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Racial politics roil Democratic Party

Democrats who have called President TrumpDonald TrumpNorth Carolina Senate passes trio of election measures 14 Republicans vote against making Juneteenth a federal holiday Border state governors rebel against Biden's immigration chaos MORE and his policies racist are now pointing fingers at one another on issues of race. 

Allegations of racial insensitivity are flying between the 2020 Democratic contenders, as well as between House Democrats, raising concerns that internecine squabbles over identity and race are tarnishing party leaders and distracting Democrats from their goal of ousting the president in 2020. 

The racially charged controversies that have swirled around former Vice President Joe Biden, 76, and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Pelosi Pelosi says she's giving Senate more time on Jan. 6 commission Ocasio-Cortez, Gillibrand and Moulton call for more high-speed rail funding in infrastructure package Pelosi picks Democrats for special panel tackling inequality MORE (D-Calif.), 79, have also put a spotlight on the generational rift within the party.

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Longtime Democratic leaders are facing new scrutiny from their younger peers over their past records. And they’re being called out for their rhetoric, which in some cases has offended the younger generation of liberals.

Frustrated lawmakers say the backbiting over race has gotten out of control. They want to see it come to an end so Democrats can return their focus to their agenda in the House and defeating Trump at the ballot box.

“It’s damaging to this party and the internal workings of the Democratic Party,” said Rep. Wm. Lacy ClayWilliam (Lacy) Lacy ClayLobbying world Ex-Rep. Clay joins law and lobbying firm Pillsbury Liberal advocacy group stirs debate, discomfort with primary challenges MORE (D-Mo.). “I can tell you it’s not helpful.”

Tensions exploded on Capitol Hill this week after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezHillary Clinton backs Shontel Brown in Ohio congressional race Ocasio-Cortez, Gillibrand and Moulton call for more high-speed rail funding in infrastructure package Pelosi picks Democrats for special panel tackling inequality MORE (D-N.Y.) accused Pelosi of singling out women of color for criticism, as divisions linger over the passage of a $4.6 billion border bill.

Pelosi has been dismissive of the influence on Capitol Hill held by Ocasio-Cortez and three other rising Democratic Party stars — Reps. Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibHouse Republicans introduce resolution to censure the 'squad' Progressives rally behind Omar while accusing her critics of bias Omar: I wasn't equating terrorist organizations with democratic countries MORE (Mich.), Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarHillary Clinton backs Shontel Brown in Ohio congressional race The Hill's Morning Report - Dems to go-it-alone on infrastructure as bipartisan plan falters Democrat says he won't introduce resolution to censure Greene MORE (Minn.) and Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyIt's past time we elect a Black woman governor House Republicans introduce resolution to censure the 'squad' Progressives rally behind Omar while accusing her critics of bias MORE (Mass.) — the group of freshman female lawmakers with massive followings on social media.

Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks ignited a long-simmering feud with the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC).

CBC members, such as Clay, exploded in anger at Ocasio-Cortez for having “used the race card” and accused progressives of seeking to oust black lawmakers by endorsing their primary challengers.

The progressive group Justice Democrats, which is closely aligned with Ocasio-Cortez, is supporting primary challengers to several longtime Democrats, including Clay and Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), a Hispanic Caucus member.

Justice Democrats have also considered a challenge to House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesDemocrats seek staffer salary boost to compete with K Street Congress tiptoes back to normality post-pandemic White House to Democrats: Get ready to go it alone on infrastructure MORE (D-N.Y.), a CBC member who is viewed by many as a potential heir to Pelosi.

“Donald Trump has brought the question of race to the forefront of American politics, so it’s no surprise that there will be ongoing and continuous and serious and often uncomfortable public discussions on the subject,” Jeffries said. “At the end of the day, our common enemy is Donald Trump, not other members of the House Democratic Caucus.”

In the presidential race, Biden’s backers are still fuming over what they view as a dishonest characterization of his record on race by his rivals for the presidential nomination, including Sens. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisIt's past time we elect a Black woman governor Manchin rebuffs progressive push for infrastructure guarantee It's time for domestic workers to have rights MORE (D-Calif.), 54, and Cory BookerCory BookerZombie Tax punishes farmers to fill DC coffers Rand Paul does not support a national minimum wage increase — and it's important to understand why Absences force Senate to punt vote on Biden nominee MORE (D-N.J.), 50.

Harris catapulted into the top tier of Democratic presidential contenders after an exchange with Biden at the first presidential debate. The California Democrat called Biden’s remarks about finding common ground with segregationist senators “hurtful,” and she attacked him for his decades-old opposition to a federal busing program aimed at integrating schools.

“I think Sen. Harris is out of control,” said Rep. A. Donald McEachinAston (Donale) Donald McEachinPolitical disenfranchisement is fueling environmental injustice White House names members of environmental justice panel Democrats reintroduce measure to address racial disparities in environmental impacts MORE (D-Va.), a CBC member who has endorsed Biden for president.

Booker had previously taken a dig at Biden, saying that the former vice president’s recollection of never having been addressed as “boy” by the segregationist senators was “hurtful” to black people and showed a “lack of understanding” about racial power dynamics.

Biden has slipped some in the polls since the first debate, but he remains the front-runner in the Democratic presidential primary in part because of his strong support from black voters.

Taken together, the controversies have Democrats shaking their heads over how they have reached the point of attacking one another over race. 

“They should be pointing the finger at [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellLoeffler meets with McConnell amid speculation of another Senate run Manchin opens door to supporting scaled-down election reform bill Pelosi, Schumer must appoint new commissioners to the CARES Act oversight panel MORE [R-Ky.] and Donald Trump,” said Rep. Bonnie Watson ColemanBonnie Watson ColemanTSA working on additional pipeline security regulations following Colonial Pipeline hack President Biden can prevent over 4,000 people from being sent back to prison Lawmakers roll out legislation to defend pipelines against cyber threats MORE (D-N.J.), the first black woman elected to Congress from New Jersey. 

“I don’t think anyone is calling Joe Biden a racist. I don’t think anyone has any reason to call Nancy Pelosi a racist. I think that we can have these bold discussions and people can disagree on certain issues. But this is not helpful, not helpful at all,” she added.

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Republicans are relishing the fight, describing it as the culmination of the left’s obsession with identity politics.

“Madam Speaker, welcome to the true nature of identity politics - where you’re accused of being racist for no reason at all, and where intellectually lazy insults are used against you as a way to replace substantive debate of your argument or idea,” Rep. Dan CrenshawDaniel CrenshawCotton, Pentagon chief tangle over diversity training in military The hypocrisy of weeding out identity politics in the military Crenshaw trolled after asking for examples of 'woke ideology' in military MORE (R-Texas) said over Twitter.

Some liberals interviewed by The Hill described the fighting as driven by the generational divide rather than the belief that some in the party harbor racial animus.

“There’s an old guard and a new guard, and there’s going to be some friction there,” said one Democratic lawmaker who requested anonymity.

Activism around racial issues has been a hallmark of the ascendant left wing of the party, led by Ocasio-Cortez.

Cornell William Brooks, the former president of the NAACP and a current professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, said the raging debate is largely the result of a generational divide and a matter of style.

The young liberal lawmakers, Brooks said, have enormous influence on social media and have used their platform to draw attention to what they view as racial biases, whereas veterans of the civil rights movement are focused more on institutional or explicit racial inequality. 

“These young lawmakers came of age politically at a moment in the country when there has been unprecedented levels of activism,” Brooks said. “They practice politics as protest, whereas Pelosi practices it through the art of compromise in governing, so this has a lot to do with generation, not just race.”

“For younger voters, they’re used to expressing their thoughts about racial, ethnic or gender identity implications through tweeted speech, whereas the older generation is more focused on intent rather than what is implied,” Brooks added.