Marianne Williamson is derided as the 2020 sideshow, the New Age-y kook who thinks mind energy can conquer nuclear radiation and likens forced vaccinations to anti-abortion legislation. Her more controversial beliefs about vaccinations and mental health should be questioned, but it would be foolhardy for us or her Democratic opponents to write her off entirely. She has little chance of scooping up the nomination, but she outdoes the experienced elected officials in one realm: her ability to emote on race.
This observation is not to dismiss Williamson’s more problematic stances, but one can exist with the other, and the Democratic frontrunners should take note. This was abundantly clear during the Democratic Debates last night, hosted in Detroit, Michigan, when Williamson turned her attention towards race in the United States, taking a different tactic than other candidates; she got angry, sad, defiant—she was emotional. And it resonated, especially when she spoke about environmental racism in Flint, Michegan.
“Flint is just the tip of the iceberg,” Williamson said. “We have communities, particularly communities of color, and disadvantaged communities all over the country who are suffering from environmental injustice. I assure you, I lived in Grosse Pointe. What happened in Flint would not have happened in Grosse Pointe,” she added, referring to an affluent coastal area of Michigan.
The line drew wild applause. She went on:
If you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this President is bringing up in this country, then I’m afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days.
We need to say it like it is, it’s bigger than Flint. It’s all over this country. It’s particularly people of color. It’s particularly people who do not have the money to fight back, and if the Democrats don’t start saying it, why would those people feel they’re there for us, and if those people don’t feel it, they won’t vote for us and Donald Trump will win.
Williamson also used her limited speaking time to defend her bold support of reparations for descendants of chattel slavery. CNN’s Don Lemon pointed out that Williamson’s opponents support a commission to study reparations, while Williamson supports “$500 billion in financial assistance.” Williamson was quick to both correct Lemon and chide her competition, referring to the funds as “payment of a debt that is owed.”
“That is what reparations is,” Williamson said. “We need some truth telling when it comes. We don’t need another commission to look at evidence.”
She went on to acknowledge that she respects Beto O’Rourke’s support of reparations before barreling forward, breaking down a simple justification of reparations without the hand wringing or instant dismissal that many politicians turn to:
It is time for us to simply realize that this country will not heal. All that a country is is a collection of people. People heal when there is some deep truth telling. We need to realize that when it comes to the economic gap between blacks and whites in America, it does come from a great injustice that has never been dealt with.
That great injustice has to do with the fact there were 250 years of slavery followed by another 100 years of domestic terrorism. What makes me qualified to say $200 to $500 billion? I’ll tell you what makes me qualified. If you did the math of the 40 acres and a mule, given that there were 4 to 5 million slaves at the end of the Civil War—they were all promised 40 acres and a mule for a family of four. If you did the math today it would be trillions of dollars. And I believe that anything less than $100 billion is an insult, and I believe that $200 to $500 billion is politically feasible today, because so many Americans realize there is an injustice that continues to form a toxicity underneath the surface.
That’s not to say that other politicians on that debate stage didn’t have agendas that could benefit black communities or other communities of color. Warren noted her desire to pump money into historically black colleges; Sanders supports a plan to make school systems less racially segregated. To her credit, Amy Klobuchar, unprompted, was the first person to mention the Flint water crisis. But Buttigieg sounded wooden and rehearsed when he was confronted with his own checkered record of handling racial discord in the city he runs, and we were mercifully spared lengthy rumination on race from competitors like John Delaney, Tim Ryan, John Hickenlooper, or Steve Bullock, but it’s hard to imagine that they would be remotely engaging.
Strong policy is essential, but Williamson wasn’t wrong to point out the limitations of wonkiness when it comes to discussions of race. We can quibble over whether Williamson’s emotions were sincere or part of a larger grift, but they came across as genuine and clued into a warmth and empathy that is often lost when politicians attempt to talk to black and brown Americans about what pains them. A politician can have brilliant policy that will change the lives of millions of people of color in this country, but if it isn’t felt by voters, then, truly: What’s the point?