By Onnesha Roychoudhuri
Ever since the 2016 presidential elections, we’ve been served a million versions of what amounts to the same tired story. Whether it’s woven through the pages of the New York Times or written in all-caps on the Facebook page of your self-appointed-pundit uncle, it usually goes something like this: We’ve never been more divided. We need to reach across the aisle, “look past” our identities or differences — even if it’s to hold hands with avowed bigots — if we’re ever going to move forward.
Another story that’s always on tap? That we’re screwed. We can protest all we want, but our system is so corrupt that there’s really no point.
At their core, these narratives are both pretty dang cynical. Also, they don’t make a whole lot of sense. (Before we go on, a quick reminder that the majority of Americans did not vote for Donald Trump.) In reality, Americans are shifting left on issues ranging from equal pay, gay marriage, single-payer health insurance and affordable (or free) access to education. In other words, we’re far more aligned on issues that affect our daily lives than the daily news cycle may lead us to believe.
But what about the white working class? We’ve been told we can’t win unless we reach out to this monolithic entity and stop “playing identity politics.” Well, it turns out that the majority of the working class are actually people of color. (Also, can we stop talking about the white working class as though they’re a single movement of pitchfork-wielding, MAGA-hat-wearing bigots? It just ain’t true.)
There’s some basic math we need to reckon with here. The percentage of Americans who are straight white men — the historical flavor of choice for those who wield power in this country — amounts to fewer than 30 percent of Americans. That means the marginalized Americans among us — the queer folk, the black and brown, the immigrants, the women — are indisputably the majority. Throw in our white male progressive allies and we’re talking about a supermajority. If we want to win, we don’t need to “reach across the aisle” so much as reach out to our prospective allies to ensure they recognize our shared interest, and the power we have as a movement.
Preaching to the choir gets a bad rap. But reaching out to potential and likely allies to encourage them to take political action, whether at the ballot box or in the streets? That changes everything — making a more cohesive movement out of the marginalized majority that we are.
Case in point: Remember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary win? The press called it an upset, a surprising win. Just look at what the poll numbers were! When asked about it, Ocasio-Cortez responded that the win wasn’t so surprising at all. Polls, she has rightly pointed out, usually measure voters who are “likely” to turn out. Her approach? To reach out to voters who don’t normally turn out.
The notion that identity politics divides us is a bunch of malarkey: If you look at history, some of the most profound wins for American equality hinged on identity — from the civil rights movement to women’s suffrage. And it’s the most marginalized among us — particularly queer brown women — who have done much of the heavy lifting for social justice throughout America’s history.
We’re seeing that now, yet again. For the past two years, unprecedented numbers of marginalized Americans have been making their voices heard through protest and escalating direct action. In fact, since the 2017 Women’s March, decentralized protests have taken place in a record number of communities across the United States. The media generally suck at covering any kind of resistance to the status quo — especially when it comes to protest and direct action. They underestimate the number of people who come out; they assume that a group of people who don’t have a single, easily achievable demand is wasting their time. And because of that, media have a major blind spot around identifying what protest movements have succeeded in accomplishing.
From Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter to the Women’s March to the Fight for 15 to the DREAMers to climate justice, the grassroots movements of our time have worked individually and in tandem to radically alter the conversations we’re having, raising our expectations of what is possible and necessary. And we’re seeing a powerful sea-change: In November, record numbers of women and minorities ran for office and unseated the GOP majority in the House. They won in large part thanks to college-educated female voters and the formidable grassroots hustle that got out the vote.
The next time someone tries to tell you it’s hopeless or that we need to “reach across the aisle,” because we’ve never been more divided, tell them they’re right. We’ve never been more divided: Over decades, the Democratic and Republican platforms have become increasingly out of touch. The real divide in America is between what the majority of us want and need, and what a tiny minority — a handful of extremists in power — have been offering.
It’s time to for us to recognize our power and act like the majority we already are.
Onnesha Roychoudhuri is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and educator.