If you’ve wondered about the opportunities the current nationwide racial panic attack provides the Democratic Party, Steve Phillips believes he has an answer. In his compelling new book Brown Is the New White, out now from The New Press, Phillips argues that instead of fretting over fickle swing voters and tending to the wounds of freaked-out white people, the party ought to embrace the potential of a progressive white- and people of color–led majority—and move confidently leftward with a racial justice–minded political agenda. Census experts have settled on 2043 as the year when white people cease to be the racial majority in the United States. But Phillips argues, the electoral math is already in place for the Democratic Party to stop fretting about white swing voters and to focus on this future—now.
Phillips has a rich history in African-American activism and electoral politics, which includes serving as a delegate to Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 campaigns and for eight years on the San Francisco school board. As such, he’s clearly invested in electoral politics as the primary vehicle for addressing deepening inequality. Phillips offers an optimistic, persuasive argument for Democratic (and even Republican) party leaders to rethink their current white-centric strategy, outreach, and leadership development pipeline to expand their coalitions. “My argument is we should be taking over these parties and then transforming them and putting them in service of the community,” Phillips said at an event for his book at the Ford Foundation in New York City last week.
But if I have any words of caution, it’d be that readers not confuse Phillips’s offering, which is at its heart a guide for smart, racially aware progressive electoral strategy, for a playbook on how to grapple with race in the 21st century. Because race in the United States is far more complex than Phillips gets around to discussing in Brown Is the New White.
In a chapter titled “Meet the New American Majority,” Phillips runs through the facets of the progressive majority as it performed in 2008 and 2012: African Americans—the most dependable Democratic voters, and a full 23 percent of the party—flexed their electoral muscle in historic turnout levels. Seventy-one percent of Latinos—the largest non-white group in the country—backed Obama in 2012, and because of both their sheer numbers and their low voter turnout, they still represent millions of voters’ worth of untapped political potential. Asian Americans, who are the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the United States and whose political tastes are more evenly distributed across the political spectrum, also backed President Obama by a three-to-one margin in 2012. And on Phillips goes, dedicating similar portraits to Arab Americans, Native Americans, and—the longest discussion—progressive whites. It’s a bracing look at America.
Phillips opens each subsection with a dedication to a real-life friend of that race, people whom Phillips grew up with and struggled alongside in progressive fights in the 1980s. “At first glance, our multiracial coalition may have looked like a motley collection of loud, fired-up kids of color and progressive White students tramping through the formerly placid halls of power,” Phillips writes. “A closer look at the organizers, however, would have revealed a kaleidoscopic picture representing the children and grandchildren of the very communities whose labor and land helped build America.”