James E. Ford
For Many Younger People of Color, We Are “Biden” Time
Meaning of the idiom:
“bide one's time, to wait for a favorable opportunity: He wanted to ask for a raise, but bided his time.”
Taken from Dictionary.com
Let me start by saying I am glad Joe Biden won the presidential election. It allows me to breathe a sigh of temporary relief in a year that has afforded little respite. I’m confident his leadership will deal with the global pandemic of COVID-19 in a way that honors science and is compassionate to the most vulnerable populations. I also believe he is a decent man, who believes the “Soul of the America” is pure. As the race was called on Saturday morning, I was able to look my four children in the eyes and at least feel optimistic about the future, unlike in 2016.
But I want to emphasize the brevity of this relief. This is far from over for me. It’s more like an extension on a deadline or a continuance in the case for social justice. Joe Biden’s election as president is not a “victory” in the truest sense to me. I knew, just as many other people of color, that this could not be accomplished this cycle. But I did my duty at the polls anyway. For me--and I suspect many other folks of color--our vote for him was to “bide” time.
It just so happens that policies likely to benefit people of color the most and change their material conditions (ex. a guaranteed living wage, universal healthcare, debt-free college, police accountability, etc.) are consequently labeled “progressive” by mainstream Democrats and “radical” by most Republicans. For unaffiliated voters like myself who demand greater, we are politically homeless. Liberals have kept distance from embracing these positions despite their popularity for fear of alienating moderate swing voters who demographics show are overwhelmingly white. It is important to note, Democrats have not carried the white vote in a presidential election since the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. You would never know this by the outsized influence they have over the party’s attention and strategy. It is ironic then, that in the most consequential election of the modern era, it was a coalition of Brown people in NV, Indigenous people in AZ, and Black people in PA, MI, & GA who helped put Biden over the electoral-edge in a tightly contested race. What will these demographic groups who have been the base of the Democratic Party for decades get in return for their patriotism, in terms of policy? I have some predictions.
The Allegory of the Scorpion and Frog
There is an ancient story about the Scorpion and the Frog. In short, both needed to cross from one bank of a river to the other. While the Frog could make the journey, the Scorpion could not. The Scorpion pleaded with the Frog to allow him to hitch a ride on his back. He offered the assurance he would not sting the Frog because if he did so they both would perish. The Frog reluctantly agreed, but sure enough, the Scorpion stung him anyway midway through the trek. When asked why, as they prepared to drown, the Scorpion replied, “I couldn’t help myself, I’m a scorpion”. This of course was a sorry excuse and ignores the ability to choose differently.
This allegory perfectly illustrates the relationship Black people (and other groups of color) have with the system of white supremacy in the United States. It’s a never-ending pattern. The only difference is when we get stung, we survive long enough to ensure safe deliverance for the Scorpion. Even as Black, Indigenous and Brown people proved their loyalty to the country once again and voted to preserve democracy by ousting a fascist demagogue, we know the “sting” is coming. We’ve seen this movie before and we won’t let it happen this time.
We already know what they are going to do. Everything will center whiteness. Every news story from nationally syndicated newspapers will profile Trump voters in small towns across rural American to better understand their feelings and how they are coping with the loss. Few, if any, will key-in on Biden’s true base and offer a deep contextual analysis of their needs. Every call for unity will focus on progressives reaching out to right-wing extremists to build “common ground”. Every last thing will come to pass...mark my words.
Moderate Democrats wasted no time post-election pivoting to the middle and talking about the need to appeal to the interests of white working class voters. When asked what he learned from this victory on MSNBC, Democratic Strategist James Carville decried the party focusing too much on the “police stuff” and implied it almost cost them this election (yes, that was his takeaway). This is the same guy who freaked out when Bernie Sanders won the Nevada Caucus by declaring Putin was happy, despite the fact the same majority Latinx culinary workers that propelled Sanders to victory then, are credited with delivering Nevada for Joe Biden in this election. That “police stuff” Carville so easily dismissed, as well as the subsequent movement resulting in the largest, longest and most diverse protest movement in American history, is overwhelmingly responsible for activating voters to support a Biden campaign that had been experiencing a tremendous enthusiasm gap.
Even former presidential candidate Andrew Yang admonished the future targeting of the “working class”. This comes as Republican defectors who did not support Donald Trump but are opposed to substantial policy reforms to the left are immediately setting up camp in the supposed Democratic “big tent”. The architects of The Lincoln Project will no doubt begin the work of immediately pushing the Democratic Party more to the middle. The illogic of continuing to appeal to a shrinking demographic and expected to win in the future was pointed out by the likes of Sen. Lindsay Graham about the Republican Party in 2012, despite their willingness to double-down. As a result, they lost this election. The same line of reasoning and caution applies to Democrats going forward.
The modern American electorate is younger, multiracial/ethnic, and more progressive. This is the emerging majority of the country. It’s not me, it’s math. We just have to face facts. The incessant call for reaching out to a dwindling and adversarial demographic who when in power NEVER even attempts to seriously respond to our needs is not just a scheme, it is outright oppressive. I believe in compromise and know how to do it expertly. This happens when there is disagreement on an issue that is based on methods or approaches. It does not happen when there are competing interests on issues such as free and fair elections, whether or not Black people should be killed with impunity by law enforcement, and the ‘freedom’ to endanger the public during a global pandemic. By all means, make reasonable and diplomatic appeals wherever possible. But a line has to be drawn somewhere.
Masters of Projection
What made the Trump Presidency so ridiculous and enraging was the continual false assertion of mistreatment. Here is an individual who checked all the proverbial boxes of privilege. He is a white, rich (allegedly billionaire), man, who is heterosexual and cisgender in a society where the majority of people in power belong to the same groups. Yet, he pretended at every turn to be put-upon, afflicted, and denied agency. His base subsequently responded to barely-coded racist strong-man appeals as a way of expressing solidarity, even when they did not have the same class interest as him. It was a pseudo-populist regime that inordinately advantaged the wealthy at the expense of the poor. That said, he tapped into a feeling of declining cultural dominance in a country that has demanded assimilation since its founding. This was largely not about politics as much as it was about a disappearing way of life.
For many of his supporters, Trump signaled a return to an era where no accommodation is given across lines of difference. The faux sense of oppression was more a perceived loss of privilege than any legitimate mistreatment. In this zero-sum thinking, there is no power-sharing, you are either dominating or being dominated. There is no in-between. But the simple and understated truth is that sweeping transformations called for by progressives would also benefit the low-wealth, non-college educated, rural whites that comprise a large part of his base. If any votes are to be gained from one side to another for Dems, it must be predicated on communicating this message and focusing on interest convergence.
Assumption of the Black Political Monolith
The Black community in particular is the most loyal demographic of the Democratic Party. I do not however think most Black folks are card-carrying Dems as much as we only have two choices. Some Black people are actually conservative. We’d typically rather risk being failed or ignored by the Dems than being outright attacked by the GOP. Be that as it may, ⅕ of Black men voted for Donald Trump in this election and his support among Black women doubled from 4%-8%. We can write off all Black Trump supporters as ignorant and sell-outs, and there may occasionally be good reasons for doing so. However, a thread of truth that runs through their criticisms of the Democratic Party is their devaluing of Black votes. Black people like any other group are not a monolith. They are diverse and cannot be thought of as a hegemonic block without appreciating the nuanced and varied needs that exist. Failure to appreciate that texture, will likely result in more Black voters and voters of color in general choosing to vote differently. You can be sure Republicans are taking careful note of these growing factions and will likely begin to adjust their messaging accordingly. Democrats would be foolish not to follow suit.
The mainstream of Black politics, even if wide-ranging, has always called for greater enfranchisement. It’s been about expanding opportunity and restructuring institutions in ways that eliminate racist treatment. Most Black folks likely do not identify as “progressive” and are surprised to see these policy positions as such. To us, some of these things, like calls for racial justice, are just common sense. But when you compare us to the status quo liberal ideology, what academics often refer to as ‘neoliberal’, the contrast becomes clear. Some of us chose to moderate our positions in response, while others continue to hold the line while rejecting the stigma of being “too far left”. Feel free to hedge your bets on which constituency is more likely to influence future elections.
Max Haivan and Alex Khasnabish in their book The Radical Imagination write about the political usefulness of ‘crisis’. They write,
“[T]hat’s the point to crisis. Rather than challenging the status quo and setting the stage for a radical unsettling of it in order to make room for something new, the crisis trope encloses our collective imagination of what is possible, narrowing it to focus on the crisis as defined by those with the power to proclaim it. Once proclaimed and defined, crisis management becomes the banner beneath which all manner of elite projects can march and behind which the rest of us are expected to fall in line.” (p. 31-32)
Younger, more progressive people of color were clear there was a crisis. I’d argue we had a more acute understanding of the problem than most. We knew from the jump it was never ‘economic anxiety’ as some tried to portray it or even authentic populism. It was, as many have suffered the cost of pointing out, white supremacy. Other ‘experts’ have since been forced to concede this point towards the end of a Trump presidency. But we did our jobs and voted for Biden this time around. We made sure our communities got engaged. We organized against voter suppression and police brutality. We delivered, and now it is time for the Democratic Party to respond in kind. Excuses abound for losses in local races and prominent voices in the party will train their fire on progressives. But none of this can change the fact that in order to carry the nation forward, we are going to have to imagine a future not wholly consumed by the present crisis, but one that does not yet appear.
America Must be Born Again
While I appreciate the sentiment of restoring the “Soul of America”, the truth is the mere closeness of this race has in many ways revealed the soul of the nation. What is needed is something altogether different. A totally different system. To borrow from Christian theology, I recommend rather that the spirit of America be regenerated or made anew. That is to say, in order to move forward, America must not be restored to its former self, but ‘born again’. This precise language was used by Dr. King, and it rings just as true today. I am committed to actualizing this vision into reality. It may find me on the opposing side of those who would otherwise be considered my ideological peers. Respectfully, I will not entertain the complaints of “fighting amongst ourselves” or “we’re on the same side”. We’ve heard this as an evergreen rebuttal to criticism. Even the central figure of my faith, Jesus of Nazareth once declared that he did not come to bring peace, but a sword. One must juxtapose exhaustive calls for unity with this passage. Progress always requires some resistance.
For President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, as well as other elected Democrats, I am prepared to offer my support with a healthy side of constructive criticism. I’d suggest they, as well as others, listen to passionate, forward-thinking, justice-loving masses of color who have just endured one of the most frightening periods of politics in modern history. We will be a rock in your shoe, thorn in your side, and when necessary a fire under your behind to ensure that the New America looks nothing like the old one. We are not asking. We are taking power and have clearly demonstrated, we will vote!