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Jim Webb, affirmative action, and the Democratic Party’s racial amnesia

It's 2015—and the Democrats are still debating affirmative action?


Derrick Clifton


Posted on Oct 14, 2015   Updated on May 27, 2021, 7:32 pm CDT

If Black lives matter, then affirmative action should matter, too. But if you’re former Virginia Senator Jim Webb, it’s “state sponsored racism.”

During the first Democratic debate, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper took Webb to task for his previous remarks on affirmative action, questioning whether or not they’re in line with his party. Indeed, as Cooper points out, the demographics of the Democratic Party include heavy Black and Latino voter bases. But when pressed on how he feels about the issue in 2015, Webb argued that he only supports affirmative action for African-Americans.

But for a program that’s actually proven to have benefited white women more than any other group, Webb’s stance on affirmative action is indicative of a party that’s still waking up from its racial amnesia and still struggling to fully include people of color at the forefront of their political agenda.

Webb, who couldn’t stop boasting his military background during Tuesday evening’s debate, couldn’t seem to get in tune on any social issue, but his response on affirmative action was perhaps the most off-key. 

He told Cooper that he believe’s he’s where the Democratic Party has traditionally been on the matter, sharing his belief that affirmative action was “originally designed” for Black people “given their given their unique history with slavery and the Jim Crow that followed.” In his view, the way the program is implemented in workplaces and educational institutions today hurts poor white people, especially those from rural areas.

Believe it or not, this isn’t so much where the Democratic Party stands, as much as it mirrors some of Webb’s more conservative—or even vehemently racist—Republican counterparts. At least one other notable person takes a similar position on issues such as affirmative action, and the name might come as an unpleasant surprise: Ann Coulter.

At least one other notable person takes a similar position as Webb on issues such as affirmative action, and the name might come as an unpleasant surprise: Ann Coulter.

Speaking with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in 2012 to promote her then-latest book, Coulter charged that too many groups attempt to lay claim to a civil rights struggle—including gays, immigrants, and feminists. Coulter elaborated, “We don’t owe the homeless. We don’t owe feminists. We don’t owe women who are desirous of having abortions or gays who want to get married to one another,” adding that “much of the left dropped the Blacks after five minutes” to argue for the civil rights of other groups. 

And then she said, flatly, “Civil rights are for blacks,” primarily because of the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. Anyone else, in Coulter’s view, is simply out of luck.

To be fair, Webb doesn’t take Coulter’s hardline stance on other civil rights issues, but that their logic aligns on affirmative action should be enough of an indication that the former Senator is out of touch with his party’s base. After all, there’s a reason he’s stuck polling in the single digits—and it has less to do with the excitement for Hillary Clinton and the rising national profile of Bernie Sanders and more to do with his outdated positions on social issues that primarily affect Black people and other people of color.

For further proof, look no further than how he and a few others on the Democratic debate stage responded to the ever-controversial question of #BlackLivesMatter versus #AllLivesMatter. Without reservation, Clinton and Sanders supported what’s become the rallying cry for a civil rights movement founded and primarily led by young Black people. But for Jim Webb, it wasn’t so easy.

As the Daily Beast’s Gideon Resnick notes, every candidate on stage said that #BlackLivesMatter—everyone, that is, except for Webb. (Never mind that Lincoln Chafee, who kept bragging about his so-called “high ethical standards,” wasn’t asked the question.)

Rather than being understood as integral to the party’s political agenda, Black people have been regarded as bothersome, cumbersome, chores and “situations” for years.

“As a president of the United States, every life in this country matters,” Webb said. “At the same time, I believe I can say to you, I have had a long history of working with the situation of African Americans.” Resnick writes that Webb “didn’t exactly clarify what me meant by ‘the situation’ but later discussed the importance of criminal justice reform.”

This is the problem with mainstream Democratic politics that many African Americans, including #BlackLivesMatter activists, have bemoaned for quite sometime. Rather than being understood as integral to the party’s political agenda, Black people have been regarded as bothersome, cumbersome, chores and “situations” for years.

Bill Clinton’s tenure in the White House, for one major example, may have helped African-Americans make gains in terms of economic opportunities. But for a president jokingly referred to as the “first Black president” before Obama’s 2008 election, Clinton’s tough-on-crime approach helped fuel the prison pipeline that still disproportionately ensnares black and brown people today—a mistake he admitted during a July interview.

In other words, while Hillary politically charged on as First Lady—likely devising her own eventual foray into elected office—her husband worsened the mass incarceration and criminalization of Black bodies that arguably prompted #BlackLivesMatter. It could explain why she, in her second time around as a presidential candidate, continues making earnest efforts to be accountable to the Black community and its activists, as a way of building trust with people who may have felt otherwise burned by the Clinton presidency.

Given her position as the indisputable frontrunner, one would assume that other candidates lagging behind Clinton in the polls would follow her lead on any number of pressing policy matters—be it affirmative action or the Black Lives Matter movement.

But in a party that, this go-round, has no people of color on a debate stage, the struggle for a racially conscious progressive politic should come as a surprise to no one. 

Derrick Clifton is the deputy opinion editor for the Daily Dot and a New York-based journalist and speaker, primarily covering issues of identity, culture, and social justice.

 Illustration by Max Fleishman

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*First Published: Oct 14, 2015, 7:05 pm CDT