Despite his role overseeing the Anita Hill hearings, catalyzing mass incarceration, and pushing for banking deregulation, Joseph Biden, a white man, is still leading the Democratic primary.
And yet white men, we are constantly informed, are the new political underdogs.
Last month, CNN politics reporter and editor-at-large Chris Cillizza explained that being “a white male” was a “big hurdle” for Joe Biden “in a party that has grown increasingly diverse and female.” This month, The New York Times stated that “running as a white man who has led a life of relative privilege” was one of Pete Buttigieg’s “biggest vulnerabilities as a contender.” Speaking with Bernie Sanders, NPR’s Rachel Martin warned of broad swaths of Democrats “who are anxious to see someone who, quite frankly, is not an older white man as their nominee.”
Similar coverage has followed the other white men in the race, and it sorely misses the point. If there is a faction of Democrats frustrated with these white men, it’s not because they check “male” on the census or get sunburn when they campaign in South Carolina; it’s because they have a lackluster record on gender and racial equity that they’ve yet to rectify.
“We thought, we were told by the experts, that crack, you never go back,” Joe Biden muttered explaining his gleeful and disturbing support for racially discriminatory criminal-justice policies during the 1990s. Even as police and vigilantes gunned down black people in their cars, on playgrounds, in the street, in fields, and at churches, Mayor Pete argued that “All Lives Matter.” Sanders voted for controversial gun bills and retained a durable reluctance towards reparations. Beto O’Rourke served as a pawn for gentrification in El Paso.
Each of these white men has earned red marks on their progressive policy record. Yet it is telling to see political commentators frame minority voters’ concerns as a “wariness toward white-maledom” and not a “wariness toward white-regressive policy.”
During Trump’s 2016 bid, the press bent over backward to rationalize why white working-class Americans supported a raging racist. As writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates argue, the hyperbolic framing of white working-class support for Trump as a rebellion against neoliberalism, as opposed to racial resentment, helped conceal Trump’s bigotry and bolster his legitimacy.
But now, the media is awash with questions like “Should a White Man Be the Face of the Democratic Party in 2020?“—questions that evade concerns of material interests. This coverage instead downplays women and minorities’ political anxieties on issues like health care and gun control to focus on candidates’ identity. And, because the American political debate values those who vote on “economic issues” over “identity politics,” minorities seen as rejecting candidates for their maleness and their whiteness are derided as self-centered and short sighted.
Assuming that people of color have tribal, not rational politics is no new trend. In 2008, comedian Chris Rock joked that when outlets explained why white people voted for Barack Obama, reporters methodically reasoned that white voters “went over the issues, they weighed the pros and cons, and they felt that Obama spoke to their issues.” And whenever black people vote for Barack, they go, ‘Well, they black, he black, I guess that’s why.’” The set concluded that black people, like any other reasoned bloc, vote on the issues too, and that they wouldn’t elect an unqualified reality TV star like Flavor Flav.
More than a punchline, Flavor Flav–esque candidates like Ben Carson and Herman Cain—who are black—do indeed run for office. They do not win the black vote. Why? They don’t represent black folks’ policy interests. Far beyond Carson and Cain’s circus-tent campaigns, credentialed candidates like Kamala Harris still face principled criticism from the black activists base because of public policy concerns on issues like criminal justice and education.
The “representation” debate misses this nuance. It reduces a deeply principled concern for equity to a matter of matching skin tone or gender identity. It casts contenders who don’t belong to an “en vogue” racial or gender group as “facing big hurdles” or as “having big vulnerabilities”—claims so exaggerated that after a Vanity Fair profile wrote of Beto O’Rourke that “perhaps his biggest vulnerability” was “being a white man in a Democratic Party yearning for a woman or a person of color,” O’Rourke himself pushed back, saying “being a white male doesn’t put me at disadvantage.”
Even Beto is right this time. If he and the other white male candidates in the race want support from Democrats’ diverse base, they can earn it. They can be more progressive. They can work harder to uphold the policy objectives of movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. Contrary to current belief, white men have done it before. Being a white man, and a Republican for that matter, did not prevent George Romney from fighting for fair housing rights. Being a white man didn’t stop Howard Zinn from supporting black students with SNCC in the Civil Rights struggle. Being a white man didn’t prevent Stanley Levison from working with Martin Luther King Jr.
Being a white man is neither a disadvantage, nor an excuse. The media should report this fact, instead of fueling hackneyed generalizations about politics and identity. Higher-quality, more-substantive coverage would hold these candidates accountable and depict voters with more nuance. It would dismiss the siege mentality that characterizes so much of coverage on the right that yells, disingenuously, “It’s OK to be white.” It would reject the victimhood laced in articles asking “can the Democrats nominate a male Caucasian for president in 2020?”
As we’ve seen in recent years, the myth of white victimhood is both diffuse and dangerous. It runs from the inexplicable terrors over “reverse racism” to irrational panics of “anti-white violence.” This fear—that white people suffer for their whiteness—is as old and racist as America. It’s deployed often to undermine the dark Others. It animates Trump’s speech. It should not dictate journalists’ coverage.
Today, Joe Biden still leads the Democratic primary, in spite of his long history of undermining progressive causes. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Warren is lagging, even though she’s been advocating for popular policies such as universal childcare, student-loan-debt relief, and reparations. Don’t listen to the media hoopla; white men are doing just fine. The only “big hurdle” they face in the race is getting over themselves.