When Politics Becomes a Contest Between Rival Groups of White People

James Traub has written an article for The Atlantic in which he basically asks Democrats to consider whether they gave up too much of their support among white Americans when they embraced civil rights. His frame is that the party “exchanged a politics of self-interest for a politics of moral commitment,” asking its white supporters to sacrifice, perhaps too much.

What I noticed immediately is that, by framing the history around figures like Hubert Humphrey and President Lyndon B. Johnson, Traub completely ignored the role that African Americans played in demanding civil rights. Blotting black people out of the equation is exactly the point that Jamelle Bouie made in response.

Too many observers treat American politics as a contest between rival groups of white people. It’s how you get dubious claims that Donald Trump broadly represents “working-class” voters, or the related narrative that pits a monolithic “coastal elite” against a so-called “heartland,” ideas that cannot survive contact with any consideration of black political behavior. The result is that black Americans and other groups—which represented nearly 27 percent of the electorate in 2016, more than 36 million voters—get erased from mainstream political discourse and are ignored as full citizens and political actors…

..Traub’s argument treats the lives and livelihoods of black Americans (and other marginalized groups) as immaterial. Civil rights for blacks or any person of color bears no consideration on the merits. The limits of justice are what whites will tolerate, and if most whites won’t move, then liberals shouldn’t push.

Because of that, Traub’s essay is emblematic…of a larger tendency in American political thinking. One that puts race on the sidelines and treats American politics as a parlor game, with nonwhites as a bargaining chip in a negotiation between white people.

It is important to think about the contours of the current “negotiation” between white identitarians of the Trump era and people like Traub who are suggesting that Democrats either back off of their moral commitment to civil rights or as Bouie framed it, limit the discussion to what whites will tolerate.

Is it necessary to recount all the ways that Donald Trump made racism central to his campaign and has continued to do so as president? In the midst of that, it is astounding that someone like Traub would come along to suggest that Democrats should calibrate their moral commitment.

Let me give you an example of the kind of thing that is happening these days. The GAO recently released a report documenting that black boys continue to be suspended and expelled from school at disproportionate rates. Conservatives like Heather MacDonald are worried that this information might get in the way of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s attempt to unwind some of the reforms of the Obama administration that were meant to deal with this disparity. Her argument basically comes down to suggesting that black boys are disciplined more often because they misbehave more often because they come from single family homes. I kid you not.

Here is the kind of data that people like MacDonald ignore:

Implicit bias

Black boys as young as 10 may not be viewed in the same light of childhood innocence as their white peers, but are instead more likely to be mistaken as older, be perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime…

Deep poverty

There are now seven million American children whose families earn below 50 percent of the poverty line. And in the last decade, we learned quite a lot about what it does to children to grow up surrounded by the kind of everyday chaos that often accompanies life in a family that is earning less than $11,000 a year. Neuroscientists and developmental psychologists can now explain how early stress and trauma disrupt the healthy growth of the prefrontal cortex…

In fact, though, you don’t need a neuroscientist to explain the effects of a childhood spent in deep poverty. Your average kindergarten teacher in a high-poverty neighborhood can tell you: children who grow up in especially difficult circumstances are much more likely to have trouble controlling their impulses in school, getting along with classmates and following instructions. Intensive early interventions can make a big difference, but without that extra help, students from the poorest homes usually fall behind in school early on, and they rarely catch up. When you cluster lots of children with impulse-control issues together in a single classroom, it becomes harder for teachers to teach and for students to learn. And when these same children reach adolescence…they are more likely to become a danger to themselves, to each other and to their community.

Complex trauma

In the mid-1990s, Dr. Vincent Felitti, the chief of Kaiser Permanente’s obesity clinic, and Dr. Robert Anda, a medical epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control, developed 10 questions to assess cumulative childhood stress called the Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACE, survey. The higher the ACE score, the higher the risk of negative outcomes: Among those who scored at least four, there was a 1,220 percent increase in suicide attempts over those who scored zero.

“This clearly showed children’s adverse experiences are a public health problem,” Dr. Anda said. “What we now know is that childhood adversity and stress can chemically change the way our brains work.”

The changes can affect impulse control, decision making and executive functions. From there, it can be a short hop to breaking the law.

Both deep poverty and complex trauma affect children the same, regardless of their race. But because African Americans are disproportionately poor and are more often exposed to trauma, they are more likely to develop behavioral problems as a result. As I used to say about my work with urban youth of color, “if all they were dealing with was coming from a single parent home, these problems would have been dealt with a long time ago.” Junot Díaz has written a powerful piece at the New Yorker about his own experience titled, “Legacy of Childhood Trauma.”

Does it make white people like Heather MacDonald uncomfortable when we talk about the way that our racist systems affect the children who live with deep poverty and/or have experienced complex trauma? Would Traub suggest that Democrats need to take that discomfort into account when deciding whether or not to fight back against moves by Secretary DeVos to re-open the school-to-prison pipeline and eventually send these children on as adults to Attorney General Sessions’s reinvigoration of mass incarceration?

The truth is that confronting racism will always make white people uncomfortable. Democrats can’t weigh that risk in isolation from the effects racism has on our fellow citizens of color—especially the children.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .