Coat of Many Colors

New York City’s mayoral primary was this week, and the discussion reveals many of the dumb ways we think and talk about race, power, and representation.

The narrative around New York politics has long been about identity and voting blocs: blacks, Puerto Ricans, Chinese, Jews, LGBTQ folks have their own enclaves, candidates, and voting patterns. Candidates for City Council or Mayor play to certain constituencies with certain targeted messages.

This election scrambled all that. The queer woman candidate lost among women and LGBTQ folks by double-digit margins, the Chinese candidate couldn’t carry the Chinese vote, and the African-American candidate couldn’t carry the black vote. In the space of two months, Bill de Blasio, the public advocate (a largely symbolic post), came from nowhere to the cusp of a runoff-avoiding plurality.

So how did he do it? And why did Thompson and especially Quinn implode? Here’s where the dum-dums step to the mic.

Let’s get a couple of things straight. It’s insulting to think that representation trumps reality: Liu lost the Chinese vote because people could see him implode, and De Blasio convinced them that he couldn’t win and they should get on board with someone who could. And Thompson lost the black vote because he didn’t come out against stop-and-frisk, while De Blasio did, strongly. There’s pride in seeing one of your own come to power, but they have to deliver. It’s as simple as that. People can see what’s in front of them. So stop being surprised that people didn’t automatically line up behind “their” candidate.

You’ll note that the common factor in the above two examples is De Blasio’s cunning. Another element of it is the ad that featured his family, his African-American wife and their Afro’d teenage son. As the NYT points out in a fascinating piece about his campaign strategy, the ad made clear that De Blasio’s opposition to stop and frisk wasn’t just a progressive checklist item, but grounded in a real fear about his son’s well being. Bloomberg called this tactic “racist.” I mean, honestly. This is like Chief Justice Roberts saying “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” No, sorry, it’s by educating people about the fictitious (as in, socially constructed) nature of race and emphasizing that part of people’s common humanity is their ability to draw on many different identities – and not be defined or determined by any one of them. Again, why is this so hard to grasp?

Don’t even get me started on how these fallacies play out in philanthropy. Suffice it to say that we need to make room for people to say the wrong thing so that real, sensible conversations can happen about how to acknowledge, respect, and balance differences of background and identity. If NYC voters can see past convenient labels to the reality of a candidate’s life and convictions, then funders have to be able to talk constructively about how and why they may or may not target particular racial or ethnic populations – without being called racist or automatically being thought of as progressive. What’s the thought process? We could all stand to do more unpacking of mental-emotional models via that kind of question.

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