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. 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:–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:

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.