This fall I sat down in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with a black pastor whose unarmed son, Terence Crutcher, had been shot dead on the street by a white police officer.
The Rev. Joey Crutcher told me that Terence’s killing was just the latest loss his family had suffered. He had also lost a child to crib death years ago, and another to cancer. In addition, his grandson had been shot dead while driving home from church in a gang hit that was a case of mistaken identity.
Such heartbreak: Three children and a grandchild dead, each for a different reason. I’ve been thinking of the Crutchers because of the debate raging in the Democratic Party about its future. One faction argues that the left became too focused on “identity politics” – fighting for the rights of Muslims, gays, blacks and Latinos but neglecting themes of economic justice that would appeal to everyone, working-class whites in particular.
Mark Lilla of Columbia University helped spark the civil war with a provocative essay in The New York Times warning that “American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force.”
Speaking in Boston, Sen. Bernie Sanders partly endorsed Lilla’s principle: “One of the struggles that you’re going to be seeing in the Democratic Party is whether we go beyond identity politics. I think it’s a step forward in America if you have an African-American CEO of some major corporation. But you know what, if that guy is going to be shipping jobs out of this country, and exploiting his workers, it doesn’t mean a whole hell of a lot whether he’s black or white or Latino.”
Lilla and Sanders have a legitimate point, and it’s clear in retrospect that the Democrats should have talked more about jobs and fairness for all. But Lilla and Sanders’s argument also collides with the basic truth that it’s not possible to have a serious conversation about justice, jobs and opportunity in America without talking frankly about race, gender and ethnicity.
Consider the Crutcher family: Each of the children’s deaths wasn’t exactly about race, yet each was linked to it. Young black men are disproportionately likely to be stopped by police officers, and shot dead by them. Crib death and cancer both are more lethal among African-Americans, because of disparities in incomes and health care. And crime in America disproportionately involves blacks, as both victims and arrested perpetrators.
So, sure, Democrats sometimes go overboard with identity and can do a far better job appealing to ALL who have been left behind – but identity still matters profoundly. The Crutchers have lost four young people, each in a way that statistically suggests a racial element.
How can we discuss a way forward without acknowledging that race is an issue here?
The blunt truth is that America’s most egregious failures have often involved identity, from slavery to anti-Catholic riots, from the Chinese Exclusion Act to the internment of Japanese-Americans, from unequal pay to acquiescence in domestic violence and sex trafficking. Ditto for the threats by President-elect Donald Trump to deport 11 million immigrants or to register Muslims.
Yet Lilla and Sanders are right that identity sometimes has distracted from the distress in working-class white America. Life expectancy for blacks, Latinos and other groups has been increasing; for middle-aged whites, it has been dropping. Likewise, the race gap in education used to be greater than the “class gap”; now the class gap is greater.
It’s also true that broad efforts to create opportunity would help not only working-class whites, but also working-class blacks, Latinos and others.
I once asked Bryan Stevenson, the civil rights lawyer, how to think of the class gap versus the race gap, and he joked that for the many people caught in the criminal justice system who are both poor and black, “it’s like having two kinds of cancer at the same time.”
So do we really need to choose between identity and justice? Can’t we treat both cancers?
In moving beyond that dichotomy, maybe we can find some inspiration from the Rev. Crutcher, who is truly something of a saint: He told me that he forgives the white officer who shot his son and prays for her.
“Every night, my wife and I cry because we see our son with his hands up,” he said. But he added, speaking of the officer who shot him: “She’s got people around her who are hurting, too. My heart goes out to her.”
Crutcher is modeling the broadest possible inclusiveness. Yes, there’s a tension between focusing on bigotry and highlighting jobs. Yes, Democrats should more clearly emphasize economic justice for all, including struggling whites. But I hope that Democrats won’t needlessly squabble over whether to prioritize identity or justice.
Like Crutcher, we can reach for both.