Politico erases New Yorkers of color

Residents attending a 2016 hearing on Mitchell-Lama housing in Brooklyn.
Residents attending a 2016 hearing on Mitchell-Lama housing in Brooklyn.
William Alatriste/New York City Council
Residents attending a 2016 hearing on Mitchell-Lama housing in Brooklyn.

Politico erases New Yorkers of color

A misleading journey into “Clinton Country.”
April 2, 2018

Taking trolling to a new level, on Friday Politico Magazine published an article titled “My 72-Hour Safari in Clinton Country.” The conceit was a writer from an Indianapolis suburb that voted for Donald Trump in 2016 would go to liberal bastions and ask the residents about the president in the same way that journalists from New York City and Washington, D.C., descend on the Rust Belt and Coal Country to explain Trump’s appeal.

So the writer, Adam Wren, visits Park Slope, Chelsea and NoHo in New York and Bethesda, Maryland, and Shaw and Chevy Chase in D.C. (The latter three are roughly equivalent to Scarsdale, the Lower East Side and Riverdale, respectively.) Wren did not take much of an interest in the substantive issues that separate liberal voters from Trump: He mostly just catalogues their shuddering distaste for the man. To set the scene, Wren trots out every hackneyed affectation of the upscale liberal intelligentsia: He leads with “broccolini and organic wheatgrass” in Brooklyn, winding his way past “sustainably-raised fish, pasture-raised poultry and grass-fed beef” in Chelsea and the “driveways … filled by Audis and Teslas” in suburban D.C. to “a dimly lit, fashionable cocktail bar.”

“I entered the candlelit sanctum, which smelled of lavender and liberal angst,” reads a typical passage. The piece was so cliched that urbanist Richard Florida observed on Twitter that it reads like a spoof.

The intended purpose was unclear, but as an experiment to see if one can be as cursory, condescending and unilluminating in covering big urban coastal cities as Midwestern and Appalachian towns, it was a resounding success.

It also demonstrated that the national political press remains rife with lazy bias masquerading as anti-elitism.

The problem starts with the piece’s definition of Clinton Country. All of the communities Wren visited are mainly affluent and white. But, while they do lean Democratic, they are not the most Democratic neighborhoods in their towns.

In New York City, the borough that went for Clinton by the largest margin isn’t Manhattan or Brooklyn; it’s the Bronx, where Clinton won 88 percent, versus 86 percent in Manhattan and 79 percent in Brooklyn. This is not because living farther uptown inherently makes you more Democratic; it’s because the Bronx is the poorest and least-white borough. But Wren didn’t go to the Bronx.

Nor did he go to the most pro-Clinton neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Manhattan. In Brooklyn, that would be the overwhelmingly African-American and Caribbean-American neighborhoods in the borough’s eastern perimeter such as East New York and Brownsville, where Clinton garnered as much as 96 percent of the vote. Those areas include the largest concentration of public housing in the city and poverty rates as high as 40 percent. Likewise, Manhattan’s most pro-Clinton neighborhood in 2016 was Harlem, not the chic downtown precincts Wren visits. As Vox.com’s Matthew Yglesias tweeted, “The heart of Clinton Country, in New York and elsewhere, is black neighborhoods.”

But you can’t make fun of bourgeois bohemians and their crunchy affectations in Brownsville. So Wren went to Chelsea Market, the Park Slope Food Coop and a SoulCycle studio in NoHo. Wren mentions that one of his SoulCycle classmates invited him to the housing projects in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. “I told her I was from Indiana, and had come here to do almost exactly that,” Wren writes. But then he doesn’t do that at all. Instead, he mocks another classmate for wearing all black and using an iPhone and he wanders up to Union Square and a nearby Whole Foods.

It’s not that there would have been anything wrong with Wren going to Brownstone Brooklyn and Downtown Manhattan to gather color. Clinton’s performance was dominant there, too: In Park Slope and Gowanus, Clinton won 92 percent of the vote. In Chelsea, she pulled 87 percent.

But it isn’t only the organic foodies in those neighborhoods who vote Democratic: They have public housing that Wren could have visited, and he should also have gone to the more representative heart of Clinton Country. If he had, he might have come away with a story that left out some jabs at the “kombucha-swilling denizens of the Park Slope Coop," in favor of some information on how immigrants and poor people feel they are being affected by Trump’s policies.

Not having done so, Wren’s piece is wildly misleading. In Brooklyn, Wren visited a borough that is 64 percent non-white, over one-fifth of residents live in poverty and only 34 percent of adults have a college degree, yet he spoke almost exclusively to white-collar professionals.

Why would the nation’s leading political outlet so perversely misinform its readers? Apparently, that was Politico’s actual intent. According to Wren, “My editors had given me this assignment as something of a lark. The idea: Just as reporters from New York and D.C. trek into Trump Country to visit greasy spoons and other corners of Real America™ to measure support for the candidate, I’d venture from Trump Country to the most stereotypical bastions of coastal liberal elitism, and ask the people I met whether they still support Hillary Clinton.”

Left unexplained is what makes taking exercise classes or eating broccolini elitist. How does spinning or shopping at a food coop – at which prices are actually lower than a typical supermarket, because the members work there several hours per month – express disdain for the less privileged?

In fact, it does not. That liberal affluent New Yorkers try to be healthy does not harm conservatives in Indiana. Buying eco-friendly products, whether sustainably-raised fish or a Tesla, only helps the rest of the world by lowering one’s environmental impact. Actual elitism might better be encapsulated by a luxury real estate magnate who brags about his wealth and expensive education, indulges in conspicuous consumption, and charges $200,000 to join his private club.

But none of that matters to a writer or editor determined to reinforce biases that they have helped to create. Note Wren’s use of the word “stereotypical.” While the most typical Clinton supporters are lower-income African-Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans, the most stereotypical ones are, thanks to a solipsistic media, exactly as Wren describes them.  

In the national political press, Trump voters are consistently portrayed as humble heartland folk and Clinton’s as cosmopolitan snobs. The real snobs, however, are political and media hacks who dismiss the very existence of people of color and others who complicate that picture. That erasure of communities of color is why prominent figures such as Roseanne Barr falsely claim that “the working class” went for Trump.

In fact, only the white working class went for Trump, while the non-white working class went overwhelmingly for Clinton – hence, Clinton’s victory among lower-income voters. Wren and his editors chose to reinforce faulty stereotypes merely because they already exist. It’s a feedback loop of malicious ignorance.

When Wren left New York, he took the Amtrak Acela to Washington, D.C., skipping the poor, staunchly Democratic cities along the way such as Newark, Philadelphia and Baltimore. He did not visit Clinton’s strongest precincts in D.C., which are found in the predominantly lower-income and African-American neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. Although Chevy Chase was comfortably carried by Clinton, it was – by virtue of its residents being mostly white and prosperous – one of Trump’s strongest areas in D.C.

Taken as a whole, the implication of Politico’s piece is clear: People who are poor and non-white simply do not exist. Wren claims to have visited the heart of Clinton Country and found that everyone there is a yuppie whose biggest concern is where her kale comes from. This is simply false. In Clinton’s greatest strongholds, some of them walking distance from the places Wren went, one can quickly find poverty, resentment of inequality and feeling forgotten to match that of any former steel town.

Even as Wren laments the cultural chasm between Trump’s America and Clinton’s, he portrays that gap as far greater than it really is. One would think, from reading Wren’s travelogue, that he has never encountered a cocktail bar or yoga studio back home in Indiana. In reality, they have Whole Foods and SoulCycle in Indiana. Indianapolis has gentrifying inner-city neighborhoods with trendy cocktail bars.

Meanwhile, middle-class and rich whites in New York aren’t all liberal. The ones who live in Park Slope and Chelsea are, but many of those in Dyker Heights, Staten Island and on the Upper East Side are not – just ask the president, who grew up in Queens and lives on Fifth Avenue.

Trump won voters making between $50,000 and $200,000 per year, while losing those making less than $50,000. The portrayal of Trump voters as mostly blue-collar folks suffering from “economic anxiety” is inaccurate. The antidote to such flawed journalism is careful, nuanced reporting, not incurious, prejudiced claptrap.

Ben Adler
is City & State’s senior editor.
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