ABC News, African American women, African Americans, Amy Klobuchar, Democrats, election 2020, gender, George Floyd, Im-Politic, Joe Biden, Leah Wright Riguer, police brutality, race relations, racism, This Week, vice president
I’m sure that Harvard University political scientist Leah Wright Riguer didn’t mean to voice her own bizarre elaboration of Joe Biden’s recent claim that “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.”
All the same, that’s awfully close to what she did in her appearance yesterday on ABC News‘ “This Week” news talk show as she struggled to explain why Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, didn’t really have to select an African American woman as his running mate in order to avoid charges of racism or racial insensitivity. In the process, she also inadvertantly revealed how confused – and how worrisomely confused – much Democratic (and by extension, much liberal and progressive) – thinking on race relations is. Strangely, however, they also can be seen as cause for some optimism.
Biden, you’ll recall, has promised to name a woman as his vice presidential choice, and due to the national furor over race relations and police brutality that’s followed the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis, it’s widely assumed that he now has no choice but to choose an African American woman. The case for making such a selection, as Riguer pointed out, is also reinforced by the importance of these women to the Democratic voting base.
But then Riguer, an African American ABC News Contributor, then revealingly expressed her own befuddling take on the issue. She was asked by moderator Jonathan Karl whether “Biden should choose an African-American woman as his running mate,” and whether (white) former vice presidential (and before that, presidential) candidate Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota is correct in claiming that a black female running mate is “pretty much” locked in.
Here’s how Riguer answered:
“So, it’s not necessarily a lock, although I think what we have to consider is that the base of the Democratic Party is black women.
“And black women are really pushing for their agenda and for their issues and for their needs to be front and center on the ticket, but also have somebody in the White House, whether it be vice president, whether it be president, that is going to fight for these issues and make them tangible. And so what we are seeing is that a lot of black women and a lot of the broader party is actually saying, yes, this is a black woman’s time.
“But I think it’s also important to actually listen to what these people are saying. And what they’re saying is that it doesn’t necessarily have to be a black woman. It has to be somebody who listens to black women’s issues.
“So, if there are candidates out there who happen to be black, who happen to be black women, but they’re not — they don’t have our best interests in mind, then perhaps we should be looking in a different direction.”
That final point is the key here. On the one hand, it was good to see that Riguer was clearly uncomfortable with a purist Identity Politics, African-American-Woman-Or-Bust stand. Let’s hope that all Americans can agree that when selecting a running mate a presidential candidate should be thinking first and foremost about who’s best qualified to be “a heartbeat away” from the world’s most powerful and important job. (Not that Riguer necessarily made that point.)
On the other hand, she also argued that black women who don’t “listen to black women’s issues” and “don’t have our best interests in mind” should be ruled out by the Democrats.
This argument isn’t exactly the same as Biden’s stated belief that identity can’t be defined correctly unless it’s defined in a way that’s useful for certain politicians and parties. But it’s close, and raises many more questions than it answers, especially when it’s taken down from the abstract level and used as guidance for Biden today.
It’s entirely understandable, after all, for African-American women to insist that Biden not select for the ticket an African-American Republican woman, or even a non-partisan female African American conservative. But even assuming that’s what Riguer was talking about, what have ever been the odds of that kind of decision being made? Practically zero. And that’s precisely because it’s hard to identify any African-American Democratic female politician, or other figure who’s prominently associated with Democrats (Oprah Winfrey? Former Obama administration national security adviser Susan Rice?) who’s not on board with how Riguer believes African American Democratic women (and she?) define “their best interests.”
At the same time, if Riguer is serious in maintaining that it’s not black female-ness as such that should determine Biden’s vice presidential pick, then why should race play any official, or even public, role at all? Those last two qualifiers are crucial, because there’s absolutely nothing new about presidential candidates choosing running mates mainly because they checked some demographic or geographical box deemed likely to help secure victory. So let’s not suddenly start standing on our high horses and insist that seeking an African American woman actively, or that naming one, would be anything close to unprecedented or is in any way improper.
But if Riguer is right in describing African-American women (and presumably many other Democrats) as prioritizing a pro-African-American woman agenda (whose definition wasn’t specified but isn’t important for our purposes here), over racial identity per se, then it’s legitimate to ask why racial (or gender or ethnic) identity should matter at all.
In fact, nothing could have been easier for intelligent, articulate people like Riguer (and Biden – or at least his handlers nowadays) to say than something on the order of “I’d like nothing better than to see (or pick) an African-American female (or any female) as a Democratic vice presidential candidate, and believe there are plenty of great choices out there. But I also believe that designating race and gender as the overriding priority would be wrong because so many other considerations are at least as important.”
But they didn’t. And I strongly suspect that the reason is that a purist Identify Politics position actually is the dominant Democratic dogma, and that in Riguer’s case specifically yesterday, she feared being read the riot act if she deviated explicitly from that party line. So she resorted to creating fantasies about plausible African-American female Democratic vice presidential hopefuls who aren’t all-in with the views of the party’s leading black female politicians.
One hopeful possibility: As suggested above, much as “hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue,” Riguer’s logical somersaults are an implicit admission that these views don’t pass the intellectual honesty test.
Another hopeful possibility – Biden’s apology for his “you ain’t black” remark. He acknowledged that “No one should have to vote for any party, based on their race or religion or background.” But as with Riguer, if this is true, and if he really believes it, and if he includes gender in his definition of “background,” then why promise to choose any kind of female as his running mate? Doesn’t the same principle apply? Shouldn’t it?
Straight talk (and thinking) on a subject as painful and important as race relations has rarely been more important in American history. These remarks by Riguer and Biden justify some optimism that Democrats are at least groping this goal. But they also make clear how far they have to go.