Why Do Reporters Assume Candidates of Color Are Insurgents?

It’s a pernicious stereotype—and downright lazy journalism.

One of the things we can learn from the primaries that were held on Tuesday, June 23rd is that—with increased reliance on mail-in ballots during a pandemic—election results will be delayed. A week later, we’re beginning to finally get some idea of the outcomes.

For example, in the Kentucky Senate Democratic primary, Amy McGrath has beaten Charles Booker, whose late surge came up just a bit short. With ten candidates vying to be the Democrat to take on Mitch McConnell, McGrath was initially viewed as having a lock on the nomination. But the killing of Breonna Taylor by Louisville police officers, followed by the death of George Floyd, sent Booker to the streets to join the protests against police brutality. It was at that point that his candidacy surged, especially in the Democratic stronghold around Louisville. In the end, however, that wasn’t enough to overtake McGrath’s strength in the rest of the state.

Before learning those results, Michael Barbaro interviewed Jonathan Martin about that race in an episode of “The Daily” titled, “The Battle Over the Democratic Party’s Future.” Their discussion focused on McGrath as the Democratic establishment candidate, while Booker was endorsed by politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez because of his support for things like Medicare-for-All and the Green New Deal. But Barbaro and Martin made a mistake that we sometimes see from political analysts when they assume that candidates of color automatically fit in the “insurgent” or “progressive” wing of the Democratic Party. Here is part of that discussion.

Martin: So this is less about eventually beating McConnell, which is going to be a tall order in Kentucky, than it is about what’s happening in the Democratic Party. And it’s not just in Kentucky. Also on Tuesday, there is a competitive primary featuring Eliot Engel, who’s the long-serving chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who’s facing a primary from an African-American, Jamaal Bowman. In Virginia, a fairly conservative district, there is also an African-American running in that primary. So what I’m really interested in watching these primaries unfold is can progressives gather strength, organize and sort of overcome the establishment candidates in some of these races?…

Barbaro: [I]sn’t the greater risk for Democratic leaders, on a really practical level, that they are missing this moment? They are not getting behind candidates. And they risk losing touch with this very powerful constituency that seems to be ascendant within the party.

Martin: Right! The left would say, this is what the moment is, and this is about what the country now needs and demands. Given the virus, given issues of racial injustice, given the economic collapse, the moment cries out for real substantive sweeping policy changes in America, and that if you don’t abide that, if you don’t recognize that, then you’re out of touch as a Democratic leader. And I think this conversation — this tension between the left and the center in the Democratic party, I think, is really going to come to the fore.

In the case of Charles Booker, he is obviously aligned with what some might call the “insurgent” wing of the Democratic Party. That is demonstrated by his position on several high-profile issues as well as the endorsements he received. But he lost the Democratic primary to Amy McGrath in a state that Trump won by 30 points in 2016 and where he still enjoys a 17 percent net approval rating.

On the other hand, it certainly appears that Jamaal Bowman, who would also be categorized as part of the insurgent wing, is going to beat the incumbent Eliot Engel. That, however, is happening in New York’s 16th congressional district, which the Cook Political Report rates as D+24.

The African American Martin refers to as running in a fairly conservative district in Virginia is Cameron Webb. He received endorsements from politicians like Kamala Harris, John Lewis, and Jim Clyburn. As someone who worked on Obama’s health care team, he supports building on the Affordable Care Act as a way to get to universal coverage and affordability. In the general election, Webb will be running against a Trump mini-me in a district that is rated R+6.

So when Politico reports that “Progressives snatch much-needed wins in primary gauntlet,” the first thing to check is the political leanings of the state or district in which they ran. Regardless of race, insurgent Democrats tend to win in states or districts that are deeply blue.

As you can see, the three African American men mentioned by Martin don’t fit some sort of stereotype when it comes to the issues or their positioning on our standard left/right political continuum. The same can be said of the freshman class of 2018. On the insurgent left are candidates of color like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar from deeply blue congressional districts, while representatives like Sharice Davids, Collin Alred, and Lauren Underwood are more moderate and were elected in districts that had trended Republican.

Finally, we know that it was Black voters—especially in Southern states—who supported Joe Biden over Bernie Sanders in the presidential primary. In other words, they didn’t align themselves with the insurgent left that, as Marcus Johnson suggested, is more rooted among northern liberals.

What we can say with certainty is that, when it comes to political candidates, women and people of color are ascendant in the Democratic Party. But it is just lazy journalism to suggest that they are captured by either the “establishment” or “insurgent” wing of the party.

Support the Washington Monthly and get a FREE subscription

Nancy LeTourneau

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