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Late on election night, when the betting markets were just realizing that Trump’s path to victory had narrowed, and leading voices on the left were lamenting the failure of anything resembling a blue wave to swell up and wash the country clean, Ruben Gallego, a Democratic congressman from Arizona and an Iraq War veteran, tweeted a triumphant message to his supporters: “Az Latino vote delivered! This was a 10 year project.” Gallego had ample reason to rejoice. For the first time since 1996, a Democratic presidential candidate had won the state of Arizona, thanks in large part to strong Hispanic support. This development stood in sharp contrast to outcomes in Texas and Florida, where Latinos provided crucial votes for Trump, and in California, where they even helped to doom a pro–affirmative action ballot measure. In light of this fragmented result—and amid much hand-wringing in the media over whether Latinos still form a coherent category in our obsessively charted racial landscape—one user responded:

Ruben, honest question, how do we as a party improve our work with the LatinX community across the country as well as we’ve done in AZ? Its so frustrating to see so many republican LatinX voters, but I know its on people like me to help convince them dems are the place to be.

Gallego’s blunt reply went viral: “First start by not using the term Latinx,” he told him. The MSNBC host Joy Reid, who only hours earlier had referred to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as “Uncle Clarence,” popped into the thread dumbfounded, seeming surprisingly out of touch for a professional commentator. “Can you elaborate on this a bit more?” she asked Gallego, with what seemed like genuine incredulity. “I was under the impression that this was the preferred term, and as a Black person, I’m definitely sensitive to what people prefer to be called.”

In fact, not only is “Latinx” decidedly not the term most Latinos choose, but a significant number—about three fourths of the Latino population—have never even heard of it. A bilingual national survey conducted in December 2019 by the Pew Research Center found that a mere 3 percent of Latinos use the descriptor. And yet, the “new, gender-neutral, pan-ethnic label, Latinx, has emerged as an alternative,” the report observes. It is what prominent progressives—from Elizabeth Warren to Ibram X. Kendi—insist on using to describe a community to which they do not themselves belong. During the Democratic primaries, Senator Warren tweeted, “When I become president, Latinx families will have a champion in the White House. #LatinxHeritageMonth.”

“When [Latinx] is used I feel someone is taking away some of my culture,” Gallego wrote in response to Reid’s question. “Instead of trying to understand my culture they decided to change it to fit their perspective.”

The disagreement over such progressive jargon may seem like inside baseball to those who aren’t extremely online, but it is worth considering seriously, emblematic as it is of deeper fissures in the always tenuous patchwork of identity groups and economic classes that constitutes the contemporary Democratic coalition. The lives of progressive, college-educated, predominantly white “coastal elites” have become far removed from those of white Republicans, but more significantly from those of the nonwhite voters their party depends on to remain electorally viable—and whose validation lends them an air of virtuousness. The battle over “Latinx” might be understood as an instance of what the conservative commentator Reihan Salam has called “intra-white status jockeying”—an opportunity for “those who see themselves as (for lack of a better term) upper-whites . . . to disaffiliate themselves from those they’ve deemed lower-whites.” What Gallego knows, and can’t help but bristle at, is the fact that this semantic gatekeeping is ultimately not even about Latinos.

Last February, whites on the left expressed shock and disappointment when Joe Biden beat the surging Bernie Sanders in the South Carolina primary, due in large part to moderate and conservative black primary voters who chose to reject the socialism they’d been told was in their best interest. Why should this have been surprising? Again, according to widely publicized research conducted by Pew, black Americans’ self-reported ideology has remained relatively stable throughout the twenty-first century. In 2019, about 40 percent of black Democratic voters considered themselves “moderate,” while an additional 25 percent identified as conservative. Just 29 percent of black Democrats described their views as “liberal.”

Yet these glimpses into the heterogeneity of black and Latino—to say nothing of Asian—political preferences did not prepare influential progressives for the far less welcome November revelation that Donald Trump—whose behavior and associations have earned him the reputation of a kleptocratic xenophobe, if not an outright fascist—had gained traction with every major demographic (including Muslim voters, despite his travel ban). In a year of inescapable talk of racial identity and white supremacy, mass protests against systemic and interpersonal racism, and a fifteen-thousand-person rally in Brooklyn for black trans lives during the height of the pandemic, the extraordinary irony was that one of the very few groups whose support for Trump declined even modestly was white males.

“This is so personally devastating to me,” began an emotional thread of tweets from the New York Times columnist Charles Blow the morning after the election. “The black male vote for Trump INCREASED from 13% in 2016 to 18% this year. The black female vote for Trump doubled from 4% in 2016 to 8% this year.” Analyzing the exit polls (which are admittedly imperfect), he also picked out white women and LGBTQ voters for opprobrium—“the percentage of LGBT voting for Trump doubled from 2016. DOUBLED!!!”—before landing on an insight that should spur an enormous amount of introspection on the left:

The percentage of Latinos and Asians voting for Trump INCREASED from 2016, according to exit polls. Yet more evidence that we can’t depend on the “browning of America” to dismantle white supremacy and
erase anti-blackness.

Not only did Latinos, Asians, and, it must be reiterated, black voters join whites in delivering Trump more votes than the record 69.5 million Barack Obama got in 2008—more votes, that is, than any candidate in the history of the United States except Biden—they also upended assumptions down-ballot as well. In California, Proposition 16, the lavishly funded proposal to once again allow race and gender to be considered in government hiring and contracting and in public-university admissions, was roundly defeated, despite the state’s shifting demographics in the twenty-four years since the ban on affirmative action was imposed (white people now make up 36 percent of the population, second to Latinos at 39 percent).

The measure commanded strong support in just five counties in the Bay Area as well as the city of Los Angeles, Alexei Koseff noted in the San Francisco Chronicle: The “yes” campaign “vastly outspent opponents and drew high-profile endorsements from across the political spectrum,” yet the supposed progressive landslide didn’t come.

Fashionable narratives about the Democratic coalition and its members’ goals and ambitions can efface what many minorities think is in their best interest. Such misreadings are not just insensitive but dangerous. They can lead Democrats to pursue ill-conceived, poorly articulated policies that backfire to the benefit of conservatives, or worse, inflict harm on vulnerable communities.

The recent push to defund the police is one of the most extravagant examples of what is, at best, high-minded intellectual recklessness. Those calling to do so “have shown a complete disregard for the voices and perspectives of many members of the African American community,” Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil-rights lawyer who formerly led the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP, told the Star Tribune in July, after the city council moved to defund the MPD in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. “We have not been consulted as the city makes its decisions, even though our community is the one most heavily impacted by both police violence and community violence.”

The tragic reality is that homicides in Minneapolis increased by 50 percent in 2020. More than 500 people had been shot by December, the most in a decade and a half. Meanwhile, the city’s mayor noted a “historic” rate of attrition among Minneapolis police, with twice as many leaving the force as in a typical year. Though 2020 was exceptionally frustrating for many reasons, most notably the substantial loss of life and of economic security wrought by COVID-19, it’s hard to imagine that a stark drop in officer morale didn’t contribute to the mayhem.

Like the niche semantic preference for “Latinx,” but with far more direct and dire consequences, viral slogans such as “abolish the police”—created by people of color, but powerfully amplified by whites situated at a considerable remove—have been foisted on black communities that have a far more equivocal relationship with policing than is often acknowledged.

Online, some very audible voices argue for the abolition of prisons and police departments. Offline, countless black Americans are forced to confront the harsh inadequacy of stark rhetorical binaries. They are overpoliced and underpoliced at the same time. Outside the brutal videotaped killings by police that fill our news feeds, or the numbing grind of quotidian degradations like stop-and-frisk, it is underpolicing that causes the most harm. Jill Leovy’s masterly 2015 book, Ghettoside, presents a thorough, unsentimental account of the social dynamics plaguing American cities and the senseless killings that routinely occur in them—often perpetrated, as we are so frequently reminded, by other black people. Leovy quotes the Harvard legal scholar Randall Kennedy: “The principal injury suffered by African-Americans in relation to criminal matters is not overenforcement but underenforcement of the laws.” The late Tupac Shakur put it most vividly in making a case for black self-defense in a 1994 BET interview: “We next door to the killer,” he practically screamed. “We next door to ’em, you know, ’cause we up in the projects, where there’s eighty n——s in the building. All them killers that they letting out, they right there in that building. But it’s better just ’cause we black, we get along with the killers or something? We get along with the rapists ’cause we black and we from the same hood? What is that? We need protection, too!” Anyone who speaks with black people outside of academic or activist circles knows that this is hardly a fringe view.

Americans of all backgrounds—from Tea Party whites who despise the Obamacare they’ve come to depend on, to Latinos and Asians of immigrant backgrounds who support a strongman who scapegoats foreigners as parasitic invaders—are united by one trait: no one wants to see himself as a hapless victim who must be protected from higher-caste oppressors and invisible systemic forces. In my own experience, whenever I’ve tried to make the point that racial groups are not and cannot possibly be monolithic, I’ve been accused (often by white progressives) of proximity to whiteness, of having lost touch with authentic marginalized reality. In that case, there seem to be significant numbers of black, Latino, and Asian voters who have lost touch alongside me.

All of this has profound implications for the incoming administration and, beyond that, for the future of the Democratic Party, as the sharp antagonism between the new left embodied by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the establishment have shown. What does Biden plan to do about this divide? Will he heed the empirically compelling insights of people such as James Clyburn, the black South Carolina congressman and civil-rights leader who played an instrumental role in his success? (“Sometimes I have real problems trying to figure out what ‘progressive’ means,” Clyburn, a critic of what he has called social-justice “sloganeering,” admitted on NBC in November.) Or is the videotaped message Biden posted on Thanksgiving—in which he vaguely pledged that the country would “finally root out systemic racism”—a better indication of the shape of things to come?

If it was not clear already, one stinging lesson from 2020 is that our countrymen are not buying what the online activist class is trying to sell, no matter how morally righteous their doctrine may be. Whether this will somehow change, and the country can be governed like a graduate seminar on critical race theory, remains to be seen. What is apparent is that, should that profound shift come to pass, significant and growing numbers of nonwhite, non-straight, non-Christian people will ardently oppose it.

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October 2021

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