Address to the City Club of Cleveland January 10, 2014
It’s an honor to be invited to speak at the City Club. This is a prestigious platform for anyone to speak from, but for a kid from Cleveland Heights, this is a special honor, and I’m humbled to stand here. And, if the prestige of the podium wasn’t daunting enough, my father, who is here today, told me that he has heard two people speak at the City Club in his lifetime – Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. No pressure, Dad.
Cleveland is a perfect place to have a discussion about Brown is the New White, the future of U.S. politics in the context of America’s demographic revolution. Long before America elected a Black President, Cleveland blazed the trail by becoming the first major American city to elect a Black mayor, Carl Stokes (in 1967, for those of you under a certain age). I still remember my mom making a point to drive by Mayor Stokes’s house and point it out to us whenever we drove to my grandparents home on E. 128th Street.
A lot has changed in America since 1967, but many in national politics have been slow to appreciate and adapt to these changes. The fact of the matter is that there is a new majority coalition in America, and that coalition is built on the solid foundation of the country’s growing numbers of people of color. And that is what we mean by "Brown is the New White."
To perhaps state the obvious, for the past 400 years or so, the United States has been a majority White country. It is worth noting that this continent was plenty populated with Native Americans and Mexicans prior to the arrival of the Europeans in 1600s, and so that's why I say 400 years. But for the purposes of understanding contemporary American politics, let's acknowledge that the majority of the country and its voters have been White for a long time. Consequently, addressing the needs and responding to the interests of Whites has been the central organizing principle of American politics.
When people talk about winning over swing voters or not alienating moderates, the picture they have in their head is of suburban Whites, often women, frequently in Ohio. In the 1960s, it was Nixon's "Silent Majority." In the '80s, Reagan Democrats, in the '90s, Soccer moms, and in the early 2000s exurban voters. These constituencies have been seen as pivotal and have been the focus of politicians and their consultants. Similarly, public policy has been hyper-sensitive to polling and impressions of what might alienate moderate White voters. Recently, we have seen a lot of articles asking, "how will 'Americans' feel about Obamacare?" My first thought was that those who are getting health care for the first time will feel pretty good. But the premise of the question as articulated is how will middle class Whites react to the Affordable Care Act?
That premise is now outdated and anachronistic. One of the masters of American politics is Willie Brown, former San Francisco Mayor and the longest-serving Speaker of the California State Assembly. There was a failed coup against Willie's leadership in the legislature in the 1980s, and I still remember him saying after squashing the coup that the first law of politics is you have to learn to count.
Those who are most effective in 2014 and beyond will be those who know how to count. As Bill Clinton famously said in his 2012 Democratic convention speech, it's about arithmetic. And so let's do a little math today.
[All of these numbers I’m about to run through and the accompanying charts and tables can be found at the website of PAC+, -- P-L-U-S -- the political action committee I started, where we’ve compiled all this data into a Paper of Color (white paper is so 20th century].
And so, the arithmetic - 29 + 26 = 55. That is the new equation for the new era. Allow me to explain.
The 2010 census confirmed that there has been a profound demographic revolution in America over the past 30 years. Latinos, Asian Americans, African Americans, Native Americans, and mixed-race Americans are now 36% of the population.
Now you might look at those numbers and think, "well the percentage of Whites has shrunk, but they're still the majority, 64%." That would be correct. Good arithmetic. Which brings us to another very important, yet historically neglected and overlooked minority group in America -- progressive whites.
Progressive whites are the Rodney Dangerfield of American politics. They just don’t get any respect. They are frequently dismissed or belittled as irrelevant tree huggers or vegetarians, or both. The caricature of progressive whites was captured during the 2004 Presidential campaign when a conservative attack ad took aim at Howard Dean’s supporters by saying:
"Howard Dean should take his tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New-York-Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont."
Now, I live in a very liberal city, San Francisco, and I must confess that some people do drink lattes and read the New York Times, but they are still lovely people.
But if we look back historically, we will see that the role of progressive whites in American social change has been both heroic and vilified. From the abolitionists and John Brown at Harper’s Ferry in 1859 to those who gave their lives in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement– people such as Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo in Selma, Alabama, or Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman in Mississippi, progressive whites have a long and proud tradition of rejecting their privilege, refusing to stand idly by, and courageously standing with disenfranchised and oppressed people in the struggle for justice, equality, and democracy. This tradition has touched and improved my own life, dating back to 1964 when my parents couldn’t buy the home they wanted on Dartmoor Rd in Cleveland Heights because they were Black. But a progressive White lawyer named Byron Krantz bought the house for them and deeded it over to my parents, securing what became the childhood home I grew up in.
In terms of U.S. politics, people have always thought that there were too few progressive whites to matter. But with the growth of the Latino, Black, and Asian populations, that is no longer the case. The closest statistical measure we have for political ideology in this country is the Presidential exit poll. Going back to Jimmy Carter’s election, we see that anywhere from 34% to 48% of whites have voted for the Democratic candidate for President (in some years, that was a more brave act than others). That’s an average of 41% of Whites voting Democratic. And, so, back to our arithmetic, 64% of the country is White, and 41% of those Whites are progressive, that means that progressive Whites make up 26% of the entire country. If you add that 26% to the 36% who are people of color, you get 62%, a clear majority of the United States.
Now, the other response I hear when we do these numbers is that not all people of color are progressive. Believe me, I know. I often shake my head wondering what some of these conservative people of color are thinking. But, back to exit polls, the data shows that the vast majority of people of color vote Democrat. In the last election, 80% of people of color voted Democratic. 80% of the entire People of Color population is 29% of the entire country’s population. If you add that 29% to the 26% of the country that are the white progressives, you get 55%. 29% + 26% = 55%. That is the new majority in America.
This demographic and mathematical theorem has now been tested and proven twice at the national level in the 2008 election and 2012 re-election of President Obama.
WHAT SHOULD THIS MEAN FOR U.S. POLITICS GOING FORWARD?
The Census Data has also given us a geographic map that shows that the future of U.S. politics is in the South and the Southwest. The new political battleground states are the old slave-holding states in the South and the Southwest, land that used to be Mexico and that we now call Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado.
Two last numbers I’ll throw at you — 19 and 24. 19% of voters of color is the threshold for whether a coalition of people of color and progressive whites can win an election. In the 2010 Republican tidal wave, three states withstood the wave and re-elected Democrats to the U.S. Senate – Colorado, California, and Nevada. All three Dems who won those elections lost the White vote, but they were able to prevail because there were enough people of color in the mix. Colorado had 19% of its voters as people of color (CA and Nev had more), so we use 19% as the benchmark.
This is where the picture starts to come most sharply into focus. There are 24 states in America that will soon have 19% voters of color, and those states are overwhelmingly in the South and Southwest. Arizona, Georgia, and Texas are the new battleground states. Yes, Texas. One of the most important races in America this year is Wendy Davis’s race for Governor of Texas. If the Democrats take Texas, it will cut the legs out of the conservative political machine and make it nearly impossible for a Republican to win the White House for the next 20 years. Georgia, which Barack Obama only lost by 6 percentage points, without even contesting the race, represents the Democrats’ best chance to pick up a seat in the U.S. Senate this year as Michelle Nunn runs for the seat her father once held. These 24 states have 351 electoral votes, you need 270 to win the White House, and 303 Congressional seats, where 218 is the magic number. The 24 New Majority states have the power to elect the next President and secure control of Congress. As Jesse Jackson used to say, “the hands that once picked cotton and lettuce can now pick Presidents, Senators, and Governors.”
And so, if Democrats were smart, they would be massively investing in communities of color in the South and Southwest. Conservatives have done the math, and it is no accident that they are massively investing in efforts to restrict voting rights. While Obama’s campaign did spend considerable resources mobilizing and turning out new majority voters in NC, VA, Florida, Nevada, and Colorado for several months in 2012 (with the results to show for it) there is no lasting strategy, program or leadership pipeline carried out by the Democrats. Apparently too many Democrats have trouble with math, and there is a shocking underinvestment in the communities of color as too many campaigns continue to chase the ever-shrinking bloc of moderate white voters instead of building up the coalition of the future.
Many Republicans, on the other hand, are apparently better at math than the Democrats. Admittedly, on the surface, it looks like the Republicans are locked in a fierce internal battle. You have the Tea Party, who I would submit is fighting the last losing battle of the Civil War, desperately and destructively trying to tear down the entire government rather than let Barack Obama, the duly-elected President, address the nation’s problems. The early indications are, however, that the Tea Party movement has crested, as indicated by the implosion of the Tea Party challenge to Governor Kasich here in Ohio, and other, more sophisticated Republican forces are asserting themselves. Forces who know arithmetic and know it well.
Eight years after losing to the first Black President, the Republicans will likely field a set of Presidential candidates that is 30-40% candidates of color. Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal are all running as fast as they can while the Democratic bench is surprisingly empty. Although New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has a new set of problems on his hands now, he has spent the past few years meticulously distancing himself from the reactionary elements in his party and courting Latino and Black voters, and he made a point to recently sign immigration reform in New Jersey.
Democrats run the very real risk of getting complacent in the face of Republican internal squabbles and of underestimating the Republican threat to their base. Historically, Republicans have been so bad on matters of race and equality that Democrats have not had to do anything. Soon, however, they will have to actually contest for the votes of people of color and make an argument for why they are better than Republican at addressing the needs of communities of color. That is an argument few Democrats are familiar with or comfortable making.
Lastly, what are the policy implications of an emerging new majority in American politics? I tell my friends who spend a lot of time developing position papers and reasoned arguments to influence the public policy debate that, as a general rule, elected officials will support any policy that will help them get re-elected. Which brings us back to the question of just who they think is doing the electing and un-electing, and who will be the voters in upcoming elections.
Let’s look at health care as a case study. If you’re primarily concerned about moderate, middle-class White voters, then you might well be nervous about Obamacare. There will undoubtedly be some people whose premiums go up slightly, albeit to pay for more robust coverage, although that part is lost in the hubbub. But if your objective is to solidify loyalty among the rapidly growing Latino population in America, you should note that Latinos have the least access to health care of any demographic group in the country, with 35% lacking health insurance.
So rather than wringing your hands in worry about how Obamacare is polling among moderate Whites, smart politicians should be out in the Latino community every day championing how many people are now getting health care, how many children can now see a doctor, how many sick people can finally get treatment. And then they should be smacking their opponents upside the head with ads asking why they think the richest nation in the history of the earth should deny people access to basic health care. How is that moral, or religious, or right? In one stroke, you can win over your growing base, put your opponents on the defensive, and also, ironically, win over church-going moderate whites by appealing to their sense of morality and religion. After all, the Bible does command us care for the sick and address the needs of “the least of these.”
Another example of the policy implications of the new majority is economic inequality. If you look at a map of the distribution of poverty in America, you’ll see that the heaviest concentrations of poverty fall largely along the same lines as the rising Latino and Black populations – in the South and Southwest. Although these regions are seen as “conservative,” they’re what’s been called “unnaturally conservative” as they have the least to conserve. Again, a smart politician would champion raising the minimum wage, and use that issue to make an argument to low-income Whites as well as people of color. The party who cracks that code will rule politics in this country for decades to come.
I titled this talk “Brown is the New White” because, frankly, I wanted to get people’s attention, and one sure way to do that is to be explicit about issues of race and ethnicity. But part of why it gets attention is because addressing race touches on deep-seated fears and insecurities about how the country is changing, fears about how a cherished way of life is perceived to be disappearing. In fact, you can’t truly understand politics in America today without appreciating the interplay between the demographic revolution and the efforts by too many demagogues in Congress who whip up fear and stoke insecurity in an effort to foment opposition to anything that is proposed by our African American Commander in Chief.
Let me close with the good news that you have nothing to fear. You know that people of color like good food. You know we make good music and culture. It turns out that many of us are smart and sociable and share the same values as you. In fact, those of us who come from communities and families that have faced discrimination and oppression are often the most hopeful and idealistic of all. In Dr. King’s famous speech, he said, “And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.”
So, if you’re worried, put aside your fears and let’s work together to build a better America. If you’re a progressive White, your time has finally come (as my friend Van Jones says, if Blacks don’t vote, Greens don’t win). And if you’re a person of color, let’s grasp the role of responsibility that history has presented us. The Bible says that the rejected stone will be the cornerstone of the new order. Let’s use that cornerstone to build a new social structure in America. A structure we can all be proud of. A structure of opportunity, equality, democracy, and justice for all.
Thank you very much