Jonathan Chait is a columnist for New York Magazine, a respectable publication with many great writers. Chait, a white man, is also one of our nation’s foremost experts on what black people are thinking.
In his latest column titled, “The Pragmatic Tradition of African American Voters,” Chait argues that Hillary Clinton’s “firm command of the Democratic primary” is a result of her popularity amongst black voters. The black voter, according to Chait, is a pragmatic one.
“And pragmatism inflects the African-American view of how politicians perform in office. Purists see compromise as a sign of moral failure or weakness, an inability to smash a corrupted system. Pragmatists expect political opposition as normal and enduring. A politician who has their best interests in mind and pushes policy in the proper direction is better than the all-too-common alternative,” he writes.
In some ways, Chait’s column makes sense. Black voters (as well as women voters) have plenty more to lose with a republican in office and that has been true for some time. Still, Chait seems to fall into a line of thinking that has become quite common amongst well-meaning white people—that all black people are the same.
Chait goes on to say “that pragmatic tendency was on display in 2008, when black voters were slow to embrace Obama’s candidacy, waiting until he had demonstrated the ability to win over white Iowans before committing to him.”
This, again, isn’t necessarily wrong, but that Chait uses the fact that many African Americans were skeptical of white people trusting other black people as evidence of anything other than the horrible nature of white supremacy is...odd.
Extending Chait’s logic would have meant not supporting Barack Obama in 2008, because we still have racists out there and, you know, we have to be pragmatic. Even stranger is the fact that Hillary Clinton faces a similar uphill battle, in that there are plenty of backwards-thinking Americans who would never vote for a woman. By Chait’s logic, the most pragmatic choice in this election would have been Martin O’Malley.
Mr. Chait quotes Brett Gadsden, a historian and professor of African-American studies at Emory who told him, in an email “a few months ago,” that “Black voters have always [been] faced with the difficult choice between candidates who have only offered incremental support for their concerns and have been perfectly willing to turn their backs, albeit to slightly different degrees, on black communities when it was politically expedient.”
Again, this is true. To be a black voter, or a female voter, or basically any voter who is not white and a man, means taking the easier pill to swallow. Chait’s column, and the line of thinking it pushes, seems to think there is only one such option in this election, which is fine. People disagree on things all of the time. What makes Chait’s column a flaming pile of shit is that it uses black people as a tool for political gain. It says “see, black people know struggle and they support Hillary.” It is a refrain that has gone uncomfortably unchecked from Clinton supporters. There is no doubt that black voters have overwhelmingly cast their support for Clinton, or even that Bernie’s supporters skew white and annoying, but correlation is not causation and, most importantly, what does her popularity amongst black voters prove to you, white people? Chait uses Shaun King (of all people!) as an example of Sanders’ supporters’ privilege.
But the critique of Clinton’s African-American supporters increasingly lies outside the realm of calculation altogether. Columnist Shaun King, a Sanders supporter, argues that “Political progressives across this country, in supporting the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, are completely rejecting the Democratic Party,” and should take their actions a step farther and “form our own political party.”
He goes on to say that these types of voters are the “ultimate expression of privilege.” Jonathan Chait is basically calling black Bernie Sanders supporters Oreos.
I emailed professor Gadsen to get a better sense of what he meant in those months old emails to Jonathan Chait. Gadsen, who appears to mostly agree with Chait, offered what I think would have been a much better column: “Black voters—like all voters—make decisions on the basis of complex calculations that are informed by experience, pragmatism, ideology, and emotion.”