It’s Past Time for Politicians to Pay Attention to Voters of Color
Politicians can’t win elections by white votes alone anymore. They need to work much harder to appeal to voters of color, at least according to longtime political veteran Steve Phillips, author of Brown Is The New White: How The Demographic Revolution Has Created a New Majority.
Right before his Feb. 2 book release, Phillips talked to Care2 about what America’s changing racial landscape means for politics.
Care2: What inspired you to write this book?
Steve Phillips: I see it as a wake-up call to the progressive movement. I thought that party leaders understood the significance of Obama’s election and re-election [as] marking the beginning of a new era, where people of color and progressive whites are the mathematical majority of voters in the country. But I was alarmed to discover that message hasn’t been internalized by people leading progressive politics. They continue to waste millions of dollars every year chasing the shrinking sector of white swing voters.
Do you see candidates still focusing on white voters in the current presidential race?
That’s what’s going to be the determining point around how effective the campaigns are. Campaigns have to unapologetically run toward voters of color, rather than away from them. I would say, so far, there’s some level of rhetorical progress—the candidates just uttering the words ‘Black Lives Matter‘ and ‘institutional racism’—but that has to be followed by more ambitious policies and programs.
Why have politicians relied on white voters over those of color for so long?
[There are] three aspects to it. It’s easier to focus on more likely voters, who tend to be whiter, than it is to organize a large-scale voter mobilization program. A second reason [is] that it is a recent phenomenon where the numbers have flipped. Third, there is a persistence of implicit bias. This country has a history of not validating people of color and providing preference to white people.
People used to refer to populations of color as minorities. How should this demographic shift impact that language?
For hundreds of years in this country, the starting point in politics was, ‘What do white people think?’ I’m making the argument that the new starting point needs to be voters of color’s interests. The word ‘minority’ automatically tends to marginalize that population sector and that leads to de-prioritization [from] a policy and political standpoint. That’s why I use the phrase “new American majority.”
You note that 51 percent of all eligible voters today are people of color and progressive whites.
People of color have grown as a percentage of the population from 12 percent in the 1960s to 38 percent now. It has moved its way to the electorate, so 23 percent of all eligible voters are progressive people of color. Then, there’s always been a meaningful minority of whites who have sided with people of color and stood up for justice and equality. That’s the coalition that elected and reelected Obama, and that’s the coalition that’s growing every day.
Those most likely to vote in elections tend to be older, white conservatives. How do you mobilize this new majority of voters?
You have to inspire them with a compelling policy agenda that speaks to their needs. Groups who are most in need of health care reform are communities of color, yet in the off-year elections in 2014, many members of Congress refused to embrace that agenda. As a result, they failed to show the relevance [of] why anyone should participate.
And then secondarily is the resource piece. All progressive campaigns should be spending at least half of their money targeting communities of color—hiring staff people who come out of those communities, partnering with community-based organizations and churches. That’s how you build the capacity to increase turnout.
What do you want the impact of your book to be this election year?
Democrats must enthusiastically embrace communities of color, or else they’re going to lose. They’re going to lose the White House, and they will fail to take advantage of taking back the Senate. But if they move in this direction [Phillips is arguing for], then the outcome would be a Democrat winning the White House and taking out enough Senate seats to take back control of the U.S. Senate.
What would your ideal political world look like?
The point is to create a more just and equal society. We have the power to advance a transformative agenda for economic and social justice in this country. Ultimately, we no longer have to be constrained by our fears [that] conservative, white swing voters are powering.
Is there anything you want to add?
We are seeing this incredible backlash in our political discourse now—particularly in the form of Donald Trump, but really all conservatives—against the changes that were brought about through the civil rights movement. I feel like the progress of the past 50 years hangs in the balance this election. This is more than an academic conversation about what the composition of the electorate is; it really goes to what kind of country we’re going to be.
Interview has been edited for clarity and length.