The Hijacking of Race

The Democratic Party owes black people a debt of gratitude for their organized commitment in the last election.   Even if that weren’t true, the United States owes black people what it has never delivered—real, functional equality of opportunity.  It’s worth restating what never made it into any textbook I ever had—slavery in this country didn’t end in 1863.  With Black Laws and then Jim Crow, the substance of slavery in this country persisted well into the twentieth century.  It’s no surprise that we live with a pervasive legacy of slavery.

What is owed here is progress—on everything that makes for personal and family prosperity and life satisfaction.  A recent NY Times piece does a good job of getting at what that means. However it’s worth recognizing that this objective gets hijacked every day in favor of other more exciting agendas, as examples:

– Anticapitalism.  This is a kind of knee-jerk on the left that gets applied to all issues (climate change is another one).  Get rid of capitalism, let me and my morally-certified friends run everything, and racism will vanish in an instant.  Otherwise there’s not a chance. Somehow the dictatorship of the proletariat (like trickle-down economics) survives in the face of all evidence.

– Violence.  It’s amazing how attractive violence is for people who spend their lives far from it.  That’s not just for the classic case of British Nazi intellectuals prior to World War II.  Two very good books The Good Lord Bird and The Underground Railway end with ringing endorsements of violence as a necessary way to get things done.  In context that’s not really a call to action, but it indicates a willingness to forgive violence as a tactic—a significant mistake supported only by rewriting history. 

There’s not going to be a revolution on the left in this country, so we’ve got to work with the flawed political process we’ve got.  Violence hardens opposition—end of story.  If you want to get things done, there’s no greater mistake than believing you have powers you don’t have.

– Cultural superiority.  This has many manifestations.  The good guys are immune from racism, create better artistic productions, are more moral and humane to each other, etc.

If you get past all of that, objectives here are not so different from what we owe to everyone else—a fair chance to succeed and a viable safety net.  What it takes to get there must be adapted to the history of anti-black racism, but adaptation is the rule for every other group also.  Our task as a society is to get the job done for everyone.

It is hijacking the race issue to

– Use it as a justification for anti-democratic behavior.

– Use it as a reason to justify any departure from the rule of law.  We are not doing anyone a favor by asking for an understanding of mob violence.

– Engage in ridiculous exercises of cultural superiority. That includes, in particular, anti-racism competitions.  I’d even say everybody is racist; the important question is who is doing damage and how to stop it. Anti-racism crusades may feel good, but they are not progress. And if they lose elections they are nothing more than destructive vanity.

Even if you think this is an oversimplification, you have to admit that the objectives here–a fair chance to succeed and a viable safety net–are worth pursuing.  You’d think they would be universally popular.  After all, as many have pointed out, essentially any social program has more white than black beneficiaries.  So why aren’t they universally popular?  The reason goes all the way back to What’s The Matter with Kansas.  Republicans have been convincing people for decades that all those measures are not for them.  It’s just giving the country away to the shiftless blacks.  People in Hillbilly Elegy and Strangers in their own Land are astonished that any of their own would waste time applying for such benefits.

Why are Republicans so successful?  BECAUSE WE KEEP HELPING THEM.  With all the discussion of white racists who just have to get used to giving up the advantages of white privilege (and deservedly take the hit), what else would you expect them to believe?  We’re not spending our time saying we’re committed to what it takes to achieve equality of opportunity for everyone—with all the benefits that entails.  Too often we’re playing the Republicans’ game.

You don’t have to agree with everything here, but one thing is indubitably true.  Fighting racism is about results, not morality contests.  It is about jobs, safety, and education for your kids.  It is a pragmatic issue.  Anything that doesn’t produce results is hijacking, regardless of how good it feels.

Stop Playing the Republicans’ Games

As Democrats, our message has to be that we are in business to make life better for everyone—white, black, or anything else.  Life for most people in the US is poorer, more stressful, and more uncertain than in any other developed country.  That’s a fixable problem, and we’re trying to do it.  It’s not easy to fight the powers that be—so it’s not pretty as a process—but we’re up for the fight.  Climate fits in that picture as well.  Racism has its particular challenges. But we are moving everyone up.

That message is not compatible with the current chest-beating (mostly self-appointed) about how morally superior we are to the moronic white racists.   “Those people just have to get used to giving up the advantages they’ve enjoyed by being white, so they ought to suffer.”  Not a great way to get elected and not what we stand for.  It’s a false premise that we have to trade one group off against another.

That false premise is not just counterproductive as a message, it also leads to bad policy.  It is not okay to assume that it’s fine to make the other guy suffer.  In education, it is not okay to ignore kids who are successful, because they’re not the ones that count.  (I can tell you about mixed classes in middle school math.) With education, as in everything else, we are in it to make things better for everyone.  Fighting over insufficiently-provided resources—college slots or AP classes—is not the answer. Watering down education for the supposed benefit of the disadvantaged benefits no one.  And both are distractions from the many other items (e.g. family economic stability) that are needed if we really want equality of opportunity.  The objective is excellence for all.

We’re still living down “defund the police”—with columnists talking about how it is perfectly okay for mobs to trash the businesses of random people.  This education stuff is if anything worse, because it turns racial progress into a threat.  That may make some people happy, but it’s not productive, and it isn’t even to the advantage of the people it purports to serve.

As to what we ought to be talking about, it seems that vaccination is a marvelous metaphor for everything the Republican Party stands for.   Vaccinated people don’t get sick and die; unvaccinated people do.  The people cheering on the unvaccinated are largely vaccinated themselves (e.g. Murdoch and Fox people).  They’re sacrificing their supporters to the task of keeping themselves in power.  So they can continue to take their money–not just in taxes but in medical expenses, education expenses, and job insecurity.

There are lots of false bogeymen here.  “We can’t have those benefits without tanking the economy.”  “Just look at the inflation we’re already getting from the Democrats’ spending.”  Virtually all the benefits of Trump tax cuts went to the ultra-rich.  Virtually all of the corporate benefits went to stock buybacks instead of new investment.  Virtually all of the inflation is from shortages created by continuing Covid supply issues. Just as the Obama-era Republicans kept the country poor by blocking all stimulus, the current Republicans are deliberately keeping the country poor by blocking the national recovery from Covid.

One thing that is certainly true is that our strength as a nation, both economic and military, is built on people.  That means developing the capabilities of our population, spending on education and research, and getting the best and brightest from everywhere to come here.  Furthermore we need to develop the infrastructure (e.g. for climate change, 5G) that the economy will need for the future.  The Republican Party has proved it is ready to sacrifice all of that to profits returned to wealthy investors—and deliberately-incited divisiveness.

We need to be a nation united by policies that serve everyone.  Our history was written by contributions from all levels of society, including many categories people written off both here and abroad.  The divisions we have are more sown than real, so the most important message is that we are in this for all.  That’s the only way forward.