Briahna Joy Gray, former national press secretary for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign and host of the “Bad Faith” podcast about progressive politics, joined Professor of the Social Sciences and Economics Glenn Loury on Friday at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs for a wide-ranging discussion on race, the 2020 campaign and the state of American liberalism.
Gray and Loury were inspired to host the event, entitled “A Conversation with Briahna Joy Gray on Race, Politics and Journalism,” after the two debated the causes of racial inequality on an episode of Gray’s podcast. Loury, a conservative commentator, argued the main driver of racial disparities in America is not systemic racism but rather cultural problems within the Black community. Alternatively, Gray argued that racial inequality is the result of institutional racism caused by America’s history of slavery, disenfranchisement and redlining.
Despite the pair’s divergent views, the discussion was intimate and amicable. After a brief explanation of their positions, the two began voicing their critiques of each other’s viewpoints.
Gray argued that what Loury sees as cultural issues are often the result of deeper systemic problems. Responding to Loury’s belief in the importance of a traditional two-parent household, Gray said, “(That’s) a material issue. I don’t think it’s the psychic value of having married parents that necessarily confers the benefit. I think stability confers the benefit, having two earners confers the benefit … and it’s not necessarily what I would describe as culture.”
Gray questioned the effectiveness of cultural narratives in creating actual change. “It seems to me that there’s often a political agenda attached (to these narratives), where folks are trying to say, ‘There’s no point in doing social programs,’” she said.
Similarly, Loury called into question the utility of Gray’s systemic narrative for ending inequity. “(What has been) the political fruit of the racial reckoning? I see a lot of book sales, I see a lot of chatter … but I don’t see this white supremacy rhetoric leading to any politics of repair and restoration for our community,” he said.
Gray agreed that meaningful change has been slow but said that the reason was the public’s shallow understanding of systemic racism, adding that some views of the problem don’t support larger policy solutions. “There are certain maximalist arguments about the nature of racism and white supremacy that I think are harmful because … they are (disconnected) from any policy goal,” she said.
She said that narratives about race and identity that ignore material issues of class allow politicians to avoid making real change. “From my perspective as a leftist, I’m frustrated that … (President) Joe Biden thinks he can have (Vice President) Kamala Harris or appoint a Black Supreme Court justice — which is well and good — but not do anything substantive,” Gray said. “And that’s an excuse for him to have betrayed his campaign promises” around policies such as COVID-19 relief and debt forgiveness for students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, she added.
“I’m not critiquing identity politics,” she said. “I’m critiquing the weaponization of identity politics.” Gray emphasized the importance of social class in understanding politics and argued that it should be taken into account when analyzing identity politics.
She added that shallow rhetoric about race can inadvertently increase the appeal of right-wing demagogues. By ignoring issues of class and its intersections with race, she said, some “well-meaning white liberals” may end up alienating working-class people “because of the aesthetics of their politics.”
“A lot of (the working-class) people who are unhappy are going to watch Tucker Carlson, because at least he’s talking in populist terms,” she said. This resentment “is broiling, and it’s going to boil over.”
“I would love it if (this resentment) got channeled into a leftward direction and we had a Bernie Sanders-style presidency,” Gray said. “But that doesn’t look like it’s happening because the Democratic Party is more hostile to progressive populists than the Republican Party is hostile to right-wing faux populism.”
Loury expressed skepticism about the effectiveness and feasibility of an intersectional Democratic coalition focused on issues of race and class, referencing the fact that Biden earned a far greater portion of the Black vote in the South Carolina Democratic primary than Sanders, giving Biden momentum that led to him securing the nomination.
Black voters in South Carolina “didn’t choose your enlightened path. They chose the conventional Democratic Party path,” Loury said. “What’s up with that?”
Gray acknowledged that progressive forces, including the 2020 Sanders campaign, sometimes fail in their messaging on race.
“There were moments where I felt (Sanders) was tone-deaf,” she said. “For example, I begged him once to stop telling the (civil rights) story,” referring to Sanders’s emphasis on his history of civil rights activism while attending the University of Chicago in the 1960s. “Bernie’s entire policy agenda (was) great for Black people, and I was trying to help him understand how to characterize what he’s already doing in that light,” she added.
Near the end of the conversation, Gray said that a central aspect of the Sanders campaign and the broader progressive movement is their willingness to combine politics and positive morality. “A lot of (Sanders supporters) were really fulfilled … on a spiritual level by the sense of community that came with getting behind a campaign that framed its objectives in moral terms,” she said. “Our politics doesn’t really talk in moral terms unless it’s judging the other. There’s no real substantive conversation about what kind of society we want to be.”
“What Bernie did was he gave me permission to connect my morals and values and my politics in a way that I never really expected to happen. And when he went away, I think a lot of people really didn’t know where to put all that energy, and they really felt a spiritual loss,” she said.
Part of what Gray found so compelling about the Sanders campaign was the idea that “we’re in the richest country in the history of the world and I have a moral debt to you as a human being, even if you’ve transgressed, even if you’ve committed a crime, even if you had a baby out of wedlock, I care about you,” she said. “Bernie gave us permission to care about other people. I miss that a great deal.”