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Race To The Top

Osita Nwanevu
16 min read
Race To The Top
Clinton and Obama, 2012 (Pete Souza)

Hey all. Let's hop to it.


I don’t think I’ll have much to say about the negotiations over the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the reconciliation package until that situation’s over and done with. Not to worry, though ⁠— our friend Kevin Drum has thoughts:

Imagine my excitement: Yet another intractable caucus more interested in playing to the Twitter crowd than actually legislating. This hasn't worked out very well for Republicans, but at least they can just shrug if they end up passing nothing. It will work out even worse f
or us Democrats, who will be utterly defeated if we end up passing nothing.
Now, it's frequently the case that just as the shouting reaches a peak, suddenly everyone comes to an agreement and a compromise package gets passed. Maybe that will happen this time. We can hope.
More generally, though, it kills me to see the opportunity that we're passing up. With Trumpism taking over the entire conservative movement, this is an ideal time for Democrats to present themselves as the only sane alternative and build an unbeatable coalition of centrists and progressives. But the only way to do that is to appeal to purple districts and states, and that means moving toward the center. Not a lot, but at least a little bit. Enough to seem non-scary to middle-of-the-road voters in places like Iowa and Ohio, anyway.

Yes. Sister Souljah the concept of adding dental to Medicare, and the Democrats might keep Congress next year. Now as you and I know, the likelihood that Democrats will lose the House either way is among the reasons why the party ought to be going as big as it can.

I think they’re fully cooked in the near to medium term. The popularists, whom I’ve mentioned before, disagree. A tweet of interest from Matthew Yglesias the other day:

For context, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge was at an affordable housing complex in Atlanta for an event promoting the reconciliation bill with Sens. Jon Ossoff, Raphael Warnock, and some other elected officials. In subsequent tweets, Yglesias clarified what he meant by “stuff like this”: making racial justice cases for policies that are actually going to be universally beneficial. As true as it might be that African-Americans or Latinos will be helped disproportionately by a policy idea, he argued, it would be wise for Democrats to avoid alienating white moderates by talking that up. Moreover, framing issues in terms of racial equity doesn’t seem to juice minority turnout or support for Democratic candidates all that much anyway ⁠— consider the gains Trump made among minorities this past election, for instance, or how poorly Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and, really, most candidates in the race not named Joe Biden did among black voters in the primary despite their rhetoric about racial inequality and attacks on Biden’s record on race.

He explained himself more fully and offered examples of similar language to Fudge’s in an April Slow Boring post:

Biden personally is not a big practitioner of this sort of talk, so it tends to show up in either staff documents like that (or his executive order on Medicaid) or else to be exceptionally clumsy as when he said “our priority will be Black, Latino, Asian, and Native American owned small businesses, women-owned businesses, and finally having equal access to resources needed to reopen and rebuild” with reference to a small business initiative that had no such provisions.
[...] Here’s Ro Khanna talking about universal healthcare (he does the same with minimum wage): “Fixing our broken healthcare system is critical to addressing racial and economic inequality. We need Medicare for All.”
Mondaire Jones talking about student debt relief says “as you heard earlier, this is an issue of racial justice, Black and Hispanic people disproportionately bear the brunt of the student debt crisis that I described. But I would also add if this is an issue of LGBTQ+ justice. Members of the LGBTQ community, largely because their families tend to disown them, disproportionately have higher student debt.” Chuck Schumer at that same press conference says “the wealth gap in America between Black and White is one of our greatest problems. And one of the amazingly enough, one of the greatest ways, quickest ways to cure a good chunk of it is get rid of that $50,000 in debt.”
And Elizabeth Warren: “We must keep up the fight to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. It's one of the cores of our fight for racial justice.”
The original instance of a politician doing this that struck me was Cory Booker’s insistence on framing baby bonds as a racial issue because back in the spring of 2018, it seemed to me that he was teeing up a presidential campaign based on Obama-esque efforts to downplay racial divisions.

“The intention, I think, is on some level to help people,” he concludes. “And the news that the currently fashionable tactics are ineffective is discomforting. But it’s much more important to actually help people than to avoid discomfort.”

It should be said that Yglesias isn’t arguing that Democrats should avoid talking about race altogether. In fact, as tricky as race is for Democrats to navigate, he suggests that the party would be better off if it focused on discrimination rather than touting the benefits of its economic policies to minorities. “I think one could actually make the case that traditional civil rights issues have become somewhat underrated in contemporary politics,” he wrote. “Why not bolster funding for the Department of Justice and HUD to do more audit studies and stings to detect and prosecute illegal discrimination? I don’t hear anyone talking about that kind of idea. And unlike in 2009, it’s not because everyone is terrified to talk about racism.”

Now, this is an extremely odd argument to my ears. At a moment when voices on the right are working hard to whip white voters into a froth over critical race theory and “anti-racism,” would it really be less politically risky, substantive merits aside, for the federal government to start prosecuting racism more aggressively than it is for Democrats to talk about how their policies will help create jobs and opportunities for minorities ⁠— in much the way that Donald Trump himself did?

In any case, I think it’s worth pairing Yglesias’ popularist critique of Democratic messaging on race with the popularist interpretation of the Obama era, which, the story seems to go, saw Democrats slow the erosion of the party’s support among the white working class with culturally cautious messaging that they abandoned to their doom in 2016. Here’s Yglesias summarizing that perspective in June:

What’s changed is that Democrats went from being an urban-based diverse party that nonetheless tried pretty hard to pander to the views of rural white people in hopes of getting the voters of the poorer and less-religious among them, to becoming a party that decided it would be unnecessary or immoral to pander like that.
[...] While the media climate and campaign tactics both matter, the fundamental fact is that Obama tried harder to mirror the views of secular rural white midwesterners. And his campaign, knowing that pandering to low-income rural white people is not what comes most naturally to liberal professionals, imposed ruthless message discipline on the whole party. They decided what every surrogate who went on television was supposed to say, and they’d get really fucking pissed at you if you went off-script and talked about what you thought was important rather than what they thought would help them persuade swing voters in pivotal states.

Reading this, I wondered whether you could see that ruthless message discipline in the statements of Obama officials during his administration ⁠— whether HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, for instance, was substantially more reluctant to use a racial equity frame in discussing economic issues and Obama’s policies than Marcia Fudge was this week. I will concede that I didn’t do an especially rigorous content analysis here, but a cursory look at his public appearances suggests he wasn’t.

Here’s Donovan, for instance, speaking at an event of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus institute in September 2011:

Right now in the Hispanic community, we’ve got almost a 20% youth unemployment rate. Completely unacceptable. And so what we have to do is build community colleges. Last week, the president, as part of the American Jobs Act, announced a $5 billion investment into community colleges that would be absolutely critical. And we have to do a better job of job training, of connecting those community colleges, other training opportunities directly to jobs. And that’s why even in the long-term unemployed ⁠— take the million Hispanics in this country that are part of the long-term unemployed, more than six months. We’ve got to extend unemployment insurance. Absolutely. It is a critical part of the American Jobs Act, but we also have to turn that program into a training program for the long-term unemployed.
[...] Two-thirds of our growth in this country is going to come from Latinos going forward. Two-thirds of that growth. If they can’t access homeownership, they’re not going to be able to build wealth in the way that we traditionally have in this country [...] There are about five million families that have had their mortgages modified. A large share of them were Latino, because the crisis was so concentrated in Latino communities. But we have to do more. That’s why the president, as part of the American Jobs Act, would invest $15 billion building on efforts of neighborhood stabilization. For those of you who don’t know, we put about $7 billion into neighborhoods particularly hard hit by foreclosures. It creates about 100,000 jobs because we put construction workers back to work buying these homes, rebuilding them, and the critical part of it is that it has helped to stabilize home values in those communities and reduce vacancies. It has been highly targeted to Hispanic neighborhoods. If you look at just the Congressional Hispanic Caucus neighborhoods, it has been about 12% of all the investment when those districts represent just 4 or 5% of the overall population.

Needless to say, community college and job training initiatives can be and often are promoted in broad universal terms. Here, Donovan, representing the Obama administration at an event for a Hispanic group, emphasized their potential benefits to the Hispanic community specifically. He also promoted racially targeted housing policy, with a factoid about the growing significance of Hispanics to the economy and American society thrown in for good measure.

And here’s him speaking at the annual convention of Al Sharpton’s National Action Network in the spring of 2012:

Remember, some said let the market hit bottom. The government shouldn’t be engaged. But let me tell you what would have happened if those critics had won out. I want to just have you guess what share of African-Americans who bought homes in this country last year used an FHA loan. 20 percent? 50 percent? 60 percent of African-Americans who bought a home last year in this country used an FHA loan. You add to that the Veterans’ Administration and the work that we do in rural communities through USDA, over 80 percent of African-Americans who bought a home last year used an FHA or another loan within the Obama administration. So the next time you hear them say just let that housing market hit bottom, you know what that’s really saying. No more FHA, no more VA, no more USDA. "You know what ⁠— we’ve got ours. Let’s pull up the drawbridge behind us and not let others get access to home ownership."
[...] Through HUD, the president has invested $7 billion in rebuilding the hardest hit places through our neighborhood stabilization efforts. And where we’re putting that money, vacancy rates are down in 75 percent of those communities, housing prices have started to rise in two-thirds of those communities relative to the neighborhoods that haven’t gotten that money. And guess what else? Because African Americans were hit the hardest by this crisis, they also need the help, so these neighborhood stabilization dollars are twice as targeted to African-American neighborhoods as they are to other neighborhoods.

Again, the housing crisis was bad for all Americans, not just African-Americans, as disproportionately as they might have been hurt. And for all Donovan’s talk, the administration did substantively fail to adequately help black homeowners.  Nevertheless, in a speech to Al Sharpton’s civil rights group, a largely black audience, Donovan chose, unsurprisingly, to make the case that the Obama administration’s economic recovery efforts policies were particularly important for black communities.

And as often as it’s said that Obama shunned race until late in his presidency, this isn’t exactly true. While he avoided confronting racial polarization as much as he could and rightfully annoyed activists as a defender of respectability politics, he did talk a bit about racial disparities and how his economic policies might help ameliorate them. Just over a month into his presidency, for instance, he offered remarks to an event called “State of the Black Union” about his proposed budget and its potential impact. “We will create or save 3.5 million jobs and lift more than 2 million people out of poverty,” he said. “These are policies that will make a big difference in the African-American community. You know that tough times in America often mean tougher times for African-Americans. This recession has been no exception.”

This is pretty banal stuff really, and in keeping with the kinds of things Democratic politicians have been saying to minority audiences for decades. Even Bill Clinton spoke similarly from time to time. No one remembers the actual context of the Sister Souljah moment today, but those remarks came in the very last minutes of a speech about the economy Clinton gave to Jesse Jackson’s National Rainbow Coalition during his campaign in 1992. The LA riots had ended a little over a month before. And in a section of the speech examining their causes, Clinton honed in on underinvestment in minority communities:

One of the most striking things I’ve heard when I was in Los Angeles three years before the riots and three days after the riots was the unanimous endorsement of community leaders at the grassroots for bold new steps to bring in money from the private sector as well as the public sector --venture capital, small business loans, start up financing. Most people I talked to in Los Angeles didn’t want big government. They wanted more jobs and they wanted small business. Most people said what they really wanted was a Washington that would support their efforts at work. And they knew that Washington had failed them, but also that their banks had not met their responsibilities to reinvest in their communities. Risk alone cannot explain this. Surely a small loan to a local entrepreneur is more sound than a lot of the loans the [savings and loan associations] made to go bankrupt in the worst financial scandal in the history of this country. One community leader in Los Angeles told me that in that vast place we know as the inner city, there were 177 check cashing stands in the neighborhoods where the riots began and only 33 banks. In the Washington, DC area, there are 50 major banks, but only two have branches in Anacostia. And neither of them has a lending office.

He went on to say that a potential remedy might be the creation of community development banks like Southern Bancorp, which he’d backed in Arkansas. “Virtually a hundred percent of the loans go to people who are poor, and eighty percent are minorities,” he noted. “They’re just the kind of people the present system has cast aside and cast out.”

Three years later, Clinton would deliver a major address on race in response to the Million Man March. Portions of it could be delivered today without raising many eyebrows:

White America must understand and acknowledge the roots of black pain. It began with unequal treatment, first in law and later in fact. African-Americans indeed have lived too long with a justice system that in too many cases has been and continues to be less than just. The record of abuses extends from lynchings and trumped up charges to false arrests and police brutality. The tragedies of Emmett Till and Rodney King are bloody markers on the very same road. Still today, too many of our police officers play by the rules of the bad old days. It is beyond wrong when law-abiding black parents have to tell their law-abiding children to fear the police whose salaries are paid by their own taxes.
And blacks are right to think something is terribly wrong when African-American men are many times more likely to be victims of homicide than any other group in this country, when there are more African-American men in our corrections system than in our colleges, when almost one in three African-American men in their 20's are either in jail, on parole, or otherwise under the supervision of the criminal justice system, nearly one in three. And that is a disproportionate percentage in comparison to the percentage of blacks who use drugs in our society. Now, I would like every white person here and in America to take a moment to think how he or she would feel if one in three white men were in similar circumstances.
And there is still unacceptable economic disparity between blacks and whites. It is so fashionable to talk today about African-Americans as if they have been some sort of protected class. Many whites think blacks are getting more than their fair share in terms of jobs and promotions. That is not true. That is not true.
The truth is that African-Americans still make on average about 60 percent of what white people do, that more than half of African-American children live in poverty. And at the very time our young Americans need access to college more than ever before, black college enrollment is dropping in America.

Of course, Clinton wasn’t woke. The speech to the Rainbow Coalition ended with the Sister Souljah moment. In the Million Man March address, he similarly chastised racial activists for being divisive and argued that white racial anxieties were partially justified by the violence and dysfunction in impoverished black communities. It’s uncontroversial to say now that his policies only deepened that dysfunction and needlessly made it harder for the worst off African-Americans to get ahead.

In Obama’s own famous campaign address on race in 2008 ⁠— thirteen years ago and thirteen years after Clinton’s speech ⁠—  we can discern the precise midpoint between Clinton’s party and the one we’ve got today. Dated ideas and language anticipating the post-Ferguson cultural and policy turn sit side by side:

As William Faulkner once wrote, "The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past." We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist between the African-American community and the larger American community today can be traced directly to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
Segregated schools were and are inferior schools; we still haven't fixed them, 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education. And the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today's black and white students.
Legalized discrimination — where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions or the police force or the fire department — meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between blacks and whites, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persist in so many of today's urban and rural communities.
A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one's family contributed to the erosion of black families — a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods — parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pickup, building code enforcement — all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continues to haunt us.

The main thrust of the speech is a familiar message: we can overcome the past and the odds on race if we come together and reject the politics of racial division. And although Obama governed to the left of Clinton, he too emphasized black personal responsibility and, for most of his presidency, tried to hew close to the middle on issues like immigration and policing. Today, the Biden administration and its surrogates talk about the racial wealth gap and how the reconciliation bill might help while the White House drags its feet on immigration and makes a show of repudiating police abolition. This is the line Democratic politicians have ridden for generations now ⁠— understanding, on the one hand, that moderate white voters in the middle of the country have most of the power in our political system and working with the other hand to mollify activists, interest groups, and leaders who represent the other parts of the Democratic coalition – professionals who want to know how electeds are going to tackle, say, inequities in housing even if the average African-American voter isn’t attentive to the specifics of that policy conversation.  The Obama years in particular prefigured all that’s being said and done today; if it seems like the rhetoric of racial equity is being offered more loudly than it was a decade ago, consider that the public and Democrats in particular are measurably more liberal on race than they were a decade ago.

As I argued in the very first post of this newsletter, the electoral problem the Democrats are facing isn’t that their electeds aren’t making an effort to pitch themselves to the current cultural middle. They are. I’m unaware of any Democratic candidates planning to run next year on Afropessimism; all the party’s leaders from Biden on down are, like Obama, fully invested in a patriotic narrative of racial progress. Their problem is that the balancing act simply doesn’t work as well as it once did ⁠— the party is wrestling against forces that rhetoric probably can’t dispatch. If we’re really to believe Obama nailed race and offered a model for riding out the culture wars, the implications for the Democratic Party are extraordinarily bleak. His deftness didn’t prevent the party from losing Congress and an incredible amount of ground at the state level over the course of his presidency. In 2008, Obama ran against a party freighted with a historically unpopular president and an epochal economic crisis that hit the upper Midwest and Rust Belt particularly hard. In a break from trend, white working class voters backed the Democratic ticket in their highest numbers since Clinton. With Bush in the rearview, 2012 saw a reversion ⁠— Obama performed about as well as Kerry had with non-college whites, which is to say not very well at all except relative to 2016’s cataclysm. He spoke carefully and he spoke well, but we’ve enough evidence to know now that the most salient racial message Obama offered to voters, black and white, was embedded in his skin.

That’s not to say that racism is the only barrier between the party and the whites it wants. This is actually one of the things I think I was wrong about during the Democratic primary ⁠— I assumed that no matter who won the nomination, the right’s culture warriors would try to tank their presidency with a focused effort to deepen racial divisions. But while, as I mentioned before, the anti-wokes and allied Republican pols are obviously hard at work on this, it seems like the bulk of the animus being built against Biden isn’t really about race ⁠— at least not directly. The two largest and most significant efforts, to my eyes, have been the Stop the Steal campaign and its aftermath and the COVID backlash. The racial content of the former is partially obscured; the anti-vax and anti-mask nonsense has had surprisingly little of the usual red meat to it at all. But those messages have been potent and galvanizing in the kinds of communities Democrats need to reach anyway. And while one can criticize Biden’s COVID response on substance, it can’t seriously be argued that his messaging on the pandemic has been divisive in any way. The right’s media infrastructure and trends in demographic polarization that long preceded this and the last Democratic administration are to blame. And overcoming those conditions will take more than savvy messaging.

Reasons To Be Cheerful

Spooky season has begun. Beware.

Good night.