Having been a part of the hard left as a teenager and young adult, I often found it perplexing as to why minority friends of mine were not impressed with my Noam Chomsky inspired views. They understood the inherent racism of Western imperialism, the structural inequalities built into capitalism, and also believed that both parties in America were complicit in the current status quo. Why then, were they not as militant as I was?
After I left college, I rarely came across non-white people who thought there should be a third party in US politics, that the Democrats were “just as bad” as the Republicans, and not voting in protest of the corrupt system was a good or moral idea. Black friends of mine would mostly agree with what I was saying, but calmly point out that America had always been this way, and that there was little that could be done about it. I disagreed vehemently, believing passionately that something could and had to be done, that destroying the system would bring about the change we needed. If only people would listen to the logic and vote for the hard core leftists outside of the political system who really knew what was going on, we could do achieve radical change.
It took a number of years for me to figure out why none of my minority friends saw things the same why I did. Over time, I began to see that because I was so enamored with my own brilliance, I could not see that my own experience of life had colored the way I thought politics in America worked.
As a white, Jewish and middle class male, I was used to things working out for me. I could go to whatever school I wanted to, could complain to figures authority and have them listen to me, walk down the street without getting arrested at night, drive without getting pulled over, and have people take me seriously because I spoke with a British accent. If I made a fuss about something, I could effect change, and goddamnit, if I wanted change in society then if I shouted loudly enough about it, it would change.
It began to occur to me however, that this was not everyone else’s experience of living in America. I was particularly struck by the attitude of my black friends, who were never shocked by the insanity of Fox News and Republican politicians. Blowhards like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, were as far as I was concerned, so crazy that they should be kicked off the air. No news show in the UK would have anyone so nakedly partisan and intellectually bankrupt host anything serious, so why on earth were they headline shows in the US?
“That’s just America being America,” one black friend told me. “See, we’re just used to it, so it’s normal for us. There’s nothing you can do to change it.”
The longer I lived in America and the more I interacted with immigrant communities, the more I began to see the country as it really was, not as I believed it should be. This really hit home when I met my wife, a Peruvian American whose parents emigrated to the States in the 1980’s.
My wife’s parents view of what is possible is very, very different to mine. It is far less idealistic and much more pragmatic. My father-in-law has generally voted according to what will be good for his construction business, which means mostly Republican (Donald Trump aside). My mother-in-law doesn’t pay too much attention to politics, preferring instead to focus more on her family, religion and friendship circle. My wife is interested in politics and is well informed, but does not get too worked up about it.
My family on the other hand, always voted on principle, spend hours debating politics, and still fanatically keep up to date with the news.
“White people love to get worked up about that kind of thing,” my wife jokes regularly. “Latin people think it’s pretty silly. They think you should be focused on your family!”
Of course there is a rich history of minority resistance to oppressive policies in America, but, at least in my experience, most minorities in America just want to get on with their lives without too much trouble. They resist the notion that a great (usually white) politician is going to save them and they vote pragmatically, not ideologically. Why? Because they aren’t gullible, don’t believe in saviors, and do not have the same sense of entitlement white progressives like my (former) self usually have. My father in law for example, recognized the threat of Donald Trump posed to people like him, and voted for Hillary Clinton (I also believe he was deeply opposed to him from a moral point of view too).
It is telling that minorities overwhelmingly voted for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries in 2016, eschewing the politics of Bernie Sanders — a huge favorite amongst white college students and hard left liberals. As Politico reported:
Sanders coming from seemingly nowhere to seriously challenge Clinton while drawing historically large and enthusiastic crowds has soaked up much of the attention in the Democratic race, making it feel as though he’s hit a chord that resonates throughout the party. But his brand of idealism has been rejected by the majority of minority voters—Clinton won every contest with at least a 10 percent black population, except Michigan, and each state where Latinos make up at least 10 percent of eligible voters, except Colorado
The Politico piece also noted that the hardcore Sanders supporters “mocked” minorities who voted for Clinton “for supposedly ‘voting against their self-interest’ because they refuse to believe a political revolution is at hand”.
It hadn’t of course occurred to the Bernie militants that minorities didn’t vote for Sanders because he almost certainly wouldn’t have beaten the Republican candidate (although they have dozens of articles on hand from The Intercept and The Nation that apparently prove otherwise). While Hillary Clinton was not as morally pure as Sanders, she was a damn sight better than whatever crackpot the GOP were set to nominate as their candidate. This was obvious to most people outside of hard left, almost exclusively white circles. Minorities in America don’t have the luxury of voting for candidates who pledge to implement single payer health care, get rid of the NSA and ban gas driving cars if they are going to lose. It is as simple as that. I personally preferred Bernie Sanders to Hillary Clinton, but was not particularly bothered when he lost as I thought both candidates were actually pretty good.
Politics is a messy, horrible business, but as you mature in life, you begin to realize that life is a messy, horrible business. But you do your best with what you have, and try not to complain too much. Perhaps it is the case that African Americans and other minorities in America just reach this conclusion a lot faster than people like me.