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[Review] 'Brown Is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority'

September 01, 2016

There has been much hand-wringing over the fact the United States is on its way to becoming a "majority minority" country — according to Census Bureau projections, Americans of color will outnumber white Americans by 2044 — not to mention the cultural, economic, social, and political changes such a demographic shift implies. But in Brown Is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority, Steve Phillips argues that the focus on people of color gaining the electoral upper hand at a not-too-distant point in the future is misguided — first, because such a focus presumes that voting is a zero-sum game and any gains by people of color must come at the expense of white voters; and second, because people of color and their white allies already constitute "a progressive, multiracial majority...that has the power to elect presidents and reshape American politics, policies, and priorities for decades to come."  

Cover_brown_is_new_whiteA civil rights lawyer and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, Phillips worked on Jesse Jackson's 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns; became San Francisco's youngest-ever elected official in 1992; and established the first SuperPAC to work for Barack Obama's election in 2008. To support his claim that demography has created a "new American majority" (as the subtitle of his book puts it), he uses American Community Survey and exit poll data to estimate the number of progressive voters in the country, multiplying the total number of eligible voters in different racial/ethnic groups as of 2013 by the percentage that voted for Obama in 2012. The tally? Fifty million progressive voters of color and sixty-one million progressive white voters, who between them account for 23 percent and 28 percent of all eligible voters, or 51 percent of the American electorate.

Presumably Phillips understands that using a vote for Barack Obama as a proxy for "progressive" inevitably oversimplifies the picture. And while he also understands that many people are disappointed the election of the country's first black president did not end racism or racial discrimination in America, he notes that the country has moved in the direction of greater racial and economic justice — as evidenced by, among other things, increased access to health insurance coverage; the appointment of the country's first African-American attorney general; and much-needed police reform in places like Ferguson, Missouri. If none of these developments counts as an unqualified success, they are proof, Phillips argues, that progressives can win elections and advance their agenda.

What's more, says Phillips, this multiracial new American majority is growing by the day — due in part to higher birth rates among people of color and legal immigration — while its voting patterns reflect a deep commitment to greater social justice and equality. In 2012, for example, 96 percent of African-American voters chose Obama, as did 71 percent of Latino voters, 73 percent of Asian-American voters, and 59 percent of Arab-American voters. Phillips also highlights key swing states Obama won in the primaries as well as the general election with the critical support of voters of color.

How then to explain the "shellacking" that Democrats received in the midterm elections of 2010 and 2014, costing them control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate? According to Phillips, it wasn't because the party lost the so-called white swing vote — Reagan Democrats, white working-class voters, soccer moms, etc. — but because voters of color stayed home. And that, he argues, is because progressive politicians and their funders tend to underestimate the political clout of communities of color. Mistakenly believing — thanks in no small part to the mainstream media — that they need to court white swing voters, progressives are quick to walk back their positions and retool their agenda to appeal to more conservative voters even though the idea that white swing voters "are needed to win elections in modern, multiracial America is fundamentally fact-free and flat-out wrong."

To support his point, Phillips cites voting data from the House of Representative's Office of the Clerk which shows that Republicans did not pick up white votes in either of those midterm elections. Instead, candidates in both chambers won fewer white votes than they did in 2008, while Democrats suffered from sharper-than-usual midterm drop-offs in turnout among voters of color — in no small part, Phillips argues, because they ignored the concerns of the people who had voted for them in 2008. Obsessed with poll numbers and the reactions of white voters in red states, Obama moved in his first term to water down the progressive agenda he ran on, gave up his leverage and eventually caved to the insurance companies on healthcare reform, delayed comprehensive immigration reform, and stepped up the pace of deportations of illegal immigrants so as to appear "tough" on the issue. At the same time, congressional Democrats thanked the progressive voters who had secured their majority in both chambers of Congress by campaigning on "soccer mom" issues in 2010 and again in 2014, leading the Center for Community Change Action to note with some exasperation in 2014 that "robust voter participation in low-income communities requires not only year-round civic engagement, but also a sense that the issues and priorities of these communities are being addressed directly and authentically by the nation's leaders."

Who's to blame for this wholly unsatisfying turn of events? According to civil rights leader and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young, whose urgent pleas to mobilize voters of color were ignored by Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale on his way to an historic loss at the hands of Ronald Reagan in 1984, one need look no further than "[s]mart-ass white boys who think they know it all." While acknowledging the many white progressives who have fought and even died for racial and economic justice, Phillips argues that the Smart-Ass White Boy Syndrome (which afflicts women and non-whites as well) is alive and well, as evidenced not only by the Democratic Party's under-appreciation of the size and clout of the black and Latino electorate but by its over-reliance on a small cadre of tech-obsessed political consultants, most of them white. Indeed, an audit commissioned by Phillips found that 97 percent of the party's spending in the 2010 and 2012 election cycles and 97.9 percent of its spending in the 2014 cycle went to white consultants and businesses. Despite a few notable exceptions, the leadership of the labor movement, of philanthropic and social sector organizations, and of environmental nonprofits also is overwhelmingly white. Is it any wonder, then, that voters of color feel disconnected from the progressive movement? To ensure continued turnout among supportive voters of color, Phillips cautions, Democratic progressive leaders have to do a better job of paying attention to the conditions and concerns of those groups — something Republican Party leaders and donors are well aware of. Since 2009, for example, Republicans have backed more candidates of color than have Democrats and established a Future Majority Caucus to help Hispanic and female officeholders at the state level; invested in communities of color through organizations like Libre, a 501(c)(4) funded by the Koch brothers; and moved to diversify field staff and political and communications directors. With Republicans actively reaching out to voters of color even as they push for voter ID laws that disproportionately affect those voters, Phillips worries that if progressives "fail to act quickly, an unprecedented opportunity will be lost."

In the process, he adds, they must do a better job of focusing their resources on what he calls a growing market (Latino and Asian-American voters); ask tough questions and pay attention to the data (Are television ads effective in persuading white swing voters? No. Is door-to-door canvassing effective in mobilizing voters of color? Yes.); focus more of their efforts on "the new battleground states" of North Carolina, Georgia, and Arizona; and invest in bolstering the capacity of community-based organizations and building a diverse and robust talent pipeline.

Most importantly, progressives must focus on policy reforms that address the true meaning of the term "justice for all." An ambitious progressive agenda, Phillips writes, must consider the historical factors underlying the racial wealth gap, including "redlining" in housing; the legacy of the GI Bill's discriminatory practices; and persistent structural racism. It must address disparities in teacher quality and funding for public education, legislative and judicial efforts to roll back voting rights, and the need for criminal justice and immigration reform (including amnesty for the undocumented, lower barriers to naturalization for legal immigrants, and a reallocation of visa quotas). Similarly, the mainstream environmental movement must come up with and push for environmental justice solutions that create jobs in poor communities that are victimized by unsafe corporate practices. Phillips even goes so far as to argue for a Justice and Equality Fund backed by higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans that would invest $500 billion a year "in wealth-building opportunities such as home purchase and housing assistance, higher education, job training, and construction and entrepreneurship." A bold proposal, to be sure, and one unlikely to come to pass, but one whose symbolic value, in terms of the social justice message it would send to new American majority voters, could be significant.

If some of these arguments sound simplistic, they are. But with election season in full swing, Phillips is eager to get his message out to as many people as possible. In bright broad brushstrokes, he paints a convincing picture of a world in which social justice and equality are advanced through the ballot box — and of the enormous loss we all would suffer should the opportunity be missed. Brown Is the New White is a clear-eyed, persuasive, and profoundly hopeful book. In an election cycle that has been characterized by pandering to anxious white voters and coded appeals to groups that traffic in racial animosity and hate, its message couldn't be more timely.

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