How Racist Trolls and White Liberals Try to Silence Women of Color
“White supremacy isn’t just burning crosses and swastikas. It’s also silencing, tone-policing and shaming. It’s good white folks’ private assurances of support and public silence. It’s public outcry of caged kids and private inaction. It’s fast, slow, deep and shallow.“ —Saira Rao on Twitter
A deputy district attorney in California’s San Bernardino County named Michael Selyem has been placed on leave and is under investigation for tweeting deeply offensive, sexist remarks about Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif. Last week, the 51-year-old white man, who is responsible for criminal prosecutions of suspected gang members, tweeted, “Being a loud mouthed c#nt in the ghetto, you would think someone would have shot this bitch by now.”
The shocking statement by a local government official about a federal lawmaker should have made the front pages of newspapers, particularly as it echoed an earlier threat by the president, who tweeted, “Be careful what you wish for Max!” But Waters, who is African-American and proudly progressive, was sold out by her own party’s leaders when she encouraged civil disobedience against Trump administration officials over violations of immigrants’ human rights. Donald Trump and Selyem’s denunciations of Waters are to be expected; by definition, racists hate people of color. But it is the tacit white liberal encouragement of such threats by the likes of California’s Nancy Pelosi and New York’s Chuck Schumer—leaders of House and Senate Democrats, respectively—that is more appalling.
Saira Rao, a first-time congressional candidate who lost to Democratic incumbent Diana DeGette in Colorado’s recent primary elections, is experiencing, in microcosm, what Waters is enduring and has endured for years. A few days ago, Rao tweeted a link to Emory University professor George Yancy’s op-ed in The New York Times, titled, “Should I Give Up on White People?” Rao answered the question, saying, “Short and long answer: YES.”
What followed was a series of events that began when Paul Rosenthal, a white male state representative from Colorado, a Democrat and a self-described community activist, attempted to school Rao on Twitter, saying, “As bold progressives, if we splinter & snipe at each other, racists will not get the message they need to change.”
Setting aside the naive and ludicrous assertion that racists will somehow get the message that their racism is wrong, Rosenthal encouraged local media coverage of Rao’s tweet by tagging an online media outlet called Colorado Politics. That action tipped off another white male figure, Joey Bunch, who called Rao for an interview and accused her of being racist and feeding “reverse racism.” Bunch’s resulting article, which Rao denounced as a “hit piece,” in turn triggered an article on Breitbart, and it was only a matter of time before death threats and racist hate mail of the kind Waters has gotten started trickling in.
Just hours before she left Denver with her family to embark on a temporary exile in response to the threats, Rao spoke with me about her ordeal. She decried the silence of elected officials from Colorado, who have yet to denounce the vitriol to which Rao has been subjected. Rao made it the basis of her campaign platform to challenge Democrats from the left, particularly on the issue of race, after her powerful piece in The Huffington Post about the Democratic Party went viral. She told me that Democrats are guilty of abusing the people of color who support them. “They take us—not just for granted—they use us and they kick us to the curb when they no longer have use for us.”
Rao zeroed in on the real reason for her treatment, and that of Waters: It is a silencing of critics of racism. “Calling out racism and white supremacy isn’t racist. Calling Maxine Waters ‘un-American’ and calling her statements ‘unacceptable,’ that’s racist,” said Rao, paraphrasing Schumer and Pelosi’s attacks on their fellow Democrat.
She points out that today’s unofficial collaboration between overt white supremacists and white liberals is a new manifestation of an old American political streak. In his 1963 “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. made an angry declaration that is often overlooked today:
I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice.
Black women are the most reliable demographic for the Democratic Party, turning out to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 in higher numbers than any other group, and consistently helping to pick progressive candidates. Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez remarked that “black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party, and we can’t take that for granted. Period.”
Given Waters’ mistreatment, Perez’s pronouncements have not appeared to change the party’s attitude. And now black women are putting the party on notice: A large group of black female leaders and their allies wrote a strongly worded letter to the Democratic Party leadership on July 3, expressing their “profound indignation and deep disappointment over your recent failure to protect Congresswoman Waters from unwarranted attacks from the Trump Administration and others in the GOP.” The signatories added, “That failure was further compounded by your decision to unfairly deride her as being ‘uncivil’ and ‘un-American.’ ”
Across the nation, women of color, including Rao, are running in elections, tired of being taken for granted by a party that pays them lip service but refuses to protect them. Reports have emerged that the Democratic Party has not offered these women the political support they need in their races. In its 2018 “Red to Blue” program, in which the party highlighted candidates to back during the midterms, not a single African-American was listed. When black female candidates have done well in primary races, they have done so without support from the party establishment. A reporter at The Atlantic reached out to a number of such candidates and found that most had not even been acknowledged by party leaders.
The Democratic Party needs to both support women of color in concrete ways when they are running for office and to have their back when racist trolls like Trump, Selyem and others attack them. To do less in these dire times is to be part of the problem.
To do less also spells the end of the party. Rao’s words rang true when she told me, “We’re bigger and better than they are.” In just 20 weeks of campaigning, and being, in her words, a “no-name idea, a person of color running in a hyperwhite part of a hyperwhite state, with no corporate money,” Rao was able to garner 43,000 votes. Other women of color—the most high-profile being Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who just won a second primary as a write-in candidate in a New York district she didn’t even campaign in—have had similar successes. The Democratic Party can either embrace these women or end up on the same side as the Republicans—as an out-of-touch political establishment of wealthy white elites looking out for no one but themselves.