No one political party has ever, in the history of politics in the U.S., attained a clean record when it comes to race and racism.
In the United States, race-baiting during elections is not restricted to one political party, despite one party increasingly identified with white voters and the other identified as more friendly to most people of color groups (see for yourself: http://www.people-press.org/2015/04/07/a-deep-dive-into-party-affiliation/). Living into white supremacy is something every presidential candidate does, whether it is for political expediency or an actual belief held by that candidate. Just listen to what candidates say about the U.S. relationship with China, and you’ll hear the shades of yellow peril slipping out.
Neither major party is known to be particularly responsive to the concerns of people of color, although the Congress did Native Americans and immigrants a solid with the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, closing a loophole that had allowed perpetrators of violence against Native American women to escape prosecution, and extending protections to immigrants escaping domestic violence. When Gwen Ifill moderated a debate in 2008 between the two vice presidential candidates, Dick Cheney and John Edwards, she asked a question about the rates of HIV infection among black women. Now, as someone who has a tendency to pay attention to public health policy and issues with a disproportionate impact on people of color, I thought everyone knew that black women at the time were experiencing very high rates of HIV infection. Neither vice presidential candidate was aware, and in my opinion, both fumbled their answers. This is only a minor example of the ways in which Democrats and Republicans remain largely unaccountable to communities of color.
President Clinton scapegoated “welfare queens” (not so subtly referring to poor black women) for social ills. President Obama’s administration stepped up deportations and detention of immigrants, most of whom are racialized in the U.S. context as people of color. The first time Hillary Clinton was a presidential candidate, her campaign engaged in cynical race-baiting in an effort to raise her profile over and against Barack Obama. Clinton talks down to Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists and has yet to address real gaps in her platform and her policy record. Sanders fumbled his solidarity with Black Lives Matters, showing much improvement with unveiling a racial justice platform (only after being challenged by activists). And the Democrat presidential field for 2016 lacks racial diversity.
Republicans provide plenty of spectacular examples of statements shaped by racism and white supremacist ideologies. Donald Trump thinks Mexicans are rapists and murders. Jeb Bush thinks anchor babies born of Asian women are a problem significant enough to merit mention during campaign speeches. Bobby Jindal and Ben Carson think people of color need to quit making such a big deal about race. Carly Fiorina thinks Chinese people can’t create anything (centuries of history to the contrary); instead they are trying to steal all our ideas. (Alert! Sharron Angle, of “some of you Latinos/as look a little Asian to me” fame, is attempting to run for the Republican nomination to Harry Reid’s Senate seat in 2016. The part of me that loves gaffes can’t wait.) Entire Republican debates have gone by without a reference to BLM. The persistent popularity of candidates who make blatantly racist statements (Trump) or subscribe to a colorblind ideology that limits appropriate diagnosis and treatment of racial injustice (Carson) says something about the commitment to racial justice among likely voters, many of whom claim to be Christian, and many of whom claim to be evangelical.
We have problems in this presidential race.
Christians who vote have diverse approaches to understanding and addressing racial disparities, racism, and injustice. This diversity often aligns with one political party or another, and it is not necessarily the problem. The problem is the lack of an articulate theologically based commitment to ending racism in the U.S. The problem is that some American Christian theologies continue to reinforce the false ideology of meritocracy (if you are oppressed, it’s because you didn’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps) and white supremacy (white people are, in fact, more created by God than any other people).
Christians who shrug when a black girl is thrown to the ground by a grown man because she had her phone in class, or who think it’s a good idea to round up all the immigrants and throw them out behind a wall paid for by a poorer neighboring country demonstrate the insufficiency of our theology. That many of us would protest about bringing politics into our faith, and say that violence against black women and men, the same policing system that is killing Native Americans at even higher rates, the indefinite detention and deportation of immigrants (many of whom are from Latin America), the invisibility of unequal access and persistent prejudice and poverty within particular Asian American ethnic groups, and ongoing hate crimes against people who “look” Muslim,” demonstrates our theology is thin, at best.
The problem is not that we have brought politics into faith. The problem is that the faith many of us bring to our politics is anemic, whitewashed, passive, privileges the already privileged, and prefers charity over justice.
But many Christians have a robust faith that pushes us to work for human rights. It causes us to trust people who are different from ourselves when they show us statistics and tell us stories about being unfairly targeted and discriminated against.
This race is not about who is president. It is about who we are and who we profess to believe.
The problems in this country are not someone else’s fault. They are our fault. My fault. Your fault. We as Presbyterians know better. Our confessions remind us weekly of our depravity and responsibility, while they remind us we are saved, redeemed, and beloved. We are reminded of the ramifications and inherent sinfulness of our actions and inactions.
Does it matter whether we end up with Clinton or Sanders or Trump or Carson or Rubio? It matters from a policy standpoint. But as we know from President Obama, one person with a pretty good analysis of racial injustice in the U.S. can’t cure a whole country. (For a more robust discussion of this, you can pre-order the forthcoming book on race here) The presidential race is not just about the presidency. Focusing too much on the presidential election ignores many of the races that make an even bigger difference in our day-to-day lives – local and state elections.
The question is, will we take this election to step up, claim responsibility, and work on our personal and systemic contributions? Or will we default to what is easy?
Race-baiting in election season is easy. Refusing to play this game is hard. Changing the game is harder. And creating new theological discourses among the average Christian may be the hardest of all.
The only way to change the game is to play it, and switch up the rules while we play. We can vote out of character. We can put pressure on our candidates to play differently. We can work with others to find a way to change the financing of campaigns and elections. We can use our moral voice; but only if we participate. We can expose ourselves to diverse theologies that challenge us to follow Jesus by moving between the pews and the streets.
And pinning our hopes and dreams on one party to best govern out of inclusion and justice instead of white supremacy? It’s foolish. We need more than one party’s ideas and more people power than one party can galvanize, to get us out of the mess. We need Jesus. And Jesus doesn’t have a party.