Progressives' New Racialism Isn't Just Repulsive. It's Dangerous | Opinion

This week, a bipartisan group of Senators came to an agreement over a new infrastructure bill that totals $550 billion, offering some hope to Americans that excessive partisanship won't doom the legislation America needs to repair ailing roads, bridges, and other key infrastructure.

But the deal has frustrated some progressives on Capitol Hill, who were counting on Congress to also pass a separate $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill along partisan lines. The Republicans opposing that bill were aided recently by Arizona Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema, who helped negotiate the bipartisan compromise and who wants a smaller reconciliation bill. And rather than making the case against the deal on the merits, progressives instead took aim at the people negotiating it—specifically, at their race.

New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took to Twitter to accuse Sinema of "choosing to exclude members of color from negotiations," posting a graphic of the faces of the Senators who negotiated the deal with the commentary that "a lot of the times, 'bipartisan agreements' are just as defined by the people in power agree to exclude than include."

A lot of times, “bipartisan agreements” are just as defined by who people in power agree to exclude than include. pic.twitter.com/9o4y3j60fD

— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) July 29, 2021

Fellow Squad member Missouri Rep. Cori Bush joined her, using the same graphic to both issue a complaint and crack a joke. "Is this a Bipartisan Infrastructure Group or the audience at a Kid Rock concert?" she asked. Bush wasn't subtle about her concern, adding the hashtag #NegotiationsSoWhite.

It's true that every Senator in the bipartisan group that negotiated the most recent deal was, indeed, white. But contrary to Ocasio-Cortez's telling, the negotiators didn't exclude any lawmakers; they simply included every Senator who wanted to strike a bipartisan deal.

That small detail isn't, however, the most troubling thing about Ocasio-Cortez and Bush's attack on the negotiators. These relatively new Members of Congress— Ocasio-Cortez was seated in Congress in 2019 and Bush took office in 2021— represent rising progressive racialist thought around governance and representation. This new racialism dictates not only that those in power consider everyone's needs when making laws, but that the only way to truly represent a constituent's ideology and interests is to share their race.

Let's remember that the Senators in the bipartisan group were elected by a broad and diverse electorate and democratically empowered to speak for them. Exit polls suggest that Sinema, for instance, won 68 percent of nonwhite voters during her 2018 election (she won a minority of white voters the same year).

One of my own Senators from the state of Virginia is one of those who helped negotiate the bipartisan deal. Sure, he doesn't share my skin color, but we also don't have the same height or weight. All these details come across as trivial to me compared to whether he votes the way I want him to.

Yet by reducing these lawmakers only to their racial categorizations, the question of whether they are faithfully serving their constituents is answered only in the most superficial way possible. And do progressives really think that the negotiations would've gone better for them if say, the relatively liberal Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin (a white man) was replaced by conservative South Carolina Republican Tim Scott (a conservative African-American man)?

What if we were to take the logic that suggests that federal lawmakers represent racial groups instead of states or districts and apply it universally? Minnesota Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar would be in trouble. Her Minnesota district is over 60 percent white; what if the white people of her district came to believe they couldn't be represented by someone from a minority ethnic and religious group?

Advocates of the new racialist mindset don't anticipate such outcomes because they always imagine that they're talking to a progressive audience. Devoted progressives are unlikely to advocate for strong adherence to white identity and engage in white chauvinist politics. But American history shows us that plenty of other people would.

There is also the danger that an increasingly diverse country will become increasingly fractured, as residents come to believe that they cannot be serviced in government or other arenas by people from other ethnic groups.

There are parts of the world where politics revolves around religious, ethnic, or some other kind of tribal identity. Lebanon, for instance, has been governed by a sectarian system for decades where public sector positions and seats in the legislature are reserved for certain religious sects. Far from promoting equality among Lebanon's citizens, the sectarian system has offered official sanction to the country's bitter divisions.

But many of Lebanon's youth want to see an end to that system. As the new racialism intoxicates the mind of college activists in the U.S., many young people in the Middle East are disgusted by the notion that they should be divided into tribes like Sunni and Shia.

Perhaps that's why I find myself so repulsed by racialist politics, whether it crops up on the right or left. As Americans, we're fortunate to live in a country with a relatively low level of tribalism. But not only was I raised by immigrants, but I had the opportunity to travel overseas and learn from friends and family about what the world is like when you live in a society where narrow tribal categories define your place.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Jeff Bezos Amazon Workers
U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) slammed Amazon founder Jeff Bezos for thanking his employees for sending him to space. Ocasio-Cortez speaks at a press conference outside of the U.S. Capitol on July 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. Kevin Dietsch/Getty

Yet in this moment, we Americans should be willing to learn from the rest of the world about how we define our political identities.

I think often about Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan's founder, in his first speech to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan in 1947. Jinnah cited historic divisions between Protestants and Catholics in England, advising the young country that it should learn from how the British healed those tensions and established a united nation. He told Pakistanis, "Now I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal, and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus, and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State."

Of course, my ancestry and my religion are important to me as an individual. But a Senator need not share them to represent me on Capitol Hill.

And a heck of a lot of Americans agree with me. A 2019 Monmouth University poll found that 87 percent of Democratic primary voters said that the race of their presidential nominee does not matter. Americans by and large believe their elected officials should be judged by the content of their governing, not the color of their skin.