May 19, 2022
Dems lean into race, diversity to build what activists call a ‘new American majority coalition’
President Biden’s history-making nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court set a new marker in the Democrats’ pursuit of diversity politics that now permeates the party’s agenda. With Mr. Biden’s now-fulfilled pledge to nominate a Black woman to the high court and policy goals on election laws, policing, child care and education, Democrats…

President Biden’s history-making nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court set a new marker in the Democrats’ pursuit of diversity politics that now permeates the party’s agenda.

With Mr. Biden’s now-fulfilled pledge to nominate a Black woman to the high court and policy goals on election laws, policing, child care and education, Democrats have thrust race and diversity to the forefront of the political conversation.

They also are testing whether going all-in on identity politics is a winning formula at the ballot box.

Steve Phillips, the author of “Brown is the New White” and founder of the race-focused activist group Democracy in Color, said Democrats are making the smart move. He said the party is creating a “new American majority coalition” composed of liberal Whites and voters of color.

“People of color are the most Democratic voters, so logic dictates that you should maximize the number of votes from your strongest supporters,” Mr. Phillips said. “To increase turnout of a constituency grappling with the manifestations of systemic racism, you have to convince those people that you care about and will improve the conditions of their lives.”

Trying to win over White swing voters is a fool’s errand and fails to take into account the larger pool of voters of color every election cycle, he said.

“That minority of Whites plus the sizable majority of people of color is a winning coalition,” Mr. Phillips said. “But it must be inspired and mobilized.”

Mr. Biden and Democrats are hoping the Jackson nomination energizes the Black voters and the liberal base of the party without alienating moderate or conservative-leaning voters who are more interested in the party’s plans for bolstering the economy.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, opened Judge Jackson’s nomination hearing Monday by highlighting the historical significance of the moment. He noted that she is the first Black woman to be nominated to the court in its 230-year history.

“Not a single justice has been a Black woman. You can be the first,” Mr. Durbin said. “It’s not easy being the first. In some ways, you have to be the best, in some ways the bravest.”

Sen. Cory A. Booker, New Jersey Democrat, celebrated the diversity of Mr. Biden’s judicial picks.

“President Biden has nominated the first-ever Article III Muslim judge to our federal courts,” said Mr. Booker, who is Black. “He nominated the first openly LGBTQ woman to serve on our federal courts.”

“He nominated Native American and Asian American candidates who have appeared before this committee,” he said. “They herald the truth of who we are as a country, an inclusive multicultural nation that shows the world a promise of a true democracy.”

Championing diversity also is fraught with political challenges, said Jim Kessler, executive vice president of policy at Third Way, an anti-partisan Washington think tank.

He cautioned that diversity can be misperceived — or purposely misconstrued by Republicans — as far-left opposition to a wider embrace of the electorate.

“On the Democratic side, I think there is always a risk that we look at diversity as the only option rather than it being among many options,” Mr. Kessler said. “Democrats are at their best when they are seen as fighting for everybody and not particular interest groups or ethnic groups.

“There is a lazy political view out there that people of color means left, and that is not the case,” he said. 

That dynamic surfaced in the 2020 elections when the far left’s embrace of the “defund the police” movement and “socialism” turned off some voters of color.

“So I think you can tell this microstory: We raised the salience of an ideologically charged issue that millions of non-White voters disagreed with us on,” David Shor, head of data science at Blue Rose Research, a liberal group, told New York Magazine last year. “And then, as a result, these conservative Hispanic voters who’d been voting for us despite their ideological inclinations started voting more like conservative Whites.”

Mr. Biden has been trying to strike a balance between addressing voters’ concerns about rising crime without angering liberal activists who blame police for trampling over the civil rights of Black and brown people.

For Democrats, the nomination hearing follows a series of legislative setbacks that have derailed their push to strengthen “voter rights,” overhaul policing, provide paid leave and extend an expanded child tax credit that made direct monthly payment to parents with income up to $150,000 a year. All of those issues, according to Democrats, included a racial equity element.

Mr. Biden also has deployed executive action and federal rule-making to promote equity and opportunities for Black people. He set the tone shortly after assuming office by issuing an executive order that called for a “whole-of-government equity agenda that matches the scale of the opportunities and challenges that we face.” 

He has filled his Cabinet with a wide array of people from diverse backgrounds and used his executive branch authority to address what he described as racial injustices in the courts and the elections.

Questions about race and diversity also dominated the Democratic National Committee’s winter meeting as members considered reshuffling the presidential nomination calendar and giving preference to states with diverse populations. 

Activists have long held that Iowa is too White to host the first nomination contest.

“I already think the Democrat Party has a problem,” said Craig Robinson, a longtime Iowa Republican activist. “It is a party that is hyperfocused on major minority segments of America — LGTBQ, immigrants and minorities — and there is a big swath of America that doesn’t believe that that party even communicates to them anymore.”

Republicans, meanwhile, say Judge Jackson is qualified for the Supreme Court but Mr. Biden’s pandering to minority groups sends a message to most voters that their race and gender disqualify them for getting a look.

“Most people believe you should select the person who is most qualified regardless of age, sex, gender preference, place of national origin or hair color,” said Charlie Gerow, a Republican Party strategist and gubernatorial candidate in Pennsylvania. “I’m a brown American and very proud of that, so I understand completely the needs, concerns and wants of Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans, etc., but that does not mean that we ought to be making appointments based solely upon those factors.”

The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research released a poll last month that found 48% of Americans say it’s not important to them personally that a Black woman becomes a Supreme Court justice. Another 23% say it’s somewhat important, and 29% say it’s very or extremely important.

The poll showed Mr. Biden’s promise is resonating with Black Americans, 63% of whom say it’s very or extremely important to them personally that a Black woman serves on the court, compared with 33% of Hispanics and 21% of White Americans.

• Alex Swoyer contributed to this report.

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