Race and Identity Politics

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March 21, 2013 1:11 p.m.
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TPM Reader LF wonders about what’s going on in that bubble …

Your post begins with the basic absurdity that Republicans have been looking for ways to add the black vote to the white racist vote, which suggests the absurdity of a party whose policy prescriptions hat appeal to white racists AND minorities. But, Higgins could read it the way he suggests, either through willful misreading or, possibly more likely, a complete misunderstanding of the term that you use to anchor your original post–“racial politics.” You never say that “policy” which attracts minorities would out off white racists–but rather say that “racial politics” would do that.

First, the argument that Higgins is just intentionally mucking this up should be made, because it is a distinct possibility. He writes for the Washington Examiner, which does not exactly have an even-handed slant to it. And anytime a conservative can accuse a liberal of being racist is essentially money in the bank (there are conservatives who have made entire careers of this).

But, I think it is just as likely that he does not, fundamentally, understand “racial politics” and mistakes them for “identity politics.” You and I understand that racial politics are about the competition of policies that have sought civil rights and equality amongst the races versus more conservative forces (whether those are abolitionist forces vs. “states rights” as you can see on the big screen in “Lincoln,” 1960’s civil rights laws, or even modern day issues, such as immigration reform and voting rights). If the parties are no longer based on those racial politics (and indeed, while racial politics may not be the same as the Civil War era, it is a strong force in American politics), it will be because of broad policy agreement. But large swaths of Republicans do not see their policy prescriptions as racially charged (indeed, even people who might be considered “functionally racist” do not view themselves as racist), and the few that do of course seek to obscure that view. And since they do not view, or because they refuse to acknowledge, that their policy position as racially charged, they fail to understand “racial politics.” The result of that, of course, is that they see “racial politics” as a form of political outreach. They champion ideas like Colin Powell as Vice President (despite, as Chris Rock so richly pointed out, he would never do it because he could be the President), they decide that the best opponent for a Democratic African American candidate for Senate in Illinois is an African American Republican, and champion the idea of Allen West, Herman Cain, etc. as great fundraisers. Because they do not or will not understand the important policy problems underlying their demographic problems they come up with an RNC outreach plan, which Buffy Wicks pointed out in Politico this week was largely window-dressing. In other words, because Higgins, and other Republicans, do not fundamentally understand or will not admit that their policies are racially charged, their understanding of “racial politics” loses its policy import, and instead just thinks that “racial politics” is the blocking and tackling of outreach programs with the thoughts that if you get someone who looks like the voter to talk to the voter, the voter will vote for you. So Higgins might have been thinking this is what you were talking about.

The problem, besides the fact that this is dumb (which does not prevent it from being genuine–see, again, the RNC autopsy, which genuinely wants to create minority outreach) is that there is a term for this distinct phenomenon–“identity politics.” Indeed, “identity politics” does play a substantial role in American politics. It is very rare, for instance, for a white Democrat to win a Congressional primary in an African-American district (Steve Cohen being the notable exception). Identity politics is actually a troublesome issue in California (and thus, will be in the rest of the country) as you see more and more competition between African Americans in traditionally African-American districts and emerging Hispanic/Latino voters. This has been an issue in questions of redistricting, but did come to a head electorally in 2009 when Asian-American Judy Chu won Hilda Solis’s old Congressional seat in a district that had heavy Latino and Asian populations. The Los Angeles mayoral elections of 2001 and 2005 are also examples of identity politics, where the African American community heavily supported Jim Hahn, whose father had been a civil rights hero to African Americans in South Los Angeles for 40 years, vs. Antonio Villaraigosa, a Latino. And changing trends in 2005 changed the result, giving Villaraigosa the win. Identity politics was arguably on display in the 2008 primaries–women vs. African Americans. But the difference between “identity politics” and “racial politics” are that identity politics generally happens when there is no discernible (or hard-to-discern) policy differences. Hahn and Villaraigosa were both big-city liberal Democrats. Judy Chu and Gil Cedillo (her main Democratic opponent) were both party-line Democrats. But, Judy Chu beat the Republican in the general election 62-33–and the Republican happened to be another Asian, Betty Chu (actually Judy Chu’s cousin).

It is identity politics that gets people to thinking that the “perfect candidate” for a particular district is an Latino woman, or an Asian business-owner, or a conservative African American, or some other concept, with the hope that the shared identify between the voters will sway a vote. But if you do not understand or refuse to admit that your policies are racially charged, you are doomed to mistake “racial politics” for “identity politics.”

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