This articles originally appeared on IJR.com
Democrat: ‘Telling White People To ‘Shut Up’ Won’t Help Our Party. Here’s How We Can Discuss Race.’
The contest for chair of the Democratic National Committee took an ugly turn on Monday when Idaho’s Sally Boynton Brown told my fellow Democrats that she had a peculiar goal: to teach people “how to communicate, how to be sensitive, and how to shut their mouths if they are white.”
Whether by intent or naiveté, Ms. Boynton Brown delivered an inflammatory message: white people are inherently wrong. Everyone else is inherently right.
Democrats are living in a perilous time. We control the fewest number of state legislatures, governorships, and federal offices since the 1920s. We are likely to losemore seats in House and Senate in 2018. And redistricting efforts in 2020 – led by Republican state legislatures – may handicap us through 2030.
In the face of these headwinds, Ms. Boynton Brown’s comments are as confounding as they are irresponsible. Left unchecked, they will leave the American people with a mistaken impression about how Democrats view the world – and how we would govern.
For the good of the party and country, Democrats like me must push back. Yet addressing Ms. Boynton Brown’s fiery rhetoric is fraught with peril. There are over 200 years of American history that show how difficult it is to engage in racial dialogue that ends in compassion and civility.
Still, I will try.
The starting point on this racial journey is simple for me: discrimination is real, though the causes are difficult to define.
Consider employment. Studies show that résumés with “black names” (Lakisha or Jamal) get less interest than people with “white names” (Emily or Greg), even though the résumés are identical. This simple experiment shows how easily discrimination can play into the job search. And without a job, how can you – or your children – build wealth or escape poverty?
Next, consider the experiences of minorities with law enforcement. A recent Harvard study confirmed that black and brown Americans are more likely to be touched, handcuffed, pushed to the ground or pepper-sprayed by a police officer than whites. (Interestingly, the study showed that when it comes to the most lethal form of force — police shootings — there is no racial bias.)
Finally, communities of color also appear to face voter discrimination. Consider the recent case in North Carolina. Republican legislators discovered that black people tend to vote (for Democrats) early, on Sundays, and without a driver’s license. In response, they passed a law eliminating voting early and on Sundays, along with requiring a driver’s license. Not surprisingly, three judges found their efforts to be “almost surgical” in their harm.
In each of these examples, the reasons for discrimination are varied – and complicated. Racism is unquestionably part of the answer. But also likely is unconscious bias – or the beliefs that we have without understanding why.
To explain, our brains are hardwired to adopt stereotypes in order to make snap judgments. Imagine the feeling you get walking down a dark alley and suddenly an unknown person approaches. In an instant, you assess your level of risk.
While those snap judgments are designed to keep us safe, they sometimes lead to harmful thinking. That’s especially true if we rarely interact with certain groups of people, leaving the media to fill in the gaps.
No one escapes this mental process. For instance, even black men unconsciously judgeother black men. Thankfully, there are ways to challenge ourselves. The easiest? Take note when you’re surprised. That’s the brain telling you a bias has been challenged.
But sometimes we don’t want to let go of our biases. Ms. Boynton Brown has a common one when it comes to race: black and brown people have a monopoly on discrimination.
In my home state of Oregon, I have a friend – “Jim” – who is a truck driver. He is also white. By Ms. Boynton Brown’s definition, Jim has a double dose of privilege: he is a male, and white. To an extent, this argument is worthy of discussion; some white folks do enjoy unique status.
But a funny thing happened to Jim: he stopped getting work orders from local businesses. Why? Jim discovered that a friend had told people he’s gay. His phone stopped ringing immediately after.
Or consider the journey of “Mark,” another friend who is a white male. When applying for colleges, one Indiana university discouraged him from applying. Why? Upon learning that his parents were working-class, the admission counselor said, “I don’t think you can afford our school.”
In our tidy world of discrimination, Jim and Mark aren’t supposed to exist. But, oddly, they do.
And they vote.
In 2016, some of these Jims and Marks pulled the lever for Donald Trump. Not because they’re deplorable, but because they’re angry. About a lot of things. For Jim and Mark, it’s easy to blame Democrats like Ms. Boynton Brown. After all, she disqualifies their pain because the color of their skin isn’t dark enough.
This story – of race, class, and politics – could fill a thousand books. Indeed, these few words won’t put to rest the needed dialogue on why people suffer from racial and economic disparities.
So how can Democrats better lead this conversation?
First, we must adopt more careful language and elevated thinking around race and class. The issue is not as simple as white people shutting up. Ms. Boynton Brown clearly doesn’t understand this reality. She should step aside.
Second, we need leadership that has greater wisdom and grace than displayed Monday. Thankfully, there are candidates that fit the bill. Most promising? Pete Buttigieg– an Indiana mayor and veteran. Also intriguing are South Carolina’s Jaime Harrison and political commentator Jehmu Greene.
With luck and skill, one of these candidates will rise to challenge. When he or she does, they will face a party – and a nation – eager to see our level-headed commitment to racial and economic fairness.
The American people – black and white, rich and poor – will be watching.