After the election, mainstream Democratic Party leaders, progressive thinkers and writers, and organizers of the movement left entered a fierce debate, centered on the question of whether the American left needs to abandon “identity politics”.
One side says that in recent years the left has gone too far in focusing on the social interests of people of color, queer people, etc. while ignoring economic issues, which left blue-collar white voters feeling alienated. They point out the Trump backlash was particularly strong among working-class whites in the Rust Belt who have suffered serious economic pain and feel like the left has abandoned and forgotten about them. They say we’ve lost sight of standing for universal values and grown comfortable with a kind of corporate multiculturalism that fails to challenge Wall Street’s influence. They say the solution is returning to a message focused on economic inequality, a Bernie Sanders style populism that can appeal to a broader audience outside the diverse coastal urban bubbles.
Another side says that Trump won because of his blatant appeals to racial resentment among white voters, not any economic message he had that better appealed to the working-class. They say that we shouldn’t rush to defend and feel sympathy for a rising white supremacist movement because of “economic anxiety” of whites who are still better off economically than people of color. They argue we need to fight racism directly rather than ignoring it and hoping better economic conditions will make people not racist.
There’s truth within both arguments. We do need to finally toss out the shambling zombie of neoliberalism and make the left fight hard for working people again. We also cannot excuse or compromise an inch to white supremacy and misogyny. But in the end it’s a pointless question of whether we should abandon “identity politics”. All politics is identity politics. Politics aimed at better representing the interests of the rural white working-class is in fact the definition of identity politics.
The bigger issue is that right now we have two stories, two rising narratives about what the core problems in our society are, who is causing them, who our movement is, and what alternative vision we stand for.
Both stories are kind of weirdly coexisting. Different messages are resonating with different bases, building strong but divergent movements. We need a synthesis of these two stories, or the right’s more unified story will be more compelling to the American public than our divided one.
The Zucotti Story and the Ferguson Story.
The Zucotti Story says our political and economic systems have become rigged, increasingly tilting in favor of the powerful and wealthy, leading to mass economic suffering and environmental destruction while big corporations and the richest 1% profit. We need to take back our democracy and return it to the hands of the people by getting big money out of politics, reigning in Wall Street, and directly fighting economic inequality. We the 99% can only beat the richest 1% and their lobbyists and Super PACs if we stand up now and start a political revolution using our people power as the majority.
The Zucotti Story explodes onto the scene with the 2011 Occupy Wall Street encampments at Zucotti Park in New York, runs through the 2014 People’s Climate March and erupts again in the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign. It was the protests against Keystone XL, the hate of Monsanto, the move to amend the constitution to overturn Citizens United. It resonates most strongly among young white progressives, and has become a central narrative in movements fighting economic inequality, climate change, money in politics, the corporate food system, and student tuition/debt. It has some intellectual roots in the anti-globalization and anti-corporate protests that emerged in the late 90’s. Its greatest public storytellers include people like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Robert Reich, Bill McKibben, etc. It has a willingness to engage in electoral politics, because its theory of change sees the solution as using the people’s democratic majority power. However, it is highly critical of the way modern democracy is influenced by corporate money and is deeply suspicious of being co-opted and used by untrustworthy political actors.
The Ferguson Story says that we are slowly unraveling the legacies of white supremacy and patriarchy that have continued to curl around the roots of all of our institutions since our country’s origins of colonialism, genocide, and slavery. These deeply-rooted forms of oppression continue to live on because those with privilege are willing and able to ignore them. We need to reveal structural oppression in order to dismantle it, like exposing how our criminal justice system carries on the legacy of slavery by continuing to imprison and execute black people at a mass scale. People of color, women and queer people can only achieve real liberation, can only truly dismantle these systems of oppression by showing this country itself in the mirror and forcing it to reconcile with its injustices.
The Ferguson Story emerges out of the critical race and gender theory building for decades among left student activists and social justice organizers, particularly within queer, feminist, and racial justice circles, which only recently has become mainstreamed off college campuses and nonprofit offices and into popular culture and social media. Its most prominent face is the Black Lives Matter movement that exploded into public view in Ferguson, Missouri, but it also runs through the Dreamer/immigrants’ rights movement, the modern feminist movement including the raging battles around sexual consent and reproductive justice, and the queer and transgender rights movements. Although it has roots in the counterculture of the 1960’s, it is wary of the failings of that era’s movements. It avoids individual charismatic leaders (seeing organizations collapse after the assassinations of leaders like MLK and Malcolm X). It is opposed to colorblind universalism, because it holds that without acknowledging the legacies of historical oppression that leave behind huge power imbalances today, we will never achieve justice. It sees the path to victory as less tied to electoral politics or short-term incremental policy victories and more possible through social and cultural change, often engaging prominent figures to use their pop culture megaphone to command public attention, from Beyonce to Colin Kaepernick to Jesse Williams, and challenges individuals to build consciousness of white supremacy and patriarchy at a person-to-person level. From police killings to immigrant deportations to sexual assaults, it raises the stories of people whose suffering would be otherwise ignored to make the invisible visible, exposing the bleeding edge of oppressive systems.
I could fit nearly every post scrolling across my feed from my lefty activist friends into one of these two stories.
But the Ferguson Story and the Zucotti Story are on a collision course. They have different heroes and different villains. They even run through time in different directions.
If the key to dismantling systemic oppression really is to make it impossible for the privileged to ignore their own privilege and others’ oppression, then how can we simultaneously declare that we are all in the same 99 Percent? If the Wall Street financial elite really are the holders of power in this system, causing horrific destruction by putting corporate profits over people and the planet, how can we truly disrupt this system with cultural change that doesn’t directly challenge their power? These aren’t easy questions to reconcile.
In my opinion, the Zucotti Story identifies a better villain. The financial and corporate elite is a more politically strategic opponent than millions of privileged straight white males. But it’s also a truer villain in reality. Who really drives systemic inequalities and oppressions, who really profits from this system? Sure, the white guy on a factory assembly line in Michigan may be better off than a Latina woman cleaning hotel rooms in Nevada. But if someone’s getting truly rich off this system, it’s definitely not the factory worker. And whoever holds the real power to build and maintain that system isn’t him either. The racism and sexism he grew up around makes it easy for corporate billionaires to convince him that the Latina housekeeper doesn’t deserve higher wages for her work and shouldn’t have access to healthcare or food or housing or education assistance for her family. And tragically, that same garbage they’ve convinced him of also keeps his own wife working for $2.13 an hour at the diner and keeps his own kids from getting scholarship grants to go to college. But he’s at worst a storm trooper in this story, not Darth Vader, and certainly not the Emperor.
On the other hand, I think the Ferguson Story lays out a better narrative arc. The problem with “take back our democracy” is the same as “Make America Great Again”. It begs the question: back to what? For the millions of people of color, women and queer people in America, there was no golden age that we would ever want to return to. Most tellers of the Zucotti story, from Robert Reich to Bernie Sanders, remember the New Deal era as that better time, making small print footnotes and caveats that there was unfortunately too much discrimination back then. But the hard truth is that the broadly egalitarian prosperity of that time for white people was actually built on the backs of people of color, like the government massively subsidizing the creation of the suburbs and helping white families buy homes there, which was inextricably linked to redlining and white flight devastating urban communities of color. Our story should not weave a mythical past because it keeps us from confronting the harsh realities of that past and understanding the much harder task of building a better future through deeper systemic change.
Perhaps the hardest question is who are the heroes of our story? Are we the coalition of the oppressed or are we the 99%? The 99% concept, while seemingly unifying at a surface level, is troubling. If we are unable to distinguish between the challenges facing a black formerly incarcerated unemployed father in Atlanta and a young white tech worker in San Francisco, this will inevitably lead to huge failures in addressing injustices in our society. Instead there is greater truth, but also something more deeply powerful, in seeing our heroes as a motley crew of underdog misfit rebels. In the oppression frame, we can acknowledge our differences, but embrace each other.
But the problem with the oppressed as the heroes is that our country has always refused to accept the existence of economic class oppression. That’s the missing piece that keeps our two stories from converging.
From Rust Belt guys laid off from disappearing jobs in the factories and mines to Millenials at shit jobs in retail and food service struggling with exploding debt and housing costs, white Americans rarely see themselves as part of an oppressed working class.
Throughout the history of this country, the existence of whiteness has been deliberately constructed, while the existence of class has been utterly denied. The white working-class has been told over and over for centuries that they’re not the poor, they’re the default people, the average, real Americans, the noble middle-class. They’re not down there along with the wretched of the earth, the dark huddled masses.
This is why many white folks need to hear a story about the 99% in order to fight for economic justice. If we’re all in the 99%, no one has to admit we’re broke, we’re just not as rich as those Wall Street guys.
The United States has historically lacked the consciousness about class issues seen in most other countries because our country’s most dominant narrative, our core defining ethos, is being the land of opportunity, away from Old Europe, the exceptional place where everyone can make it. The American Dream. It’s the story we’re told over and over again in so many ways, even though time and time again it’s been proven statistically untrue.
This is the big lie that creates a huge barrier to a synthesis between the Zucotti Story and the Ferguson Story. The biggest lies are always the hardest to expose. In the end, the left will probably never win in this country unless we can get past this deep mental block that prevents millions of people from seeing how our economic system is screwing them.
As John Steinbeck once said, Americans don’t see themselves as poor, they see themselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. In America, where supposedly anyone can make it if they’re smart and work hard, being broke means you must be lazy and stupid. If you’re poor and white, there is no consciousness of your oppression to shield you from the shame of being poor in America. Acknowledging your social class is in fact deeply painful, to see your place at the bottom of your own nation’s social myth. You may go through all sorts of mental gymnastics to assert your status as higher than some other group of people, which makes you vulnerable to demagogues who cast the blame on scapegoats. This is how old plantation owners convinced the vast majority of whites who didn’t own slaves that they should support maintaining the slavery system because it kept poor white people one rung higher on the ladder than poor black people.
Shame is a powerful, paralyzing emotion. It makes us avoid and hide. In politics just as in our personal lives, if we can’t move past shame we can never move forward.
When people of color, women, queer people, talk about their status in society they often feel some internalized shame, but they are also able to express pride, a sense of resilience and rebelliousness built into a collective history. Working-class white people in America don’t feel that same way when they talk about class. You see it a little bit in the “redneck” pride in country music, blue collar comedy, etc. But it’s often more expressing rural white cultural pride than pride in being working-class itself.
Even people in the labor movement in this country are afraid to talk about class. Half the time they can’t even say the words “working class”, and say unions represent the voice of the “middle class” instead. This is a legacy of Cold War Era McCarthyism and red-baiting, where in order to survive, organized labor had to avoid anything that might slap the dangerous communist label on them.
But the Cold War is over. And we need to start talking about class with white people. If we don’t, all working-class white people hear from the left is that they had this great privileged life and somehow ended up on the bottom anyway. That’s the kind of thing that makes people go “Hey fuck you man, you don’t know anything about me or how hard I’ve had it, nobody cares or tries to help out people like me, I had to do everything on my own, unlike those people getting affirmative action and living off welfare and cheating the immigration system.” Talking about race without talking about class actually creates a huge mental block keeping working-class white people from acknowledging racism.
The left doesn’t need to stop talking about identity politics. The left needs to understand that class is one of the most important parts of people’s identity.
As far as we still have to go, we’ve made undeniable social progress on race and gender in just the last 10 years. But where is our progress on class? Our movements have failed to deliver meaningful change for working-class white people. We have buried them. And in 2016 they refused to be buried.
To fail to talk about class is to avoid a problem because it seems too hard and too scary. It is to try to ignore the estranged old friend who we stopped talking to after a bitter argument, because we feel ashamed and don’t know how to restart the conversation.
This political identity of the white working-class, the largest in the country, will ultimately need to find a place to belong, either among the left or the right. If we cannot create a place for them to belong in our movement, they will continue to be turned into our enemy’s greatest weapon against us. If we don’t lay out a genuinely transformative progressive economic agenda they will become the political base for white nationalism.
And if the movement left fails to open up the conversation about class, the establishment liberals will make their play to win the next election—they will try to win over upper-class white voters by diving deeper into neoliberalism, showing economically conservative but socially liberal voters that if they’re embarrassed by Trump’s crude antics, they can find a home for their politics in the Democratic Party.
To beat the two-headed monster of hate and greed, we can’t turn our backs to one to fight another.
And we will need a compelling, powerful, unifying story to defeat the one we’re up against.
The Make America Great Again story spread like wildfire and was ultimately the most successful message in 2016 because it aligned so easily atop the old right narrative, but changed a few key details to adapt to the new viral era, the new altered political state.
The Old Right story, the Atlas Shrugged story, said that liberal elites who really just want more big government power and ultimately socialism/communism are conspiring through an ever-growing web of government taxes and programs and regulations to take wealth away from hardworking, mainly white, “makers” like small business owners, and give it to lazy, mainly black and brown, “takers” like welfare recipients, eroding our hardworking American values and lulling people into a cultural trap of dependence, growing ever weaker and more sheeplike. The heroes who can stop them are the business elite who forsake their supposed “social obligations” to others to reveal the truth of how much the world needs them as successful individuals.
The New Right story, the Make America Great Again story, says that liberal elites who want big globalist governments are conspiring to advance an ever-growing web of politically correct multiculturalism that erodes our tough American values, keeping us from confronting our enemies and standing up for the physical safety and economic security of (white) “real Americans” who are under threat from Mexican illegal immigrants and Chinese factory slaves, Muslim terrorists and Black rioters, who we can’t even call our enemies because we’ve been so brainwashed by the liberal media. The heroes who can stop them are the Regular Joe’s who have the courage to cut the PC crap and say what’s really happening and stand up for ourselves as a country.
Both stories have roughly the same villains, the liberal elite with their dangerous ideas and the ignorant dark masses who follow them. They have roughly the same narrative arcs, of things falling apart over time as they break down our culture into weakness, ultimately leading to the fall of America. They have the same solution, of telling the hard truth that no one wants to hear. The New Right mainly just switched the heroes from the successful business-class elite to the struggling plain-spoken regular working guy. Trump’s narrative resonated less with the traditional gatekeepers like elected officials, media commentators, donors etc. who candidates once needed to win. But it resonated more with the actual base of ordinary people who virally spread his message at the grassroots level and on social media.
The right-wing narrative just gave itself a little tune up for a viral era and immediately found massive success. Meanwhile, the left wing has lacked any kind of cohesive narrative for decades. That left story is finally beginning to emerge into the public consciousness, but in two distinct parts that are struggling to be reconciled with one another.
Divided, they are defeating us, by caricaturing us as Social Justice Warriors and Bernie Bros, minorities obsessed with meaningless microaggressions, and privileged white guys who only care about free college and weed, and making us resent each other.
But there is one place where I think we’re beginning to see a synthesis of our two stories. It’s the Standing Rock Story. Over the past few months, we’ve seen followers of both the Zucotti Story and the Ferguson Story turn their eyes to North Dakota, to perhaps the most deeply oppressed people since the beginning of this country, indigenous people who are courageously fighting the most powerful wealthy corporate interests, the oil industry and their Wall Street financiers, and somehow seem to be winning.
This is the first story I’ve seen that has really moved people in both of our left camps. It’s the story that says that reckless corporations driven by Wall Street greed are putting their profits before the lives of people and the planet we all depend on. And that it will be the places like Standing Rock and Flint that are hit first and worst, as the corporate machine takes away our humanity. It will be the people who have been neglected by America, the people whose lives and humanity have been valued the least. It will be these places that first see their water, air and soil poisoned, or their people struggling to survive without jobs or economic opportunities, or their democratic voice and human rights crushed for the sake of profit. But in the end, we have a shared fate, and people from all walks of life will need to join that struggle in powerful stunning acts of solidarity to defend our common humanity.
Nationwide the 2015 election had the lowest voter turnout the country has seen in 72 years, 36%. Countless state, county, city, and school races across the US went scarcely noticed by voters. San Francisco held a hugely controversial election that many commentators said was a battle for the city’s soul, with millions of dollars spent on ballot initiatives aimed at the city’s spiraling housing costs and rapid gentrification. Yet only 41% of registered voters cast ballots. Closer to my home, the city of Santa Barbara held a historic election, its first since switching to city council districts, which promised the potential to shake up City Hall, yet voter turnout was 38%.
Why Odd-Year Elections Keep People From Voting
Local governments that choose to hold their elections in odd-numbered years typically see far lower voter turnout, often dropping by half, and the voters that cast ballots are overwhelmingly whiter, older, and wealthier than those who participate in general elections.
Imagine a working immigrant mother who recently became a US citizen. She’s excited to vote, but has never done it before. After working long hours cleaning houses, picking her kids up from childcare, cooking them dinner and washing the dishes, she realizes it’s election day and the polls close in an hour. The local city council elections haven’t really been covered on TV, which focuses mostly on national news, and are rarely mentioned in the weekly local Spanish newspaper. The candidates don’t bother knocking on doors in her apartment complex, where few residents are eligible or registered to vote, and even fewer turn out during odd-year elections. She doesn’t know who is running for city council, what they stand for, or what issues are being debated. With time running out before the polling booths close, she decides she’ll wait to vote next year, when she can cast her ballot for the president.
The gap between voter turnout in national elections and odd-year local elections has widened over the years, with a few potential causes:
- Demographic change means there are more voters like the woman mentioned above, young people or immigrants who are new to voting and have less access to information about local politics.
- Americans are working longer hours, which means they feel more and more strained for time to follow local politics, research issues, and vote.
- As campaigns have become longer and more expensive, people living in cities or states where an election takes place every year feel overwhelmed and fatigued by trying to research and sort through information in seemingly endless election seasons.
- Local newspapers and TV stations have declined, gone bankrupt, and laid off investigative journalists, while national cable news like Fox News and national online news sites like the Huffington Post have boomed, leaving voters with scarce access to information about local issues.
The problem with odd-year elections made national headlines after the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, where off-cycle elections are one of the primary reasons why the city government so starkly lacked representation from the majority black community.
The Anti-Irish History of Odd-Year Elections
But why do these off-cycle elections even exist? What reason does a city have to hold an election separate from the state and national elections? Why spend extra taxpayer dollars to run a separate election when it clearly leads to lower voter turnout?
The answer lies in history. Off-cycle elections are mostly credited to Progressive Era reformers in the late 1800’s who saw them as a way to fight corruption in big cities. But they were also a favorite policy of anti-immigrant political groups who blamed rapidly growing populations of Irish and other immigrants for using urban political machines to get jobs and services for their communities.
Sarah Anzia is probably the leading academic scholar studying odd-year elections. While much of the attention on her work has focused on her suggestion that public employee unions are one of the major factors keeping municipal elections in odd years, I think something much more interesting is buried in her earlier examination of the history of odd-year elections. Their original intent was primarily to break the backs of Irish political organizations in big cities.
Anzia found that by the 1890’s, when Progressive Era reformers took up the cause of off-cycle elections for cities, there had already been a long history of politicians changing the dates of city elections to manipulate outcomes. There is no thorough national record of this history, but it can be dug up in case studies of individual cities. Off-cycle elections emerged during the mid-1800’s through what Anzia refers to as “partisan power plays”, political parties jockeying to change the rules of the game to help them win. Specifically in cities like New York and San Francisco, it was a result of an alliance between anti-corruption reform parties and nativist anti-immigrant parties who found a common enemy in the Democratic Party, which in many big cities had become dominated by a well-organized urban Irish voter turnout machine.
An Alliance Between Anti-Immigrant and Anti-Corruption Activists
For many reformers in the 1800’s, Irish and corruption were synonymous. The era was the height of a wave of immigration to the rapidly industrializing US from Ireland and Southern and Eastern Europe. Immigrants lived in extreme poverty, worked under highly exploitative conditions, and received little assistance or rights from the government. More than any other group, the Irish built political power in the US’s biggest cities in response to the intense racism Irish immigrants met when they arrived. Tammany Hall and other Irish-dominated political organizations ensured immigrant communities access to basic services, jobs and emergency assistance, built infrastructure and charities, and were rewarded by a loyal bloc of voters. Yet they also became a symbol of corruption, rewarding their supporters with government jobs and giving bribes to get what they wanted, especially under New York’s notorious Boss Tweed.
Of course history is written by the victors, and the late 1800’s political battles between middle-class Protestant whites of English descent and the working poor Catholic and Jewish immigrants are simplistically depicted as the good reformers versus the corrupt mobsters. There was corruption in the urban immigrant political machines no doubt. But poor people and immigrants voted for them because they provided basic infrastructure and human services in their neighborhoods and defended their rights, as opposed to the intensely racist treatment they got from parties like the Whigs or the Know Nothings. As we make policy today, we should examine this history with a critical eye to separate real anti-corruption efforts like civil service reform from shameless attempts to break Irish political power like odd-year elections.
The reform movements of the late 1800’s certainly had their discriminatory undertones, walking the fine line between hating corrupt Irish political machines and hating Irish people. Legendary reformer cartoonist Thomas Nast, whose work is shown in this post, is credited in history textbooks with taking down notorious Boss Tweed but often depicted Irish people as drunken violent monkey-like creatures who had taken over the country. The movement’s belief in rational scientific progress flirted at times with eugenics, the idea that keeping the poor and uneducated from breeding would further the human race. And the push for alcohol prohibition was often tied to the idea that Irish, Russians and other urban immigrant groups were drunks who were ruining the moral fiber of American society.
San Francisco and New York
But in the case of off-cycle elections, the switch was often won through a direct alliance between anti-corruption reformers and anti-immigrant bigots. In 1850’s New York, the racist nativist Know Nothing party allied with the Whigs (precursors to Republicans) in the state legislature to separate New York’s city election away from the state and national elections. Voter turnout for city elections plunged, especially for Democrats, who depended on working-class immigrant voters who failed to turn out in off-cycle elections.
Irish who came to San Francisco during the Gold Rush brought Tammany Hall-style political organization to the West Coast in the 1850’s. The People’s Party, a local San Francisco party that drew its support from both the financial elite and anti-Irish nativists, was born in response. During their decade of control of San Francisco, the People’s Party led a successful push to switch San Francisco to off-cycle elections by allying with Republicans in the state legislature to change the city’s charter.
These cities set the precedent for a trend that swept the country decades later. Today, our cities are facing low voter turnout and unequal representation because of a policy rooted in anti-Irish racism. There is no evidence now that cities with even-year elections have any more corruption than those with odd-years. But the much greater threat facing our democracy, the power of unlimited corporate money, is made much more powerful in low turnout off-years, when voters are disengaged and tuned out, and it’s easy to buy an election.
Today’s defenders of odd-year elections say that if local elections are moved to even-years that local issues will be drowned out by national politics. They say that the small turnouts for odd-year elections are actually a good thing—that a small group of citizens who are well-informed and pay attention to local issues are the ones who should make the decisions.
But is it possible that the “uninformed” voter has something meaningful to contribute to their community? That a young person or low-wage worker who rides the bus every day might actually have a better perspective on the city’s public transit system than a member of the Chamber of Commerce who has seen a presentation by a city official on the subject? That an undocumented immigrant or young black person may not go to the same dinner parties as city councilmembers and school board trustees, but they’ve experienced harassment at the hands of city police that the members of the Rotary Club have no idea about? That while some people’s definition of local issues are limited to parking and potholes, the family who just got evicted because they can’t afford rent might consider raising the city’s minimum wage to be an important local issue?
Odd-year elections are driven by a fear of the people that tears against the fabric of our democracy. It’s a fear that the people are too stupid to govern themselves. Although it might be couched in more polite language today, it’s the same fear of the ignorant Irish masses, mindlessly mobilized by political machines. Today’s defenders of odd-year elections should know the history of what they’re defending because they carry on its legacy today.
From an outburst in open feminism in media and popular culture, to the growing strength of grassroots activism around issues like sexual assault, reproductive rights and equal pay, in recent years the fight for gender equality has undergone a revival among the American mainstream public. This could have huge implications for the raging debate on economic inequality.
The knife of American poverty cuts deep, but it has always cut deepest against women and people of color. Politically marginalized groups have long been on the front lines of right-wing attacks on the working-class and poor. This is the only way conservative politicians can be accountable to an elite agenda that prioritizes corporate profits, while still saving face with their voter base of white working-class men.
This is why so many basic labor protection laws exclude jobs like farm work and domestic work historically performed by people of color and women. And although most Americans on welfare are white working-class people, this is why the movement to dismantle welfare in the 1980’s-1990’s was largely driven by rhetoric targeting urban black welfare recipients, ultimately wreaking devastating harm to poor women and children across racial lines.
Yet while the racial skew of poverty and economic inequality is highly visible in American political debates, the gender skew is often invisible and unspoken. Conservatives have a good reason not to talk about it: the danger of 150 million women finding their economic interests to be more closely aligned with the left. But why have progressives failed to talk about women and economic inequality? Perhaps because in the past four decades where inequality soared, the feminist movement (like many other progressive social movements) was struggling, a shadow of its former political strength.
If mass feminism had been more well-organized and politically powerful in the 80’s and 90’s, and more accountable to the concerns of low-income women, could the left have stopped what was perhaps the most devastating attack on single mothers ever enacted in United States history? It’s hard to know. But what is important is the question before us now: If feminism is truly making a resurgence among the American general population, will it be the force that allows us to break through on economic inequality?
For decades, we’ve seen the same battle lines in political struggles around support programs for the poor and the rights and wages of workers. Corporate interests push lower wages, taxes, and regulations to grow their profits, while labor unions and organizations representing people of color fight for the opposite. As you might imagine, the corporate interests usually win. While women’s organizations and other groups on the left have often weighed in on the debate, it has traditionally been in a backseat role. (The labor movement’s history of sexism plays no small role in this dynamic.) So the core political coalition for fighting poverty in the US has traditionally been made up essentially of people of color and union members. The former has grown over the last few decades while the latter has shrunk, consistently leaving the political base against inequality a mathematically outnumbered minority for an entire generation.
But although it is rarely framed this way, poverty is overwhelmingly a women’s issue. Nearly two-thirds of minimum wage earners are women, and seven in ten Americans living in poverty are women and children (mostly kids in female-headed households). An economy that increasingly puts profits before families through lack of paid parental and sick leave, unaffordable childcare and preschool, and workers’ lack of control over hours and scheduling, is forcing many American women to leave the labor force. The ongoing attacks against teachers and other unionized public service workers fall heavily on women, as the public sector provides a huge share of female employment and much less gender wage inequality than the private sector. There are even unseen gender dynamics at play in debates like whether tipped workers should be excluded from the minimum wage (most tipped workers have historically been women, who face rampant sexual harassment in service professions, especially when tips at the whim of the customer make up virtually their entire incomes.)
As feminism picks up steam again with the American public, the sheer number of female voters makes it a political force to be reckoned with. This is also not your grandmother’s feminism: the modern feminist movement is much more inclusive of working-class women and women of color. Modern feminists are not simply content to lean in to climb their way up the corporate ladder, but are instead organizing collectively to fight for economic equality for women as a whole through systemic policy change.
The Democratic Party is already starting to seize the opportunity. In the 2014 midterm elections, one of the party’s strongest messages focused on how the Affordable Care Act banned a common practice of insurance companies charging women higher premiums and improved the affordability of reproductive healthcare. Another powerful campaign message hammered Republicans for voting against legislation to address unequal pay between men and women in the workplace. Meanwhile, it seems that Hillary Clinton’s policy team is preparing an economic agenda for 2016 that pushes back against economic inequality with an emphasis on women and families.
It’s a smart move for Democrats. There’s a reason the party’s pivot towards a firmer stance on economic inequality has been politically successful. What could be a better issue than one that energizes Democrats’ core base voters of people of color, young people and non-married women, while simultaneously driving a wedge between white working-class men and the corporate elite that dominate the Republican Party? More importantly, what could be a better issue than one that actually fundamentally, tangibly and immediately improves the lives of people of color, young people, women, and white working-class men while hurting the pocketbooks of the corporate elite?
But to truly grasp the significance of this possibility, we have to view it in historical context. From the 1930’s to the 1960’s the New Deal Coalition, made up of the white industrial working-class, the white rural poor, and most racial and religious minority groups, was the most powerful force in American history working to end poverty, and built the largest middle-class the world had ever seen. But when Nixon’s Republican Party used racial fears as a wedge to separate rural whites, particularly in the South, away from the rest of the American working-class, the coalition fell apart. Since then, America has lived without a strong political majority organized against economic inequality, and watched as the rungs on the economic ladder grew farther and farther apart. If a rising feminist movement is willing to take on economic inequality, we may finally have a chance to rebuild that majority and provide real economic security and opportunity for millions.
There are moments in history when time seems to move faster, turbulent eras when humanity lurches forward together. Like the shifting of tectonic plates beneath the ground we walk, change doesn’t happen smoothly, but rather builds pressure slowly until it abruptly ruptures in a sudden release of energy. The ancient mountains and calm valleys we see and take for granted as eternal fixtures of the landscape were products of devastating seismic events that moved continents.
The political, economic and cultural realities of the United States today are products of these social earthquakes, these movement times. Times when people marched and chanted in the streets, when powerful organizations were born, when leaders threatened and negotiated and hammered out deals that changed laws and institutions forever. In this country, waves of social change seem to break every three or four decades, with the years in between spent defending the victories won in those historic moments, while the next wave slowly swells beneath the surface.
Although the exact start and end date is unclear, it’s widely acknowledged that the last such time in the US was roughly from the mid-1960’s to the mid-1970’s. The Civil Rights Movement, the War on Poverty, the Chicano Movement, the Second Wave of Feminism, the Anti-War Movement, the Environmental Movement and more, all brought sweeping changes to the country during this era. In the decades since, America retrenched, with bitter struggles to protect the laws and programs built under the pressure of those social movements.
I wasn’t alive then, and I’m no PhD historian. I don’t know whether most people in the early 1960’s truly understood the times they were living in, but I think we may be in the early stages of another one of those movement times. We’re due for the kind of social turning point that led to the Populist and Progressive Movements of the turn of the century, or the labor movement that brought the New Deal in the 1930’s, or the Civil Rights era of the 1960’s. We’re undeniably seeing an escalation in street demonstrations, strikes and civil disobedience, as well as a leftward tilt in popular culture, at the same time as the institutional tide of public policy seems to be decisively turning, with major progressive victories emerging from all corners of the country. From prison and police reform, to climate change, to gender and sexuality, to immigration, to economic inequality, things are moving fast.
At a time when there are more black men in prison in America than were slaves in 1850, a new generation of civil rights activists is opening the nation’s eyes to the sickening injustice of our criminal justice system. Just as slavery was replaced by the slightly more subtle but equally sinister Jim Crow laws backed by vicious voter suppression and public lynchings, the Jim Crow era was replaced by the explosion of the prison industrial complex and often-deadly “broken windows” policing in communities of color. A wave of reforms is forming, rolling back the mass incarceration and heavy-handed policing that has torn apart black and brown and poor families and made the US the prison capitol of the world. We can now clearly see that we’ve hit a turning point where our prison population is falling for the first time since it skyrocketed in the late 1970’s as a result of the War on Drugs and the rise of mandatory minimum sentencing laws. The pace of sentencing reforms is picking up. Here in California, home of the nation’s most notorious “Three Strikes” mandatory life sentencing law, voters overwhelmingly approved prison reforms with Prop 47 last year and Prop 36 two years before. Nationwide momentum for marijuana legalization is growing almost too rapidly to follow and the Obama administration has taken firm action against the racist disparity in sentences between crack vs. powder cocaine. But it’s the powerful #BlackLivesMatter protests sparked in Ferguson, Missouri, that poured across every major city in America, that are turning the nation’s eyes directly on the racism deeply embedded within the criminal justice system. They’ve put thousands in the streets, in die-ins, in public disruptions of day-to-day life from Black Friday shopping to Sunday brunches to demand attention to the almost daily killing of black community members by police and vigilantes and lack of accountability from the courts.
A few years ago, after the collapse of legislation in Congress to curb carbon emissions and the BP oil spill being met with “Drill, baby drill!” instead of curbs on offshore oil production, the environmental movement was filled with grim faces and weary sighs. After years of slogging through the critical but uninspiring legislative sausage-making process, many realized that the environmental movement simply didn’t have the life force to take on the juggernaut fossil fuel industry lobby, which wielded more power than ever in an era of free-flowing money in politics. They recognized that movements were built in the streets, not inside the Beltway, and shifted from composed policy wonkery to vibrant and turbulent grassroots organizing. Greens turned their energies to rallying the public around directly obstructing the tangible machinery of fossil fuel disaster, holding off the massive Keystone XL pipeline, launching an onslaught of local campaigns against fracking in communities sitting on profitable shale, and blocking rail lines used to transport crude oil. New York’s historic People’s Climate March kept the pressure on for broader transformation towards clean energy, but also marked a deeper shift within the environmental movement, an expansion beyond its traditional comfort zone of the white middle-upper class. This November, President Obama announced a historic deal with China, the first time the world’s two biggest polluters have agreed on a plan to reduce emissions. And as he nears the end of his presidency, Obama’s administration has ramped up his executive actions to curb emissions, securing his legacy of taking the largest steps against climate change of any president in history.
In recent years, we’ve seen an astonishing transformation in the national conversation around gender and sexuality. I don’t know if the time we’re in could be called a Fourth Wave of feminism, or simply a mainstreaming of Third Wave feminism, but something is happening. The question asked is not whether feminism has suddenly become cool again, but how much this undeniable fact can be personally credited to Beyonce. Feminism’s resurgent strength has sparked a growing backlash, like the rise of “Men’s Rights Activists”, or Time Magazine’s inclusion of “feminist” in their “Words that should be banned in 2015” poll alongside choices like “bae” and “yaaassss”. The expansive type of feminism that emerged in the 90’s, holding positive views towards sexual expression, recognizing the complex interplay of gender with social forces like race and class, and seeing gender and sexuality as fluid social constructs, was largely consigned to university campuses, but with the help of social media kicked down the door of mainstream popular culture in the 21st century. For example, despite a theoretical embrace of transgender people in left-wing circles, even major LGBT organizations like the Human Rights Campaign traditionally had a very soft “T”—showing little willingness to fight for transgender people. Yet this year, Orange is the New Black’s Laverne Cox became the first transgender person to make the front page of Time Magazine, with the caption “The Transgender Tipping Point: America’s next civil rights frontier”. Meanwhile the limited agenda around inclusion into marriage and military service that had long dominated political struggles around LGBT issues suddenly seems almost old news, with marriage equality’s seemingly inevitable push across the country and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell relinquished to the history books. This leaves an opening for a broader political agenda including issues like California’s groundbreaking law allowing transgender youth access to facilities and sports teams according to their gender identity, tackling LGBT teen homelessness, addressing transgender healthcare, extending immigration benefits to same-sex couples, and cracking down on employer discrimination against LGBT workers. What greater testament to the rapid shift in the public’s attitudes around gender and sexuality than the sudden eagerness of corporations like Dove and JC Penney to jump on the bandwagon by running advertising campaigns trying to align themselves with this social change among their consumers? All this momentum has given greater traction to core gender issues in American politics: What started as a loosely organized network of college women determined to fight sexual assault on their campuses became a national debate drawing in everyone from Fox News to President Obama, and creating a flurry of legislation. Discussions around economic policy have increasingly acknowledged that the gender-pay gap is alive and well, that women make up the vast majority of America’s low wage workers, that US law is stunningly medieval when it comes to paid family leave. And while the wave of Republican state legislatures won in 2010 has been devastating to reproductive rights, it brought a national spotlight to red-state feminist leaders like Wendy Davis, and last year reproductive rights advocates won big at the ballot box in Colorado and North Dakota. Mainstream understanding of reproductive justice is even beginning to expand beyond abortion, with California passing a landmark law banning the forced sterilization of women in prison.
Just as with prison reform, on immigration, American social movements have always had trouble fighting for the rights of those seen by society as criminals. After immigration reform legislation floundered under the Bush administration, much of the energy was sucked out of the immigrants’ rights movement. But two things happened. When Tea Party Republicans swept statehouses in 2010, a series of draconian anti-immigrant laws like Arizona’s “Show Me Your Papers” SB1070 galvanized immigrant communities and their allies. And a powerful undocumented youth movement emerged, proudly declaring themselves “DREAMers”, using attention-grabbing tactics, and breathing life into the national immigrants’ rights movement. Most notably, as key DREAMer leaders were both undocumented and queer, inspired by the gay rights movement, they renewed and reimagined the concept of “coming out”, making countless previously unsympathetic US citizens realize that they had friends, neighbors and coworkers who were undocumented immigrants. While comprehensive immigration reform was blocked by Republicans in Congress despite overwhelming public support and massive demonstrations across the country, the bold tactics of DREAMer activists forced the Obama administration to twice take executive action that it long claimed was impossible: First, to provide deportation relief and work permits to DREAMers brought to the country as children, and then for millions of undocumented parents of US citizens. Meanwhile, immigrant-friendly states like California allowed undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses and curbed the use of local police resources by federal immigration authorities. Latino and Asian voters showed their power at the ballot box in 2012, as Republicans were stunned by an overwhelming defeat at the hands of immigrant communities. With that memory fresh, it seems unlikely any Republican with their eyes on the presidency will overturn Obama’s executive order, cementing in place the DREAMers’ victory and creating an inevitable pressure for Congress to pass a comprehensive reform bill.
But perhaps the largest unfinished business of the social movements of the last century was tackling America’s deeply entrenched economic inequality. The Populist Movement floundered after the defeat of William Jennings Bryan, and was absorbed into the more moderate aims of the Democratic Party. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the year before his death, proposed a Second Bill of Rights expanding on the New Deal and declaring access to housing, education, healthcare, living wage employment and secure retirement as a human right. But as the turbulent union movement of the 1930’s settled into the stable labor bureaucracy of the postwar era, the social pressure for deeper economic changes dissolved. Lyndon Johnson, who sought to leave his mark on the nation through the Great Society’s anti-poverty programs and civil rights laws instead found himself drawn deeper into the black hole of the Vietnam War, eventually declaring “That bitch of a war killed the lady I really loved”. On the eve of Martin Luther King Jr’s death, the Civil Rights Movement was gearing up to launch a massive “Poor People’s Campaign”, to tackle what its leaders saw as the next big obstacle to equality and justice: poverty. But left in disarray after Dr. King’s assassination, facing internal strife and external hostility, the Poor People’s Campaign disintegrated quickly.
After the 2008 economic crash, it seemed that the next great opportunity to take on economic inequality had been lost, as the stunning rise of the Tea Party dominated the American political landscape. But it was perhaps the Tea Party’s overreach, attempting to strip union rights in the old labor stronghold of the post-industrial Midwest that awakened the American labor movement. A 2011 uprising of workers and students in Wisconsin inspired the tactics and paved the way for the Occupy Wall Street protests that exploded organically across the country later that year, later drawing union support. And while many (myself included) proclaimed that Occupy would quickly dissolve because of its adamant insistence against institutionalizing itself for fear of being co-opted, the movement dramatically shifted the frame of public opinion and flipped the political landscape. Occupy forced institutions to pay attention to income inequality, from the Obama administration to the International Monetary Fund, and despite Occupy’s “death”, it’s no coincidence that we’ve since levied the highest tax rate on the richest 1% since before Ronald Reagan. And although the left is full of Obama disillusionment, we should not understate that he’s overseen the widest expansion of the social safety net since the movement time of the 1960’s and the strictest financial regulations since the movement time of the 1930’s. This reflects a major shift in the political direction of the country, after decades of slashing programs for the poor and loosening rules for Wall St., carried out gleefully by both Republican and Democratic administrations. But no economic transformation happens in the US without unions,
long the most powerful force on the left. A true movement era will require a rejuvenation of the ailing labor movement, just as the 1930’s industrial union movement grew out of the ashes of craft unionism, when political commentators proclaimed unions to be dying just as they do now. Just as innovative 1930’s labor leaders like John Lewis built much of the American middle class by organizing factory and mine workers, thought at the time to be unskilled and therefore un-organizable, the labor movement today is aggressively organizing service workers who are striking at companies like WalMart and fast food chains long thought to be beyond labor’s reach. Sure enough, change is bubbling beneath the surface of the labor movement, in experimentations with alt-labor organizations like worker’s centers, and raising wages and benefits through laws and ordinances rather than collective bargaining. Last year, voters approved every single minimum wage on the ballot, including in four solid red states. The “Fight for 15”, ridiculed in the media just a year ago when fast food workers first went on strike demanding $15 an hour wages, has now become reality in two of America’s biggest cities, with San Francisco and Seattle passing $15 minimum wage ordinances. It’s not just wages that are being raised, but ordinances securing paid sick leave, cracking down on wage theft, providing retail workers with reliable schedules and full-time opportunities, and extending labor protections to long-excluded workers like domestic workers. The National Labor Relations Board is now beginning to redefine employment itself, holding mega-corporations like McDonald’s accountable for labor abuses by their franchise owners and subcontractors. It’s increasingly clear that the fight over income and wealth inequality did not fizzle out with Occupy, but in fact is just starting to heat up.
These might all seem like unrelated and disorganized political battles in a hyper-partisan era. Many of the elders who remember the last movement time in America will dismiss the activism of today as incompetent clicktivism. Their children, raised in the eras of Nixon and Reagan, may be too cynical to believe in progressive change. And our millennial generation, with no memory of major social movements except the sanitized versions we watched on PBS specials, may assume that our messy activism could never compare to some fictional time when everyone marched united under the banner of Martin Luther King for justice and equality forever.
But dear fellow young activists, we have to understand that back then shit was messy too. That we were divided between countless different organizations with competing agendas. That we faced right-wing backlash and sometimes it seemed like we would lose everything. That we sometimes broke windows then too, and people called us thugs. That our elected officials seemed to always disappoint us, to begrudgingly tolerate our movements rather than stand alongside them. That often it seemed like we were pouring endless resources into something so small and incremental, like desegregating one little public transit agency in Montgomery, Alabama.
But the worst thing we can do right now is allow ourselves to be so filled with self-doubt that we hesitate and fail to seize this opportunity. It’s useless to cling to the moderate center, because that center is not in the same place it was five years ago, and that center will not be here five years from now. We have no choice but to stand by our values. Especially those of us who have embedded ourselves in longstanding organizations and institutions, who do menial work in the halls of power, who are surrounded by those who will tell us, with the paralyzing wisdom of experience, that now is not the time. Because we will never have a better opportunity than right now. We may spend the next 30-40 years of our lives defending the gains that we manage to win in the next 5-10 years.
We should listen to our elders, let them teach us the lessons they learned. We may be in a time when social media allows us to plan massive demonstrations without singular charismatic leaders like Dr. King. But we do need to practice discipline, we do need to create institutions that will last, and if we do it right, those institutions will be more democratic, more inclusive, more true to our values, than those of our grandparents’ generation.
The nation is stirring, and if you listen, you can hear it rumbling. We live in turbulent times, and there are many roles to play in these times that shape history. But as Dr King said, “Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.”
Today I’m thinking about the hope and faith held by Dr. King and the importance of optimism.
Harry Belafonte tells a story in his amazing memoir, ‘My Song,’ about King being challenged by his SCLC deputies on his accelerating radicalism generally, and the Poor People’s Campaign specifically, just a week before he died… Belafonte quotes King telling the group, gathered at the singer/actor/activist’s New York apartment: ‘What deeply troubles me now is that for all the steps we’ve taken toward integration, I’ve come to believe that we are integrating into a burning house.’ When Belafonte asks what that means they should do, an exhausted King tells him: ‘I guess we’re just going to have to become firemen.’
This is the kind of optimism that looks with wide open eyes at the reality of the world and decides not to dismiss it and withdraw from it, but to engage it and reshape it. King realizes he is fighting to be part of an America plagued by poverty and war. But he not only believes that marginalized people can be included in this society, but puts them in the role of heroes: those who through their liberation and inclusion can lead the movements needed to heal it.
Many activists are cynical people. It’s hard not to be, organizing reluctant people to fight uphill battles against a powerful status quo. Anger is an important motivator. But people are never truly called to action without that seemingly-impossible combination of anger and hope: An understanding of the world as it is, and a deep belief in a vision of the world as it should be.
In fact, optimism itself is fundamentally necessary to the spread of a worldview that supports progressive change.
Conservatism is deeply dependent on pessimism. The foundation of the right-wing narrative is pessimism: basically those promiscuous gay birth-control-using kids these days and all those dangerous criminal brown and black people are taking over America, crumbling its moral foundation and taking all our tax money to spend on drugs. Therefore, beef up the prisons and the military, dig your heels in on traditional practices, and slash the social safety net. The fact that most people believe teen birth rates, drug use, and violent crime are rising right now when they’re actually all plummeting in the US is a testament to the power of conservative fear messaging. Every time you spread the idea that this country is going to shit, a Republican gets elected somewhere.
I was raised with pretty cynical politics. For most of my life I believed that America was irredeemably racist, materialistic and violent. My political consciousness developed largely through 3 national moments: The dismantling of civil liberties in the early 2000’s and horrifying start of the Iraq War, the failed push for immigration reform in 2006 when I started watching cable news and was stunned by the swell of public hatred towards immigrant families, and the financial crash in 2008 and following years of heartless austerity as I worked to get a public education in a system that was crumbling around me. Disillusionment came easy.
It took me actually doing work to make me disillusioned with disillusionment. I worked on campaigns that beat bank lobbyists to pass legislation raising tens of billions of dollars in federal student aid and defeated big oil at the ballot box in California. I stood behind Nancy Pelosi at her press conference in San Francisco to announce the passage of historic health care reform. I helped organize Oakland residents to force big developers to guarantee thousands of living-wage local-hire jobs targeted at those who needed them most. I turned out the vote to raise enough revenue to finally balance California’s budget so the youth I work with today are dealing with how to restore budget cuts in their schools, not how to make them.
And sure, I was a very small part of each of these victories and I know they each would have happened without me. But not without a lot of people like me. The real transformation was not the impact I had on this work, but the impact this work had on me. It made me see myself not as someone passively affected by the conditions of the world around me, but as an agent of change. It made me believe in the power of people like me, young people and people of color, to be neither the villains nor the victims in the story of my country, but the heroes. I began to believe in a different story, one that ended happy.
I deeply believe that the forces of peace and equality and enlightenment throughout history tend to win in the end. I’ll admit I’m going on faith and a loose grasp of history given to me by what’s left of California’s public education system. But I believe victory in the battles we fight today will one day feel just as inevitable as the battles fought by Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King.
Practicing optimism is not just about motivating yourself or feeling happy. It’s about changing the dominant narrative about our world. It’s about telling stories of hope where we are the good guys and we win.
So the next time you see some corny Upworthy link that says “This 3 minute video will restore your faith in humanity” maybe you should watch it. We could all use our faith in humanity restored sometimes.
On Monday the NY Times covered a fascinating new study on social mobility. As you can see from the map above, there’s huge variation in the likelihood a kid from a low-income family will end up making it out of poverty depending on where they live.
Despite popular misconceptions about the “American Dream”, kids who grow up poor in the US are less likely to climb into the middle and upper classes than their counterparts in Western Europe, Canada, etc. This is a phenomenon dubbed “The Great Gatsby Curve”— countries with high levels of inequality also have low levels of mobility– i.e. if the rungs on the ladder are farther apart, it’s harder to climb the ladder. Poor kids in the US suffer from a weaker social safety net, worse health care and nutrition, more unstable housing, limited access to childcare, preschool, and college, and have to compete with rich kids who are even richer than kids in other countries (and have the resulting advantages in life).
Now let’s assume the American Dream is not just some bullshit platitude and we really do care about opportunity for all, regardless of the circumstances of one’s birth.
We might be feeling pretty hopeless right now. Fixing America’s crisis of inequality sounds overwhelming, and this useless Congress has a snowball’s chance in hell of creating any costly new social programs like universal preschool.
But what this study says to me is that it’s possible to make a significant difference at the local level. The trap of intergenerational poverty in places like Atlanta, Memphis, and Charlotte might be worse than any country in the industrialized world. But places like Salt Lake City, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Seattle have social mobility comparable to places like Norway and Denmark.
What explains the differences? Why are rags-to-riches stories in Chicago much less common than its rival metropolises of NY and LA? Why is a poor kid in San Francisco twice as likely to become successful as a poor kid in St. Louis? Can growing up poor in Seattle really give you four times better of a chance in life than in Memphis?
When you look at the map, the worst regions are clearly the Deep South and the urban industrial core of the Midwest. I associate these areas with entrenched black-white patterns of inequality and segregation. But the article notes that in cities like Atlanta, while opportunities to rise in society are scarce for poor blacks, they are just as scarce for poor whites. Maybe communities like Atlanta are more likely to see poverty in racialized terms (“Those people are not like me”), weakening their support of attempts to advance opportunities for poor folks of all races.
But let’s get into the nitty-gritty.
The authors were looking for proof that tax credits aimed at reducing child poverty like the EITC lead to better social mobility. But unfortunately they found that local tax policies had only a small correlation with class mobility.
So what can we do to at the local level to increase opportunity? Which of these factors is most easily and clearly impacted by public policy?
It’s interesting to note that the factors that most strongly correlate with lack of opportunity are things you might associate with a social conservative policy agenda: promoting traditional family structures, community ties, and religious participation. So why then is the South, the heartland of social conservatism, the huge red swath on the map with the least opportunity? I’d argue this is because social conservative policies are extremely ineffective at actually accomplishing things like reducing teen birthrates, and often counterproductive (see: birth control, sex ed).
I don’t think anywhere in America we’ve actually developed effective policies to make people have stronger family ties or be more active in their communities. (I do think we could mitigate some of the negative effects of widespread single motherhood with things like universal preschool and paid maternal leave though.)
Unfortunately the factors most directly tied to government policy (college tuition, local public spending, etc.) are at the bottom of the list. Seems like if state/local governments want to raise social mobility the best thing they can do is increase per-pupil school funding, but even that has a pretty weak correlation. Clearly the focus should be on reducing high school dropouts, but how exactly policymakers should do that is the tougher question.
I think the most interesting part of this study is the link it establishes between social mobility and segregation along racial and economic class lines. In a sprawled out, highly segregated city like Atlanta, people in poor black neighborhoods are much more isolated from decent job opportunities, good schools, social networks and other resources.
Cities and counties should be paying close attention to this. Plan dense, walkable, mixed-income neighborhoods. Provide quality public transit connecting low-income communities to job and educational opportunities. Focus economic development and infrastructure spending on the urban center, not just on the suburban outskirts. Don’t allow wealthy NIMBYs to block affordable housing in the suburbs and don’t allow developers to gentrify poor people out of revitalizing urban neighborhoods. Smart growth is not just about sustainability and hippy shit. It’s about the goddamn American Dream. It’s about everyone having a fair chance to make it. Bald eagles and apple pie and all that.
Last but not least, for the community organizers out there: Notice that “Social Capital Index” there at the top? That measures people’s civic engagement and level of involvement in community groups. Whether you’re organizing community activists to increase school funding, provide subsidized childcare or better public transit, the act of organizing people itself enhances economic opportunity as much as any policy change. Helping strengthen people’s ties to each other and to their community is one of the key foundations of social mobility. The best thing we can do is organize from the grassroots to make this American Dream a reality.
A New York Times article today noted the rise in influence of Asian-Americans in philanthropy. It has some weird stuff about Asian cultures having a tradition of giving to charity, which as far as I know may be made up. But the point remains that any time you have a growing community of new money, it means new money to give away.
And in this case, the large numbers of highly-educated Asian immigrants (mostly from India, Korea and Taiwan) who have been brought to the US by high-tech employers might be the biggest new money community in American history. As you might expect, this is making some old money white folks freak out. Mostly about the prospects of their children getting squeezed out of Harvard by the kids of the engineers who designed their iPhones. (Some even say there is an “Asian quota” in the Ivy League, similar to those once faced by Jewish Americans, another new money group of highly-educated immigrants that threatened the halls of America’s elite institutions.)
But what America’s elites should really fear is the inevitable result of trying to close the doors on others: political backlash.
Asian and Pacific Islander voters went even harder for Obama last year than Latinos did. That’s more than double the 31% of Asian-Americans who supported Clinton 20 years ago.
Political analysts are dumbfounded– shouldn’t any group with high average incomes vote Republican out of basic self-interest? In the aftermath of the election they scrambled to come up with all kinds of stupid explanations– Asian culture is collectivist not individualist, Asians like science and the GOP is anti-science, Asians mostly live in liberal coastal cities like SF and NY– none of which makes sense, since it doesn’t explain the shift over the last 20 years from Asian-Americans being conservative voters in the 1990’s.
My theory is that this trend is being driven by younger second-generation API folks who have grown up within the context of America’s racial politics. Most countries have some kind of left/right political divide, but America’s left vs. right is deeply rooted in race in a way that isn’t as intuitive to new immigrants. You also see this among Latino immigrant communities, where US-born Latinos are more likely to self-identify as “liberal” than their parents.
Even if you might have been a conservative in another country, for a person of color in America it takes about 10 minutes of watching Glenn Beck foam at the mouth about Obama’s plans to destroy white America to realize you’re not welcome at this particular tea party. The more familiar you are with American political culture the more likely you are to notice that American conservatism has a racist, exclusionary undertone in a way South Korean or Taiwanese conservatism probably does not.
According to the National Asian American Survey, taken in late September, young (under 35) Asian-Americans were nearly twice as likely to support Obama as their parents’ generation, and also less than half as likely to be undecided on who to vote for.
I predict eventually Asian-Americans will occupy a strange political space similar to Jewish-Americans. (Jewish voters have overwhelmingly backed Democratic candidates as far back as data is available). Asian-Americans will also become a group who, despite high average incomes that might otherwise predict conservative leanings, consistently vote Democratic and are heavily represented among prominent progressive activists, academics, politicians and donors.
Money brings political clout. And you can bet that growing philanthropy mentioned above is not just funding universities and soup kitchens, but candidates and advocacy organizations too. And because many API advocacy groups are not ethnic-specific but work on behalf of API Americans as a whole, they often take strong social justice stances because of the many smaller API ethnic groups and older immigrants who are low-income and politically disenfranchised. Like Jewish-Americans, Asian-Americans will likely have an influence on politics larger than simple numbers as voters.
But the numbers will be important too. Asian and Pacific Islander Americans are now the fastest growing racial group in America. Jewish people make up only 2% of the U.S. population, much less even than the current API population. But Asian-Americans are expected to grow to 9% of all Americans by midcentury. That’s nearly the size of the current black population.
In fact, Asian-Americans will be the fastest-growing, wealthiest, and most rapidly leftward shifting group in America, all at the same time.
And that’s bad news bears for the right wing.
And now for your moment of Zen, Bill O’Reilly being confused by the existence of liberal Asians:
Community organizing is typically associated with large urban areas. Since the beginning of modern community organizing, the most disenfranchised low-income communities of color have been concentrated in urban America, so most social justice organizations grew within urban spaces.
However, today more black, Latino and Asian people live in the suburbs than in the urban core. For about two decades, young white urban professionals have been migrating back into inner cities to be closer to job opportunities and escape the long commutes of suburbia, finding them more appealing as planners and businesses have reinvested in downtowns and crime rates have fallen. The skyrocketing rents and evictions from urban gentrification have pushed low-income communities of color out to older suburbs, moves which were aided by subprime mortgages, the housing bubble and local openness to booming sprawl development. At the same time, new immigrants to the US are increasingly moving directly to suburbs and rural areas in search of jobs rather than entering in traditional gateway cities.
In this sense, California is a glimpse into the future of the rest of the country. The tech boom in the Bay Area drove working-class families out of San Francisco and Oakland and into Pittsburg, Antioch and Stockton. The housing bubble pulled black, Asian and Latino families from LA into cities on the outskirts like Riverside, San Bernardino and Ontario in search of cheap housing and job opportunities. The vast agricultural regions of the Central Valley and the Central Coast have boomed in population with Latino immigrants. The result is that not only is California as a whole majority-minority, but every significantly populated region of the state is too.
I believe community organizers should be accountable to our people, wherever they live. The fact that the vast majority of social justice organizations are still in urban areas, while most low-income people of color are not, is a serious failure of the social justice movement as a whole. We need to build our capacity to organize in many of the places where our communities live and are suffering from regressive social policies, lack of public services, vicious attacks on immigrants, etc. due to the void of progressive political influence.
Half a year ago I made a conscious choice to move to a rural/suburban area to organize. Now as my organization goes through strategic planning, I’m thinking a lot about the challenges, but also the opportunities. I think that as more social justice organizations appear in rural and suburban America, we’ll learn to better adapt our organizing models to the unique conditions here.
I know it will take much smarter and more experienced people than me to figure all of this out, and I know I’m not the first person to delve into this subject. But here are some of my thoughts so far:
1. Scarcity of progressive organizations means groups can’t specialize. There are often only a handful of relatively small organizations willing to collaborate on campaigns, they are often more service or cultural oriented, and unions, churches and neighborhood associations are much more conservative than their urban counterparts. In urban areas like Oakland, SF or LA, there is a vibrant ecosystem of organizations, all of whom have their own niches and strengths– this means some groups can focus on policy research while others focus on grassroots basebuilding while others focus on developing coalitions, messaging and strategy while others focus on electoral campaigns. Here an organization like mine has to spread itself between all of the above on multiple political issues.
2. Conservative elected officials. In most of these areas, city councils, commissions and school boards, the key decision-makers, do not yet reflect the recent demographic change. These towns have been run by “good ol’ boy” networks for a long time, and the elected officials are mostly old white men who are much more conservative than the people they now represent. They are skeptical of progressive policies and feel unaccountable to the majority of their constituents.
3. Low population density means organizing wide geographic regions. There is a pure logistical difficulty of having staff spread out over a wide rural area. My organization recently expanded to cover a region of over 100 miles. Since it takes two hours to drive from one end to the other, this means paying rent for multiple offices. Multiple offices also makes coordinating and supervising staff a huge challenge. And we have almost no ability to organize major actions where all of our neighborhood groups gather together for one rally, etc.
4. There are real Republicans here. And they’re angry. Although whites are now minorities in rural/suburban California due to younger migrants, the older generation that lives in many of these communities is especially conservative. Many openly express deep visceral anger about the demographic changes that have happened and still see the neighborhoods they live in as their homes that outsiders have invaded. Urban organizations are simply not used to encountering this type of opposition within their own base areas.
5. Local governments not prepared to provide services for low-income populations. The suburbanization of poverty has dumbfounded suburban governments who have never had significant numbers of poor residents who rely on buses to get to work, neighborhood parks for exercise, or community colleges for their children. Some services like public transit are simply more difficult to provide in suburban/rural communities, where low density makes it difficult to cost-efficiently run frequent bus routes.
1. Grabbing low-hanging policy fruit. Organizations in progressive coastal cities often try to develop new innovative policies to address issues like unemployment, environmental hazards, education achievement gaps, youth violence, etc. Many of the more basic victories have already been won years ago. In more conservative smaller cities, some of the best tried and true policies that make big impacts have never been passed. Rather than doing extensive research and convincing a local government to experiment with something new, organizations here can push for policies that have already been adopted in other areas and often have rigorous academic studies proving their success.
2. Filling electoral voids. As mentioned earlier, suburban and rural California is now majority people of color, but most local elected officials are still conservative old white men. Often these new diverse communities vote for the “good ol’ boy” candidates that don’t represent them because they’re the only ones on the ballot, or simply don’t vote for local offices at all due to a lack of worthwhile candidates. These elected officials aren’t used to competing hard for their seats and have yet to feel the heat of how the communities they represent have changed politically. Progressive, young, diverse candidates running for office fill a void and are relatively easy to elect.
3. Getting coverage in easy media markets. Although these areas have experienced rapid population growth, local news outlets have a small town mentality. They receive a fraction of the press releases, op-eds, or letters to the editor they would in urban areas and often have a sleepy civic life so actions organized by social justice organizations are shocking and newsworthy. Easy access to front page articles or the opinion page opens great opportunities to re-frame debates on local political issues.
4. Access to swing state and federal representatives. California’s most closely divided seats in Congress and the state legislature are in rural or suburban areas with changing demographics like the Central Valley, Central Coast and Inland Empire. Elected officials from either party have to compete hard for their jobs (now thanks to redistricting) and are often politically moderate, making them important targets on state or federal legislation. In comparison, organizations in urban areas with staunch progressive representatives have little ability to help pass state or national laws.
5. The community has a hunger for it. Places like West Oakland are a bit saturated with organizing. People are used to “the community man” from one organization or another coming and knocking on their door talking to them about some campaign, and are sometimes skeptical or have been burnt out by their previous involvement in a different organization. Not that any place can ever have too much organizing. But in rural and suburban communities, there’s a lack of engagement and action and people have a hunger for it.
So the bottom line: I don’t know what the ideal model for organizing outside the urban core is. But it needs to be done and an increasing number of organizations are doing it. I think there’s obviously a need for a stronger emphasis on electoral work. To some extent organizations may have to become jacks of all trades and not specialize in particular issues or strategies. Besides that I don’t know. Have any thoughts? Leave them in the comments.
Pretty soon the Supreme Court is probably going to hammer the last nail in the coffin of affirmative action. The court will be hearing the case of Abigail Fisher next week, a young white woman who was denied admission to the University of Texas, Austin and blames it on affirmative action.
I think progressives should take this opportunity to give up on fighting for race-based affirmative action. Not because it’s a bad idea, but because those of us who care about equality in education will be much more strategic and effective fighting for class-based affirmative action.
First I want to explain why I’ve always been a supporter of race-based affirmative action. I think institutionalized racism is so deeply embedded in every facet of our society that people’s education and economic outcomes are strongly affected by it from the cradle to the grave. I know there are some deniers out there. But if that inequality of opportunity wasn’t real, then why do racial achievement gaps persist so strongly? Let’s say certain types of people usually seem to win a hypothetical contest millions of times over. You can only really come to two conclusions: Either those types of people have some unfair advantages in that contest, or they are just naturally better. I’m assuming nobody who reads this blog is going to say white people are on average naturally smarter. So that leaves unfair advantage. Because education is so critical to success in the modern world, if some groups enjoy an unfair advantage over others, we have a moral responsibility to fight that.
As a product of the University of California system, where affirmative action was banned in 1995 by Prop 209, I’ve seen the exciting sneak preview of how this Supreme Court case will likely turn out for the country:
Yeah it’s kinda like that.
California’s affirmative action ban has led to a campus filled mostly with kids from the upper-middle-class suburbs of the Bay Area and Los Angeles. The many attempts to promote racial diversity by the UC system since Prop 209 have largely failed.
But sometimes, it’s less important what you wish could happen, and more important what you can actually win.
This Supreme Court, the most conservative in modern history, will probably strike down race-based affirmative action. Neither the majority of the American public nor the majority of our elected officials seem interested in keeping it.
A good political strategist knows when to throw in the towel. But a better political strategist knows when to seemingly throw in the towel, and when their opponent raises their hands in victory, hit them in the chin with a dirty ass upper-cut.
Social justice activists could abandon attempts to defend race-based affirmative action while organizing a broader coalition around class-based affirmative action that includes low-income whites. This is probably more politically winnable, legally defensible, and may be just a better policy for achieving social justice.
I’d propose some kind of comprehensive economic disadvantage index that includes factors like a student’s household income, parents’ educational attainment, neighborhood poverty rate, and what percent of students from their high school go to college.
While this doesn’t address direct discrimination by college admissions officers, it would still work against the inequality affecting youth in communities of color. Students who make it through the barriers of growing up in East Oakland or South LA will still get recognition in college admissions for the struggles they faced.
More importantly, class-based affirmative action might do more to advance equity in education anyway.
The current racial categories used in admissions are not very accurate measures of students’ privilege or disadvantage. An observant college student might notice the disproportionate share of the campus’s black community whose parents immigrated from Africa and the Caribbean. Or the fact that virtually all the Asians on campus seem to be Korean, Taiwanese or Indian. Despite the fact that many Southeast Asian communities in the US have similar levels of poverty to African-Americans and Latinos, they get lumped in the same “Asian” category as wealthier groups like Indians. And even though black immigrant communities have higher education levels and lower poverty rates, they are treated the same as black communities struggling with the legacy of American slavery.
The struggle for racial justice today is largely defined by the institutionalized racism that leads to deep and persistent poverty in communities of color. It’s a deep and complex web of oppression and no policy tool is going to be perfect.
But movements have to be built on victories. At a time when a backwards fall seems inevitable, class-based affirmative action is something we can win.
The Chicago teacher strike has sparked a heated debate about how much to blame teachers for America’s failing schools. I think this totally misses the point. American public schools aren’t failing in general, American public schools are failing poor people.
It’s time we start considering something a bit more uncomfortable. Maybe generations of education reforms to improve schools in low-income communities haven’t worked because the problem… is poverty itself?
The much-hyped failing schools you see in documentaries simply don’t exist in wealthy communities. There’s a reason they didn’t film Waiting for Superman at Bel Aire Elementary School. An unwitting viewer might then accidentally reach the conclusion that teachers unions were producing outstanding results in public schools.
In fact, even rich kids in failing urban school districts succeed. Despite the miserably low test scores of average Chicago public school students that have become a media feeding frenzy, for white children from non-poor English-speaking households, test scores in Chicago public schools are actually higher than the average school district. So if you’re a middle-class white parent in Chicago, you really should send your kids to those awful public schools– they’ll probably turn out great.
I’ve attended a low-performing public school in a low-income community and an outstanding public school, serving mostly middle and upper-middle class students. Both had teachers unions, tenure, bureaucratic school districts, and like any workplace, some people were just good at their jobs and some just weren’t.
So why the inequality? I want to get up on a mountaintop, grab a megaphone and yell “It’s the POVERTY, stupid!”
We’ve reached an odd consensus in Washington, where both Democrats and Republicans believe that teachers unions are the main barrier to improving the American education system. (Credit to Michelle Rhee for single-handedly permanently shifting the American political debate— not something most people can claim).
Yet only about one-third of the achievement gap can be explained by in-school factors. The remaining two-thirds are the result of factors outside of the school. When kids have poor nutrition or untreated health problems or unstable housing or parents who don’t have the time/education to read/talk to them in high vocabulary or they’re ducking bullets on the way to school, it makes an enormous impact on their ability to learn. Yes, teacher quality is the largest in-school variable affecting education outcomes, but most of the real difference is coming from influences outside the classroom.
I believe the reason the American education system has such a large disparity between rich and poor is because America has such a large disparity between rich and poor.
America’s education system is exceptionally bad compared to other countries at educational opportunity for low-income children. Not like that one country that attaches its own name to the word “Dream” to symbolize how they’re the land of opportunity. Oh wait. Fuck.
Well, at least there are other countries doing worse than us. Suck on that, Czech Republic!
Not only do we have high inequality in education between rich and poor students, unlike racial achievement gaps, it’s actually getting worse. Note that the big growth of this achievement gap has pretty closely mirrored the widening gap between rich and poor in the US from the late 70’s until today.
This all leads to what might seem like a dismal conclusion: Poor kids will never have high-performing schools. Even if Michelle Rhee personally teaches every one of them herself, spurred to work extra hard by the incentive of being constantly watched by a panel of parents who can drop her into a pit of spikes below the classroom with the pull of a lever.
Yes, that sounds depressing. But is it really?
I’m not saying we can’t close the achievement gap. I’m saying to address a problem, look at its root. And most of the root cause of this problem lies in factors outside the classroom related to poverty. Our political debate is totally ignoring the biggest root of the problem.
Yes, eliminating poverty in America seems harder than just converting all our schools to charter schools or replacing all teachers with TFA kids or some other education reform idea that hopefully doesn’t cost any money.
But we’ve made huge reductions in poverty before, during the War on Poverty in the 1960’s. We know how to do it, we just stopped caring a couple decades ago. In fact, I would say we know how to reduce poverty better than we know how to turn around failing schools.
Sure, we can still figure out how to make schools as effective as possible. But debating the best method of getting better schools for poor kids gives up on the radical idea that maybe those kids don’t have to be poor.