Sightlines by Mercy A. Quaye

For so many people, American politics these days feels like watching someone else play a video game. They make bad decisions, wreak havoc on your community, and then sign off at their leisure — leaving you stuck with the fallout.

This is especially the case for BIPOC and low-income communities, who have literal skin in the game but little political control — yes, even in the Democratic Party.

People of color and from low-income backgrounds in Connecticut, like other states, have flocked to the doors of the Democratic Party for generations, and often have been welcomed with open arms. Other times, we find that our expectations of the Democratic Party being a place of political refuge are shattered by a stubborn inability to make impactful progress on issues that matter most to us. This dysfunction isn’t limited to Democrats by any means, but Black, Hispanic, and Asian voters remain overwhelmingly Democratic even though party leadership doesn’t match those demographics often enough.

Here in Connecticut, only two of seven state Democratic Party officers are of color and the Republican leadership is no better. Our congressional delegation follows a similar trend: one of seven is a person of color (U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes) and there is no Hispanic or Asian representation.

Asked what happens when party leadership doesn’t look like or relate to its most underserved constituents, Subira Gordon, Executive Director of the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now (ConnCAN), said it’s high time for a change.

From left, Rep. Brandon McGee, D- Hartford, and Subira Gordon, Executive Director at ConnCAN, center, listen to the speech at the State Capitol in Hartford on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021.
From left, Rep. Brandon McGee, D- Hartford, and Subira Gordon, Executive Director at ConnCAN, center, listen to a speech at the State Capitol in Hartford on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021. Yehyun Kim / CTMirror.org

“History has proven that the way the party has been managed for the last 50 or so years has not been beneficial to communities of color,” she said. “I think it’s because the party leaders don’t have lived experiences from a marginalized perspective.”

According to Gordon, we’ve seen incredibly stagnant progress in closing various gaps along racial lines in Connecticut. The achievement or opportunity gap — the differential between how students of color perform compared to their white counterparts — is just one area Gordon has her eye on as the chief of one of Connecticut’s most politically involved education advocacy organizations.

But persistent gaps also plague housing opportunities, earning potential, and health outcomes, she said.

“Connecticut is the most segregated state in the nation in part because of redlining,” she said. “That history is just there and it’s in our face. If we look at the wealth gap and access to educational options — that’s directly related to redlining and segregation.”

And families are struggling today because of that history, she said.

“You can empathize but if you can’t say you had the experience it’s very different,” she said. “As far as leading, it’s hard for me to see a person who has never had to think about their [mortality] when a cop stops them, knowing how to support police reform.”

That point applies across the board if you think about it. Regardless of how you’re marginalized — race, poverty, sexuality, gender — it’s reasonable to question whether you have adequate representation in politics. Can someone who has never had to choose which bill gets paid each month make effective decisions on unemployment policies? How might a person who went to the best schools in the state understand what it’s like to choose between a failing school or a slightly less failing school?

At the very least, consider how someone who has been fortunate or privileged enough to have never lost someone to gun violence might make decisions on gun control. How can someone who’s never missed rent understand the fear of a pending eviction? Try as we might, empathy only gets us so far. 

“It’s important for us to have someone who’s not a straight, white male leading the party,” Gordon said. “Not being able to understand these experiences may make it hard for you to make the right decision or do what’s needed to change these systems.”

Race is a funny thing when it comes to politics.

We act like it’s impolite to make decisions based on race alone. I see that as willful ignorance and a disregard for the real disadvantages Black and brown people face simply because of our nation’s relationship with skin color.

On the national stage, I’m tired of being represented by older white men who, though they mean well, betray the most underserved members of the party by declaring things like “We should all agree that the answer is not to defund the police, it’s to fund the police,” as President Joe Biden said in his State of the Union address this year.

Sean Woke waves LGBTQ, Black Lives Matter and American flags at Bushnell Park on June 19, 2020. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

“To see the President reinforce the idea of funding a system that is intent on killing Black and Brown folks without question, shows us that the state is beholden to its violence against Black and Brown folks, and people in power are constantly negotiating for that outcome, ” said Kerry Ellington, a long-time community organizer from New Haven. “That’s why we see such low voter turnout in our communities. A lot of people don’t believe in the system as it is.”

Ellington said she thinks the combination of more organizing resources, political leaders, and community opportunity would allow for policies and practices that truly align with community needs. 

After two years of racial protests during which scores of people took to the streets to clearly articulate their demands with three small words, Biden’s message on policing left each of them behind and ignored the pleas of those hurting most — people who often don’t look like him.

On the surface, it may sound like an argument to jump ship and switch parties. And before the 2016 campaign season, I’m sure droves of BIPOC voters considered it. But it didn’t take long before it was clear Republican leadership acts with so much disdain for people who aren’t straight, white, or male that they’d cut off their nose to spite their face on most policies.

So what’s next? Let the marginalized lead.

Legislators gather behind Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, in a show of support as she explains the significance of Juneteenth on the floor of the state House of Representatives on May 4, 2022.
Legislators gather behind Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, in a show of support as she explains the significance of Juneteenth on the floor of the state House of Representatives on May 4, 2022. Yehyun Kim

Communities of color, women, LBGTQIA+ folks, poor people, and others on the margins can’t make enough progress with leaders who don’t relate to our issues. Until our governors, senators, representatives, and president consistently look like those most impacted by the policies, those gaps Gordon mention will never close, leaving a wake of injustice to fill the void.

Allyship requires something new and different every year. This year, it’s clear that allyship in politics might mean stepping aside as a political leader and letting promising BIPOC, women, and queer candidates take the seats currently held by those who have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

It’s time to let a greater variety of people who have skin in the game hold the controls.

Mercy A. Quaye | Columnist

Mercy A. Quaye writes a monthly column called Sightlines for CT Mirror and is the editor of CT Mirror's Community Editorial Board. In 2015 she founded and continues to lead The Narrative Project, a mission-driven communications consulting group providing communications support to non-profit organizations throughout the state. Born and raised in New Haven, Mercy has an undergraduate degree in Journalism and a master’s degree in Public Relations, Social Media and Applied Communications, both from Quinnipiac University. Her work experience includes roles as a columnist for Hearst Connecticut, Adjunct Professor of Digital Journalism at Southern Connecticut State University, radio show host, and communications specialist for advocacy, community, and educational organizations.