Some of Us are BraveAn Aesop's Fable for Democrats

Welcome to my monthly column Some Of Us Are Brave. This space is all about the intersected identities and experiences of American women. My focus will be race, but I'll also tackle age, class and other issues. Ideas for a column? Contact me at [email protected]

Donald J. Trump is exactly who he claimed to be. In the weeks since he won the 2016 Presidential Election, he has installed a white supremacist as White House chief strategist, nominated an admirer of the Ku Klux Klan as United States Attorney General, and picked a national security advisor who believes Islam is a “cancer.” And the man our future POTUS is rumored to have given the right to run the government—his running mate, Mike Pence—believes in conversion shock therapy for gays but not reproductive rights for women.

I am a Black woman. And I am angry and terrified. The election of Donald Trump feels like a rebuke to my very existence. Worse, the Democratic Party to whom I have been loyal seems ready to jettison voters like me for a shot at engaging Trump Nation. In its desperation, the alleged party of progressivism is sending a rebuke of its own to its most faithful. And it is making a mistake. If the Democratic Party walks away from social justice, marginalized Americans will lose and so will the party.

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Columbia professor Mark Lilla labeled Hillary Clinton’s “rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, LGBT, and women voters” a “strategic mistake.”

Great progressive hope Bernie Sanders agrees with Lilla, it seems. At a speech last month in Boston, the senator offered a woman hoping to become the second Latina elected to the U.S. Senate a similar warning. "It is not good enough for somebody to say, 'I'm a woman, vote for me.' That is not good enough." The assumption that a “diverse” candidate offers nothing but her identity is specious and insulting.

Ohio congressman Tim Ryan, meanwhile, challenged his mentor Nancy Pelosi for House Democratic leadership, in part to stem the party’s focus on individual marginalized constituencies. “Here’s our LGBT community. Here’s our labor guy. That doesn’t work. You stop becoming a national party. That’s what happened in this election,” he told the Washington Post. “Gay people and brown people and Black people and white people all want opportunity, jobs, wages, secure pensions, you know the routine.” What Ryan, who was unable to best Pelosi, conveniently ignores is that people who are nonwhite and nonmale have historically faced different—and far more profound—barriers to the American Dream, in addition to the ones he names.

Even leaders of groups that stand to become more marginalized under a Trump presidency are buying into the idea that Dems must speak gingerly about America’s history of racial oppression. In the New York Times, in a roundup of post-election opinion, Rabbi Michael Lerner—the longtime editor of Tikkun magazine—opined that “the left has buttressed [the ideology of shame] by blaming white people as a whole for slavery, genocide of the Native Americans, and a host of other sins, as though whiteness itself was something about which people ought to be ashamed.”

And Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who many saw as a more radically liberal candidate than Hillary Clinton, has moved to unhook the Trump presidential campaign’s racism from its populism. Warren advises, “There are millions of people who did not vote for Donald Trump because of the bigotry and hate that fueled his campaign rallies. They voted for him despite hate. They voted for him out of frustration and anger—and also out of hope that he would bring change.”

For decades, the Democratic Party has been the closest thing people of color, the LGBTQ community, and women have had to a viable voting body that gives an occasional damn about our issues. And so, while the party has been frustratingly reactionary—preferring baby steps, when pushed, over bold action—we have placed our faith (such as it is) and our votes with them, as the party that, at least, is not actively hostile to us.

This year, 88 percent of African American voters, 65 percent of Latino voters, 54 percent of women voters, and 78 percent of gay and lesbian voters were “with her.” Now, in return for our allegiance to Hillary Clinton, we are being told by Democrats that, in the name of harmony, it would be best to ignore the naked bigotry of the Trump campaign and view the people who voted against our humanity as well-intentioned. We are being told that discussing our issues is divisive.

Let’s be clear: Donald Trump ran a campaign all about the supremacy of the straight, white American identity. The people who voted for him either agree outright with his rhetoric or, at least, do not find it to be a problem. Voting for a demagogue “despite hate” is not an achievement that should engender empathy. And it is revolting to frame discussion about the legacy of slavery and Native genocide as alienating in the same country where the state can murder a 12-year-old black boy in a Cleveland park and fire water cannons at Native American protesters on a South Dakota reservation. It is especially insulting coming from a “liberal” party.

There are people who say that marginalized groups’ devotion to Democrats is undeserved—that the party has consistently taken its base for granted. If the Democratic Party moves away from calling out bigotry now, when we are most vulnerable, that charge is undeniably true.

If party leaders were strategic rather than fearful—if they had the courage of their alleged convictions—they would understand that winning future elections requires a game plan more complicated than appeasing struggling white voters in the Rust Belt. Consider that Black voters in the places like Detroit are struggling, too, and they largely voted Democrat. But turnout of those voters was down—in part because Clinton failed to excite them, but also because voter suppression, in places like Wisconsin, Florida and North Carolina may have worked. A candidate who countered suppression with an aggressive get-out-the-vote effort targeting the Democratic base, while demonstrating genuine concern without pandering, might have made up the less than 12,000 votes in Michigan that added up to a Trump win.

Pols like Sanders are right that the Democratic Party needs to address class issues, but wrong that the party should be silent on the ways that race, gender, sexuality and other issues intersect to contribute to inequality. The party base, made up of marginalized people, deserves better than that.

Democrats’ eagerness to snag Trump voters brings to mind Aesop’s famous fable, “The Dog and Its Reflection,” where a pooch loses his bone when he opens his mouth to steal from another “dog” that is simply his own reflection in a stream. The Democratic Party would be wise to treat its base as if we matter before it, too, is left with nothing.

by Tamara Winfrey Harris
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Tamara Winfrey-Harris is the author of The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America.

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