The Brood: Doug Jones won Alabama’s Senate Seat by a 1.5% margin. It’s a victory for the country at large — but one that we shouldn’t be too comfortable with. Only 30% of White voters cast their vote for the winning candidate. That should be a clarion call for white progressives.
First of all, let’s take a moment to acknowledge the “wow factor” here. A Democrat — and a very progressive one — has won in Alabama. He’s the first Democratic Senator from the state for 25 years, when Richard Shelby won in 1992. I was just over a week old. It’s a generational event.
Here is one thing it is not: encouraging. What this election does prove is that, in specific circumstances, Democrats can contest deep-red state elections. You can even listen to the infamous Nate Silver and his team discuss this. Here are those conditions:
- A bad candidate (in this case, a pedophile) that reduces voter turn out among republican voters.
- A concerted effort among black and brown organizers to drive their communities’ turnout to disproportionate levels.
- A demographic presence of black and brown voters disproportionate from the national average.
- A sufficiently high percentage of white voters to join the black and brown coalition.
Achieving all or some of these conditions has been the Democratic strategy for a while now. It can work, even excel. Just look at Obama’s elections in 2008 and 2012. But it’s a delicate strategy. It heavily relies on conditions #2 and #4. Black turnout low? Hillary loses. Democratic share of the white vote falls below a certain threshold? Republicans sweep the board.
So to the 30% of white folks in Alabama who voted Doug Jones into office: good work! You did the country proud. But that the remaining 70% of voters — your friends, neighbors, associates, colleagues, students, teachers, preachers, etc. — could be so willfully ignorant of Moore’s history of sexual assault? It’s troubling.
Black folks have a handle on mobilizing and turning out their communities. Remember – 90+% of them voted for Doug Jones. The problem is within white communities. We are terrible at engaging each other on politics, especially racial politics.
This weakness rears its head at Thanksgivings, at church, at family reunions, at the bar with the guys, out on the town with the girls. You name it. Every white progressive has been out with other white friends and heard someone say something racially insensitive, and let it slide. I’m no exception. It’s difficult to rupture the topic because that’s precisely what it feels like. A potential rupture of trust. “You really think I’m racist?”
There’s a lot of anger directed at the wayward 70% of whites who voted for Roy Moore and the 58% of whites voted for Donald Trump nationally. But there’s also anger at the 30% of white Alabama voters, and others like them around the country, that they might not be doing enough.
Progressives who are angry — whether they are white or black, men or women — understandably lash out with think pieces like “White Women Thank Themselves for Thanking Black Women Today.” Although those articles are a good wake up call for white women (and men) already in our coalition, its not a roadmap to convert the 70% of white folks we need to convert. I’ve tried angry progressive arguments on conservative neighbors — they usually just get defensive.
So what to do? White people, myself included, are scared to have those conversations. In our heads, it looks like it will be a lot of yelling, hurt feelings, and alienation from loved ones. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are models for good, respectful, hard conversations on these political and racial topics. Van Jones has always done a good job on this, even at the scariest times. Eddie Huang, who has been a model for me, shows incredible patience and respect when speaking with people who have troubling views.
What I think these two understand is that you won’t move the needle in one conversation. Talking with white friends and relatives who hold troubling views isn’t about making them change their mind. It’s about challenging them respectfully over time, so that your critiques lodge in the back of their brain during their day-to-day. These smaller conversations and experiences can even change people’s minds about the end of the world. Or they might find themselves in a completely unrelated situation, suddenly realizing why it was not okay to do something as seemingly trivial as the Asian voice from South Park.
So white people, we have 3 years until 2020. That’s three years of trying to constructively push back on the things you usually let slide. If we do that hard work, we can potentially increase Democratic vote share of white people by a few percentage points. That would make the work of protecting our fellow citizens, and advancing a progressive agenda, that much easier.
What can white progressives do to engage their friends and family on these issues? If you’re a white person, do you have any success stories or cautionary tales? Who are good role models on this? Comment and share your thoughts!
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Written and edited by Dylan Welch, co-host and creator of the Municipals podcast.