“I have been so great in boxing they had to create an image like Rocky, a white image on the screen, to counteract my image in the ring. America has to have its white images, no matter where it gets them. Jesus, Wonder Woman, Tarzan and Rocky.” — Muhammad Ali
In the 2018 midterms, there were three Democratic candidates who captured the attention of mainstream America, and they all lost. Andrew Gillum lost in his bid to become governor of Florida, Robert “Beto” O’Rourke lost in his Texas bid to replace the most unlikeable man in America in the Senate, and Stacey Abrams had the Georgia governorship likely stolen from her by “Governor” Brian Kemp’s Jim Crow-style voter purging operation. All three are naturally talented politicians whose national popularity makes complete and total sense, yet only one of these candidates used the 2018 loss as a springboard to the presidency.
My fellow white liberals, if you think that you are immune to racism because you are liberal, you sorely misunderstand the pernicious effect that racism has on our behavior and our discourse. White America is trained to think in racist tropes (ie: welfare queen, food-stamp president, superpredators), and each and every one of us is measurably racist in some way. The defining trait of our modern era is ripping that programming out. Things are getting better, but we undoubtedly have a long way to go before we can claim to be the equal society we lie to ourselves about being.
Whether we want the help or not, we are fully supported by an American white supremacist infrastructure built on the dual foundations of slavery and genocide. Racism manifests itself in countless ways each and every day, and none of us are immune to perpetuating it—especially when we are the beneficiaries of white supremacy. The racist systems set up in the constitution (like “all other Persons” being legally defined as three-fifths of a person) still impact today in a country dominated by white men, and you simply cannot separate our lived experience under that perpetual fact from the many advancements of the last quarter millennium. We are not condemned to repeat the moral failures of the past, but we sure as hell do have a hard time not repeating them.
Stacey Abrams is a phenomenal political candidate. Any of the true “charisma” arguments made about Beto can be applied to her too, and that's why the Democrats chose her to rebut Trump's State of the Union. Plus, she was “cheated,” per a GOP adviser, and it's more than fair—in fact, it's necessary—to question whether she would have lost without Brian Kemp's cheating in the first place. Why would Kemp need to cheat if he thought he could win fair and square?
A judge ruled that Gwinnett County was in violation the Civil Rights Act, but because our “genius” constitutional system built on the foundation of white supremacy does not have a real solution for cheaters who win (look at NC-09 where the election was found to be illegitimate, so the GOP just gets to run again in a favorable district, and everyone is going to act as if the first instance of cheating never happened), Georgians are forced to walk around all day wondering if they are truly being led by the winner of their last gubernatorial election. No one in Texas is wondering if Ted Cruz really won. He did. Period. By all objective measures, Stacey Abrams' performance as a black woman in Georgia was more impressive than Beto's as a white man in an increasingly liberal Texas—especially since Beto ran against someone about whom Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) once said that “if you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you.”
Not to mention, Abrams has endorsed far more specific and liberal policies than Robert has, and she actually brings substantive evidence to support her case—while O'Rourke expresses amorphous sympathy for major liberal priorities (and central 2020 litmus tests) like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, but when pressed on specifics, he deflects to nondescript jingoism like wanting “health care for all.”
Like Stacey Abrams, Robert O'Rourke has never won a state-wide election, much less a national one. That fact hurts both their cases, as all the arguments about ideology and charisma go out the window if a candidate cannot win. That's the whole point of what we're doing here, right? To win so we can pass our policies to make peoples lives better?
Which is why it's so telling that we have latched on to the loser white man from Texas who avoids any policy talk and not the loser(?) black woman from Georgia who loves to talk policy. I'd argue that Abrams is a better candidate than O'Rourke, but at minimum, it's impossible to argue that they are anything less than electoral equals before factoring in the grim pragmatism that American electoral realities create by force. America's calves are cramping for the white man, while we award a mostly tokenized position for a black woman over her second-place(?) efforts.
Now, Robert O'Rourke's support is overstated if you just look at his comparative party and media coverage, which gives you a sense for where some of the strongest non-governmental white supremacist structures are rooted. Current polling has him as a distant fifth among the Democrat electorate—scraping together just six percent of the vote pre-2020 announcement—trailing an old white woman, a black woman, an old white man and an old white Jewish man. Simply cobbling together what Democrats want right now via 2020 polling reveals a far more diverse wish list than the Beto-Abrams dynamic suggests.
But I still can't shake the depressing feeling of watching our political scene fawn over Beto's presidential run as he says “I'm just born to be in it,” while rightful Governor Abrams is currently relegated to traveling the country, trying to pass policies to stop the racist anti-democratic cheating that almost surely cost her a spot in the governor's mansion. A white man is supposedly “born to be in it” while a black woman is desperately trying to clean up the mess created by countless white men before them.
But not all hope is lost. We are not damned to perpetuate this Beto-Abrams dynamic. Beto is only polling at six percent, and a more deserving candidate—Kamala Harris—seems to have already boxed out his likeliest path to the nomination. Plus, Abrams hasn't even closed the door on 2020 yet. She would be a serious threat to the current “Bernie or Warren?” dynamic on the left wing of the Democratic Party.
But still, the optics of this really, really, suck. A charismatic white man who lost in high-profile fashion in a major state in 2018 is currently polling at six percent while getting fawning media coverage as he says things like “I’m just born to be in it.” Meanwhile, a charismatic black woman who lost* in high-profile fashion in a major state in 2018 (and who got a high-profile gig in 2019) is also fighting for real, tangible justice (that is being covered as a secondary issue at best)—and yet she can’t even make it on to a 23-person ballot alongside absolute 2020 nobodies like Terry McAulliffe, Steve Bullock, Jim Henderson, Michael Bennett, John Delaney and Michael Wilson (I only made up two of those names).
This is exasperating. I can’t find a way to end this column with a coherent concluding thought, let alone one better than Childish Gambino. He said it best: This is America.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.