Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Victory Holds Lessons for Organizing in Communities of Color
Like many people around the country, I have been elated by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning victory over ten-term Democratic incumbent, Joseph Crowley. Clearly, her win is a wake-up call to the Democratic Party and aspiring politicians about the power of Black and Brown candidates and voters. But, Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign is also a reminder to communities of color that we should be explicit in centering our own racial identities and articulating the ways in which systemic and generational racism affects us — whether we are running for elected office or calling for policy change in our neighborhoods.
During her campaign, Ocasio-Cortez never shied away from describing her own background as a working class Latina woman to connect with the voters in her district, which is primarily Latino and includes Asian and Black immigrants. She openly spoke about how her racial, gender and class identities informed the ways in which she experienced inequity. “I wasn’t born to a wealthy family or powerful family — mother from Puerto Rico, dad from the South Bronx,” she says in an introductory video. “I was born in a place where your zip code determines your destiny.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s policy platform is just as frank in embracing issues that are important to voters of color and new voters. She calls for the dismantlement of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and private prisons, the provision of universal health care, and solidarity efforts to help Puerto Rico recover from Hurricane Maria. In doing so, she ties the stories and experiences of communities in her district with these policies. She said in a recent interview: “”We have families and communities here (in the 14th District) from Ecuador and Colombia, Bangladesh, Korea, Pakistan, and I see them every day, many of them are very scared about what’s going on,” she said. “With my campaign, in terms of immigration, we’re trying to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got your back.’”
What are the lessons that communities of color can learn from Ocasio-Cortez’s race-explicit campaign? We can and should center race — not only when we are experiencing a national crisis or flashpoint in the form of police violence against Black bodies or the ban against people traveling from Muslim-majority countries or the separation of brown children from their parents — but also in our everyday conversations, our neighborhood activism, and our daily relationships with one another.
How do we do that? By being race-explicit, by acknowledging race-plus identities, and by being race-conscious in our language and our actions for change. This means that we begin with our personal stories of historic and contemporary oppression and resistance, and we document and present the data that demonstrate the racial disparities faced by communities of color. It also means that we expand our analyses beyond race to acknowledge that we carry multiple identities — whether that is sexual orientation, class, faith, or disability — and which can intensify the ways in which we experience inequity and bias. And, we must move beyond a simple black or white binary of understanding racial inequity by being conscious of how anti-Black racism has had a sweeping impact on all communities of color in America. Anti-Muslim bias, anti-immigrant sentiment, and anti-Asian hate are all offshoots of pervasive anti-Black racism.
Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign relied on a clear-eyed understanding of the demographics of her district, where people of color comprise the majority. New York City may be ahead of the demographic curve, but around the country, racial landscapes are shifting. By 2044, America will become a nation where communities of color make up the majority population for the first time in our history.
Of course, changing demographics will not be the golden ticket to solve historic, systemic and generational racism. We must be vigilant about false narratives that conflate the diverse racial landscape with success and progress. We must push back on the assumption that the presence of more people of color, even at leadership levels, in city councils, CEO boardrooms, and on cable television means that communities of color have overcome the tremendous racial disparities that exist in this nation. Government, civic, philanthropic, and community stakeholders must tackle the roots of these disparities through responsive public policies and institutions, the proper reallocation of resources, and the expansion of anti-discrimination laws. Otherwise, people of color will continue to experience inequitable outcomes regardless of our population power.
Since the 2016 presidential election, communications strategists and political pollsters have warned that talking about race, class and immigration status in a polarized nation are non-starters. Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign and victory tell us just the opposite, and we should pay attention. We must unabashedly and unapologetically lay claim to our histories of oppression and resistance in the United States, and we should loudly advocate for the dismantlement of institutions, policies and practices that are at the root of racial, gender and class inequities in America today.