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State of Disunion

Photo by J.stone/shutterstock

The Primaries Are Segregated


We have seven white Democratic candidates, most of them well-intentioned, but none has found a path forward to enact policies that will help their most critical constituency: Black voters.



There is a United States where poverty is endemic and wealth has struggled to grow for generations. It is a nation of undue pain and premature death, where the act of living is a crime and the government itself is arranged against its citizens. And then there’s the United States where the all-white Democratic primary is taking place.

Segregation has marked the Black experience in this country from before its founding, and the Democratic Party has proven in 2020 that it is not an exception to this American legacy. On a debate stage in a state made famous by secession, in front of an audience of mostly Black attendees, the monochromatic primary field failed to meaningfully recognize the darker, bleaker American story that has characterized too many Black lives, let alone present a vision of leadership to fix it. Instead, every white candidate spoke largely to the concerns of white citizens, who live in the country where poverty is difficult but aberrational, the next generation builds naturally on the previous one, and the government is supposed to work.

From the 21st-century robber barons to the nostalgic old hand to the class praxis revolutionary, every aspiring president enumerated the disruptions and offenses that Donald Trump has inflicted on our system of government, but they left alone the racism that fuels his goals. We heard about the miseries of housing and the disparities that have existed for decades, but nothing about why they were instituted in the first place, or what allows them to endure today. And even when Black constituents received acknowledgment of our unique challenges, not a single candidate for president spoke to the systemic nature of the oppression by the government they are hoping to lead.

It is said that when America gets a cold, Black people get pneumonia. If the presidency of Donald Trump has caused dismay and alarm for the white majority, it has caused a catastrophe for Black America. As Trump has dismantled the concept of shared truth, decimated the rule of law and discarded the obligations of his office, he has wrecked reality, suborned justice and abandoned Black voters entirely. White supremacists staff the highest levels of our government, and explicitly design policy to that end without any mainstream umbrage. Trump himself commits crimes openly and confesses to them, and yet his Department of Justice protects him while it demands even further violent intrusion into Black and other racially marginalized communities. And in an age of more frequent natural disasters and human-caused calamity, this presidency has normalized the reality that resources may be withheld longer, if not entirely, from communities of color.

In the midst of this crisis, Black voters have heard nothing but shallow platitudes and obvious pandering from the anticipated leadership of the party that is supposed to be aligned with our interests. The all-white primary field has yielded great and tremendous plans for repairing and resetting the country, but with no attendant explanation of how they will successfully coalesce white political will around their goals when every one of their Democratic predecessors has failed. Rather than a plan for the reality that laws defending the citizenship and equality of Black people will meet a brutally racist judiciary, we received an IOU for a Black woman Supreme Court justice. And those were the meager offerings from those who deigned to mention Black Americans at all. From this primary field, it is not their sympathy with the depravity of Donald Trump but the absence of empathy that marks the Democratic nomination with white supremacy.

Each candidate does their harm in their own way, a signature as unique as their boundaries. From disproportionately pale states, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, from Minnesota, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg, from Indiana, speak of the Midwestern tradition as an almost exclusively white one, revealing that their constituents of color are marginal to them and that they take Black votes—and those casting them—for granted. Billionaires Tom Steyer and Mike Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, have each chosen to close the wealth gap one vote at a time, without any self-awareness that they are representative of the exact problem that they have offered to solve: the reality that white people only invest in Black lives when they can personally benefit.

On the progressive side, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren suffer from different versions of the same malady: Bernie doesn’t explain how universal programs solve entrenched inequality, and Warren doesn’t explain how her racially cognizant policies gain sufficient political traction to pass through Congress. Bernie’s answer to the latter is a political revolution, and Warren’s answer for the former is deliberate reconstruction, and neither answer is satisfying as a coherent, unified path forward.

And Joe Biden, the long-time stalwart, cannot seem to accept that the paternalistic posture taken by white liberals half a century ago is not only insufficient to the challenges of 21st-century racism, it might have been its handmaiden. When further probed as to why the problems he confronted at the beginning of his career persist despite all of his efforts, Biden betrays a reasoning so loaded with offensive racial tropes that it would have destroyed anyone less than Barack Obama’s vice president.

Even the candidates of color—Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, and former HUD Secretary Julián Castro—oriented their campaigns toward assuaging the worries of white voters more than activating a connection between them and the Black and brown base of the party. Unable to bridge the gap between the will of white Americans and genuine excitement from their political base, none of their campaigns were able to survive to actual voting. It is potentially a dark mirror of what could happen in the general election to their white counterparts should they fail to do the same.

Despite the importance of Black voters to generating voter enthusiasm, driving turnout and delivering victory in November, the white primary field has failed to align with its base. In a tragedy, in our darkest hour, we have found that our needs are not unknowable, but that we lack a candidate with the will to learn. So often in our segregated history, Black people have received sincere rhetoric more than genuine commitment. In the fight for the future of this democracy, what we need is also what we deserve: an advocate that understands that the trauma of Black life isn’t separate or tangential to the American story, but at the center of it.

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