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Democrats Must Do More Than Condemn Ralph Northam
Justin Cohen
February 6, 2019

Now that photos have emerged of the Virginia Democratic governor’s medical school yearbook, which includes a healthy number of super racist pictures, I hope that Democrats and progressives around the country use this opportunity to realize that fighting racism isn’t someone else’s problem.

I’m a lifelong Democrat, and there is a palpable sense of smugness and superiority in predominantly white, left-leaning organizations when it comes to the topic of racism. It’s easy to slide into self-satisfaction when your rival party includes guys like:

  • Donald Trump, who tried to have four black boys executed for a crime they didn’t commit;
  • Steve King, who openly wondered LAST WEEK when “white supremacy” became a dirty word, and
  • Jeff Sessions who, need I remind you, was too racist to be confirmed for a federal judgeship in the 1980s.

Since the major US political parties realigned around ideological coherence in the 20th century, it’s objectively accurate to assert that the Democratic party has been more supportive of the concerns and issues of non-white Americans. Since that realignment, there is a much greater abundance of racist attitudes on the political right.

That said, as Jamelle Bouie reminds us in The New York Times this morning, sanctioning only the most overt displays of racism “treats expressions of racist contempt or mockery as the most egregious forms of racism, when that distinction should belong to the promotion of racist policies and ideas.”

Seeing the Democratic governor of Virginia in blackface must inspire introspection among white Democrats, and the sort of introspection I recommend isn’t about confronting the racism in our own hearts.

Does that racism exist? Sure. Is it worth unpacking? Absolutely.

But is that the kind of racism that really matters for the current conversation? No.

What matters most are two things. First, the extent to which white democrats fight for policy changes that obliterate the lasting, measurable effects of slavery, segregation, and systemic racism in our country. You can do that even if your parents were nasty racists, and you have unresolved issues of racial superiority and privilege in your heart. If anything, channel your lasting guilt over these feelings to make you work even harder in the service of undoing systemic racism.

Second, and related to the first, Democrats who are committed to fighting racism need to ensure that the levers of power in this country – both public and private – are no longer disproportionately wielded by white people. Despite recent gains in Congress, white people are still wildly overrepresented in positions of American political and corporate power. If we do not find ways to make the distribution of power in this country more racially equitable, discussions of diversity and inclusion and the racism in our hearts are just about making ourselves feel better.

I’m glad that the Democratic party is trying to maintain a high standard when it comes to not tolerating overt displays of interpersonal racism. That’s a huge distinction from the Republican party, which has embraced flagrant bigotry as a feature, and not a bug, of its politics.

But repudiating a cartoonishly racist picture of a guy in a Klan hood is easy. You don’t get any additional woke white guy points for that. The hard work involves showing up every day to ensure that the interests of historically marginalized people are placed at the front and center of a progressive political agenda.

The Democratic party, in particular its progressive wing, must apply the same standard of anti-racism to its prioritization of public policy as it does to its disgust at racist imagery. I suspect that too many of the Democrats who sneer at Northam today will sit at decision-making tables in the coming days that are disproportionately white. If you don’t speak out and do something about racism at that table, your condemnation of Northam was an empty gesture.

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