The Politics of Who Gets to Define 'Woke'

The Politics of Who Gets to Define 'Woke'
Image:Jason Kempin (Getty Images)

Famed Democratic strategist James Carville seems to have one job of late: Popping up to offer his list of grievances about the left’s influence on the Democratic Party. It’s what he did in February 2020, during a Vox interview in which he expressed concern at the party’s chances of beating Trump, sneered at the notion of canceling student loan debt, and complained that the party has become overrun by leftist urban elites. Now, over a year later, he spoke with Vox again with a similar ax to grind: The use of “woke” phrases like “communities of color” and “Latinx,” both of which he described as “faculty lounge” jargon.

Carville was poised to speak with Vox’s Sean Illing about Biden’s first 100 days in office, but the conversation immediately turned to an “anti-woke” screed.

“[Biden’s] biggest attribute is that he’s not into ‘faculty lounge’ politics,” Carville said.

From Vox:

CARVILLE: You ever get the sense that people in faculty lounges in fancy colleges use a different language than ordinary people? They come up with a word like “Latinx” that no one else uses. Or they use a phrase like “communities of color.” I don’t know anyone who speaks like that. I don’t know anyone who lives in a “community of color.” I know lots of white and Black and brown people and they all live in … neighborhoods.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with these phrases. But this is not how people talk. This is not how voters talk. And doing it anyway is a signal that you’re talking one language and the people you want to vote for you are speaking another language. This stuff is harmless in one sense, but in another sense it’s not.
ILLING: Is the problem the language or the fact that there are lots of voters who just don’t want to hear about race and racial injustice?
CARVILLE: We have to talk about race. We should talk about racial injustice. What I’m saying is, we need to do it without using jargon-y language that’s unrecognizable to most people — including most Black people, by the way — because it signals that you’re trying to talk around them. This “too cool for school” shit doesn’t work, and we have to stop it.

He went on to say that “wokeness is a problem and everyone knows it” but nobody is willing to say so because “they’ll get clobbered or canceled.”

But there isn’t much proof that phrases like “Latinx” or “of color” or terminology of that sort is actually hurting the Democratic party. And while phrases like “communities of color” can be misused, especially when they act as a clunky replacement for “Black,” phrases like “people of color” have been so mainstreamed in the last decade—even among Black people, despite Carville’s insistence to the contrary—that acting as if the term is inherently alienating to long-time Democratic voters or prospective ones falls flat. In the case of Latinx, it’s the opposite: “Latinx” isn’t mainstreamed in the language parrotted by party leaders, certainly not enough to make voters stay home on Election Day or vote for the other guy. And while acceptance of the phrase “Latinx” among the very group the term aims to describe is fraught, its usage was popularized by queer activists, not simply lounge chair academics.

Carville made a handful of salient points: That Democratic messaging obviously failed in Florida as well as across the heavily Latinx Rio Grande Valley, where the Democratic party lost support; this, despite Florida voters recently approving of a $15 minimum wage and voting rights for people with felonies, two policy positions that are largely regarded as left-leaning. (Florida’s Republican legislature and governor have all but gutted felon’s voting rights even though the amendment was favored by voters by an overwhelming majority.) He also stressed that Democrats having control of the House, Senate, and presidency now doesn’t guarantee security in the future. “Republicans are way more disciplined about taking a thing and branding it,” Carville said. “Most people agree with us on health care and minimum wage and Roe v. Wade and even on the climate. So why can’t we leverage that?”

But it wasn’t “Latinx” that caused a shift in Rio Grande votes in Trump’s favor in 2020; blame firm religious sentiments, disagreements on immigration and other policy proposals, and a general sense that Democrats took them for granted. And who helped get Florida to vote for a $15 minimum wage? It wasn’t the Democratic party apparatus, but rather progressive organizations like Dream Defenders, Common Ground, Organize Florida, Fight for $15, the Tampa and Pinellas Democratic Socialists of America as well as groups like the Florida Immigrant Coalition, WeCount! and the SEIU labor union. Many of these groups use phrases like “Black and brown” and other terms that Carville is convinced are too erudite for voters. Voters didn’t seem to care. The policy itself seemed more important to voters than some so-called faculty lounge phrasing that pops up on a politician’s social media posts, posts that only a small fraction of voters would even see. (Not the mention, as more historically Black neighborhoods see an influx in Latinx populations, the phrase “communities of color” has become increasingly less handwringing and more accurate.)

But debating the validity of Carville’s argument masks a bigger issue at play: People—often white, often men—with large and influential platforms who redefine co-opted terms like “woke” and dictate its supposed harm. What began as a term to indicate an awareness and attentiveness of the powers that be—especially with regards to state violence, anti-Blackness, the general plight of the marginalized—was morphed into a new way of saying “political correctness.” In the last several years, it has been wielded as a pejorative by white people of various political alignments, from Donald Trump Jr and Fox News personalities like Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, journalists like Matt Taibbi and Glenn Greenwald, both of who have maintained relevancy in part due to their concern trolling over “wokeism.” But they’re getting worked up over their own invented definition of the term, using it to describe everything from common sense diversity initiatives they don’t like to shallow corporate bandwagoning of social justice issues.

Similarly, Carville has deployed the phrase to decry everything from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s left-leaning politics, to the Democratic Party’s reputation as “an urban, coastal, arrogant party,” to—perhaps most telling—a barrier to rural white voters.

“No matter how you look at the map, the only way Democrats can hold power is to build on their coalition, and that will have to include more rural white voters from across the country,” Carville opined, immediately after noting that tweeting out support for police abolition isn’t a good idea. As much as Carville tried to spin wokeness as a turnoff for every demographic, concern for white voters appears to be of greater concern.

“Woke” went from Black American slang denoting recognition of oppressive social structures to this-feeds-into-the-left-lib-agenda-and-I-don’t-like-that. After being bastardized to hell and back for the better part of the last decade, “woke” has become a useless phrase meaning whatever the user wants it to mean. It no longer acts as counsel (“stay woke, man”) or even tongue-in-cheek praise of one’s ethics (“yeah, I like him, he’s woke). It’s just a boogeyman for regressive talking heads and their followers.

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