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How Brown is the New White

Author and political analyst Steve Phillips reflects on how a new American majority in politics calls for changing the face and outcomes of elections


October 05, 2018

By Meghna Jaradi, Events Manager

Steve Phillips says American politics has arrived at a tipping point/turning point. Phillips is the founder of Democracy in Color, a political organization dedicated to race and politics, and author of the bestselling book, Brown Is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority.

Phillips, named one of the top 50 influencers by Campaigns and Elections magazine, says there is a new American majority in politics, one that is multicultural, multiracial and progressive. He shared his political analysis and recommendations on how to invest in a more equitable political future with Seattle Foundation philanthropists at a September event co-sponsored by Philanthropy Northwest and the Progress Alliance of Washington.

This represents a seismic shift. In the bulk of this country’s history, according to Phillips, “politics has been a competition between white people,” a tug of war by white progressives and conservatives over white swing or moderate voters in the middle. But, today, nearly 40 percent of voters are people of color, and allied with progressive white voters, this group makes up a new majority of voters who want to see dynamic social change.

Phillips said the seeds for this change were planted in 1965, when the Voting Rights Act and the Immigration and Naturalization Act were signed into law at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. This marked the beginning of a shift in our electoral demographics, with increased voting by African Americans and other minorities resulting in greater political representation.

As an influential political donor, Phillips has invested in political organizations and candidates that reflect this new majority. He noted momentum for this multiracial coalition in the number of female and candidates of color running for office in 2018.

But there remain barriers to electoral success for the new majority and its progressive public policy agenda. Phillips recalled an experience mobilizing African American and Latino voters in the South in 2007. When he relayed this work to advisors to some of the country’s top donors, he was surprised to hear that they weren’t focused on outreach and turnout for “fringe voters.” “We don’t have a pipeline problem, we have a doorbell problem,” he said.

Because politics and public policy don’t always reflect the needs of communities across America, Phillips says philanthropists have great opportunities to make a difference by investing in the right organizations and individuals.

Phillips made two key recommendations for strategic political giving:

1. Invest in individuals. Become an evangelist by finding the right people and backing their efforts. When donors establish long-term relationships with leaders doing good work in the community, and provide them with grant money, that can allow these influencers to lead social change and become future political candidates.

2. Demand accountability from decision makers. Too often when it comes to campaign donations, a small group of political operatives who are not accountable to anyone are making the spending decisions. But, philanthropists and donors are in a position of power and can ask the hard questions of the professional political class to ensure that money is supporting coalitions of color. Those questions include:

  • How are/were these funds spent?
  • What is your plan for this money?
  • Which tools will be used?
  • Which populations are being served?
  • How will results be measured?

For Phillips, the most important outcomes of investing in equity come from asking ourselves, “Do the different components of our democracy reflect who is within the society?” At Seattle Foundation, we’re committed to ensuring that communities of color are represented and have a voice in our democracy. Our Vibrant Democracy Initiative is comprised of three programs that work to lift up local leaders, remove barriers to voting and political participation, and ensure that community voices are shaping the decisions and policies that affect them.

You can learn more about the work of the Vibrant Democracy Initiative or consider a contribution to our Civic Leadership Fund that supports these efforts.

 

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