How important is ethnicity to politics

US election campaign : How the Democrats are contributing to the ethnic divide in the US

The US presidential campaign is not only getting dirty, it is also getting racist. That has been clear since this week, since Donald Trump asked four Democratic congressmen to go "back" to their countries, four American women, three of whom were born in America.

Ethnic origin and skin color also play a major role in the Democratic primary campaign

When Trump finds something that his core constituency likes, he moves on. The fact that skin color and ethnic origin will play a dominant role in this presidential election campaign is not just down to Donald Trump. The question of whether a candidate is a “person of color” also plays an important role for the Democrats. The bitter irony is: Now of all times, since with Donald Trump, open racism has returned to the national political stage, the dark side of the strong left identity politics of recent years are also clearly showing. The 2020 American presidential campaign threatens to turn into an ethnic-demographic clash. And there is a threat of a crisis in the idea of ​​representation.

At the end of June, during the first Democratic presidential debate, there was a scene between candidates Kamala Harris and Joe Biden that is symptomatic of this development (the second debate will take place on July 30th and 31st). Both black California politician Kamala Harris and Barack Obama's Vice President Joe Biden, a white man, are among the four favorites in the Democratic primary. In the days before, Joe Biden had talked about his good collaboration with ultra-conservative Democratic MPs from the southern states in the 1970s - this was intended as evidence that he would be able to overcome the hardening of the political camps in Washington. Kamala Harris took up this and accused Biden of having worked with these MPs to prevent "busing". In “busing” in the 1970s, black children were taken to better schools in predominantly white parts of the city in the mornings to overcome segregation. Legally, racial segregation had been abolished in schools since the 1950s, but in fact there were still “black” and “white” schools. Harris told her own story in her emotional reaction to Biden: "There was a little girl in California back then who was taken to school by bus every day," she said. "And that girl was me."

Like other people of color among the Democratic presidential candidates, Harris often emphasizes her blackness and speaks about her personal experiences. She likes to talk about listening to rap stars Snoop Dogg and Tupac and recently spoke to black women at a festival in New Orleans. In the front row sat members of "Alpha Kappa Alpha", the first black student union in the US to which Harris was a member.

Ethnic political identities have a long tradition - Trump's racism reinforces them

The fact that skin color and origin shape the political identity of black or Hispanic politicians is of course by no means new. In his recently published book "Fault Lines", Princeton historian Kevin Kruse shows that the division of the country into different, ethnically determined political identities began with the civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s. The legal end of segregation with the “Civil Rights Act” in no way led to a real end to the separation of ethnic groups in society. Rather, the legal separation has simply been reproduced socially. On the one hand, this was due to the racist reaction of white Americans: They withdrew to the suburbs, to private schools and sports clubs in order not to have to face the black population in everyday life. But also within the Afro-American population developed their own political awareness, also determined by demarcation. Black nationalists demanded not to adapt too much to the way of life of white Americans. When the civil rights movement was moved from the streets to Congress in the 1970s, the “Congressional Black Caucus” was founded there in 1971, and it still exists today. As early as the 1970s, these MPs felt less like representatives of their constituencies, writes Kruse, but rather as representatives of black America as a whole.

Black voters are an important group of voters for the Democrats

More recently, these ethnically determined political identities have been reinforced by several factors. On the one hand, there is the disappointment of many “people of color” about the ultimately meager progress made during the Obama years. Central injustices persist, for example the extremely high proportion of African-Americans in prisons, the fact that blacks are more likely to be victims of police violence, the large differences in health, educational opportunities and income. In his first term in office, the first black president of the United States was also extremely careful not to arouse suspicion of advocating the interests of black voters. He wanted to be the president of all Americans. When multiple cases of police violence against blacks rocked the nation and the #BlackLivesMatter movement was launched, Obama disappointed many black activists by initially reluctant to condemn the incidents.

Emphasizing one's origins also has a strategic component. Black voters are an important group of voters for the Democrats, making up a quarter of the electorate in the 2016 primaries. One of the first Democratic primary elections - the primaries begin in February 2020 - is taking place in South Carolina - where nearly a third of the population is black. In addition, there is now Donald Trump, who shot against migrants from the start and ingratiated himself with racists. One need only recall his reaction to the demonstration by racist groups in Charlottesville in August 2017, in which one of the participants drove his car into a group of counter-demonstrators and killed a woman. Trump then said there were “good people” on both sides of the marches.

The debate over minority rights and inequality in recent years has strengthened ethnic identities

But the strong debate about minority rights and inequality among left and liberals in recent years also plays a role. Both, the open racism of the Trump administration and the strong identity debate on the left, bring the origin and skin color of a person back into the focus of the public. The supposed otherness of different ethnic groups has become more identifiable and visible again. That would not be so dramatic in itself. However, determinism is spreading at the same time.

One of the most influential authors in this debate is the black essayist and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. In his books and essays he describes the historical legacy of slavery and “white supremacy”, white supremacy, as an overwhelming power that the present can hardly escape. And of course power is inherited, social inequalities are inherited, there is strong ideological continuity. But Coates is increasingly relating this to the ability of whites to even become aware of their privileges, let alone understand the situation of African-Americans in the US: "White people are fundamentally trapped," he once wrote. “It took generations to whiten them. It will take generations to turn that back. ”In other words, whoever is white cannot help but think and act“ white ”and make politics for whites. The American essayist Thomas Chatterton Williams criticized this attitude in Ta-Nehisi Coates as early as October 2017 and described it as “identity epistemology”, or “knowledge through being”.

Does a politician have to be able to "empathize" with everything - or is it enough to understand?

For politics - and not least for the Democrats - this means: It may not be political differences, it is differences in being that determine the perception of a candidate's suitability. It is not the agenda that counts, but the ontology. Kamala Harris also ties in with this when she says that she and her sisters were not allowed to play with the neighborhood children “because we are black” or that racism in her party should not be an “intellectual debate”. "I don't think you are a racist," she said to Joe Biden during the televised debate. But you don't get it either, she said with the rest of her verbal contribution.

There is of course no doubt that every person, including every politician, is shaped by their personal experiences and that whites cannot really relate to the experience of having to live as blacks in a racist society. But politics is not about “empathizing”, it is about understanding and developing political solutions. In a complex democratic society it is essential that political decisions can also be entrusted to people who have no personal, no direct experience in the field in which they make politics. If this is questioned, doubts also arise about a basic principle of democracy: the legitimacy of representation. The division of the nation into ethnic groups, which Donald Trump operates - it is also a problem for the Democrats. If whites cannot, in principle, feel well represented by a black candidate and blacks cannot feel well represented by a white woman, their electorate remains ethnically fragmented. Then the broad mobilization needed to beat Trump becomes difficult. E pluribus unum - out of many one - was the first coat of arms of the United States. In the 2020 presidential election campaign, the country seems to be moving further away from this idea.

Correction: In an earlier version of this text it was stated that Joe Biden had praised his good work with conservative Republican MPs in the 1970s. The MPs mentioned, James Eastland and Herman Talmadge, were "Dixiecrats", Conservative Democratic MPs from the southern states.

Now new: We give you 4 weeks of Tagesspiegel Plus! To home page