Shonda Rhimes has it, so does Obama: What is cultural competence?

Now more than ever progressives need to connect to the New American Majority & fight Smart-Ass White-Boy Syndrome

Published February 6, 2016 11:30PM (EST)

Shonda Rhimes, Barack Obama   (Reuters/Jonathan Alcorn/AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
Shonda Rhimes, Barack Obama (Reuters/Jonathan Alcorn/AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

Excerpted from “Brown Is the New White: How a Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority

They are a bunch of smart-ass white boys, who think they know it all.

—Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, August 1984

Andy Young had run out of patience. Having spent his life working in the trenches of social change and politics—supervising Martin Luther King’s voter registration drives, organizing civil rights protests across the South, and winning his own races for Congress and then mayor of Atlanta—he was trying to help Walter Mondale’s team develop a strategy for the 1984 presidential race against Ronald Reagan. When he was elected to Congress in 1972, Young had successfully applied grassroots organizing practices that included transporting 6,000 Black voters to the polls on election day, and he repeatedly urged Mondale’s team to invest resources in registering and mobilizing voters of color, but his words were falling on deaf ears. Finally, he had had enough and his frustration boiled over at the National Association of Black Journalists convention (NABJ), where he made his now-famous “smart-ass white boys” comment. Thirty years later, Young stood by his words. “Unfortunately, I was right,” he said at the NABJ conference in 2014. “Mondale let the experts there take over the campaign and put the money into television and did not get out the vote.”

More than thirty years later, progressive politics are still dominated by “White boys.” White men comprise 31 percent of the American population and just 23 percent of Democratic voters but they control nearly 90 percent of what happens in Democratic politics and progressive advocacy. Whether the current crop of largely male Caucasian consultants is equally “smart-ass” as in the eighties depends on who you ask, but what is clear is that what I call Smart-Ass White Boy Syndrome continues to this day. By the way, you don’t have to be White or a man to be afflicted with the syndrome. Its symptoms are a persistent disregard for the country’s communities of color as a political force and an inability to do the basic math necessary to appreciate the size and power of the electorate of color. Also, not all White guys suffer from this; some actually “get it.” The fact remains, however, that the world of progressive politics is dominated by White men at a time when the future of the progressive movement depends on solidifying the support of the growing number of people of color in America.

* * *

“What is Cultural Competence?”

In 2016 and beyond, progressives will not be able to rely on the historic opportunity to elect the first president of color as a way to motivate voters of color. Going forward, great cultural competence and expertise will be required to inspire and mobilize the New American Majority. Turning today’s multiracial movement for justice and equality into a lasting political force will not be easy. As Obama’s Harvard Law professor Chris Edley once remarked, “Dealing with race is not rocket science; it’s harder than rocket science.” In order for the Democratic Party and the progressive movement to succeed in a racially charged, multiracial society, great cultural competence is imperative.

The business world offers instructive lessons about how to develop and apply cultural competence. Starbucks has been working for fifteen years to develop a toehold in the Chinese market, opening five hundred new stores and working on fifteen hundred more. By 2016, China is expected to be Starbucks’s largest market outside the United States. To make these inroads, the coffee company is not just exporting the products and services that work in the United States. In order to achieve success and market penetration in China (a nation of tea drinkers, mind you), Starbucks has turned to local leaders and embraced the local culture by forging partnerships with local companies, holding meetings with the parents of employees in a nod to the importance of family culture, and even developing products that incorporate green tea. CEO Howard Schultz explained his understanding of the essence of a culturally competent approach when it comes to business:

What we want to do as a company is put our feet in the shoes of our customers. What does that mean, especially in China? It means that not everything from Starbucks in China should be invented in Starbucks in Seattle. . . . We want to be highly respectful of the cultural differences in every market, especially China, and appeal to the Chinese customer. So as an example, the food for the Chinese stores is predominantly designed for the Chinese palate.

In the past, we were fighting a war here between the people in Seattle who want a blueberry muffin and the people in China who say, “You know what, I think black sesame is probably an ingredient that they would rather have than blueberry.” And I would say that goes back to the hubris of the past, when we thought, we’re going to change behavior. Well, no, we’re not going to change behavior. In fact, we’re going to appeal with great respect to local tastes . . . for the first time, [we’re] trusting that the people in the marketplace know better than the people in Seattle.

Schultz’s reference to hubris suggests that Starbucks had to first get past the business world’s equivalent of Smart-Ass White Boy Syndrome in order to succeed in a new, non-White market. And just as one wouldn’t go into China without cultural consultants and guides, American politicians shouldn’t go into Asian American, Latino, Native American, Arab American, or African American communities without culturally competent advisors. Who better to craft compelling political messages than people who have lived and personally experienced the cultural realities of those whose votes are being sought?

In the world of arts and entertainment, African American screenwriter, director, and producer Shonda Rhimes’s phenomenal success with the TV shows Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder illustrates how presenting characters who authentically look, sound, and talk like the shows’ target audiences can resonate in a deep and lasting way and result in traction and loyalty. Scandal star Kerry Washington—the first female African American lead in a network television show since Teresa Graves in Get Christie Love! in 1974—talked about Rhimes’s influence, saying, “Shonda has changed the culture of television in that more and more people can turn on the television and see themselves.” Rhimes’s shows were among the most watched on television in 2015.

Learning lessons from Rhimes’s success, 2015 was a breakout year in television as Hollywood discovered the impact of providing fresh and compelling culturally diverse programming with actors of color cast in lead roles. Fox Network’s Empire, a Black hip-hop King Lear story, was the most successful new show on television that year. Additional successful new people-of-color-led shows included Fresh Off the Boat, the first sitcom featuring an Asian American family in twenty years, the Mexican telenovela-inspired Jane the Virgin, and the African American sitcom black-ish, all of which secured strong ratings.

In politics, one of the best and most well-known examples of cultural competence occurred during the 2008 presidential primaries when White Americans had their sensibilities shocked by being exposed to an angry Black preacher. Rev. Jeremiah Wright was the pastor at the Chicago church the Obamas attended, and like many Black preachers, he was known to engage in colorful rhetorical flourishes. During one lengthy sermon condemning America’s history in relation to people of color, Wright said, dramatically and with great inflection, the following:

The United States of America government, when it came to treating her citizens of Indian descent fairly, she failed. She put them on reservations. When it came to treating her citizens of Japanese descent fairly, she failed. She put them in internment prison camps. When it came to treating her citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. She put them in chains . . . [the government] builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing “God Bless America.” No, no, no, not God Bless America. God damn America—that’s in the Bible— for killing innocent people.

The video of that segment of the speech—especially the “God damn America” part—was then broadcast repeatedly on television and spawned more than three thousand news stories in one month. Of course it’s no accident that this sermon—which had been delivered five years earlier— came to light during the height of Wright’s most famous parishioner’s campaign to become the first Black president of the United States.

Many Black folks thought little of Wright’s flourishes and critiques of America. (In fact, my aunt Janis was so excited that she texted me, “Go tell it on the mountain and write that Wright is right!” I texted back, “Do you want Obama to be president?”) The mainstream media and White swing voters, however, were horrified. ABC News typified the tone of media coverage with a headline that blared, “Obama’s Pastor: God Damn America, U.S. to Blame for 9/11.” The first sentence of the article perfectly illustrated the alarmist coverage: “Barack Obama’s pastor says blacks should not sing ‘God Bless America’ but ‘God damn America.’ ”

Obama’s White consulting crew didn’t know what to do. Obama, however, did. He understood that he had to give a speech directly addressing the country’s racial fears and anxieties. Afterward, advisor Anita Dunn reflected that the decision to deliver the speech was Obama’s and had there been a discussion among the staff, “most of the people in the campaign would’ve advised against it.”

Obama insisted on giving what became known as the “race speech,” where he straddled the color line by affirming the Black American experience while educating Whites and allaying their fears. Unlike most of his other speeches, Obama didn’t turn to his White speechwriter, Jon Favreau, but took the lead in drafting that crucial address himself. In the speech, “A More Perfect Union,” Obama placed Wright’s comments within historical and sociological contexts. He said, “The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright’s sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning . . . the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.” 

After affirming the experience of African Americans, Obama went on in his speech to let White Americans know that he understood their frustrations. “When [whites] are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.”

Finally, he challenged Whites and Blacks alike to bridge the racial divide. “We have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. . . . Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, ‘Not this time.’ This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children.”

It was, by all accounts, a masterstroke and a case study in cultural competence. MSNBC host Chris Matthews said it was “one of the great speeches in American history,” and a New York Times editorial said, “It is hard to imagine how he could have handled it better.” Black voters identified with Obama’s words, White voters’s concerns were alleviated, and the Obama juggernaut marched on.

A month after the Rev. Wright controversy, Obama again had a chance to show off his mastery of cultural competence. During an April 2008 debate, Obama was pummeled with attacks by both the moderator, George Stephanopoulos, and his opponent, Hillary Clinton. The next day, during a speech before his supporters, he referenced the attacks, displayed his knowledge of hip-hop culture, and, without saying a word, brought the crowd of young people and students to its feet, clapping their hands and pumping their fists.

What Obama did was reference hip-hop mogul Jay-Z’s popular 2003 song, “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.” The song was on The Black Album, which sold more than 3 million copies and was well known by the younger, multiracial hip-hop community. The song’s message: Leave negative people and experiences behind by brushing them off like dirt on your shoulder. The refrain goes:

If you feelin’ like a pimp nigga, go and brush your shoulders off, Ladies is pimps too, go and brush your shoulders off,

Niggaz is crazy baby, don’t forget that boy told you, Get, that, dirt off your shoulder.

In the song’s video we see young Black men and women brushing off their shoulders, the men after they had been stopped and searched by police and women after dealing with catcalls.

In his speech, Obama talked about the attacks he’d weathered in the previous night’s debate and said, “I understand [the attacks] because that’s the textbook Washington game. . . . And when you’re running for the presidency, then you’ve gotta expect it, and you know you’ve just gotta kinda let it. . . .” Then, just like in the Jay-Z video, he silently brushed off his shoulder. Boom! The crowd went wild. Obama smiled, and the message was clear: Ain’t nobody got time for that. That was cultural competence in action.

Cultural competence also makes a huge difference in assembling the nuts and bolts tools necessary to win an election. In 2014, Rida Hamida, an Arab American organizer in California, was working to turn out the Arab American and Muslim vote in Orange County (total population 3.1 million). The campaign’s tech needs and voter lists were controlled by a White consultant. Hamida asked the consultant for a list of Arab American voters that her team of volunteers could call as part of their get-out-the-vote program. The consultant gave her a list with fewer than 5,000 names. Surprised at the low number, Hamida asked if she could have access to the voter file so that she could assemble the call list herself. When she was done, she’d identified 62,912 Arab American and Muslim voters.

Technically, what the White consultant did is understandable since he probably looked to see how many people in that area had checked the box “Arab American.” But census forms are woefully deficient in terms of their design vis-à-vis many people of color. Fortunately, Hamida has deep knowledge about Arab Americans and how they identify themselves. She knew to search by individual Arab and Muslim majority countries—Syria, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, etc.—and found ten times more people than the White consultant in charge of the voter file had. Hamida’s team contacted and turned out many of those voters. One of their preferred candidates, Bao Nguyen, won the race for mayor of Garden Grove, California, defeating the White incumbent by fifteen votes (yes, one-five). Hamida’s story illustrates the invaluable difference a campaign consultant with cultural competence can make in an election.

Notably, both Rhimes’s shows and Obama’s race speech exemplified how the same vehicle can be highly effective in speaking to Whites as well as people of color, illuminating another aspect of cultural competence: the most truly cross-cultural people in America are people of color. Due to the dominance of White culture, many people of color have to master at least two cultures in order to succeed—mainstream, middle-class White culture and their own racial group’s culture.

Clearly there are always exceptions to the rule, and it would be silly to suggest that every person of color has cultural competence. But when 97 percent of political contracts go to White consultants, as our audit of Democratic Party spending found, the message from the political world seems to be that people of color are in fact worse at reaching their own communities than White consultants are. In truth, it’s both common sense and verifiable that generally people who have lived a particular cultural experience have more insight into how to communicate with those who share that experience.

Smart-Ass White Boy Syndrome is a serious threat to the prospects of the progressive movement overall and the Democratic Party in particular. Too many people in political leadership are ignorant of the power and potential of the New American Majority and believe that ours is still mainly a White country where White swing voters are the most important demographic to pursue. As long as progressive leaders and decision makers keep following this belief, one compounded by arrogance and the refusal to recognize and address one’s ignorance, progressives will increasingly fail and flail in future elections and battles.

Cultural competence in campaigns and the rest of the progressive movement is needed now more than ever in order to connect with the New American Majority. It’s been thirty years since Andy Young cast down the gauntlet. We can’t afford to wait another thirty.

Excerpted from “Brown Is the New White: How a Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority” by Steve Phillips. Copyright © 2016 by Steve Phillips. Published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

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