For many decades it has been big news for black Americans to be the “first” of anything, and for good reason. The history of white supremacy has meant that black achievement is something we all should celebrate. Recently, America and the world spent well over a decade discussing its first black president, before and after the election of Barack Obama. Cities across the US still celebrate the first black mayors, police chiefs, and governors. Why then aren’t we talking about the possibility of the first black governor of California, Larry Elder?
It’s not hard to imagine what news media coverage would look like. There would be retrospectives on the migration of African Americans from the segregated South to California only to discover less obvious forms of racial discrimination in employment, lending, and housing. There would be profiles of Elder’s parents that described how his father held not one but two jobs cleaning toilets. And there would be stories about Elder coming-of-age in South Central Los Angeles, and attending the same high school featured in John Singleton’s iconic 1991 film, “Boyz n the Hood.”
But instead of writing glowing profiles, the news media in California and nationally have portrayed the 69-year-old African American radio show host as a far-right crank. After I endorsed Elder’s opponent, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a liberal Republican, I received emails and messages on social media from people telling me that if the recall passed, Elder, not Faulconer, would become governor, and that Elder was a “nut job,” “crack pot,” and “jackwagon” (a 19th Century insult that means stupid, as in “capable of no more than operating a Chow wagon”).
But the nastiest attacks on Elder have described him as a race traitor. The Los Angeles Times even ran a column declaring Elder a “Black face of White supremacy.” “The idea is that racism is so oppressive that a Black person who ‘decenters’ the decrying of it could have only ulterior motives,” noted New York Times columnist John McWhorter this week. “That’s not crazy — but it’s also wrong.”
All of it begs the question: are these attacks on Elder, and the absence of stories remarking upon the historic nature of his candidacy, racist? Or is something else going on?
Playing the Ideology Card
Three weeks ago Elder’s ex-girlfriend alleged that he pulled a gun on her while high on marijuana, generating national media attention. ”The attacks on Elder — in the Los Angeles Times, in Politico, and elsewhere — share the classic symbolism of mid-twentieth-century racial paranoia,” wrote Joel Pollak in the conservative news site, Breitbart. The claim that Elder is “the black face of white supremacy” suggested that Elder is “incapable of thinking for himself,” noted Pollak, and that “he is little more than a minstrel in ‘black face.’”
But, Pollack noted, the double standard toward Elder wasn’t so much because of his race but rather because of his politics. “A black man, accused by a white woman, can never be given the benefit of the doubt — if he’s a Republican, that is,” noted Pollak. The LA Times columnist who called Elder the “black face of white supremacy,” noted Pollak, “is African American herself but is evidently willing to traffic in racist tropes as long as they help her partisan political cause.”
For the media to not report on the lurid allegations against Elder would be a double standard, since the media has published lurid and unsubstantiated accusations against white political candidates for at least 30 years.
It’s true that the mainstream news media has repeatedly misrepresented Elder’s actions and positions. CNN’s Brian Stelter said on air that Elder was “shutting out the press” and “shutting out the media,” but just four hours earlier the Los Angeles Times had published a long profile of Elder which rested upon an interview with Elder, who had cooperated with the story.
Two days ago, CNN claimed that Elder had misrepresented “the science” around children getting coronavirus when Elder had instead argued against the policy of mandatory masking for children, which is not being done in Britain and does not reflect a scientific consensus.
In other cases journalists simply imply wrongdoing without having any actual evidence for it. The Los Angeles Times suggested that Elder behaved unethically in his relationship to a nonprofit charity he operated, but his only apparent sin is that he was unsuccessful raising much money for it.
What about Elder’s proposal to deal with what is called homelessness? Some parts are poorly conceived. He told me he supports an expanded role for charities “who are ready and willing to help.” It’s true that the Netherlands, a world leader on treating homeless addicts and the mentally ill, subcontracts out much of its work to the Salvation Army. But the work is centralized, whereas California’s is decentralized to the counties. Because homeless addicts often move from city to city, this county-level approach makes consistent care impossible. Elder seems to be advocating even greater decentralization, which would make the problem worse.
Elder identifies has said he wants to decriminalize hard drugs, but open air drug scenes and skyrocketing drug deaths are a consequence of the gradual liberalization, normalization, and decriminalization of drugs over the last 20 years. Those efforts, combined with America’s double drug epidemics, meth and opioids, are behind the worsening of what is called, euphemistically, “homelessness.” Solving the problem requires a stepped up role for government, not a diminished role.
But other aspects of Elder’s proposal are spot-on. “I understand that addiction and mental illness are huge factors in the issue of homelessness,” he told me. “My strategy in ending the homelessness problem is not to throw everyone in jail. While I firmly believe in enforcing the law, it will take a multi-pronged approach to combat this out-of-control problem. Those with illness and addiction will need to be treated.” All of that is mainstream and consistent with the best-available research, and what has worked around the world.
And when Elder talks about housing he sounds like one of the Millennial-aged progressive Yes-In-My-Backyard (YIMBY) leaders in San Francisco. “I will also work on getting rid of cumbersome regulations and policies that hinder the building of lower cost housing,” Elder said. “California needs to be a welcoming place for all socio-economical classes. Newsom has lost sight of the ordinary Californian; I never will.” Elder is actually going further than Newsom did in his promises. And, under Newsom, new housing construction actually declined. New housing construction in 2020 declined 10 percent with just 100,550 new building permits issued, one-fifth of what Newsom promised.
The treatment of Elder isn’t so different from the news media’s treatment of other conservative Republicans. Progressives and journalists characterized Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump as far-right, even after they broke from their fellow conservatives to take progressive positions on taxes, homelessness, and entitlements, respectively.
As such, the media attacks on Elder are plainly motivated by ideology, not racism. Progressives believe Elder’s beliefs, not his race, make him unqualified. As such, the media’s refusal to cover Elder as the potentially first black governor proves, inadvertently, a point frequently made by Elder and other black conservatives, as well as heterodoxical black liberals like John McWhorter and Glenn Loury: race has never mattered less.
Yes, there is still racism, some of it quite harmful, they all acknowledge. But other things matter far more for getting ahead in life, including two-parent households, a can-do attitude rather than a victim mentality, and disciplined, hard work.
Are those views fringe? If so, Obama is fringe. After all, it was our first black president who said, “if we are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that what too many fathers also are missing — missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.”
And research by researchers at the center-Left Brookings Institution supports the claims of both Elder and Obama. Just 2 percent of Americans who graduate from high school, live in a family with at least one full-time worker, and wait to have children until after turning twenty-one and marrying, are in poverty, and 70 percent enjoy middle-class or higher incomes, defined as at least 300 percent of the poverty line.
In the end, Elder himself acknowledges that the attacks on him have to do with ideology, not race. “It’s tragic that we are no longer shocked at the audacity of so-called journalists who cherry-pick what is newsworthy or wage vile attacks against those with whom they disagree politically,” he told me. “It has been decided that unless a black person goes along with the prevailing racial dogma—advancing the race-baiting issue de jour—they are not really ‘black.’ The irony here is palpable.”
Race Isn’t Everything
Yesterday, Elder won a major endorsement from lifelong Democrat and former California Senate Majority Leader, Gloria Romero (above right). Progressive LA Times columnist Robin Abcarian noted yesterday that Romero “disagrees with just about everything Larry Elder stands for but is so disillusioned with Gov. Gavin Newsom she is endorsing Elder.”
“Romero grew up poor at the end of a road so sandy her father had to carry a shovel in his car in case they got stuck,” wrote Abcarian. “‘As Latinos,’ she said, ‘we were treated crappy…. I got the message that education is the key to the American dream. It’s what lifts you out of poverty.’”
Romero is upset in part because Newsom sent his children to private school where they received in-person instruction all last year while public school children had to stay at home, in part due to the influence of the teachers’ union, whereas in other nations they returned to classroom learning. “The first thing was the arrogance of the ruling classes,” said Romero, “rules for thee, but not for me.”
One might hate libertarians and conservatives, as many progressives do, and wish they didn’t exist. But if you believe societies will have, and must have, more than one party, then candidates like Elder will and should exist, and will run for office. And while journalists might not like him, they do a disservice to everyone by misrepresenting their views and actions.
One can disagree with Elder’s views while acknowledging their legitimacy. One of the most famous disagreements in American political life was between Booker T. Washington, the intellectual heir to black conservatives, and W.E.B. Dubois, the intellectual heir to black progressives. It is not the case that scholars view Washington as nothing more than “black face.” On the contrary, Washington is recognized as a legitimate scholar, albeit one out of fashion among many in the academy. Indeed, Booker Washington’s views are so mainstream in American life that some sociologists describe them as part of the “American creed” of libertarianism and individualism, and identical to the Protestant values of hard work, education, and saving-on-principle.
Elder appeals to many conservatives in part due to his rejection of victim ideology, particularly the idea that blacks, Latinos, and other people of color are inherently victims by nature of their ethnicity. Betty Chu, the first Chinese American woman to pass admission into the California State Bar, and who in 2014 successfully motivated the California State Senate to pass a formal apology for California’s mistreatment of Chinese immigrants, endorsed Elder. So too has Ying Ma, author of a poignant coming-of-age memoir, Chinese Girl in the Ghetto, about moving to Oakland from China at age 10 and overcoming vicious anti-Asian racism, physical violence, and sexual harassment. Today, Ma is Elder’s communications director.
In truth, California must embrace both liberal and conservative approaches to homelessness to deal with the problem. Only a bipartisan approach of carrots and sticks, law enforcement and social services, can work to restore order and our humanity. Republicans are right that we must not allow our public places, our parks, our sidewalks, or anywhere else, be taken over by street addicts camping so they can engage in petty hustles to maintain their opioid and meth addictions. At the same time, Democrats are right that there is a role for government. Our mental health and addiction system is broken, and must be remade and centralized at the state level.
And we must move beyond the nasty attacks on black conservatives as “sell-outs.” Writes McWhorter, “The actual Black sellout is a rare, peculiar, compromised individual, usually encountered in the past alongside people ‘passing’ as white, in an America where racism was so implacable that it led some Black people to nasty choices hard for us to make peace with today. The idea that legions of earnest pundits and thinkers on race in 2021 are a coven of sellouts is a cartoon, distracting us from grappling with complex matters of societal procedure and responsibility.”
Elder agrees. “While it’s true that I would be California’s first black governor,” he told me, “I am running as governor for all of the people of California. Gavin Newsom has been a disaster for this great state. I wish the media would focus on the tragic results of his failed policies instead of the color of my skin.”
Does the racial mixing, ideological sorting, and absence of “first black governor” stories about Elder signal that the ritual of acknowledging “first black” everything is coming to an end? That seems unlikely. Race, like climate change, has become a new dogma for many people. But the Elder candidacy opens up a positive change: we do finally seem close to reaching the point where we can disagree constructively with candidates of a different race. And while each media ecosystem has its own racial diversity, each risks being more obsessed with identity, albeit more partisan than racial, than with ideas. And, as California’s recall election shows, partisan identity, with its class implications, can be another kind of prejudice.