By Jonathan Martin
The irony was difficult to miss: on the same day that racist images surfaced from Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey announced his bid to become the nation’s second black president and entered what is the most diverse campaign field in history.
But the near-simultaneous reminders of the country’s ugly past on race and the prospects for a more inclusive future were not just a matter of happenstance: It reflected the duality of U.S. politics in the Trump era.
The largest class of women were just sworn into Congress in January. The congressional black and Hispanic caucuses are as big as they have ever been. Several Democratic candidates for president — female, black, Hispanic, Asian-American, gay — reflect the diversity of the country. And Tuesday night, a leading African-American politician, Stacey Abrams of Georgia, will appear before millions to give the Democratic response to the State of the Union.
If President Donald Trump’s election amounted to an angry rejoinder to America’s first black president, as many on the left believe, Trump has created a backlash of his own, energizing women and people of color who represent an unmistakable rebuke to his demagoguery on race and ethnicity and his misogynistic attacks.
But the president is also reshaping Democratic politics in far-reaching ways: His divisive behavior, and the Republican silence that often meets it, has pushed Democrats to try to set an example by aggressively confronting current and past misconduct in their own ranks, as they did with Northam, the Virginia leader who has admitted to one racist episode — wearing blackface at a dance contest — and has struggled to explain a racist photo and the nickname “coonman” on his yearbook pages.
And since Trump’s election, Democrats are also speaking far more bluntly about issues of race and identity at a time when their base is increasingly made up of people of color and white progressives.
In doing so, Democrats have been giving no quarter to their own. Former Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., found that out in 2017, when his own colleagues gave him little choice but to resign in the wake of sexual harassment accusations. Some Democrats were concerned that party leaders like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., were moving too fast against one of their own, Franken; Gillibrand defended her stand and is now running for president, partly on her commitment to gender equality.
Northam discovered the zero-tolerance posture of his party within hours of the picture of a man in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan robes appearing online.
The governor’s aides quickly telephoned Democrats working for some of the 2020 hopefuls, pleading with the candidates not to call for his resignation, according to a Democrat familiar with the conversations, but to no avail. Some of the first party figures to call on Northam to step down were the White House candidates like former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro and Sen. Kamala Harris of California.
The party rank-and-file and leadership alike are eager to hear female and nonwhite presidential candidates talk about their identities and backgrounds and how those have shaped their lives, which is strikingly different from the 2008 Democratic primary, when some Democrats counseled Hillary Clinton to downplay her gender and Barack Obama to avoid emphasizing his race.
“The backlash against Trump’s hate has created more space and openness about issues of race and gender, at least in circles that are open to having those conversations,” said state Rep. Gina Hinojosa, a Texas Democrat.
But the expectations on the 2020 hopefuls to talk candidly about their own experiences, and how they relate to some of the country’s thorniest and deep-seated challenges, are not only being placed on the shoulders of the women and racial minorities in the field.
“We need to hear from the white candidates about their whiteness and how white privilege has affected their lives,” said Brittany Packnett, a racial justice activist, adding: “Not only is it politically safe, it’s politically necessary to have this conversation.”
There is also more grassroots pressure on the party’s incumbent lawmakers, especially those who represent progressive and often-diverse constituencies. Two of the most high-profile House freshman, Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., won their seats by defeating old-guard Democrats, both of them white men, in primaries. And there are similar races taking place at the state legislative level across the country.
“People are demanding more from elected officials because of what we’re dealing with in the White House,” said Yasmine Taeb, an Iranian-American human rights lawyer in Virginia who is challenging one of the state’s most powerful state senators in a primary this year.
As demonstrated by Northam, who admitted to putting shoe polish on his face once for a Michael Jackson-themed party, there are plenty of Democrats who have acted in ways the party cannot tolerate. But what is disheartening to many in the party is that they are seeing uneven gains beyond their ranks.
“Democrats are finally starting to move in the right direction,” said Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., who just finished a stint as head of the Congressional Black Caucus. “But Republicans and the country at large have a ways to go.”
He pointed to what has become routine stories about the police being called to check on black people who were not violating any laws. “Every week there’s a new one,” said Richmond, pinning the blame on Trump for the rise in racist incidents and spike in hate crimes. “I think he enables those who don’t want us to move forward.”