towns along highway 75 in Tennessee. Further, a Southern regional primary would force Democrats to actually invest in voter protection in overlooked black states like Alabama and Mississippi that seldom get attention because their primaries are so late. Would regional primaries in the South, the Midwest and the Northeast instead of early individual states be more expensive for candidates? Yes it would. However, regional primaries would also widen competition, giving more candidates the opportunity to raise money over a longer period of time. Running ads across several black majority Southern states would be more representative and actually cheaper than the current 2020 Super Tuesday, which requires candidates to run all the way across the country across 16 states.

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3. Organize the primaries with a lottery.

The best nomination process would be to turn the primaries into a combination of the NFL draft and a lottery. Before every cycle, Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez could invite Miss Ida Mae Jenkins, the longest-serving Democratic Party secretary from Who Dat Parish in Louisiana, to reach into a bowl and pick out the order of the primaries in the next presidential cycle. The first three states are locked in and the rest are grouped into regional primaries. With the first primary states rotating every year, you increase the chance of a state with sizable black votes like Kentucky or New Jersey showing up in the early contests. Also if the first state is Wyoming—the press and candidates will just focus on states with more strategic value instead of states with only symbolic value, which is what we have now. Not to mention, the late-night coverage on the networks would be incredible, with folks watching an all-night draft cam coverage of candidates sitting on couches with their families hoping their home state is in the Top 3.

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“That’s right, Chuck, looks like Castro is the big winner for 2024 as Texas will be the second primary state! But look out for Bernie, who looks to make moves in the fifth primary of Minnesota with his potential VP pick, Rep. Ilhan Omar.”

Now, will any of these plans get implemented by the DNC? Probably not. The current primary order has been in place since 1972 and there is so much money, tradition and arrogance baked in that no one wants to change anything. But that doesn’t mean what Julian Castro is saying isn’t true or even necessary to make the selection process more legitimate. When candidates like Castro are the only ones bringing truth to power on behalf of black folks, it says a lot about what the Democratic Party really thinks about its base.

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