Why I Voted for Elizabeth Warren

Okay. It’s time to get personal. I voted for Elizabeth Warren, even though I knew she had almost no chance to win.

I voted for her because she has progressive politics. She was willing to stand up to big corporations and wealthy individuals. She understood the terrible plight of poor and lower middle-class families in this era of hyper-inequality and had specific plans to support them. She supported the idea of Medicare for all, and the need for big action on the climate crisis. She denounced the racism of mass incarceration and clearly articulated a civil rights agenda for the 21st Century.  She was an unflinching supporter of the #MeToo movement. She had a clear vision of creating a social democracy in the United States.

And I voted for her because she is a woman, and the U.S. is long overdue for a woman President.

Like many progressives, I supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 with great reservations. We know what the Clintons did: they created the bipartisan support needed to unleash neo-liberalism in the 21st Century. It was really hard to have to support Hillary in 2016 but I did because the alternative was and is unthinkable. I also wished the day after that disastrous election that she and Bill would just go away.

Warren does not have Hillary’s baggage. Quite the opposite, she was the leader of the most important effort to rein in the banks after the financial meltdown of 2007-2010. In the fight for the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, Warren showed incredible tenacity and the ability to bring together a broad coalition in support of her historic effort to regulate capitalism’s most powerful and egregious institutions. She also showed great compassion during the debates, telling stories about people she had met at campaign stops. (OK, doing this when she had 45 seconds to speak might not have been a good debate strategy, but still…..). 

But she never had a chance both because of the rampant sexism towards her and because Bernie Sanders was in the race. Sanders also articulated a progressive agenda, but a far more grandiose one that would require trillions of dollars to accomplish. He has positioned himself as the leader of a great political revolution in which workers, minorities and youth would rise up and put America on a humane course. He embraces the concept of socialism, although it is unclear exactly what he means.  And after he lost to Hillary in 2016 Sanders built a formidable campaign with a large staff and early support from many progressive intellectuals and politicians. In the early days of the 2020 campaign, he seemed unstoppable.

But then he was stopped. And what stopped him was not Biden and the centrist Democrats, but a widespread rejection of his campaign by voters across the South and Texas.  Bernie ran into a storm of opposition because:

  1. His belief that there is a hidden wellspring of voters waiting for socialist politics is delusional. There is little evidence that progressive movements are moving into high gear these days. Quite the opposite: all but one of the candidates endorsed by Justice for All lost in their Super Tuesday primaries.
  2. He has built his campaign appealing to young voters, but young people unfortunately voted in typically small numbers on Super Tuesday.
  3. He consistently couches racial issues in class terms. This has alienated many African Americans who understand the importance of addressing racism straight on. His recent decision to pull out of Mississippi to put resources into the very close contest in Michigan angered many Black activists because he clearly does not understand the deep connections that bind Southern and Northern Black communities.
  4. He is a polarizer, leading many to conclude that he would not be able to build a coalition broad enough to beat Trump or to govern if he did. Sadly, Bernie’s long career in both houses of Congress is unimpressive, largely because he did not want to engage in the hard give and take work to build coalitions that is always needed to pass important legislation.
  5. His personal style of perpetual anger does not resonate with most voters, who are still looking for someone who can stabilize the ship, not overthrow it. I was recently moved by a post written by famed civil rights activist Ruby Sales, who was targeted for assassination by an angry white cop while she led Lowndes County Alabama’s voting campaign in 1964. In this post, she warns that Bernie’s self-righteous anger, replicated by some of his followers, is as dangerous as the anger of the right.

Despite these shortcomings, Sanders’ campaign has successfully built a narrow but deep base of support because of his progressive politics. His base is whiter, richer and more educated than the working class he hopes will rise, but it is clear that millions of Americans resonate with his call for a ‘political revolution.” Perhaps most importantly, his campaign opened up a space for almost the entire field of candidates—including the so-called centrists– to take positions to the left of virtually all Democratic Party candidates before this year.

So, back to my vote for Elizabeth Warren. I voted for her because she had progressive politics but did not have Bernie’s baggage. She is a coalition builder; she does know how to get things done in Congress. She is compassionate where Bernie is angry. She is flexible (look at her position on Medicare for all) without sacrificing principles. I think she would have made a great President. But she had no road to the nomination and had to withdraw. (By the way, she will never ever endorse Sanders. Remember the debate where Sanders called her a liar on national television? She does.)

The Democrats’ nomination is now Biden’s to lose. I don’t think he will. Biden is running a good campaign. His biggest weakness—the specific format of debates the Democrats adopted—will be less of a liability as the field narrows and as his campaign picks up endorsements and money. His greatest asset is that he is what most Americans are looking for: an adult with real job experience. His support among African Americans is not because he was Obama’s Veep. It is because of his real commitment to the first Black president. Yes, Biden took terrible positions on school desegregation in the 1970s and mass incarceration in the 1990s. But as Obama’s wing man for eight years, Biden was steadfast and loyal. Biden has a track record of being a white ally that is undeniable, and frankly, unusual. I would not be surprised to see him choose a woman of color as his Vice Presidential candidate. (But I don’t think Stacy Abrams wants that job, darn it.)

For the past year, I have been writing that progressives cannot expect to win the Presidency when they still have not built their base. I still believe that to be true. Bernie did the left a big solid with this campaign because he energized thousands of young political activists. But the key will be whether or not these activists stay engaged in the hard work of community and labor organizing after the primaries—and the 2020 election—are over. The future of left politics should not and cannot be defined by electoral politics. The main metric for success must be the capacity of workers, minority communities, women, LGBTQI people to get organized, and to align with one another with a progressive agenda that allows them to coordinate their efforts to take on the matrix of domination in this country and the world. Certainly, electoral politics will support this organizing effort, as Bernie’s and Warren’s campaigns did this year. But Americans will not be ready for a truly revolutionary politics until they can envision themselves as agents of change. We are still a ways from the kind of progressive movement that can make a “political revolution” actually win.

The Soul of (white) People

            A significant number of whites are becoming more aware of racism today, a fact often overlooked in this time of rising white supremacy. In the mid-1990s, some 70 percent of whites denied that racism was a serious problem in the United States. In 2018, a Gallup poll found that 45 percent of whites think that race relations between blacks and whites are somewhat bad or very bad; 56 percent of whites said that racism against blacks is widespread in the U.S.; 45 percent of whites believed that blacks are treated unfairly by the police; and 48 percent of whites said that there are not equal job opportunities for racial minorities in the United States today

This growing white acknowledgement of racism is the result of many determined campaigns led by people of color (and some whites). From Obama’s campaigns to Black Lives Matter, evidence of racism and protests against is now never-ending, from the Russian plot to disrupt the 2016 elections to Republican Party racial gerrymandering, to the racism of the criminal justice system, school segregation, and inequality of access to jobs and housing. The recent commemorations of the beginning of slavery 400 years ago prompted a broad reassessment of American history, with even the New York Times editorial board stating that American democracy and the American economy have always been racialized, a position held by only the most radical among us a few short years ago. Paradoxically, the willingness of tens of millions of whites to support an openly racist President solidified many other whites’ understanding that societal racism is alive and well.

“Today, the question for many ‘woke’ whites is no longer whether racism exists; the question now is what they will do about it.”

Unfortunately, many whites seem to be having a lot of difficulty answering this question. Certainly, anti-racist movements, backed by a generation of work by academics and public intellectuals, have insured that “woke” whites are aware that all whites are privileged by structural racism. But the problem is that this knowledge alone does not produce change.  Many whites who are barely holding onto their middle-class status may well decide that there is nothing they can do because they can ill afford to surrender any opportunity they have, privileged or no. As a result, ‘woke’ whites often feel paralyzing guilt.

            These paralyzing tendencies are, unfortunately, often re-enforced by ‘white studies.’  A host of books, articles and documentaries have appeared, explaining and decrying white rage and white fragility, and seeking to explain why so many whites are willing to vote for and advocate for policies that are completely destructive to their class, gender, etc. interests.  But, as Lauren Jackson recently wrote in Slate, the problem with white studies is that it is inward turning: the subject is white people, and the solution offered is for white people to heal themselves. LINK

The urging that whites turn inward to “heal themselves” through endless discussions with other white people produces a toxic stew of guilt and impotence.  Furthermore, many people of color are quite appropriately growing weary of being looked to as the experts on racism, or as the saviors of white liberals, or too often being the only people who show up to take action against racism,  and are wondering aloud why whites can’t figure out what’s going on and what to do about it.

So, what can whites who understand that racism is real and white supremacy must end do to become effective actors against it?

I believe the starting point for whites to take action is this: they must understand that racism damages everyone, including white people. There can be no doubt that racism has produced economic, political and social privileges that have benefitted all whites. But what is often missed by those who grasp white supremacy is that whites pay a dear price for their privileges. The recognition that racism harms whites may just be what is needed to propel them into action, not just to pay reparations to people of color for their privileges, but literally to save their own souls.

“Racism damages everyone, including white people”

The recognition that racism does damage to whites is not new. W.E.B. DuBois wrote about this in 1910, observing that colonial claims of the racial superiority of white civilization were built on ‘feet of clay.’ DuBois argued that when a civilization justifies the appropriation of the wealth and culture of the entire world on the basis of its racial superiority, those who participate in that appropriation deeply feel their own inauthenticity, the falseness of their own claims. In order to maintain their privileges, whites must believe that the people they oppress cannot see the pretenses of racists for what they are.  As a result, DuBois notes, it is when people of color assert their own humanity that whites become the most violent, because otherwise white people would have to acknowledge their own inhumanity. Martin Luther King also decried the false sense of superiority that racism imparted to whites, arguing that the belief that people of color were not equal human beings strips racist whites of their capacity to love—not only the non-white majority of the world, but also themselves.

White people are damaged by the fallacious belief that they are the only real human beings, (or, the belief that America is a white country, or the belief that saying that Black lives matter is somehow a threat to whites, etc.). In reality, the United States has always been a multi-racial society.  There was never a time when enslaved people (or Native Americans) completely lost their personhood, despite racists’ best efforts. Throughout American history, racially oppressed people always had their own lives, their own loves, their own agency. And, usually in secret, there were always some white people who refused to dehumanize these people, and at risk to their lives, were accepted into black and other communities of color.

Racism seeks to erases these realities. Racists must deny the ways that people outside Europe were and are effective agents of their own destinies, living, and loving and building civilizations. Within the world that racism created and continues to create, whites live out an enormous lie, one that is continually challenged by the very existence of over 80 percent of humanity.  In pursuit of white privilege and a false sense of their own superiority, whites voluntarily strip themselves of all their own national ethnic cultures and communities, leaving them no choice but to find meaning in bourgeois pursuits of wealth, power and status.

Worst of all, whiteness leaves many whites—especially middle- and upper-class whites—without a deep connection to a historically grounded loving community, to a sense of soulfulness. In this sense, DuBois’ effort to describe the ‘souls of white folks ‘was misplaced: whiteness renders people soul-less. (Indeed, in a rare moment of insight in her guilt-ridden and hand-wringing documentary about white privilege, Chelsea Handler says to the family of her Black teenage boyfriend, “Hanging out with you guys was the most soul I ever had in my life.”)

The understanding that racism radically distorts and undermines white peoples’ humanity and capacity for love is different from the Marxist argument that racism harms white workers by depriving them of the material benefits that would be theirs if they acted in class solidarity with workers of color. The Marxist position asks whites to believe that they would benefit from a working class solidarity that very few people in the United States see or experience. Marxists ask whites to give up the racial benefits they see very tangibly in their lives for class benefits that are far too abstract to be believable, let alone the basis for action. At this moment, when whites are becoming aware of structural racism but not yet racial capitalism, I believe the humanitarian/spiritual costs of whiteness have far more salience than Marxism for most people. This is not to say that white workers will not benefit from working class solidarity at some point. It is just to say that this moment is not yet one in which most whites will be receptive to that argument.

If racism harms whites (albeit in very different ways from people of color), then whites certainly have an interest in opposing racism that goes beyond guilt for their privileges. Indeed, since racism harms whites, then whites have every bit as much reason to oppose racism as anyone else. That is, white anti-racism must go beyond guilt-ridden support for the struggles of people of color and must include the struggle of white people for their own humanity, their own souls.

As Dr. King repeatedly told us, anti-racist struggles are more than fights against white supremacy and racial privilege. They must be about building relationships between people who, by opposing racism, learn to transcend race. The goal of anti-racist work is to build a new society by developing new social relationships between people now divided by racism. This is what Martin Luther King meant by the beloved community as the true meaning of social justice.

The work of anti-racist whites, then, is no different than that of anyone else: it is to absolutely and consistently oppose every manifestation of racism with everyone who is willing to undertake the work. As they do so, whites can transform themselves through their anti-racist practice and the relationships with people of color they forge in that context.

In so doing so, of course, whites face particular challenges and have particular opportunities. First, white anti-racists must recognize that they do have white privileges. But instead of feeling paralyzed by this reality, whites should utilize their privileges for all they are worth to oppose the system that created them. In doing so, whites will learn that by working against their privileges, they can build a far more rewarding society.  Anti-racist whites must also be willing to disrupt white spaces, engaging in courageous conversations with their white co-workers, their white friends, their white neighbors, and even their own white families–conversations that, often, only whites are able to initiate, but must eventually (very soon) include people of color. White anti-racists must also learn to respect, support and defend people of color’s needs for their own spaces to build community and, frankly, to be safe for a while in the face of unrelenting racism.

But most importantly, white anti-racists need to show up to do the many hard and sometimes dangerous things that are needed to oppose racism today. In doing this work, whites will discover an important truth: they will gradually begin to transform their own consciousness and ways of relating to people of color through multi-racial efforts, and as they do so, many people of color will accept them not as whites, but as fellow human beings pre-figuring a new society.

The task for whites who claim to be ‘woke’ is simple: just show up and stand shoulder to shoulder with everyone else willing to combat racism. It is through this simple but essential practice that white people will begin heal from the terrible wounds racism has inflicted on them, and will finally find their souls in a world without whiteness.

The Squad and the Democratic Party Today

            The emergence of a group of young progressive women of color in the U.S. Congress is clearly of great significance. For the first time, activists who came out of the social movements of the 2010s are sitting in important governmental positions and are fearlessly articulating a progressive agenda. The question is: how will these new members of Congress re-shape the Democratic Party?

The Congressional Progressive Caucus now has 98 members, including 29 newly elected Representatives. Forty-seven members of Congress are women of color. Among the new members are four –Ilhan Omar (one of the two first Muslim women ever elected to Congress) , Ayana Pressley (the first African American woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts), Rashida Tlaib (the other Muslim woman elected in 2018 from Michigan) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who famously unseated a powerful Democratic leader in New York City)—who refer to themselves and are widely known as the Squad.

The Squad has had, in their first six months in office, an outsized impact both in the Congress and on public opinion. They have called out Trump’s racism and demanded his impeachment.  They have been outspoken advocates for social democratic policies, such as universal health insurance and the New Green Deal.  All four are at the forefront of demanding the elimination of Trump’s migrant concentration camps, as well as ICE as a whole. In May, Ilhan Omar was targeted by Republicans and Zionist-supporting Democrats for her critical stance towards Israel, and in the ensuing fight, Democrats were forced to defend her and oppose racism in general.https://justice4all.law.blog/2019/03/10/ilhan-omar-and-the-future-of-the-democratic-party/ .  In July, Trump’s tweets and campaign rallies demanding that the Squad members “go back to their own country” led to a House resolution condemning the President’s remarks as racist.  To put it mildly, it is highly unusual for new members of Congress to become so influential in setting the agenda for the Democrats, let alone the House of Representatives.

But the Squad has bigger dreams than influencing this Congress: each woman is identified with an insurgency to unseat centrist Democrats and replace them with progressive activists. AOC’s chief of staff was the founder of Justice Democrats, an organization that recruited, trained and supported all four of the Squad’s campaigns, and is sponsoring five more candidates for 2020. https://www.justicedemocrats.com/The Squad is also closely aligned with Brand New Congress, an organization seeking to field progressive challenges to some forty ‘moderate’ members of Congress in Democratic primaries next year.  https://brandnewcongress.org/ The Squad has notified the Democratic establishment that women, people of color and young people will not tolerate business as usual. AOC publicly criticized Nancy Pelosi in June for not fighting harder for stipulations for humane treatment of migrants in the DHS funding bill passed by Congress. Ilhan Omar called out Obama for his immigration policies. AOC has repeatedly stated that the insurgency will win because of the movement they are building. She points to her 4 million Twitter followers as evidence for this movement’s size.

Here’s the problem: The Squad is undertaking this historic insurgency at a very dangerous moment: Democrats must now determine their strategy for contending with Trump in 2020. Virtually everyone agrees that the most important question is how to prevent Trump from having another four years to continue his assault on democracy. Progressives argue that the only way for the Democrats to win is to appeal to voters who are often taken for granted, especially women of color, with broad and bold proposals. Centrist Democrats are accused of being overly focused on white suburban independents and displaced white workers in the Upper Midwest states and Pennsylvania, a strategy that cost them the 2016 elections. Centrists respond that a shift of the Democrats to the left will doom them in the 2020 elections.

Based on the Democrats’ first Presidential debates last month, it appears that most of the aspiring candidates are feeling the need to tilt towards progressive politics.  (Indeed, Kamala Harris’ s decision to call out Joe Biden’s opposition to court-ordered plans to desegregate public schools in the 1980s and 1990s was a similar tactic to that used by the Squad, and it immediately galvanized widespread support for the only woman of color running for President in 2020.)

In the long run, the progressive push on the Democrats may very well produce their desired result. The Democratic Party (particularly the Clintonian centrists) is indeed complicit in many of the policies of the last thirty years that produced hyper-inequality, mass incarceration, violence against immigrant communities, and the downward spiral of the climate crisis. Progressives are certainly right that in the long run the Democrats can only be a viable party to the extent that they embrace policies that benefit the majority of the population, and not just the top 1 percent.

“Grassroots social movements in the United States today have limited capacity, and without the muscle of organized labor, women, and communities of color, progressive politicians also have limited capacity.”

But is the Squad and their progressive allies building a movement capable of delivering enough votes to defeat Trump a year and a few months from now? Unfortunately, I would argue that they are not. My reason: grassroots social movements in the United States today have limited capacity, and without the muscle of organized labor, women, and communities of color, progressive politicians also have limited capacity.  This is not to say that grassroots social movements don’t exist: they do, and from time to time are able to win important victories. But these movements have not been able to galvanize large numbers of people into long-term activism, and to keep them organized and mobilized on multiple issues on a national level. As a result, there are sporadic upsurges of protests, but the energy soon dissipates because the participants are not organized and lack a unified vision to connect to other social movements.

Getting people to participate in electoral politics is a specific form of organizing work, one that is highly centralized and guided by top-down decision-making and media-focused messaging.  Some people can participate in electoral campaigns as activists, but their activism is solely focused on securing their candidates’ election, and usually ends after the election. The large majority of people who support progressive candidates show up to vote (hopefully), and might attend a march, but do nothing else.  Building support for a progressive politician is not the same thing as building a grassroots social movement. The current fad of progressives referring to  electoral work as ‘movement building’ is in this sense quite misleading.

Progressive electoral campaigns that are backed up by grassroots social movements—like the civil rights movement in the 1970s and 1980s, or the labor movement from the 1930s to the 1960s—have a different relationship to power. Once in office, elected officials who receive grassroots movement support can count on the social movement to continue to support their legislative agenda, and the social movement can also grow to the extent that elected officials raise issues that educate and activate people.

The big problem facing the Squad and other progressive politicians in 2019 is that grassroots social movements are not gaining momentum, size and power at this time. As a consequence, progressive elected officials have limited power. This is precisely Nancy Pelosi’s problem with the Squad: when AOC publicly called out Pelosi for her decision to abandon progressives’ language requiring humanitarian treatment of migrants in the emergency border budget bill, the Speaker tartly reminded AOC that the Squad was unable to get a single other Democrat to vote with them in opposition to the bill. “All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world. But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.”

Even worse, recent polling suggests that Trump’s efforts to make the Squad the face of the Democrats seems to be working to his advantage: his racist and red-baiting attacks on the Squad have led to an increase in his favorable ratings.

The progressive wing of the Democratic Party is far stronger now than it was in 2012 or 2016, in part thanks to the Squad’s leadership. And, in the long run, the progressive agenda will certainly win widespread support, as the seriousness of the climate crisis hits home, as the stagnation of the majority of peoples’ standards of living becomes intolerable, as people become repulsed by Republican racism and misogyny, as organizing efforts break through the walls of Republican voter suppression grow. But will these changes happen in the next year? I don’t think so. Most Americans are not alarmed by the state of the U.S. economy; the efforts to impeach Trump are not galvanizing widespread support; the horrors of Trump’s border policies have not moved Americans to do anything (and that includes progressives!); women’s reproductive rights are under attack with little grassroots fightback, etc.

Progressives should take heart in the fact that the fight to shift the Democrats to become a left-led coalition is under way. The number of progressives winning elections is growing, and progressives’ influence in the Democratic Party is too. But, given the long slump in grassroots movements’ power in the United States, it would be naïve to think that progressives can set the agenda for the 2020 election, or expect the Democrats to nominate a progressive candidate for President. Now is a good time for progressives to take a deep breath, be realistic about our actual influence, and understand that participating in the Democratic Party’s center-led coalition in 2020 will increase, not decrease our influence in the future.

Towards a Center-Left Coalition in 2020

Virtually all Democrats and progressive independents agree that the principle issue for the 2020 election is the defeat of Donald Trump. Indeed, Nancy Pelosi recently stated that winning is not enough: it will be necessary to beat Trump decisively, because Trump might very well not concede if his defeat is by a small margin.  (The worry that Trump might not concede defeat in 2020 was first raised by his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, in his March 2019 Congressional testimony).

One thing for sure: the only candidate who can beat Trump will be the candidate of the Democratic Party. While progressives who feel alienated from the Democrats might not like this, there is no possibility in 2020 for a third-party candidate to get more than a tiny percentage of the vote. But there certainly is the danger that a progressive third-party candidate could siphon off enough votes to give the election to Trump (remember the Green Party in 2000 in Florida). For this reason alone, progressives are going to have to fight for influence within the Democratic Party. But there is another reason: the vast majority of organized progressives in the United States are in the Democratic Party—labor unions, communities of color, women of all colors, etc. are not about to re-align with a third party in 2020. Thus, efforts to unite progressives around a common agenda and vision for the future will take place within the Democratic Party. Those who, out of self-righteous ideological purity, disdain this process and leave to form a third party will simply doom themselves to political irrelevance.

So, what are progressive Democrats to do now?

Let’s start with the state of the Democratic Party today.  It is indisputable that progressives have greater potential influence within the Democratic Party now than at any time since Jesse Jackson’s historic Presidential campaigns of 1984 and 1988. The 2018 midterm election brought nearly a hundred progressives to Congress and gave women of color a far greater voice in the Democratic caucus than they have ever had. As well, so-called centrist Democrats (i.e. those who appeal to white suburban voters) have lost their hegemonic control over the Democrats with Hillary’s defeat (and Bill Clinton exposing his racism) in 2016.  Unlike 2016, when centrist Democrats could assert Hillary as the nominee apparent, there is no presumptive Presidential candidate this time around. As a result, there are 23 candidates engaged in a rich and far flung debate over the way to beat Trump in 2020.

On the one hand are so-called centrist Democrats like Joe Biden, who continue to argue for policies to woo back white male workers and suburban white voters whose defection allegedly cost the Democrats the 2016 election. These centrists believe the winning strategy is to offer white workers and suburban independents pragmatic ideas, like strengthening the Affordable Care Act, raising minimum wages and improving schools.

On the other hand, progressives such as Stacy Abrams, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Berne Sanders argue that the Democratic Party’s problem in 2016 was its inability to get people of color, youth and poor people of all races to vote in sufficient numbers. Progressives argue that Trump cannot be decisively defeated by pragmatic policy proposals that appeal to a small number of middle-class whites. Instead, they are calling for the Democrats to appeal to disaffected potential voters (41 percent of all eligible voters did not vote in 2016) with bold new ideas that address threats to democracy, climate change, hyper-inequality and attacks on women’s reproductive rights.

While progressives have a stronger hand to play as the Democrats shape their 2020 strategy, there is also the danger that progressives could overplay their hand. Progressives can and should develop a progressive agenda and push for candidates that embrace it. But progressives cannot win the 2020 Presidential election and take control of the Senate by themselves. The simple fact of the matter is that progressives do not have the political clout, organizational capacity and access to money that it would take to go it alone. Developing this capacity is a long-term matter, requiring a new leadership, new agendas, and new members for many organizations, including labor unions, women’s organizations, environmental organizations, immigrant rights organizations, LGBTQI organizations, etc. It also requires coalition building around many campaigns and issues, some of which might be electoral, and others not.

Progressives have already shown their ability to generate enthusiasm with youth, communities of color and poor people. Because of their 2018 Congressional and local electoral victories, progressives have won the right to demand that centrists agree to a strategy that places voter registration, the concerns of communities of color and environmentalism at the center of their strategy. It is clear that, to beat Trump in 2020, centrists will have to make room for progressive issues and candidates.

Whether or not centrists and progressives can hammer out a common understanding remains to be seen. The formerly Clinton-led centrists still hold most of the power in the Democratic Party. And, while the boldness of AOC, Ilhan Omar, Stacey Abrams and others is inspirational, their appeal is mainly through social media. Progressives are still untested at the state and national level and have not yet developed the organizational clout they need.

So, if the Democrats are to beat Trump, they will need to come to a common agreement, and develop a center-left coalition. (Let there be no misunderstanding: the coalition will continue to be dominated by the centrists because they have more political muscle and financial backing). There are different ways to do this: Kamala Harris is trying to run as a center-left candidate, for example. Joe Biden, who hit the ground hard as a centrist appealing to white workers, might be able to lead a center-left coalition if he chooses a progressive like Stacey Abrams or Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris as his running mate and adopts key progressive policies.

Above all, progressives need to take a long view of their strategy. While another four years of Trump would do terrible damage to this country and the world, progressives need to remember that Trump and his supporters are the resistance and that people of color, women, and young people represent the future. History is on our side, not the side of white nationalism. Already, progressive issues that have been marginalized for many years—the devastating effects of neo-liberalism, mass incarceration, attacks on reproductive rights, attacks on immigrant, the mounting environmental crisis, etc.—are now on the front burner. Already, a new progressive leadership is emerging. Progressives need to be in it for the long haul: the process of building progressive organizations and coalitions is not easy and happens at a pace dictated by historic forces outside anyone’s control. Progressives must dig in for the hard work of re-invigorating labor unions, reigning in corporations’ greed, organizing resistance to state violence against Black and Latinx communities,  fighting for reproductive rights, and working on behalf of environmental justice no matter what happens in 2020.

There can be no doubt that organizing for a progressive agenda within the Democratic Party must and will be one of the most important arenas for progressives for the next year and a half. Specifically, progressives are leading the fight against the Republicans’ racist gerrymandering strategy. To the extent that we succeed at this, we both safeguard democracy and increase progressives’ influence. Whether or not centrists will agree to a center-left strategy and candidate for 2020 remains to be seen. But early signs, exemplified by Nancy Pelosi’s steady leadership in the House of Representatives (such as her handling of the attacks on Ilhan Omar) are encouraging.

It is incumbent on progressives to not be swept away by our ideals. We must keep a sober eye on our own capacities as we undertake the main political task in front of us: the defeat of Trump in 2020. This task will require progressives to enter into a coalition with centrists, and likely to back a candidate who tilts towards the centrists’ agenda. Every progressive candidate needs to sign the Indivisible Pledge and agree to back whomever the Democrats nominate in 2020.  Progressives will be rewarded by such discipline by growing progressive organizations, building more unity among progressive causes, and with greater influence in the re-making of Democratic Party.

The days of the centrists, who came to power supporting Clinton’s neo-liberal agenda are coming to an end. But progressives have a lot of capacity-building to do before we can provide this country with the leadership needed to heal us from the destabilizing forces of inequality and white supremacy. Let us remember that redeeming this country is a long game, and we need to be very self-aware of our strengths and limitations at every step along the way. 2020 is an important test of this resolve.

Reparations Uplift Us All

The idea that the United States should pay reparations to African Americans, which for many years was considered extremist, has suddenly gone mainstream. A host of Democratic Presidential candidates and even Republican commentator David Brooks are now advocating for it.

The fact that a national discussion on reparations is now taking place is itself interesting. For two centuries, African American organizations or, in the past 25 years, a few Black members of Congress have issued calls for reparations without sparking much notice outside the black community. Now, HR 40 (as the bill to study reparations is called) has 35 co-sponsors. It has become a requirement for Democratic Presidential candidates to stake out a position on this issue. There can be little doubt that the reason for this is the growing recognition of societal racism by a majority of Americans, as well as the growing influence of progressives within the Democratic Party.

Those who support reparations have made a compelling case about the history of state-sponsored and private racism in the United States. The role of enslaved people in the creation of the national wealth is now better understood. The perversion of democracy, both in the slave and Jim Crow eras, is now well established. Many scholars have shown that the current housing and school segregation, often treated by courts as just a “fact of life” (de facto segregation) actually resulted from continuous purposeful action by government, banks and millions of whites throughout the second half of the 20th Century. Still others have detailed the ways banks foisted sub-prime mortgages on African Americans and Latinx homebuyers in the 2000s, paving the way for a massive stripping of Black and Latinx wealth after the 2008 financial crisis.  Based on the historical record, it is undeniable that African Americans (and, in other specific ways, Latinx, Native Americans and Asian Americans) have been systematically and intentionally denied access to the opportunities afforded white Americans throughout American history , resulting in the well-known statistics of the present: the black poverty rate is three time that of whites, and the black/white wealth gap is 12-1.

The case for reparations, however, cannot solely be based on proving that African Americans and other people of color have been systematically denied the opportunities given to whites and have been subject to the government and capitalists stealing whatever wealth they had accumulated. Having established this grim reality, we have to address the other side of the question: what is the purpose of reparations?

To some, the purpose of reparations is to level the playing field between blacks and whites by redistributing wealth, education, housing and other social resources, “balancing the scales” as Elizabeth Warren puts it. If African Americans are given, say, preferential admission to selective colleges, or easier access to bank loans and investment capital, then they are closer to equal opportunity. For many years, the principle demand for reparations was for a cash payment sufficient to enable a Black family descended from enslaved people to invest in buying a home or starting a business. (An updated version of the original 40 acres and a mule promised by the Freedman’s Bureau in 1867). In this version, if African Americans are given enough capital to participate in the market economy then America has repaid its debt.

Giving Black people greater opportunity to participate in the existing society will not achieve social justice.

But will giving Black people greater opportunity to participate in the existing society achieve social justice? I don’t think so. If the social order remains wedded to racism, these efforts will be to little purpose. We already know that when Black people achieve their family’s hard-won dream of graduating from college, they earn less than white high school graduates. We already know that when people of color were able to finally scrape together the funds to buy a house, fully half of Black (and 65% of Latinx) homeowners (as compared to 15% of whites) lost their homes in the aftermath of the 2008 meltdown.  “Balancing the economic scales” with one-time interventions simply won’t end systemic white privilege. Far more is needed than that!

If we are to be serious about reparations, we need to do more than give people a stake in a system rigged against them. Reparations must make those who are dehumanized and exploited feel that this country has actually made a significant step away from America’s embrace of white supremacy and towards being a society that truly values all people. At its core, the importance of reparations is that it gives the United States as a whole the opportunity to understand the enormity of the harm that has been done in its name to individuals, families, whole communities, to the economy and to democracy itself.  In this sense, the most significant goal of reparations is to create a situation in which whites feel the need to issue a sincere apology for the damage done to benefit them, a spiritual change of heart towards people of color. Of course, an apology without efforts to improve the material well-being of those harmed is not a sincere one. But what makes reparations impactful is the extent to which they compel a re-thinking of the relationships between people, a real recognition that black lives matter as much as white lives.

We don’t have to look far for an example of successful reparations. In the 1980s, Japanese Americans succeeded in their long campaign to convince the country that Franklin Roosevelt’s EO 9066 (which in 1942 ordered 120,000 Japanese Americans into concentration camps in the U.S.) was mistaken and racist. In 1988, President Reagan issued a formal apology that included reparation payments of $20,000 for each survivor. The payments were nominal given that internees had been forced to sell many billions of dollars of property to whites at 1/10th their value. But the Presidential apology, coupled with a Congressional apology and a Supreme Court decision restoring internees’ voting rights, was real. The significance of this apology was underscored shortly after 9/11/2001, when right wing extremists advocated the internment of Muslim Americans. But America had indeed turned a corner on mass internment of U.S. citizens because of the apology. This nation was no longer the America of 1942. The proposal to round up Muslims was dead on arrival.

To be meaningful, reparations for African Americans must be transformative of the United States as a whole. That is, reparations must be driven by a sincere acknowledgement of the history of white supremacy both past and present, and a real desire to get beyond its long and deadly grip on this nation’s economy, politics and culture. While the primary purpose of reparations must be to make whole those harmed, whatever is done to provide African Americans with opportunity will be short-lived unless it is closely coupled to efforts to come to terms with who America has been, who we are, and who we want to be. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in his influential 2014 Atlantic article, “We must imagine a new country. Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely.”

Here, then, is the crux of the matter: the demand for reparations for African Americans addresses one particular group’s grievances against America, but in so doing it allows us to look at our history and future in a new way. Again, we are brought face to face with the powerful insight of intersectionality: there is no fatal contradiction between the interests a specific group and the needs of all people. By centering and addressing the needs of one group, we get closer to be a nation that can embrace everyone’s needs and interests.

Predictably, many—including Bernie Sanders– have pushed back against the demand for reparations, calling instead for universal programs like improving public education that don’t single out any “special interest group.” Sanders misses the point. If we are serious about creating a society committed to everyone’s well-being, we must start by first addressing the needs of those who have been singled out for unequal treatment throughout America’s history. To do so does not detract from the needs of others; to the contrary, acknowledging the nation’s responsibility to remedy the wrongs done to Black people makes it far likelier that everyone else will also be included. Sanders’ argument is similar to those who upon hearing the slogan “Black Lives Matter” push back by saying “No, everyone’s life matters.” The problem with this position is that we know that white lives now matter far too much, and black lives far too little. Until we say black lives matter, we can never say everyone’s life matters.

Coates puts it this way:

What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations”

This is the most effective argument for reparations. Yes, Black people are owed for what was taken from them. But if they are to mean anything, reparations must be based on the argument that such an apology and payment will provide everyone in this nation—indeed, in the world—with a powerful opportunity to step away from this country’s history of racism and enter into a new age in which everyone’s humanity is valued.

Once again, we see the importance of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s idea that social justice is the creation of the beloved community. We cannot settle for the idea that equal opportunity is social justice (Elizabeth Warren) or that equality is social justice (Bernie Sanders). Let us insist on a far more radical proposition: that social justice exists when we people acknowledge one another’s humanity, and desire to live as a beloved community. Reparations to African Americans can be an important step towards that end.

Talking About Race in 2020

The Democrats are engaged in an important debate about the direction the party should take discussing race and racism in 2020. The debate pits so-called ‘centrists’ seeking to win back white industrial workers in the midwest against progressives with a far more radical strategy in mind.

The starting place for the debate is over how the Democrats lost in 2016. According to ‘centrist’ Democrats, Trump won by peeling off disaffected white workers in the upper Midwest and Pennsylvania. To the ‘centrists’, the strategy for 2020 is based on winning these voters back, and not alienating them by appealing to ‘identity politics.’

But Trump did not win the votes of white workers: he won the votes of a majority of whites at every income level. Clinton won far more votes of poor and working-class Americans than did Trump. Trump barely broke through the “blue wall” of the upper Midwest and did so by getting a larger white turnout at every income level than had Bush, McCain or Romney. Certainly, the racial gerrymandering of Wisconsin and Michigan by the Republicans played a role as well. Class had nothing to do with Trump’s victory.

Understanding that Trump’s appeal was entirely based on white supremacy (and national chauvinism, misogyny and homophobia) and not on class is important for the Democrats looking to 2020. Trump cannot be defeated by appealing to a small group of white male industrial workers in the Midwest. Democrats are going to have to directly take on his toxic appeals to white people. And when they do this, they will show us something important: it is possible to take on racism while at the same time winning the majority of all voters. To win in 2020, the Democrats will have to mobilize women of all races, people of color, immigrants, queer and straight folks, workers and young voters. They will have to talk about universal themes that bind us together (such as remedying environmental crises, providing access to health care, improving public education, and raising wages) while articulating the specific needs of different communities for these things. As Stacy Abrams puts it, we want universal health care, but the health care needs of black women and Appalachian whites are not the same.

The new progressive politics challenge whites to discover that they are not just white: they are also women, workers, immigrants, queer, and young. White people can and need to find their place in the story of the emerging American majority. They just cannot so by holding on to their whiteness. Whites need to learn to welcome the seemingly threatening idea that their own experiences and opinions should not center every conversation. When they let go of their fantasies of their superiority, and learn to listen to and value the experiences and opinions of people of color, whites too can find their places in a diverse society as women, as workers, as young or old, as queer or straight, as immigrants or indigenous, or just as humans who want to live in a rich and multi-centered world. When white people give up their defense of whiteness, their personhood becomes far richer and more complex. (Indeed, many will find their ancestors include people of color). When whites give up their defensiveness, they can live in the world with hope instead of fear.

We cannot let the tired putdown of “identity politics” deter us from discussing our different needs.

Stacy Abrams and others are teaching us that we can talk about our differences and commonality at the same time. We cannot let the tired putdown of “identity politics” deter us from discussing our different needs. For, it only through an embrace of our differences that unity is possible. We need a candidate who can articulate this vision, not just to win the Presidency, but to set this country towards a new humane future.

The fantasy of impeachment

On November 8, 2016 the world learned that a kleptocratic white supremacist and misogynist had just been elected President of the United States. There were three reactions: those who had supported Trump (and Trump himself) couldn’t believe he had won; those who had opposed him couldn’t believe he had won; and a few people who understood the history of this country were not surprised at all. These folks, most of whom in my experience are black, reminded us that Trump was by no means the first white supremacist or misogynist to occupy the White House, and that this was what was to be expected from the majority of white people after eight years of Barack Obama.

As the new reality sank in, it became popular for progressives to say “He’s is not MY President.” But the fact was that Trump was going to hold state power and the world’s most powerful country. For people to pretend that they would’t have to deal with his actions by denying that he was their President was, to me, irresponsible, naive and self-defeating. Like it or not, the fact that Trump was President was going to be a major fact of life for us all. And it was going to be dangerous, ugly and psychologically damaging. All the wishing in the world could not change this fact.

Now, more than half way through Trump’s term as President, we have indeed been deeply hurt by his words and deeds. In the face of this painful reality, many progressives have always dreamt of impeaching Trump. Indeed, the groundwork for impeachment was laid in December 2016 (a month before Trump was sworn in) when Senators Elizabeth Warren, Dick Durbin, Jeff Merkley and Ben Cardin introduced a bill requiring the President to divest any assets that would be a conflict of interest or face impeachment under the Constitution’s Emoluments clause. Once the Mueller investigation of Trump collusion with Russia began, many progressives clung to the hope that the Mueller report would provide the basis for Trump’s impeachment. My favorite protest sign of 2018 was a banner hung over a freeway simply saying “its Mueller time.”

Well, now it IS Mueller time. The investigation is completed. Thirty-seven people have been indicted, and eight of Trump’s cronies have been convicted of serious crimes. And the ongoing investigations in several states indicate that there will be more charges to come. But none of these convictions directly tie Trump to a plot to collude with Putin to interfere in the 2016 election. We are already learning that Mueller did not recommend any criminal charges be brought against the President for collusion with Russia. Of course, many of us are incredulous: over the last two years, enough facts have been brought to light to strongly suggest such collusion certainly did take place with Trump’s direct knowledge. But the cold fact seems to be that the Mueller Report is unlikely to be a game-changer capable to getting twenty Republican Senators to vote for Trump’s removal from office.

So, as of right now, impeachment remains a fantasy. But there might well be a silver lining in the dismal fact that Trump now appears likely to actually have another year and eight months to wreak his proto-fascist politics on the world. And that is that progressives need the time to build the political movement that will repudiate Trump and his supporters in such a way that they cannot ever again hope to have the kind of power they now do. As the current debate among Democrats shows, doing this will not be easy. The grip of the Clinton-era “centrists” with their fixation on winning back the white workers who abandoned Hillary for Trump is still to be broken. The Democrats still have not developed the confidence that a progressive candidate can speak to many different constituencies, including whites, without alienating any of them.

While waving a magic wand to rid the world of Trump is a beautiful fantasy, it will actually take a lot of hard work to achieve this end. Impeaching Trump would not by itself guarantee the creation of a center-left coalition capable of winning the 2020 election. Whether or not Trump remains in office, this is the task ahead.

While the thought of another 18 months of Trump is indeed wearying and painful, progressives don’t need to suffer as we do our work. All we need to remember, as Michelle Alexander so beautifully told us, is that progressives need to stop thinking of themselves as the resistance to Trump.https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/21/opinion/sunday/resistance-kavanaugh-trump-protest.html The fact is that Trump and his supporters are the resistance. They are the ones on the wrong side of history who fear the unstoppable emergent reality of a multi-cultural, majority non-white America. So, as hard as it is, let’s welcome this moment as a real opportunity to usher in a new era. Of course, while we are working, let’s continue to try to impeach Trump. But really, folks, the change we seek is not about him. Let’s dedicate ourselves to the long game, so that in the 2020 election we don’t just elect a Democrat, but someone who represents the new America we are trying to become.

Social Justice and the Search for the Beloved Community

For most of the last 150 years, social justice in the West was defined either by liberals who supported Adam Smith’s and John Locke’s notions of individual liberty (free markets, civil rights) as just or by Marxists, who supported the idea that economic equality as the bedrock of social justice.

The liberals had the upper hand until the 1930s, when the Great Depression and the rise of both communism and fascism, shook their beliefs to the core. Despite the U.S. government’s use of terrorism to try to suppress Marxism (i.e. “McCarthyism”), the Marxist idea of social justice became increasingly popular among young people in the 1960s and 1970s.

The American youth who were attracted to Marxism at that time were aware of the ways that the U.S. government had tried to repress the Black and Chicano liberation movements and the anti-war movement. They also had developed an internationalist perspective through their solidarity with Vietnam, their support for African national liberation, and their belief that Maoist China and communist Cuba were developing models of social justice.

What most of us (certainly myself) did not know was that another concept of social justice was hiding in plain sight all along. This was what Ruby Sales refers to as the “folk religion” of African America. By calling it a folk religion, Sales emphasizes that this concept is not institutionalized within black churches but is held collectively by the community itself. In this tradition, social justice is defined as universal relationships of love and support for everyone to be all that s/he can be. This tradition, Sales explains, arose in the bush arbors behind the slave quarters, where the enslaved people came together to provide one another with the only safe place they could have: their own communal embrace. In this setting, the creation of a beloved community was a powerful rebuke of the hatred and inhumanity of the slavers. (Hatred for the slavers was not enough, for hatred and dehumanization the slavers’ own language). 

The creation of the beloved community was a profound project. It took place in many forms. Christianity itself was re-imagined in this tradition. But this tradition also allowed people to maintain their families in the face of a system that could tear your loved ones out of your arms at any moment.  This tradition found its purest articulation in musical forms that were rooted in diasporic Africa but were purely American: jazz, blues, R&B and hip hop. This tradition also supported a continual call for the extension of democracy, for economic opportunity and reparations.

The black folk tradition extended further in the 1970s and 1980s, as Black women, seeking an alternative to the limited vision of white feminism, articulated the ideas of intersectionality, in which everyone’s experiences of marginalization and dehumanization are acknowledged, and a multiplicity of identities and demands for freedom are embraced. This modern form of the beloved community embraces not just women of color, but also queer, poor and differently abled women. Rather than polarizing with men, this feminism seeks to support the quest for men’s liberation as well as for women. Through the lens of intersectionality, Pat Collins tells us, everyone can center their own particular oppression without fear that they are competing with others’ ability to do the same. It is by allowing the multiplicity of identities and interests that we discover the universality of our humanity, i.e. the beloved community for us all.

Even after 250 years of slavery and the crushing terrorism of Jim Crow racism in the 20th Century, this tradition provided African Americans with the fortitude to call for love and respect from everyone, even white America. African America has continually brought to America the hope for human liberation. From Frederick Douglass’ and Soujourner Truth’s time forward, black Americans have “called America to her higher destiny.” (ML King). Writing in The Souls of Black Folk in 1903, W.E.B. DuBois said that even in the face of the rising tide of Jim Cow racism,

“We the darker ones come even now not altogether empty-handed: there are to-day no truer exponents of the pure human spirit of the Declaration of Independence than the American Negroes; there is no true American music but the wild sweet melodies of the Negro slave; the American fairy tales and folklore are Indian and African; and, all in all, we black men seem the sole oasis of simple faith and reverence in a dusty desert of dollars and smartness. Will America be poorer if she replace her brutal dyspeptic blundering with light-hearted but determined Negro humility? or her coarse and cruel wit with loving jovial good-humor? or her vulgar music with the soul of the Sorrow Songs?”

The black folk religion in this way is the foundational underpinnings of all Americans’ aspirations for humanity for freedom and justice. Without the black community-led movement for democracy, what would have happened to the United States in the 1960s? Would we have expanded democratic rights? Would there have been a feminist movement? Would LGBTQ rights have been possible?

Indeed, it is the centrality of the “black folk religion” to all human aspirations for freedom and community that explains the strange way that many whites in America both hate and love black America, simultaneously incarcerating and murdering black people while adoring black music and aesthetics. (See Jordan Peale’s cinematic masterpiece Get Out!). As Ruby Sales explains, no one gets away with racism: white Americans have been spiritually and psychologically damaged by centuries of racism too. While whites got the privileges of better jobs, housing, education, and political power, most whites also got a belief in their own superiority over others, an idea that was soul-crushing in its falsehood, a true spiritual nihilism, Indeed, as D. King said in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the hatred of the other guaranteed the dehumanization of the self. It is this spiritual and psychological void that leads many whites to obsessively seek from the black Other that which they cannot create for themselves: i.e. a sense of their own humanity, a connection to the beloved community.

And so, in 2019, the search for social justice continues. The Marxist belief that equality is the answer has certainly been brought into question by the experiences of socialism in the Soviet Union, China and Cuba, as well as the failure of Marxist theory to explain capitalism (see Thomas Picketty’s devastating critique of Marx’s falling rate of profit thesis). But I have no doubt that we have made enormous advances since the 1960s in our understanding of social justice. Social justice activists continue to demand the end of exploitation and greater democracy and freedom. But from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter to Standing Rock, we have seen a greater focus on building community, on the quality of relationships within the movement.

While the demands for economic equality and greater democracy are still essential, we are now closer than ever to seeing those demands not as social justice, but as essential conditions supporting the growth of an ever-expanding beloved community.

The Real Scandal in College Admissions

Latest news: Rich white people pay millions in bribes to get their children into prestigious colleges. Outrage ensues!

The trouble is that this latest “scandal” is just a more direct and crass way of doing what has always been done: the “best” schools have always been for the children of the upper classes, and their student body, like their faculty and administrators, have always been overwhelmingly white.

Rich people buy their way in to colleges in other ways than just bribery. For example, completely ‘legitimate’ college counseling services charge up to $1.5 million to prep a child from 8th grade so that they will be “ready” when they apply to college.

It’s not just that rich people will do whatever it takes to get their kids into elite colleges: selective colleges also want to admit the children of the rich. Most selective schools take into account whether the candidates are the children of alumni, whether they are children of donors, and whether they are children of just….rich people. At a recent trial over bias in admissions (unfortunately brought by a right-wing billionaire attempting to end affirmative action), Harvard officials revealed that some 33% of its admissions  were “legacy” students (i.e. children of alumni, faculty and donors), and that legacy candidates were admitted at five times the rate of the rest of the applicants. The Harvard Dean of Admissions also revealed that he maintains a “Z-list” of students who would not otherwise be admitted who were from wealthy or famous families.

College admissions officers have been particularly self-righteous about the current scandal and have gone to lengths to assure the public that the selection process is fair and guided by objective standards. Colleges do select students based on grades, SAT scores, extra-curricular activities and interviews, they point out. Those they admit, they claim, are “the best and the brightest,” not the richest and whitest.

The problem is that these so-called “objective” measures of hard work and intelligence are actually very good measures of race and class privileges. And those with the highest grades and test scores and “interesting” extracurricular activities are most often the richest and whitest.

The SATs, in particular, do not predict in any way the likelihood of a high school senior succeeding in college. (The most common definition of success is graduating college within six years). In fact, students with SAT scores of 1500 are no more likely to succeed than students with SAT scores of 850. So, why are they used? Well, SATs are very sensitive to three factors: parents’ income, parents’ education and race. If colleges want a device to filter out poor and non-white candidates, the SAT is as good as it gets.

What about extra-curricular activities? Students with prestigious internships have a real leg up on the competition. But how does one get such an internship? Well, having connections is the best way in, since the large majority of these internships have no formal acceptance criteria. And those with connections are likeliest to be from privileged families. Yet colleges treat internships as measures of “interest” and “experience” as if they had nothing to do with privilege.

And what about grades? Grades allegedly measure how much a student has learned in a given course, and the cumulative GPA is supposed to be a good measure of how hard the student has worked and how intelligent they are. But grades are also a measure of something else: how much the student’s cultural understandings correspond with the culture of the teacher, the course content, and the school. Given the history of racism in education, white and wealthy students with parents who went to college have a much higher chance of sharing the same culture as the school teaches. And, of course, students who are not distracted from school by their family’s struggles with poverty, racism and immigration status (and who, conversely, have small class sizes, highly trained and motivated teachers, extracurricular activities at their beck and call) have a far greater likelihood of achieving higher grades.

And of course, there are interviews. Students who are successful often impress the interviewer (usually white and privileged themselves) with their personal characteristics that “fit in” with the college’s ethos. In colleges with majority white and upper-class student bodies, the interview often becomes a powerful filter for privilege.

Most selective colleges, responding to decades of pressure from civil rights activists, now pride themselves on the growing diversity of their student body. But far too often, this diversity is achieved by admitting upper class students of color, many of whom are international students. And, only a very few selective colleges are willing to admit enough students of color to be more than a small percentage of their overall student body.

In 2019, fifty years after the civil rights movement, many selective colleges are talking about the need to do more than admit more students of color. They regularly hire ‘consultants’ who tell them that they the need to diversify their curriculum, to hire faculty of color, to create an inclusive environment, etc. Yet somehow these changes don’t happen. Schools don’t want to “lower their standards,” be “politically correct,” hire “less qualified” instructors, etc. Most faculty in particular refuse to look at their own teaching styles and academic content to see if they are creating barriers to learning for their own students. (And, if they refuse to be self-aware, they most certainly are creating those barriers).

So, why do colleges and universities resist the changes that would make them more diverse, equitable and just?  Part of the answer lies in the race for college rankings by U.S. News. This ranking system primarily rewards schools for having the most successful (i.e. highest paid) alumni. The best way of assuring that alumni are high-income earners is simple:  admit the children of high-income earners! Colleges are terrified that if they turn away the children of the privileged, they will lose their standing. And, the college ranking system assures that the content of higher education and the delivery of it to students continues to be tailored to the most privileged people in society.

The real issue is not the advantages the rich have getting their kids into college. It is that colleges don’t want to confront racism and class privilege and want to welcome privileged students at the expense of everyone else.

The irony is that the claim that selective colleges admit the “best” students or produce the “best” graduates cannot stand scrutiny. Institutional practices of race and class privilege reject highly motivated and brilliant students of color and working-class whites, confine intellectual inquiry and the production of new ideas, and greatly limit the pool of people qualified to do important work. The real harm done by racism in higher education is to us all: we land up poorly equipped to deal with the world because we do everything in our power to keep the world out. And not just in admissions. These practices of exclusion have kept the ideas of the world out of higher education and have made them into self-referential temples of Western (i.e. white and upper class) thought. Now that is a scandal worth getting mad about!

Ilhan Omar and the Future of the Democratic Party

The recent furor over Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s comments about AIPAC’s influence in Washington offer an early insight into the challenges and opportunities progressives face in forging a left-center coalition within the Democratic Party. First, the opportunities. The 2018 election brought a new “class” into the House of Representatives. Much has been made of the record number of women who were first elected in 2018, and their racial and ethnic diversity. The changing demographics of the House of Representatives is in part due to the political activation of women in the Women’s Marches held across the U.S. in response to Trump’s ascendancy to power in January 2016. It is also due to the slow but real progress Democrats have made organizing communities of color into the electoral process over the last decade.

The challenge of this moment is whether and how these new voices will be welcomed into the Democratic Party. And now, with Ilhan Omar’s comments, the Democrats face their first real test. Because the issue now is no longer whether these voices will be allowed. The new and young Democratic Representatives, exemplified by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s bold leadership, have made it clear that they will be heard. The issue now is whether the Democrats will redefine their political goals and methods in a way that recognizes the importance of those who have until now have been genuinely included, especially women of color.

Rep. Omar has been attacked because she criticized AIPAC’s outsized influence over American foreign policy in the Mideast, which it has achieved in part by its enormous lobbying coffers. Omar was called out for anti-Semitism because she worried that Zionists had too much influence and that some American Jews were blindly supportive of Israeli policies no matter what.

You can read a full transcript of her remarks here: https://ips-dc.org/what-did-ilhan-omar-say-heres-the-full-transcript-of-her–to-a-question-about-anti-semitism/.

Many in Congress, some of whom have made anti-Semitic comments themselves, loudly proclaimed that Omar owes Jews an apology for having accused them of wielding money for influence and having a dual allegiance to another nation. But Omar and her defenders, including Ocasio-Cortez and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, responded by asking when would those offended by her remarks condemn Israel’s expansionist ambitions and the violent oppression of Palestinians. By holding her ground, Omar broke open the silence in Washington, the almost universal unwillingness to confront Israeli policies, that AIPAC had enabled. Because Ilhan Omar spoke her truth as a Muslim woman and could not be silenced, the Democrats were forced to change the wording of a resolution condemning anti-Semitism into a resolution specifically condemning anti-Muslim and white supremacist hate speech as well. While the House has condemned anti-Semitism many times, this was the first time it has ever condemned anti-Muslim hate speech and violence.

HERE is the text of the Resolution:https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-resolution/257/text?r=56

The debate over Ilhan Omar’s remarks became a moment for women of color to claim their place in the Democratic Party in a new way. In the 2018 elections, Stacey Abrams proved that a Black woman could run a viable campaign that centered women of color’s experiences without alienating white men and women. In this debate, Omar provided the Democrats with an opportunity to become more inclusive of Muslims without alienating Jews. Many Jews who had demanded an apology supported the House Resolution. And Omar did apologize for inadvertently making comments that echoed anti-Semitic tropes. Indeed, many Republicans, who had been licking their chops at the opportunity to vilify a Muslim, voted for the resolution , which passed 403-27. This debate showed that it is possible to center the concerns of Muslims and Jews, of Blacks and whites, calling out their specific issues in a way that brought people together. In so doing, this Resolution offers a road map for the Democrats. Now that women of color have a seat at the table, they have put the Democratic Party on notice that their interests can no longer be ignored or swept over. And, by compelling the Party leadership to listen to their concerns, these new voices are advancing social justice by showing us how to embrace multiple interests with the firm understanding that our common humanity gives us the capacity to face difference without fear.