Skin colour plays a major role in the US presidential election campaign, also among democrats. Why this is so and why it is dangerous. An essay.
The presidential election campaign in the USA is not only getting dirty, it is also getting racist. This has been clear since this week, since Donald Trump called on four democratic congressmen to “go back” to their countries, four Americans, three of whom were born in America.
Ethnic origin and skin colour also play a major role in the Democrats’ pre-election campaign.
If Trump’s found something his core constituents like, he’ll move on. The fact that skin colour and ethnic origin will play a dominant role in this presidential election campaign, however, is not solely due to Donald Trump. The question of whether a candidate is a “person of color” also plays an important role among democrats. The bitter irony is that now of all times, when Donald Trump has brought open racism back onto the national political stage, the dark sides of the strong left-wing identity politics of recent years are also clearly evident. The American presidential election campaign of 2020 threatens to become an ethnic-demographic clash. And there is the threat of a crisis in the idea of representation.
At the end of June, during the first democratic presidential debate, there was a scene between the candidates Kamala Harris and Joe Biden, which is symptomatic of this development (the second debate will take place on 30 and 31 July). Both the black Californian politician Kamala Harris and Barack Obama’s vice president Joe Biden, a white man, are among the four favorites in the democratic primary. Joe Biden had told in the days before about his good cooperation with arch-conservative republican deputies from the southern states in the 1970s – this was intended as proof that he would be able to overcome the hardening of the political camps in Washington. Kamala Harris picked this up and accused Biden of working with these deputies to prevent busing. During busing in the 1970s, black children were driven in the morning to better schools in predominantly white neighborhoods to overcome segregation. Legally, racial segregation had been abolished in schools since the 1950s, but in fact there were still “black” and “white” schools. In her emotional reaction to Biden, Harris told her own story: “In California, there was a little girl who was taken to school by bus every day,” she said. And this girl was me.
Like other “people of color” among the democratic presidential candidates, Harris often emphasizes her blackness and talks about her personal experiences. She likes to say that she listens to the rap stars Snoop Dogg and Tupac and recently spoke to black women at a festival in New Orleans. In the front row there were members of “Alpha Kappa Alpha”, the first black student association in the USA to which Harris belonged.
Ethnically determined political identities have a long tradition – Trump’s racism reinforces them
The fact that skin colour and origin shape the political identity of black or Hispanic politicians is, of course, by no means new. In his recently published book “Fault Lines”, Princeton historian Kevin Kruse shows that the division of the country into different, ethnically determined political identities began with the civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s. The legal end of segregation with the Civil Rights Act by no means led to a real end to the separation of ethnic groups in society. Rather, the legal separation was simply socially reproduced. On the one hand, this was due to the racist reaction of white Americans: They withdrew to the suburbs, to private schools and sports clubs in order not to have to meet the black population in everyday life. But even within the Afro-American population, a political consciousness of its own developed, also determined by demarcation. Black nationalists demanded not to adapt too strongly to the lifestyle of white Americans. When the civil rights movement was moved from the streets to Congress in the 1970s, the “Congressional Black Caucus” was founded there in 1971 and still exists today. As early as the 1970s, these deputies felt less like representatives of their constituencies alone, writes Kruse, but as representatives of black America as a whole.
More recently, these ethnically determined political identities have been reinforced by several factors. On the one hand, there is the disappointment of many “people of color” over the ultimately meagre progress of the Obama years. Central injustices persist, for example the extremely high proportion of African-Americans in prisons, the fact that blacks are more often victims of police violence, the large differences in health, educational opportunities and income. Moreover, especially in his first term in office, the first black president of the United States was embarrassed not to arouse the suspicion that he was particularly committed to the interests of black voters. He wanted to be the president of all Americans. When several cases of police violence against blacks shook the nation and the #BlackLivesMatter movement was launched, Obama disappointed many black activists by initially holding back from condemning the incidents.
There is also a strategic component to emphasizing one’s own background. For the Democrats, black voters are an important constituency, accounting for a quarter of the 2016 primaries. One of the first democratic primary elections – the primary elections begin in February 2020 – will take place in South Carolina – where almost a third of the population is black. Add to this Donald Trump, who fired at migrants from the outset and chummed up racists. One need only recall his reaction to the demonstration of racist groups in Charlottesville in August 2017, when one of the participants drove his car into a group of counter-demonstrators and killed a woman. Trump said there were “good people” on both sides of the demonstration.
The debate over minority rights and inequality in recent years has strengthened ethnic identities.
But also the strong debate about minority rights and inequality among leftists and liberals in recent years plays a role. Both the open racism of the Trump administration and the strong identity debate on the left have brought the public’s focus back to the origin and skin colour of a person. The supposed otherness of different ethnic groups has once again become more visible. That would not be so dramatic in itself. At the same time, however, determinism is spreading.
One of the most influential authors in this debate is the black essayist and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. In his books and essays, he describes the historical legacy of slavery and “white supremacy” as a crushing power that the present can hardly escape. And of course power is inherited, social inequalities are inherited, there is strong ideological continuity. But Coates also increasingly refers to the ability of whites to become aware of their privileges, let alone understand the situation of African Americans in the US: “White people are fundamentally trapped,” he once wrote. “It has taken generations to make them white. It will take generations to turn that back.” In other words, anyone who is white cannot help but think and act “white” and make politics for white people. The American essayist Thomas Chatterton Williams already criticized this attitude in Ta-Nehisi Coates in October 2017 and described it as an “epistemology of identity”, or “knowledge through being”.
Does a politician have to “empathize” with everything – or is it enough to understand?
For politics – and not least for democrats – this means: There may not be any political differences, it is differences in being that determine the perception of a candidate’s suitability. It is not the agenda that counts, but ontology. Kamala Harris also ties in with this when she tells us that she and her sisters were not allowed to play with the neighboring children “because we are black” or that racism in her party should not be an “intellectual debate”. “I don’t think you’re a racist,” she said to Joe Biden during the television debate. But you don’t get it either, she said with the rest of her speech.
Now, of course, it is beyond doubt that every human being, including every politician, is shaped by his personal experiences and that whites really cannot empathize with the experience of having to live as blacks in a racist society. But politics is not about “feeling”, it’s about understanding and developing political solutions. In a complex democratic society it is essential that political decisions can also be entrusted to people who have no personal, no direct experience in the field in which they make politics. If this is doubted, doubts also arise about a basic principle of democracy: the legitimacy of representation. The division of the nation into ethnic groups, which Donald Trump pursues – it also becomes a problem for democrats. If whites cannot, in principle, feel well represented by a black candidate and blacks by a white, their electorate remains ethnically fragmented. Then the broad mobilization needed to beat Trump becomes difficult. E pluribus unum – out of many one – was the first motto of the United States. In the presidential election campaign of 2020, the country seems to be moving further away from this idea.