Steve Phillips: Liberals Rely Too Much on White Swing Voters

By Rinku Sen Feb 04, 2016

Steve Phillips’ new book, "Brown is the New White," released this week, presents not just an argument for addressing the younger, browner emerging majority in our politics, but an actual plan for doing so. Deep scholarship and popular hand-wringing about changing demographics have not, in my view, been accompanied by much change in social justice strategy. The crux of Phillips’ argument, laid out in chapters with titles like "Blinded by the White" and "Conservatives Can Count," is that the traditional liberal obsession with convincing White swing voters to support good policy like the Affordable Care Act and voting rights is downright 20th-century, and will lead to nothing more than inaction among people of color or their recruitment into conservative ranks. We should stop chasing that unicorn. Instead, we’d be a lot better off actually organizing and activating the huge numbers of Black, Latino, Asian, Native and Arab people, as well as the White folks who aren’t scared of us.  

In the book Phillips, a civil rights lawyer and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, lays out compelling debriefs of recent elections, a policy platform, and prescriptions for campaigns and other efforts. Here he is, reflecting on six questions by e-mail.

1. What drove you to write "Brown is the New White"?

I wrote this book because I was alarmed that so many people in the leadership of the progressive movement and Democratic Party fail to understand the importance of people of color in U.S. politics. And this is particularly shocking after the election and re-election of the country’s first Black president. Conventional wisdom in U.S. politics is that in order to win, you have to avoid alienating White swing voters, which usually results in distancing yourself from people of color and their agenda. But the demographic revolution of the past 50 years has transformed the U.S. to where the percentage of people of color in the population has grown from 12 percent to 38 percent. Now there is what I call a New American Majority consisting of progressive people of color and progressive Whites. That’s the coalition that elected Obama, and when it has been uninspired and ignored—as happened in 2010 and 2014—voters of color have stayed home, and Democrats have lost badly. We need to run towards people of color instead of away from them in order to win, and I want to drive that message home in this, the first election of the post-Obama era.

2. You talk a lot about history and legacy in this book. Why is legacy so important to you and to the New American Majority project you write about in the book? What’s it got to do with the young people who form this new majority?

Personally, I’ve always drawn great inspiration and instruction from the work of those who have gone before us. Studying and learning about what tactics and strategies were used, what worked, what didn’t, is critical to being able to refine effective plans today. Knowing that Martin Luther King Jr. faced opposition from members of his own board of directors who didn’t want him participating in the march from Selma to Montgomery puts current intra-movement disputes and arguments in context. Legacy and history are also important to keep contemporary activists inspired. It’s easy to get tired and discouraged, but when you learn that people like Jimmie Lee Jackson and Rev. James Reeb gave their lives in the struggle for the right to vote, it puts our current issues in context. I’ll never forget Jesse Jackson’s response when someone was marveling at how hard he was working and what a punishing schedule he was keeping. He said, "beats picking cotton."


3. You have a chapter on America’s obsession with White people, in which you use the phrase "racial preference." Why did you choose those words in addition to White privilege and White supremacy?

I used the phrase "racial preference" because I wanted to reclaim and reframe the issue of racial representation in America. The attack on those promoting affirmative action and paying attention to race issues is that we shouldn’t give unfair preferences to people of color. I wanted to turn that on its head. It’s not about giving preferences to people of color; it’s about stopping the practice of giving preference to Whites. The risk of just focusing on increasing the pool of so-called qualified people of color is that it assumes that all the White folks are qualified. Rather than just look at education and training of people of color, I want to directly challenge the practice of hiring so many White people. Is the problem that there aren’t enough people of color, or is the problem that there are plenty of talented people of color but those who make the decision to hire, promote, and fund tend to prefer White people? The answer to that question dictates the course of action to remedy the problem. I reference the work of Alexis McGill Johnson of the Perception Institute and john a. powell of U.C. Berkeley’s Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society to illuminate the reality of implicit bias and how that accounts for the disproportionate representation of White people in so many sectors of society.

4. Your book includes a deep critique of Democratic Party strategy for ignoring the latent and actual power of communities of color, and of what you call progressive Whites. What would it take for the ideas in your book to become party strategy?

Well, to steal a phrase from Bernie Sanders, it’s going to take a political revolution. Two things have to change. First, we have to demand transparency and accountability from those running political campaigns. In 2012, Democrats and progressives spent $2.7 billion on political campaigns, and that’s just at the federal level. Since 46 percent of Democratic voters are people of color, roughly half of all political spending should target voters of color—hiring of staff, running ads, organizing and mobilizing voters. We need to take advantage of technological tools that enable us to examine campaign-spending reports. For instance, ProPublica has developed an excellent new tool called Campaign Finance API. We then need to use social media to shine a light on how campaigns are doing, and whether they are spending their money right. In my "Invest Wisely" chapter, I try to provide a framework for campaign stakeholders to hold the people accountable who are running campaigns. 

The second thing is we have to change the composition of the leadership of those who are controlling campaign spending and strategy. I’m proud to be working with some awesome organizers of color—Alida Garcia, Quentin James, Greg Cendana and many others—who have started an organization called Inclusv that is a national talent bank of people of color in politics. The future—and by future I mean next year—campaign managers, strategists, consultants, pollsters and operatives need to come from and understand the communities that comprise the cornerstones of the new American majority. 

5. By contrast, you say, Republicans can count and have been courting communities of color, often with a pretty high degree of cultural competence. But if, as you assert, people of color are inherently progressive because of our experience and history, is there a scenario in which we change the Republican Party? 

Well, it’s fascinating to watch what’s happening in the Republican Party right now, and it may well split in two, which would create opportunities for racial justice work. There was growing acknowledgment in the Republican Party about the need to engage and attract more people of color, but then Donald Trump blew up their game plan by running a campaign that is essentially an updated, wealthier George Wallace campaign that stokes and is fueled by the racial fears and anxieties of Whites. He’s dispensed with the dog whistle and is unapologetically and repeatedly scapegoating people of color, so there’s clearly no room in his coalition for people of color.  But if he gets the nomination, and a big part of the Party doesn’t want to be associated with explicit racial resentment, then there could be openings and opportunities. We’re seeing some signs of that with some bipartisan efforts around criminal justice reform. So it’s possible there could emerge Republicans genuinely concerned about issues of equity and poverty, but they’ve got some sorting out to do now with their crazy presidential primary. 

6. In a policy platform, you propose a new fund as big and meaningful as the GI Bill was, but for people of color rather than GIs. What’s the idea here?

It was eye opening to me to learn the extent of active government involvement in the creation of the gargantuan racial wealth gap in America. The combination of racially restrictive home-lending practices and a massive infusion of billions of public dollars targeting veterans and their families essentially created the modern middle class of Caucasians in America. So there is precedent for the government moving large sums of money to address social aims.  Much of the public policy debate is constrained by a focus on annual income as the primary source of revenue. What I propose is a Justice and Equality Fund that is funded from a tax on the wealth—not the income—of the Top 1 percent in America, people with at least $13 million in assets. That grouping holds $26 trillion in wealth. If we taxed them on that wealth just 2 percent annually, that would generate $500 billion per year. Demos and other organizations have estimated that it would take $200 billion to eliminate poverty. So I’m saying that in a country built on stolen land worked by stolen people—where the consequences of that plunder underlie contemporary inequality—we can eliminate poverty fairly easily, actually. And in addition to eliminating poverty, we can replicate GI Bill-type initiatives of providing higher education for millions of people, helping people buy homes and start businesses. This is a solution to meaningfully move us towards a more just and equal society. And it is a solution that doesn’t cost 99 percent of Americans a dime.

Steve Phillips is the author of “Brown Is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority” which was published on February 2, 2016 by The New Press. He is co-founder of, a social justice organization that conducted the largest independent voter mobilization efforts backing Barack Obama, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris. In 2014, he co-authored the first-ever audit of Democratic Party spending. Phillips became the youngest person ever elected to public office in San Francisco in 1992 and he went on to serve as president of the Board of Education.

Disclaimer: Steve Phillips is a donor to Race Forward, the nonprofit racial justice organization that publishes Colorlines.