Exclusivity is a powerful word and an even more powerful experience. As people of color in America, we learn about exclusion early on. My father gardened for rich white folks after work and on the weekends. For his day job, he was a groundskeeper and later as a mechanic at the exclusive LA Country Club. Like many young children of immigrants, I was my father’s little helper on many work days.
My father was my hero. Just as it is excruciating to feel exclusion, it is similarly excruciating to see your hero humiliated. On those occasions when I witnessed my dad mistreated by the bosses, I was permanently affected by it. In each and every case, the boss was white and did not respect us. How could this not affect my entire worldview?
A decade or so later, I was involved in a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) for abuse and civil rights violations. They did not believe we should be allowed to hike and screw around at a park in a white neighborhood. When Mr. Williamson, our buddy Wayne’s grandfather and president of that westside chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) helped us hold a press conference and sue the LAPD, it was the first time in my life I saw someone publicly stand up for people like me.
Fast forward a decade and I was working at the Service Employees International Union Local 1877, where I saw the racial inequalities within our union and in Democratic political campaigns. For Democratic campaigns, white consultants serve as the all encompassing and all powerful “general consultant.” The people of color are relegated to physical jobs as the “body” person AKA the Driver, a disempowered “campaign manager“ who serves more like an office manager or facilitator. Where we are hired is as the underappreciated “field,” the most physically demanding and least paying jobs. Sound familiar?
Meanwhile, white consultants are the “strategists and brains” closely connected with all levels of Democratic Party officials and politicians. Unfortunately, the same is true for base organizations in the party like women’s groups, immigrant rights organizations and others. While some of these consultants might say it has been their work that turned California “blue,” I would argue it was more so the emergence of new generations of voters of color.
This lack of diversity in political consulting and staffing is exacerbated when white consultants hire their close friends, spouses, and college buds to do the most profitable elements of a campaign. This includes the fundraising, video production, lucrative media buys, social media work, material production and printing.
The racism against people of color staff and consultants is not just a disgrace, it also weakens a candidate’s platform. Establishment white consultants ignore the needs and desires of voters of color in favor of the whiter and more moderate “likely” voters. In doing so, those consultants push the candidate to the right in a way that would make Ronald Reagan proud. Take for example the lack of Democratic opposition over the last 20 years to the three strikes law, immigrant detention and deportation, union busting, the rapid growth of poverty industries like fast food and service, gay marriage bans, mass incarceration, youth incarceration, tax fairness, environmental racism, police abuse, and rent control.
Instead, the establishment consultants push their candidates to support the police officer and prison guard unions, to be sensitive to the victims of crime, to support racist criminal codes, to build prisons, to increase funding for police, and to give utility companies the rates and monopolies they want. To survive as substantively neoliberal moderates, the political class is infatuated with being stylistically liberal with superficial appeals and nods to identity politics.
Establishment Democratic consultants accept the role of immigrants as workers with limited rights and limited social mobility. The best example is DACA, which is essentially a dubious legal status we can best describe as “deport you later.” DACA after all comes with no permanent status, no legal right to many professional licenses, no voting, and no qualifications for social security or most public benefits. Imagine telling Black voters to support bringing back the Dred Scott decision? Ridiculous, right? But establishment consultants, and heads of Democratic base organizations like unions and community based organizations accept DACA support as a sufficient Democratic platform.
Democratic candidates would better connect with voters if they embrace the experience of working class people of color in their platforms, talking points, staff, materials, and more. They should also become more dynamic and expand the scope of their proposals so voters can buy into them and be more interested in the outcome of the elections. Instead, many voters of color say, “why vote, nothing changes.”
Diversity of talent, life experiences, and platforms make campaigns richer, more comprehensive and inspire new voters, while energizing those voters who are looking for the enactment of meaningful social, political and economic changes. As we enter the stretch drive of the presidential campaign, you see another season of moderate proposals that fall short of being real solutions while shrugging their shoulders with the meaningless message of “You want us or Trump?” It is time we say that we want real changes, and a good step in that direction is leadership on electoral teams that actually speaks to the needs of working people.