CT needs more BIPOC, low-income political leaders
For so many people, American politics these days is like watching someone else play a video game. They make bad decisions, wreak havoc on your community, and then sign off as they please, leaving you stuck with the fallout.
This is especially the case for BIPOC and low-income communities, which literally have their skin in the game but little political control — yes, even within the Democratic Party.
People of color and from low-income backgrounds in Connecticut, like other states, have flocked to the Democratic Party’s doorstep for generations and have often been welcomed with open arms. Other times, we find that our expectations of the Democratic Party as a place of political refuge are shattered by a stubborn failure to make impactful progress on the issues that matter most to us. This dysfunction is by no means limited to Democrats, but black, Hispanic and Asian voters remain overwhelmingly Democratic, even if the party leadership doesn’t match those demographics often enough.
Here in Connecticut, only two of the state’s seven Democratic Party officers are of color, and the Republican leadership is no better. Our congressional delegation follows a similar trend: one in seven people is a person of color (US Representative Jahana Hayes) and there is no Hispanic or Asian representation.
Asked what happens when party leadership doesn’t look like or relate to its most underserved constituents, Subira Gordon, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now (ConnCAN), said he was big time to change.
“History has proven that the way the party has been run for the past 50 years has not been beneficial to communities of color,” she said. “I think it’s because party leaders haven’t had experiences from a marginalized point of view.”
According to Gordon, we have seen incredibly stagnant progress in closing various racial gaps in Connecticut. The achievement or opportunity gap – the differential between the performance of students of color compared to their white counterparts – is just one area Gordon has his eye on as head of one of the organizations Connecticut’s most politically involved education advocacy group.
But persistent gaps also hurt housing options, earning potential and health outcomes, she said.
“Connecticut is the most segregated state in the country, in part because of redlining,” she said. “That story is right there and it’s in our face. If we look at the wealth gap and access to educational options, this is directly related to redlining and segregation.
And families today are struggling because of this history, she said.
“You can empathize, but if you can’t say you had the experience, that’s very different,” she said. “When it comes to leadership, it’s hard for me to see a person who has never had to think about their [mortality] when a cop stops them, knowing how to support police reform.
This point applies at all levels if you think about it. Regardless of how marginalized you are – race, poverty, sexuality, gender – it’s reasonable to ask whether you have adequate representation in politics. Can someone who has never had to choose which bill gets paid each month make effective decisions about unemployment policies? How could someone who has gone to the best schools in the state understand what it is like to choose between a failing school or a slightly less failing school?
At the very least, consider how someone who was lucky enough or privileged to never have lost someone to gun violence might make decisions about gun control. How can someone who has never missed rent understand the fear of impending eviction? Despite our best efforts, empathy only gets us so far.
“It’s important for us to have someone who is not a straight, white male at the helm of the party,” Gordon said. “Not being able to understand these experiences can prevent you from making the right decision or doing what is necessary to change these systems.”
Race is a funny thing when it comes to politics.
We act like it’s rude to make decisions based solely on race. I see this as a willful ignorance and disregard for the real disadvantages faced by blacks and browns simply because of our nation’s relationship to skin color.
On the national stage, I’m sick of being represented by older white men who, though well-meaning, betray the most underserved members of the party by saying things like, “We should all agree that the answer is not to defund the police, it is to defund the police,” as President Joe Biden said in his State of the Union address this year.
“To see the president reinforce the idea of funding a system that intends to kill blacks and browns without question shows us that the state is beholden to its violence against blacks and browns, and people government are constantly negotiating for this outcome,” said Kerry Ellington, a longtime New Haven community organizer. “That’s why we see such low voter turnout in our communities. as it is.
Ellington said she believes the combination of more organizational resources, political leadership, and community opportunities would allow for policies and practices that truly match community needs.
After two years of racial protests in which dozens of people took to the streets to clearly articulate their demands in three small words, Biden’s message on the police has left each of them behind and ignored the pleas of those who suffer the most – people who often don’t look like him.
At first glance, this may sound like an argument to jump ship and switch sides. And before the 2016 election campaign, I’m sure masses of BIPOC voters thought about it. But it wasn’t long before it became clear that Republican leaders act with such contempt for people who aren’t straight, white or male that they cut off their noses to spite their faces on most politics.
So what’s the next step? Let the marginalized lead.
Communities of color, women, LBGTQIA+ people, the poor and other marginalized cannot make enough progress with leaders who do not relate to our issues. Until our Governors, Senators, Representatives and President consistently resemble those most affected by politics, the gaps Gordon mentioned will never close, leaving a wake of injustice to fill the void.
Allyship demands something new and different every year. This year, it is clear that joining forces in politics could mean stepping back as a political leader and letting promising BIPOC candidates, women and gay people occupy the seats currently occupied by those who have nothing to lose and everything to win.
It’s time to let a greater variety of people who have skin in the game hold the controls.