Progressives, liberals, and Democrats are making a big mistake by ignoring the silenced majority among them
In the months leading up to the 2016 Presidential election, I’d get up every morning and check the forecasts. And every morning they’d tell me Hillary Clinton was going to clobber Donald Trump. Here’s one from October 18th, three weeks before the big day:
Even as glee about the first woman in the Oval Office swelled, I kept thinking:
That can’t be right.
I just knew those numbers couldn’t be an accurate reflection of reality, that they weren’t telling the whole story. Something, I thought, was missing. But day after day they held, telling me Hillary was going to win in a landslide.
Here’s the Times at 10:20 p.m. eastern time on Election Night:
To be fair, Clinton did win the popular vote by almost three million votes. But almost every major forecast got the election outcome wrong.
If you search for reasons Hillary lost, you’ll find Russian interference, Comey interference, taking Wisconsin and Michigan for granted, failing to win over suburban white women, low minority turnout. Sexism. Bernie. Bill. Benghazi.
What you won’t find are many people like me — a white 40-something mom, liberal-thinking and progressive-educated, living smack in the middle of New York City — admitting they didn’t think Hillary was all that.
Don’t get me wrong, I voted for her. But it was mostly because I loathe Trump.
And if I, Hillary’s bread and butter, her slam dunk, was meh on her, what do you think the lefties to my right felt on Election Day? Maybe they told the exit pollsters they’d cast their vote for the Democratic nominee, but didn’t. Maybe that’s the part of the story that wasn’t being told.
When I get up in the morning these days to read what the “liberal media” has to say about addressing the problem of racial inequality, what the people I consider to be the best thinkers and authors and educators are advising and prescribing in this moment, I get the same feeling I got back in 2016.
That can’t be right.
What I mean is, just like with those polls, I don’t think what I’m seeing and hearing and reading is an accurate representation of what the left — progressives, liberals, Democrats — as a whole really believe. It doesn’t seem to be a true reflection, or at least not a full one. It’s too narrow. Too uniform. Too repetitive. So many of the headlines say the same thing: All White People Are Racist.
Now, that’s a perfectly valid opinion to hold. But that’s all it is — an opinion. Saying it, asserting it, writing a chart-topping book declaring it, or giving a wildly popular TED talk about it doesn’t make it fact. Yet, so many people, smart people, critical thinkers, deep thinkers, are just swallowing it whole.
First and foremost, let me say that racism in any form cannot be tolerated. The discrimination and bigotry — institutional and systemic as well as on the micro level — that exists in our society must be brought out into the light and extinguished. I applaud the protests, and not from afar. From right here on the streets of NYC. I believe there must be reform. Real and meaningful change. I want to be part of that change.
Since the horrific deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, I’ve signed petitions and made donations in support of justice and reform. I’ve also been searching for more knowledge because I don’t want the actions I take to end racism to be token or knee-jerk or scattershot. I want them to be informed and sustained and yield lasting results.
To that end, I’ve been reading scores of Op-Eds and first-person pieces, listening to a ton of podcasts, and receiving regular newsletters from progressive educators I know.
And what stands out to me is how similar they are.
Many feature the same experts and recommend the same reading by the same authors. They all tend to use the same phrases from “safe space” to “anti-racist” to “micro-aggression” to “unconscious bias.”
Most white people begin their pieces (or conversations with a guest of color) by sharing the uncomfortable realizations they’ve come to about themselves in the wake of Floyd’s murder. What follows is an apology for (or a tutorial on) the white person’s myriad failures with regard to race. There’s almost always a call for the white person to admit they are racist, because without doing so, they are told, they cannot evolve on race, and then there’s often a discussion of what being racist means.
I keep asking myself: Where are the other perspectives, approaches, and insights? Where is the healthy debate?
There is a lack of diversity and inclusion in the messages promoting diversity and inclusion.
That sets off alarm bells for me.
It makes me wonder whether the people espousing, internalizing, and evangelizing these ideas are doing so after having given them careful thought and thorough evaluation — or if they’re just repeating and regurgitating lines from a best-seller.
After all, it’s far less risky and takes a lot less effort to nod in agreement and adopt phrases du jour than it is to pause and examine, dig into the data, and take the time to figure out whether an idea that sounds good is indeed sound.
On an issue as important as race, we must pause and examine. We must dig deep. We can’t just jump on the bandwagon because the bandwagon could be going in the wrong direction. And if we don’t slow down and look at the map, we might end up in a place we don’t want to be. We may even discover that we’re heading backward, and that all this time we’ve been mistaking fervor for fact, and passion for progress.
By way of example, or perhaps cautionary tale, I want to talk about the high school I attended, which is as progressive a place as you’ll ever find. On the issue of race, it’s become a microcosm of what we’re seeing on a wider level in the United States, one small community that embodies all of my biggest concerns.
Let me just say, I love this school. My parents loved it enough to send me and my three siblings there. My husband and I loved it enough that our child is now a student there. My connection to it runs deep, four decades deep, so I feel qualified to speak out on this.
And here’s what I’ll say: I worry that progressivism — at my alma mater and in our country at large — for all its good intentions, may be making the problems we face with regard to race worse, and the very ideas that are meant to combat divisiveness, factionalism, and feelings of oppression, may, in fact, be fomenting it.
Let me explain:
A few years ago, I attended a day-long gathering on campus that brought together alumni, faculty, students, parents, and teachers to assess whether the school was meeting its core mission, which it defines as “turning out ethical and responsible members of society.”
We broke into small groups and the conversation quickly turned to race. After listening to several students of color speak about the painful experiences they’d had at the school, I wanted to know more so I could help alleviate that pain, find out how I could help make a place I’d spent so much of my life one where everyone felt welcome, comfortable, and safe.
I raised my hand and inquired about the fundamental challenge I keep coming back to in terms of achieving racial equality: How can we honor, acknowledge and respect distinct histories and heritages, and at the same time avoid creating and perpetuating division, distinction, and difference where it need not be? In other words: Is the goal not to see race, or to never stop seeing race, everywhere, always, all the time?
I felt I was getting a mixed message. On the one hand, black students were sharing heart-wrenching stories about walking down the hallways at school and feeling like all anyone saw was the color of their skin, and how much they wished that would stop so they could just be seen as a person, a human being, like everyone else. On the other hand, these same students were demanding the implementation of mandatory classes such as Black Studies and African-American Literature, insisting that the school put black authors and black history in their own distinct categories, separate and apart.
I took African-American literature in college, back in the 1990’s. It was one of my favorite classes, but I always wondered if the authors I was reading would have wanted to be separate and apart. If they’d see the course as long-overdue recognition or just another form of segregation.
Hilton Als of The New Yorker wrote: “I have never been comfortable being identified as a black writer, particularly when that description comes from a white audience, which knows nothing of the limitations imposed by the term.” And what if, say, James Baldwin were alive and made it clear he’d rather be included in a gay authors course than a black authors course, what would happen then? Who gets to make these decisions?
At the gathering at my school, I asked about this in the most respectful way I could, and was immediately shut down by one of the group’s facilitators. Given the distinct sense that I was clueless and insensitive. And even though I know I am not, I stayed silent. To this day my questions remain unanswered.
Now, before you jump in and say my silence is a perfect example of “white fragility,” proof that I’m too delicate to get into it about race, let me tell you why that’s not true.
I was ready, willing, and able to discuss race. But when I tried, I found I’d stepped into a trap, one that writer Jonathan Church describes in a recent piece. (If you are one of the people who has kept Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility” on The New York Times bestseller list for the past 92 weeks, please take the time to read Church, who calls the book “destructive” as well as “full of bad reasoning and bad advice” and David Burke’s piece from June 13th, on its “intellectual fraud.” They may change your mind.)
In essence, this is the trap: If I shut my mouth, that means I’m too delicate to face my unconscious bias, my inherent racism. But if I push back and show that I’m not a fragile flower, I risk being accused of exploiting my white privilege. Using the unfair advantage my skin color gives me, which is the power and permission to push back, and maybe I should just shut my mouth.
And round and round we’d go.
I don’t want to make any assumptions about that facilitator, but it sure felt like she’d made assumptions about me. Had she been truly open to having a productive dialogue, she would have realized that I was on her side, a genuinely interested, if imperfect and flawed, ally — and that an awareness of racial injustice has, in fact, informed the way I’ve moved through the world since I was a child.
At age six or seven, I heard Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” for the first time, and learned the meaning of lyrics like:
If you’re black you might as well not show up on the street
‘Less you want to draw the heat
All through my teenage years I sat in classrooms, maybe even the very one we’d gathered in that day, discussing and debating the work of Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, Richard Wright and Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks, Frederick Douglass and Toni Morrison, W.E.B. Du Bois and Malcolm X.
When I was preparing for a job covering Major League Baseball, I knew The Baseball Encyclopedia was incomplete, so I bought The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues as well as all three volumes of Arthur Ashe’s A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete. They sit next to each other on my shelf — the same shelf — today.
I don’t say all this to prove how much “black education” I’ve had. There is so much I have yet to learn, and I’m eager to learn it. But I feel it’s important to point out that my head has not been in the sand until this moment. I am not blind to institutionalized racism or the bird-watching, out for a jog, following me around the store racism people of color face every day. So please stop telling me that I am, but I just don’t know it.
No, I haven’t been out protesting on the street every weekend of my life, but the songs I’ve heard, the history I’ve learned, the books and poems I’ve read, the athletes I’ve covered, have opened my eyes and shaped my views. To be dismissed as some “Karen” at my own alma mater was just wrong. And far worse, it was unproductive.
I came away from that day-long meeting feeling more disconnected from my school than ever. I know I am not the only one. And that not all of us are white.
I believe there is a silenced majority — composed of people of all colors — in my school community and among progressives all over this country.
Please note that I’m using the term “silenced” in a deliberate effort to distinguish from Richard Nixon’s use of the term “silent majority” back in ’60s. That was speech aimed at Americans who wanted to protect “middle-class values.” (We all know what that’s code for.)
This is very, very different. The silenced majority wants change on race. It wants to and will work long and hard to achieve it. It’s eager to have the debates and discussions, to hammer out the policy and enact the reform that will at last lead to equality and justice.
But if they deviate even slightly from the “correct” opinion, make a mistake in word choice, ask a dumb question, or God forbid make a mistake — they’re silenced.
So they keep their mouths shut — and it’s not because they’re fragile or clueless or insensitive. It’s because the current climate does not welcome a plurality of ideas. Before you say that’s not true, go look at the Op-ed pages. Read the headlines and the first-person posts. See who’s appearing on MSNBC and the most popular podcasts. Show me the plurality because I sure don’t see it.
What this silenced majority — would say if it spoke up is that the progressive approach has become too radical and too rigid. It’s prizing righteousness over reason, and coming dangerously close to confusing indoctrination with education. It’s not considering that meeting genuine curiosity and openness, and, yes, even a dumb or poorly phrased question with the threat of “cancellation” is not a productive way to go.
The oppression of ideas about ideas of oppression. That’s an irony worth pondering.
I hear progressives — parents, educators, friends — discussing this all time. But never in public. They voice their concerns and doubts in whispered conversations, quietly lamenting that it’s become impossible to debate the subtleties. That there’s no longer room for calm, non-judgmental conversation, constructive criticism, or thoughtful contemplation.
I’ve written for opinion pieces for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, but I’m not sure either of those publications would print what I have to say on this. My more moderate views don’t seem to fit anywhere. They’re not apropos enough, not on-the-pulse enough. But is that really true? Am I really speaking for no one, or is no one speaking for me?
Are there no other progressives out there who feel cowed into silence? Shut down for simply advocating for some shades of grey between the black and white, for wanting to consider whether an idea holds water before running with it?
Are there no other progressives out there who want to say that as empowering as it may feel to connect everything to race, sometimes that link just isn’t there? And that sometimes a writer or activist whose ideas appear incredibly powerful and persuasive, upon deeper examination kind of fall apart?
When that’s the case, when the lines someone is trying to draw are faulty or false, we need to be able to call that out without fear of getting crushed, otherwise we’ll just keep going around in the same endless unproductive loop.
I also worry about the potentially detrimental consequences of identity politics. I worked for Sports Illustrated for almost a decade, and the last thing I ever wanted to be called was a “female reporter.” I wanted to be a good reporter. Period. I didn’t want my gender to factor anywhere in the equation. That was my choice, and everyone should be free to make that same choice, to identify however they choose, free of the pressure to bring gender or race or religion or anything else into it.
But that pressure is everywhere within progressive institutions, and it can go awry even when there is noble intent behind it. Right now, if you asked my daughter how she identifies, the first thing she’d say is as a Yankees fan. If you asked her to identify her friends, she’d say Selma is a great dancer, Holden is really nice, and Nora’s super smart. It would never occur to her to point first to the color of a person’s skin as a way to differentiate them any more than she’d point first to the color of their eyes. Of course, she’s not “color-blind,” but neither is she color-focused, which, to me, is a good thing.
My husband and I want our daughter to be educated about all cultures so she can be a well-informed, sensitive, and kind citizen of the world. That’s a huge part of the reason she goes to the school she does, but it concerns us that seeing herself as an Aaron Judge-loving kid, who laughs a lot, digs reading, and enjoys tackling a tough math challenge will not suffice. She’s being urged to always have her gender and race and heritage at the forefront of her consciousness. To lead with the fact that she is female and Caucasian and of Jewish heritage — even when she doesn’t primarily see herself or want to be seen through any of those lenses.
I think about the African-American student who doesn’t want to be called African-American because it actually makes him feel more disconnected and “othered,” but in what progressive universe is he going to express that?
I think about the student of Indian heritage who is glad she’s in a school that understands and respects that she doesn’t want to be the spokesperson for all Indian people. But at the same time she doesn’t want to join an affinity group in which she has to share the ways in which being Indian affects her everyday life because that’s actually not her experience. She’s happy to discuss diversity issues, but thinks they’ve taken on a disproportionate role at her school and wishes they didn’t have to loom so large over everything. But she’d never say that out loud. Never point out that her affinity group is trading one kind of pressure for another. Removing the burden of being a spokesperson, but at the same time urging her to move through life filtering her experiences through the lens of her heritage, even if she doesn’t want to.
I think about my aunt and uncle, who about 30 years ago adopted a child born in Korea. They were encouraged by the adoption agency to immerse him in his Korean culture, even send him to a special summer camp with other adopted Korean kids. They did not concur, thinking instead that the most important thing their son should know is that he belonged to their family and his being Korean was just one of many interesting things about him. But if that adoption happened today, there’s a good chance they’d be shamed and sharply criticized for not signing onto that plan, for simply doing what they believed was best for their own child.
Where is the “safe space” for these kids and parents?
I am calling on progressives to speak out on this. Not to suggest changing the goal — which is to end racism in all its forms — just the approach. Because if we measure a plan’s success by the positive results it’s yielding, this one doesn’t seem to be working. All you have to do is look around to see that.
Please stop telling me what you really feel in private and start telling your school’s administrators and diversity coordinators and affinity group facilitators. Tell your favorite columnists and podcasters and politicians.
And those on the educational side — start asking. Do an anonymous survey if you have to. That way you’ll know how everyone feels, not just the most vocal. If attendance is any indication, I can tell you that the number of families who voluntarily showed up on a Saturday for that day-long meeting at my school was a fraction of the families whose kids go to the school. Were they just busy or is there more to it than that? You won’t know until you ask.
I want progressives who agree to have the courage to say that rejecting the idea of white fragility is not the same as saying black lives don’t matter. To be brave enough to point out that pushing back against someone’s views on race doesn’t automatically make you a racist. And that advocating for nuance or patience or a plurality of ideas isn’t weak, it’s wise — because a uniformity of opinion is a warning sign we ignore at our peril.
In 2016, I went to bed with a bad feeling about Hillary’s chances and woke up to the sickening reality that Donald Trump had been elected. “How could this have happened?” everyone asked. “How could we go from Barack Obama to this?”
We ignored the warning signs. Trusted poll numbers we should’ve known were too good to be true, should’ve known were not an accurate reflection of reality. Still, we chose to believe them, to accept what we saw on the surface without digging any deeper. We charged forward toward what we assumed would be a huge victory. Except it wasn’t.
Progressives must not make that mistake on race. We can’t assume that the loudest, most radical voices speak for everyone. We should assume they don’t, no matter what’s splashed across the home pages of liberal media outlets, or coming into our ears from podcasts and cable news. We can’t assume that because 91% or 85% of people report being on board with an idea that they actually are.
We must acknowledge that there is rigidity and single-mindedness, uniformity and inflexibility — and it’s working in direct opposition to our cause. It’s alienating allies, and making even the most dedicated among us throw up their hands.
If we are not careful, we may wake up a decade from now to another sickening reality. And find that rather than producing racial equality, we unconsciously produced a new generation of Trump supporters.