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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Teixeira: The Democrats and the Rise of Racial Radicalism

The following article by Ruy Teixeira, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, politics editor of The Liberal Patriot newsletter and co-author with John B. Judis of the new Book “Where Have All the Democrats Gone?,” is cross-posted from The Liberal Patriot:

In the 1960s, spurred by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Educationand the civil rights movement, the United States undertook what has been called a “second Reconstruction.” Washington passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. This legislation, it was hoped, would bring the country closer to fulfilling Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that his children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” But while these reforms sparked the development of a black middle class, and ended Jim Crow discrimination in the South, American blacks still suffered from discrimination, and many were afflicted with joblessness, broken families, drug addiction, and violent crime.

The persistence of racial inequality sparked a debate over what should be done among conservatives, liberals, social democrats, and radicals. In the last decade, the radicals, whose political views we consider divisive and based on an outworn conception of American society, have become ascendant. Their ranks include a well-funded organization, Black Lives Matter, and best-selling authors and Ivy League professors. They also boast the support of liberal foundations, policy groups, think tanks, and media. Their radical views have become identified in the public mind with the Democratic Party and are a significant obstacle to the party reclaiming its historic role as the party of the common man and woman.

The Debate

This debate over what should be done dates back to the last decades of the twentieth century. Initially there were three clear alternatives. Conservatives blamed blacks’ failure to progress on a culture that devalued family, education, and work. They blamed the permissiveness of Johnson’s War on Poverty and increased welfare benefits for fostering that culture and called for cutting welfare payments and requiring recipients to work.

Left-wing or social-democratic theorists brought a class analysis to bear. A key figure was William Julius Wilson, a University of Chicago sociologist. In two widely read books, The Declining Significance of Race and The Truly Disadvantaged, Wilson attributed the rise of this desiccated black underclass in cities like Chicago primarily to the exodus of blue-collar industries and the departure to the suburbs of the black working and middle class, which had “reinforced and perpetuated mainstream patterns of norms and behavior.”

Wilson rejected explanations that put the blame entirely on racism for the plight of the inner cities. “One does not have to ‘trot out’ the concept of racism to demonstrate, for example, that blacks have been severely hurt by deindustrialization because of their heavy concentration in the automobile, rubber, steel, and other smokestack industries,” he wrote.

Wilson also rejected affirmative action as a blanket solution to racial inequality.  “The race-specific policies emanating from the civil rights revolution, although beneficial to more advantaged blacks (i.e., those with higher income, greater education and training, and more prestigious occupations), do little for those who are truly disadvantaged,” he wrote. Instead, Wilson urged government policies that would promote full employment and higher wages, along with universal childcare and family allowance programs. These programs, he argued, would ease the burden of inner-city families without provoking a racial backlash. Criticized by radicals for offering “conservative” remedies for poverty, Wilson responded, “I am a social-democrat.”

Radicals, who hearkened back to the black power movement of the Sixties and the Black Panther Party, rejected Wilson’s class analysis. They argued that Brown v. the Board of Education and the Civil Rights Acts had failed to dislodge an underlying racism that affected all blacks. They called this racism “systemic,” “systematic,” and “structural.” They called for aggressive affirmative action, including quotas, the abandonment of race-neutral standards in school admissions, and racial reparations.

Law students and professors created what they called “Critical Race Theory” or CRT. One of CRT’s chief theorists, UCLA Law Professor Kimberle Williams Crenshaw described blacks’ situation at the end of the twentieth century as “American apartheid.” Black politicians and activists also revived the call for reparations. In 1987, the National Conference of Black Lawyers and two other groups formed the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations. In 1994, they assembled an all-star cast in Detroit, including Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rep. John Conyers, and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, to endorse its demand for reparation and Conyers’ bill to set up a Congressional commission to “study and develop reparations proposals.”

The conservative approach to racial equality, stressing flaws in black culture traceable to liberal permissiveness, would continue to be influential among Republicans. Wilson would receive awards for his books on the economic roots of race relations, but his proposal for labor market strategies that would stem deindustrialization would be ignored by the Clinton and Obama administrations. Critical Race Theory enjoyed popularity among education schools, ethnic studies departments, as well as law schools. Then, in the 2010s, a new wave of radicalism, drawing upon CRT and the call for reparations, burst forth and became the dominant strain of anti-racist politics on the left and in the Democratic Party.

Black Lives Matter

The new wave of radicalism was sparked by George Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012, the police killing of Eric Garner in Staten Island and Michael Brown, Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri in the summer of 2014 and climaxed with the murder of George Floyd in 2020 in Minneapolis. These were, of course, not the first instances of police brutality against blacks, but they occurred in the era of smart phones and social media. Floyd’s murder was captured on a smartphone and the video became viral. The group at the forefront of the protests was Black Lives Matter, which had originated as three women’s twitter hashtag in the wake of Zimmerman’s acquittal.

In 2014, BLM’s founders created the Movement for Black Lives. Its platform championed defunding of the police and “an end of public jails, detention centers, youth facilities and prisons as we know them.” It called for racial reparations. It demanded the federal government create a new welfare system specifically for black people. It would include a “guaranteed minimum livable income” for black people, “full and free access to higher and technical education, and “corporate and government reparations” that would provide healthcare and access to “food sources, housing and land.”

The group won support from liberal foundations. In July 2016, the Ford Foundation joined forces with the Borealis Philanthropy to launch a six-year fundraising project aimed at providing $100 million for the Movement for Black Lives. “We’ll provide long-term support for the Movement for Black Lives so that these visionary leaders and organizations can continue to cultivate and maintain a movement of young black women and men who are pushing through established boundaries as they seek to realize the promise of equality and justice for all,” Ford’s statement said.

The New Intellectuals

While Black Lives Matter groups were protesting police violence, a group of intellectuals were writing widely-read and highly acclaimed essays and books that refined and advanced the radical arguments that black power advocates and critical race theorists had made decades before. In 2014, Ta-Nahesi Coates, the son of a former Black Panther Party member from Baltimore, published “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic. Coates blamed whatever ills had befallen blacks on a “trenchant racism” that was a legacy of black enslavement. Columbia University Professor John McWhorter dismissed Coates’ argument as “victimology,” but a panel of judges from NYU’s School of Journalism later named “The Case for Reparations” the top work of journalism for the decade.

Ibram X. Kendi published the bestselling How to be an Antiracist in 2020 just as the protests against Floyd’s murder were heating up. Kendi argued that racism pervades all institutions in America and that to eliminate it, policies had to discriminate on behalf of blacks against whites. If blacks were underrepresented in colleges on the basis of tests, the tests had to be eliminated. If they were overrepresented among convicted felons, then police and judicial practices had to be altered. “A racist policy,” he wrote, “is any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups.” “Equity” became the accepted buzzword to describe equality of outcome rather than opportunity.

The most important institutional affirmation of this new racial radicalism came from The New York Times Magazine. In August 2019, it devoted an entire issue to “The 1619 Project,” conceived, edited and introduced by a staff reporter, Nikole Hannah-Jones. In an introduction, Hannah-Jones claimed that 1619, when the first slave ship arrived, and not 1776, when the colonies declared their independence, was “our true founding” and that “one of the primary reasons colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was to protect the institution of slavery.” Hannah-Jones claimed that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.” Some American historians cried foul, but Hannah-Jones was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her essay.

Radicalism Spreads          

In 2020, the nationwide demonstrations against police brutality, which began with Floyd’s murder, and descended in some cities into arson and looting, brought to the fore the politics espoused by Black Lives Matter and the radical intellectuals. The biggest impact was probably on education. Many schools and universities bought into Kendi’s and the CRT’s theories. Universities including the California state system dropped standardized tests as a criterion for admission; magnet high schools like San Francisco’s Lowell or New York’s Stuyvesant, or Fairfax County’s Thomas Jefferson came under attack, and in some cases watered down their admission requirements often at the expense of Asian-Americans. In California, Democratic leaders put on the November ballot an initiative repealing the state’s ban on using affirmative action in school admissions and government employment.

In criminal justice, city governments were pressured to cut police budgets, and some major cities, including Portland, Seattle, San Francisco and New York, complied. City officials and newly elected district attorneys, including San Francisco’s Chesa Boudin, advocated a relaxation of arrest and imprisonment rules that they claimed unfairly discriminated against blacks and other minorities. In the District of Columbia, the city council passed, over the mayor’s veto, a revision of the district’s criminal code that would reduce the penalties for burglaries, robberies, and carjackings (which had become rife).

The federal government also got into the act. Upon coming into office, the Biden administration issued an “Executive Order for Advancing Racial Equity.” Part of the agenda consisted in enforcing civil rights laws against discrimination—ensuring equal opportunity—but other parts suggested that the administration would favor blacks and other minorities over whites even if the latter had suffered as greatly from the aftermath of the Great Recession and from the Pandemic. Over the next months, the administration did exactly that in orders it issued giving special preference to minority small business owners generally, as well as minority restaurant owners, farmers, and infrastructure contractors. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also issued a guidance giving minorities special preference in receiving scarce treatments for covid. The FDA’s guidance was echoed by a number of states, including New York.

The Backlash

Republican politicians, Fox News, the Manhattan Institute, and various right-wing websites attempted to tie the Democrats to racial radicalism and the violent protests. In September 2020, Trump issued an executive order barring federal agencies from funding any training in “Critical Race Theory” or “white privilege.” Over the next two years, numerous states and counties barred teaching “Critical Race Theory.” In the Senate, Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced a bill withholding federal funding from any school that taught the 1619 Project.

Democrats rightly warned that Trump and McConnell’s initiatives could be used to discourage any discussion of racism, but they also dismissed the claims against CRT and the protestors out of hand. They claimed that CRT was “an esoteric academic pedagogy” that had no relevance to what was being taught in schools, and that the demonstrations themselves “were largely peaceful.” But in elections, voters turned against the radical racial agenda.

In Senate and House races in 2020, Republicans were able to put Democrats on the defensive by linking them to the widespread demand to defund the police. In South Carolina’s Senate race, Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison was running ahead of incumbent Republican Lindsey Graham until Graham started tying him to the Black Lives Matter slogan. In 2021, in Virginia’s gubernatorial race, Republican Glenn Youngkin was able to take advantage of racial controversies around schooling to tie his Democratic opponent to “Critical Race Theory.”  Republicans, who had lost the last two gubernatorial elections, won all the top state offices.

Racial radicalism divided Democrats as well. In New York City, former policeman Eric Adams, promising more spending on the police, was elected mayor. In the Democratic primary, Maya Wiley, who ran on a promise to defund the police, came in third. In Minneapolis in November, voters re-elected Mayor Jacob Frey over two activists who backed a referendum to replace the police department by a Department of Public Safety. Voters turned down the referendum. Voters in Buffalo and Seattle also favored candidates who supporting increasing police funding. In San Francisco in 2022, voters at the urging of the Democratic mayor turned Boudin out of office in a referendum. In last year’s Philadelphia Democratic mayoral primary, voters favored a candidate, Cherelle Parker, who wanted to increase funding for the police over one who had opposed it. Parker was subsequently elected mayor.

Most Americans rejected the key demands of racial radicalism. They rejected “defund the police,” to be sure, but also the demand for “equity” or equality of outcomes in school admissions and employment. California’s affirmative action initiative lost by 57 to 43 percent, with working-class voters, Hispanics, Asians, whites, moderates, and independents all in opposition. Americans also looked unfavorably on the demand for racial reparations. Poll after poll showed overwhelming opposition to the idea. An October 2021 Pew survey found opposition by 68 to 30 percent, with that opposition running through essentially every demographic group including all non-whites with the exception of blacks.

A Different Country

Of course, the positions taken by Black Lives Matter, Coates, and Kendi could be morally justified, even if they are currently impolitic, but these demands, and the picture of America painted by the 1619 Project do not reflect the America of the twenty-first century. They assume a binary America that is still split between white and black in which racism affects, in the words of the 1619 Project, “every aspect of life.” That was not the case in much of the Northern United States after the Civil War, which was transformed by immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe and is certainly not the case in America after 1965, when Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act.

In 1965, 85 percent of the population was white, 11 percent was black, and four percent was Latino. According to the current tabulation, about 60 percent are white, 19 percent are Hispanic, 12 percent are black, and 6 percent are Asian, and Asians (a category that comprises wildly different ethnicities) are the fastest growing group. That undermines the radical case for reparations and for racial quotas. (About 22 percent of black Americans, which includes immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa, cannot trace their ancestry back to the pre-1965 era of the Jim Crow South, not to mention the pre-Civil War period of black enslavement.) Many of these immigrants work in low-wage services and are barely getting by. Why should they pay reparations that would go to middle-class as well as poor black Americans?

The attempt to raise black admissions to schools by banning testing or by using specious measures of personality, as Harvard employed, has primarily pitted black applicants against Asian-Americans. Should the child of a working-class Vietnamese family be bypassed for admission to a university in favor of the child of an upper-middle class black family?

Secondly, the radical agenda failed to acknowledge the class differences among blacks. In 2019, according to a Pew Research study, 45 percent of black households earn $50,000 or more, and 18 percent earn $100,000 or more. In 2000, 15 percent of adult blacks had a bachelor’s degree; in 2018, 23 percent. Those numbers are less than whites or Asians, but roughly comparable to Hispanics. The real problem in the black population, as Wilson noted, is the urban underclass, not the growing suburban middle class. And as Wilson argued, the economic and cultural depredations of this underclass could not be simply explained as legacies of slavery and Jim Crow. They were also the effects of the globalization and deindustrialization that began in the 1970s.

There are tragic similarities between the fate of urban blacks and that of working-class whites in small towns that suffered from deindustrialization and the closure of mines. The racial radicals like Kendi or Coates or the leaders of BLM who champion a guaranteed annual income for blacks, but no one else, don’t acknowledge this. Both communities are victims of neoliberal economics. This includes not only tax laws and trade deals that have encouraged industries to leave cities and towns, but an immigration policy that has encouraged many millions of unskilled legal and illegal immigrants who have competed for jobs with Americans with only a high school education.

There are many things that government can do that would benefit those blacks who remained mired in poverty that would unite rather than divide working class voters. A program of revitalization directed at all the different communities, small towns, and cities affected by deindustrialization might win majority support in the country and even in a divided Congress, but one directed only at blacks will not. Limits on the immigration of unskilled migrants, many of whom are entering the country illegally, would benefit urban black workers and win over other working-class voters. And an affirmative action program in magnet school and college admissions that gave a leg up to applicants from all low-income households and communities, regardless of race or nationality, might also win majority support.

Americans need to remain vigilant in enforcing the country’s laws against racial discrimination, but to address the ills that have befallen the black underclass, they have to look to the political approach put forward by the social democrats and liberal reformers. That approach made sense in the 1980s, and makes sense now, but America’s liberal and leftwing activists have unfortunately fallen under the sway of the racial radicals. And that has jeopardized the Democrats’ ability to win back the working-class voters who have deserted them; it has created new divisions over crime and education between blacks and Asians and blacks and Hispanics; and it has made it more difficult to pass legislation that would aid working Americans, including America’s blacks.

This essay is adapted from John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira’s new book, “Where Have All the Democrats Gone?: The Soul of the Party in an Age of Extremes,”which was published by Henry Holt. 

[Editor’s note: This piece was updated on March 15, 2024.]

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