“For hundreds of years, what most mattered in America was whether you were White or not, and that question has continued to be the driving force in our politics, as consultants and candidates have competed for the support of White swing voters thought to be essential to winning elections,” writes Steve Phillips in the opening of his new book, Brown Is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority. “But the growth in the country’s communities of color has created a new touchstone and starting point for assembling the majority needed for victory.”
Phillips, educated at Stanford University and Hastings College of the Law, is a well-known political activist and civil rights lawyer. He became the youngest person ever elected to public office in San Francisco in 1992, then went on to serve as president of the city’s board of education. He is co-founder of PowerPAC.org, a social-justice organization that conducted the largest independent voter-mobilization efforts backing Barack Obama, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, and is also a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
Phillips brings his legal and political acumen to Brown Is the New White, arguing that it was the coalition of people of color working together as a single political bloc of power—African Americans, Latino Americans and Asian Americans—that gave Jesse Jackson such a measure of visible success in his bid for president in the 1980s and paved the way for President Obama’s triumphant election in 2008. This is not a new argument; it is well-known that there is power in the coalition-building of people of color. The new thing Phillips wonders is, why aren’t we doing more of this? Why isn’t the Democratic Party continuing to build on this successful strategy that won the election eight years ago?
By failing to “maximize the opportunity to build and secure a lasting multiracial political majority for positive social change by investing in, strengthening and solidifying the communities that comprised the Obama coalition,” cautions Phillips, Democrats and progressives “are at risk of losing the advantage the demographic revolution has presented us, and of losing the chance to move toward becoming a more just and equitable society.”
Although states like California already have a majority-Latino population, most data points to the year 2043 as when whites will no longer be the majority race in America. But, argues Phillips, “a meaningful number of Whites have always sided with people of color throughout U.S. history.” Indeed, progressive white Americans played pivotal roles in the abolitionist movement and in securing the right to vote for black Americans when people of color were still disenfranchised. What this means now, explains Phillips, is that “when you add together the number of today’s people of color (the vast majority of whom are progressive) and progressive Whites,” it is clear that “America has a progressive, multiracial majority right now that has the power to elect presidents and reshape American politics … ”
So why aren’t we? Why has the election story this year been about predicting another Clinton-and-Bush rematch—with eerie sparks of Donald Trump’s über-conservative, racist ideology? Where are the progressive Democratic candidates? Where is the progressive Democratic Party?
“Too often,” explains Phillips, the Democratic Party tends to see “people of color and progressive Whites as nuisances who need to be silenced for fear of alienating White swing voters.” Whether a hesitancy to speak about race, to enact racial-justice policies or to continue reaching out to voters of color, it is based on a fear of alienating “White swing voters.”
“‘Whenever you mention racial issues to anyone in the West Wing, White House staffers curl up into the fetal position,’” Phillips quotes a national progressive leader as saying.
So what can be done?
This is the focus of Phillip’s astute analysis throughout the eight chapters of Brown Is the New White. Phillips’ writing style is clear and concise—laying out his argument with deceptively simple grace. With detailed numbers and in-depth analysis mixed with personal experience, Phillips begins with a description of the power of the “New American Majority,” composed of progressive whites and people of color, then debunks the myth of the importance of the white swing voter while expounding upon America’s long-standing preference for whiteness.
“Despite the fact that we have a Black president, the Democratic Party is still largely dominated and controlled by White men,” writes Phillips—and the priorities and spending of the party are reflected accordingly. But after touching upon how “progressive politics suffers because so many of the people in charge don’t reflect the composition of the New American Majority and lack the cultural competence to communicate with its members,” Phillips offers solutions to this state of affairs, which include avoiding “the faulty data and bad math” of pundits and political consultants, creating strong progressive policies, and reaching out to the “New American Majority” of progressive whites and people of color.
Of particular interest is the cautionary tale embodied within the chapter “Conservatives Can Count,” in which Phillips details the ways the conservative Republican base is actively reaching out to the “New American Majority” of people of color in a way that progressives and Democrats are not. Indeed, as troubling as many may find Ben Carson’s statements, it cannot be ignored that it is the Republicans who have fielded a candidate of color in the 2016 presidential race, not the Democrats.
It is said that the only way people become powerless is if they give their power away in fear. Let us hope, Phillips says to us, that the Democrats and progressives wake up to the power they have and stand strong, rather than let it slip away until it is gone.
Editor’s note: Brown Is the New White will be published Feb. 2, 2016.
Hope Wabuke is a Southern California-based writer and a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.