There was collective shock among many Democrats when exit polls found that 18 percent of Black men supported Donald Trump's 2020 presidential campaign. In a year filled with racial unrest, many wondered why. Well, we've recently gotten a powerful answer to that question in the form of some leading Democrats’ treatment of General Lloyd Austin.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren recently joined fellow senators Jon Tester and Richard Blumenthal in opposing Austin’s quest to become the country’s first African American secretary of defense. Their opposition is rooted in the fact that a defense secretary must be retired from active military service for at least seven years.
Austin retired in 2016. An exception can be made if Congress grants a waiver. Warren, Tester, and Blumenthal have declined to do so, all issuing generic platitudes about how much they admire Gen. Austin, but apparently not enough to empower him to make history. Supporting civilian control of the military is certainly a legitimate policy position. Had Austin retired last year perhaps the opposition from these senators wouldn’t feel so unreasonable.
But in a year in which the denigration and degradation of Black men has dominated our discourse, the imagery of three white Democratic powerbrokers vowing to block the ascent of a Black man to a history-making post for which he is overqualified is jarring. The treatment of Austin is not simply about one Black man or one Cabinet appointment. It’s about a larger disconnect between many Democrats in positions of power and the people who have historically comprised their base.
In a nutshell, professions in which Black men are thriving are increasingly professions that progressives are seeking to exclude from leadership roles within our government. This is not just troubling for the Black community but could prove to be trouble for Democrats down the road.
Even before Joe Biden’s election, there were concerns among African Americans that Black men in particular might have a tough time getting a fair shake and thorough consideration for major positions in a Biden administration. Various Black trade organizations like the Association of African American Financial Advisors sent letters to the Biden transition team and the Congressional Black Caucus articulating such concerns.
These concerns highlight a larger philosophical divide roiling Democrats. Liberals have deemed certain professions unacceptable pipelines for candidates for Cabinet roles or elected office. But a number of those professions tend to be ones that African Americans have long been taught to consider as viable pathways out of poverty for them and their families. Corporate America and Wall Street are among the professional routes that high-achieving Black students have traditionally been steered towards, along with the military.
Yet white progressives have urged Democrats to exclude those with corporate ties from consideration for influential posts. On paper this may not sound that problematic, and if America were a true meritocracy, it would not be. But as the last four years have reminded us, America is not a meritocracy, and those born into privilege have options and opportunities that others do not.
This means that if you are born with the last name Bush or Clinton or Trump, you can choose a career path because you find it rewarding. If you’re privileged you don’t have to worry about details like salary or long- term professional advancement.
But this is not the case for most African Americans. If you’re not privileged, choosing a career is usually driven by less idealistic notions, like how to pay debt or helping your family.
While economists keep trying to solve the mystery of the enduring racial wealth gap, for many Black Americans it’s not a mystery at all. Speaking from experience, I can tell you that in a room full of Black Americans you would define as middle class, many are not just supporting themselves, or immediate family members, but extended family as well. For every Black person who makes it, plenty do not.
That’s one of the haunting legacies of institutional racism. This means that you might want to work for an elected official or become one yourself, but you are more likely to become a lobbyist, because then you can pay for a nephew’s education. You might want to become a public defender, but if your cousins are depending on you for financial assistance, you’re going to become a corporate attorney instead.
On that note some progressives have balked at President Biden for considering former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick for the role of attorney general. Though Patrick began his legal career at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, he eventually held various corporate jobs, including at Texaco and Coca Cola.
It’s worth noting that Patrick was raised by a single mother in the notorious Robert Taylor Homes housing projects in Chicago. The importance of him landing a job where he got to earn a significant salary, wear a suit and tie, and make his mother and childhood neighbors proud is a sentiment that some of Patrick’s liberal critics may not be able to relate to, but plenty of Black people can.
For Black men of a certain age, the military was considered the most viable route to success. Born in the segregated South in 1953, General Austin followed a path to America’s halls of power that did not look like the one followed by Senators Warren, Tester or Blumenthal. It’s worth noting that Sen. Blumenthal was born into privilege and misrepresented his own military service to advance his political career.
Ignoring the fact that a Black man’s political career would be unlikely to survive such a scandal, the fact that Blumenthal now has the audacity to hinder a self-made man with a legitimately distinguished military career, is galling. With this kind of hypocrisy among leading Democrats, it’s easy to understand why some Black men decided it was time to begin seriously putting their votes in play this election cycle.
After all, the message seems to be that being twice as good—the mantra many Black Americans were raised to believe we must be—is no longer enough. We must be twice as good, and choose the right professional path, which may arbitrarily change with the whims of progressives.
While I may not care for Donald Trump, his appeal to Black men appears to have boiled down to “I won’t pretend to be your friend and then behave hypocritically. I’m simply here to tell you that if you’re a high earner, I will help your pocketbook.” That’s not a pitch that moves me, but I can increasingly understand why it did move some high-achieving Black men who feel slighted by a party increasingly led by people who seem out of touch.
It should be noted that every seat that was flipped by Republicans in the House this election cycle was won by either a woman or racial minority, including Burgess Owens in Utah and Byron Donalds in Florida, both of whom are African American men.
Other Black male Republican candidates ran incredibly competitive races, including John James, who almost defeated Democratic Senator Gary Peters. This just goes to show that if Democrats won’t make room for America’s most accomplished Black men to lead in their party, they may just take their leadership skills elsewhere.