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PILLAI: Endorsment of white candidates from candidates of color proves problematic

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Within four days of dropping out of the presidential race, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro — the only Latinx candidate in the running — endorsed Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) for the Democratic nomination on Jan. 6. 

While the media has focused on the impact of Castro’s support on Warren’s campaign, the endorsement raises another question: How did the most diverse Democratic field of candidates turn into a predominantly white one, and why are people of color expected to throw their weight behind the remaining contenders?

Former Vice President Joe Biden has benefited the most from these endorsements, earning the approval of members of Congress, mayors, governors and DNC members. Perhaps unable to keep track of his supporters and their respective profiles, Biden erroneously claimed to have the support of the “only African American woman ever elected to the Senate,” referring to former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun during the fifth debate. 

He was standing on stage with Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), the second Black woman elected to the Senate. Although Harris corrected Biden and laughed in response, this moment is just another example of the routine that people of color, and especially women of color, have to endure when others minimize their identities. 

Too often are people of color relegated to the status of witness, their statements repackaged into testimonials that fit neatly on campaign websites and digital ads. These endorsements are a milder form of tokenism, which offers the appearance of diversity without promoting it. When used for political gain, endorsements perpetuate the idea that a person of color’s support signifies a stamp of approval from an entire ethnic group. 

But tokenism need not appear in the form of testimonials alone. It is also apparent in online images and policy names. Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s campaign used a stock photo of a Kenyan woman when promoting the mayor’s Douglass Plan, which addresses systemic racism against Blacks. By attaching Frederick Douglass’s name to the plan, Buttigieg’s campaign manufactured a posthumous endorsement, relying on symbolism rather than tact to garner support.

On the other hand, endorsements are not all about political ammunition. Castro and Warren possess similar policy priorities, so Castro’s endorsement will allow him to advance the proposals he would have championed had he stayed in the race. In fact, Warren joined Castro in the fight to decriminalize illegal border crossings this past June when Castro was still a contender. 

Although his policy platform was similar to Warren’s, Castro — along with other candidates of color — did not gain the traction he needed. Castro, who prioritized issues such as immigration reform and diplomacy in Central America, only received 1 to 2 percent of the vote in national polls

Undeterred by these numbers, he reached out to often-overlooked voting blocs with initiatives such as his People First Indigenous Communities policy, which sought to bolster tribal sovereignty and combat the opioid crisis in indigenous communities. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) dropped out of the race after failing to qualify for the seventh debate on Jan. 14, but he has sponsored legislation in the Senate to study potential reparations for slavery, a seemingly taboo topic on the campaign trail. 

And Andrew Yang, who has received substantial donations from the Asian American community, did not hesitate to hold the media accountable for ignoring his campaign. Not only have these candidates raised critical issues, but they have also resonated with minorities due to their personal experiences as people of color. 

If Democrats want to represent Americans of all backgrounds, the party must include its diverse constituents in the conversation. It is time for candidates to listen to voters of color — and not just to seek an endorsement. 

Preanka Pillai is a Rutgers Business School first-year majoring in marketing and business analytics and information technology. Her column, "Unboxed," runs on alternate Thursdays.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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