2020 Election
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How White Male Democratic Presidential Candidates Are Struggling with Questions of Privilege

7 minute read

All of a sudden, 2020 Democratic presidential primary candidates are dropping one after the other. Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee left the race last week, following Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s mid-August exit and California Rep. Eric Swalwell’s decision to end his campaign earlier this summer.

Besides running unspectacular races, all these candidates have one thing in common: they’re white men.

It’s not a coincidence. In a historically diverse presidential primary, the white men running for the Democratic nomination are expected to justify how they can represent a changing America and lead a party that is increasingly reliant on voters of color and focused on issues of race, gender and privilege. Many of them are struggling with the task.

“It’s not a liability” to be a white male candidate, says Jess Morales Rocketto, the political director at National Domestic Workers Alliance. “I do think that for the first time, white male Democratic candidates are having to answer for the electorate that actually reflects the Democratic Party. And some of them are not prepared.”

The white male candidates who have dropped out of the race thus far, as well as some who remain, have often been candid about both the privileges that came with their identity and the challenges it can present in today’s Democratic Party.

Swalwell vowed to pick a female running mate if he won the nomination, noting that he’s a white man who knows when he “can’t speak to someone else’s experience.” Asked at a debate how he would heal the country’s racial divide, Inslee began by noting the limitations of his experience. “I approach this question with humility,” he said, “because I have not experienced what many Americans have. I’ve never been a black teenager pulled over in a white neighborhood. I’ve never been a woman talked over in a meeting. I’ve never been an LGBTQ member subject to a slur.”

At nearly every turn of the primary so far, white male candidates have been the ones asked to acknowledge their inherent privilege. “In a country where we have a rising class of prominent women and people of color increasingly ascending the ranks of Democratic politics, if you’re running for president as a white dude, you need to be exceptional. There needs to be a reason for why it should be you, and you need to lay out a clear reason for why our 46th president should also be a white dude,” says Karthik Ganapathy, a progressive strategist who worked on Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign. Ganapathy argues Sanders has created a lane for himself as the only socialist running. “The race is clearly better with his voice in it…Tim Ryan? John Hickenlooper? Not so much.”

There are 11 white male candidates still in the race, including three of the top five in national polling averages: Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. All three have faced challenges when it comes to race-related policy issues, rhetoric or attracting support from voters of color.

Polls consistently show Biden—who formed a ticket with the nation’s first African-American President—with strong support among black voters. But his record and recent comments on race have also dogged his campaign. He faced criticism from rivals for his past opposition to federally-mandated school busing and his willingness to work with segregationist lawmakers in the early days of his Senate career. More recently, he created a controversy by saying “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids.”

Sanders has worked hard to shore up his support with black voters after struggling with that group in 2016. He has diversified the leadership in his campaign. (A campaign aide said 47% of staff are people of color.) Sanders has made a stronger investment in South Carolina; traveled extensively through southern states where black voters are the core of the Democratic coalition; and met with the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement. But Sanders has had slips-up, too. Earlier this year, before he was even officially running, he was criticized as tone deaf for giving his own rebuttal to President Trump’s State of the Union address, stepping on the official Democratic Party response by Stacey Abrams, a black woman and rising Democratic star who nearly won a Georgia gubernatorial race.

Race is emerging as a possible Achilles heel for Buttigieg as well. His support is consistently coming from white voters: a May poll in South Carolina, for example, put him at 8%—with 18% of white voters and 0% support from black voters. His record on gentrification in South Bend has been under scrutiny, and he’s had to answer for the death of Eric Logan, a black man who was shot and killed by a white police officer in South Bend in June. This summer, Buttigieg has taken steps to introduce himself to black voters, appearing at Essence Fest in New Orleans and releasing a “Douglass plan” to combat racial inequities. His campaign says he’s prioritizing black voters, and believe they’re still getting to know a candidate who’s new to the national scene.

Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke has also struggled to counter the perception of privilege. He’s been criticized as entitled for his soul-searching road trip and for a joke made at the start of his campaign about how much he helps with child-rearing. O’Rourke has spent a lot of time on the trail talking about systemic racial injustice. “I benefit from a system that my ancestors built to favor themselves at the expense of others,” he wrote in a July Medium post in which he acknowledged he was descended from slave owners. “That only increases the urgency I feel to help change this country so that it works for those who have been locked-out of — or locked-up in — this system.”

The difficulty white male candidates have faced on matters of race, gender and privilege this cycle has been heightened by the presence of black candidates like Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, both nationally known senators who have sharply questioned Biden’s record in particular. To be sure, presidential candidates who aren’t white men have overcome greater challenges to make it this far. Even now, Harris has experienced racist attacks related to her ancestry that evoked the “birther” campaign against Barack Obama. (Donald Trump Jr., the President’s son, promoted the claim that Harris is “not an American Black” before deleting it.)

Episodes like this are a reminder that there are still big advantages to being a white male presidential candidate. “They may have to explain themselves in ways that they haven’t had to explain themselves before,” says Neil Sroka, a spokesman for Democracy for America, “but they don’t have to deal with the host of institutional disadvantages that women and people of color face to even get to the position to run for a position like President of the United States and be taken seriously.”

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Write to Lissandra Villa at lissandra.villa@time.com