Is the Democratic party racist? Jeffrey Lord sure thinks so. In a recent article Lord argues that Donald Trump will be successful because he doesn’t “play the gender card” or “play the race card”, rather, he “plays the American card” which, Lord thinks, is much more powerful. He believes that when we consider racial groups individually we are actually perpetuating racism because we’re solidifying divides in the American electorate. He argues that the Democratic party is the one always trying to divide people by race. He supports this argument by saying that the Ku Klux Klan used to work for the interests of the Democrats. This argument may pass without comment on CNN panels but is profoundly naive and dangerous. It serves as a bomb shelter into which conservatives can flee from a rain of conscience dropped by thoughtful people like me from our B-52 columns.
It’s first necessary to address his claim that the Democratic party is the historic and current party of racism. Lord harks back to what he might consider “the good old days” when Lincoln was the face of the Republican party rather than his candidate Mr. Trump. Back in those days the Democratic party used the Ku Klux Klan to enforce their will and most Democrats lived in the south. If one had lived in the 1860s and then fell asleep for 150 years, then calling the Democratic party racist would be entirely reasonable! However, if one were a student of history since the Civil War then anyone can see that the Democratic party has redefined itself a little (or a lot). This redefinition began with FDR’s New Deal coalition which did include southern Democrats (or “Dixiecrats” as they were then called) but also African Americans and women. A few years later in 1948, a brave Minnesotan Democrat named Hubert Humphrey gave a passionate speech advocating that the Democratic party should “get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.” When he gave that speech the Dixiecrats actually stood up and left the convention. He had so nauseated the racist vestiges clinging to his party that they fled.
“Don’t feed me shit and call it pizza” @TrevorNoah on KKK history. Watch >> https://t.co/rrPLhh6NZdhttps://t.co/nnpv2Klmzk
— The Daily Show (@TheDailyShow) March 4, 2016
This moment in 1948 signaled an inexorable shift in the Democratic party away from the party of racism and toward the party that supported the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Republicans opposed both of these revolutionary advances. Trevor Noah effectively summed up the notion that just because a party was racist 50 or 150 years ago does not mean it is racist now.
Now to the argument that the Democrats want to “divide people by race or by gender.” This argument is inspired by issues like affirmative action – policies and laws that seek to specifically address the issues of one racial group. Lord argues that we shouldn’t differentiate based on these groups and we should worry only about the group known as ‘Americans.’ This argument sounds good on cable news but breaks down under thoughtful examination. Lord is a pundit and is therefore more focused on how we talk about issues than how we can actually solve problems, which means his analysis is only useful in certain contexts.
The reality in this country is that not all Americans are treated equally, regardless of racially divisive policies. Young black men are many times more likely to be shot and killed in the street by a cop than young white men. Black and Hispanic Americans and other people of color simply are not treated fairly in our justice system or by their fellow citizens (many of those who treat them poorly are planning to vote for Trump or Cruz). These are realities. These things happen today. If we refuse to acknowledge that different groups within our population face different problems than other groups, then we cripple our ability to address those problems. Pretending the world is colorblind is simply blind and dangerous. If ten kids are standing in a row and two of them have a bloody nose it’s colossally stupid to give each of them an ice pack and some tissues. It’s a far better play to (I know this may sound radical) give the ice pack and tissues to the people who actually have bloody noses. Shocking! When a racial or gender group faces a problem that’s specific to their gender or race it is only pragmatic and reasonable to “divide by race” or “divide by gender” in order to think of a solution. There’s a reason we don’t pass out tampons to men and we don’t give erectile dysfunction medication to women. We “divide by sex” all the time but that is NOT the same thing as sexism and “dividing by race” (also known as being mindful that people of different races ARE treated differently) is NOT the same as racism. You know what is racist? Suggesting that all Mexican immigrants are rapists and bring crime and drugs, starting a birther movement questioning the citizenship of our first black president, refusing to rent to black tenants, and inciting and excusing the beating of a Black Lives Matter protester. Now let’s search our brains: Do we know anyone who’s done some (or all) of these things? Do you, Mr. Lord?
Lord makes a good living trying to spin for his candidate, and I truly think he believes what he says. I believe he’s a man of (some) integrity, I just happen to think he’s wrong about almost everything and that he’s advocating draconian views which are illogical and out of step with reality. The worst thing we could do would be to nod and say “we have to accept all beliefs.” We should respect anyone who puts forward illogical or out of touch opinions just as we’d respect any other human being, but we aren’t obligated to pretend that the nonsensical makes perfect sense. The best thing we can do is name what we see as illogical and dangerous and carefully dismantle it by being more informed and more thoughtful.
UPDATE 4/12/2016: The headline was changed from “Is the Democratic Party Racist?” to “Are Democrats ‘the party of racism?'” to clarify any ambiguity about Democrats as individuals being racist or not. This column is about the Democratic Party, not any individual Democrat.