Yesterday morning, I spoke to the Danville Unitarians. Later in the afternoon, Mike Pence ostentatiously walked out of the Colts game when players “took a knee” to protest racism and inequality. In light of his despicable posturing, my morning remarks seem particularly relevant, so I’m sharing them.
When I was a very new lawyer, an older lawyer in the firm where I worked said something I’ve never forgotten: There’s only one legal question, and that question is “what do we do?”
That axiom also describes our social and political world. “What should we do?” in the face of mounting evidence that the racism and anti-Semitism we thought had diminished had merely gone underground?
What should we do about a President whose rhetoric and policies are calculated to feed the bigotries and resentments of those who elected him and further divide an already polarized country?
What do we do in the face of mounting evidence—and not just from Charlottesville–that the outcome of the last election has encouraged and empowered the worst elements of the American Alt-Right—the Klan, the Nazis, the White Supremacists and others who had spent the preceding eight years seething over the fact that America had a black President?
In the immediate aftermath of last November’s unexpected election result, pundits and social scientists told us that most Trump voters were “economically distressed,” that they were members of the American Heartland who felt ignored and disparaged by the so-called “coastal elites.” As data emerged and was analyzed, however, it turned out that the average Trump voter was better off, economically, than the average Clinton voter. And although the data showed that rural voters were considerably more likely to support Trump than urban residents, that data also unambiguously showed that it was the voters who displayed what we academic types call “racial resentment” who were most likely to support Trump.
The National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago does continual polling on a wide variety of questions in its General Social Survey. Their data shows that American society as a whole still buys into racist stereotypes, but that Republicans are statistically far more likely to hold racist views.
Let me be clear: that doesn’t mean that all Republicans are racists. It doesn’t even mean that all Trump voters were racists—although a significant percentage of them evidently were.
The General Social Survey is one of the oldest and largest recurring surveys of American behaviors and attitudes. It collects far more data than most researchers can afford to do, and as a result, it is able to “drill down” further than most similar efforts. The 2016 results reflected a number of very troubling fractures in American society. As one columnist summarized those results,
“The partisan gaps among whites were as wide or wider than we’ve seen since the survey first started asking most of these questions in the 1990s. It’s not that white Republicans’ views of African Americans have dimmed so much as that they haven’t kept pace with those of white Democrats. But in some cases, the GOP has moved in the other direction.
The biggest yawning gap between Democrats and Republicans is on the issue of motivation and will power. The General Social Survey asks whether African Americans are worse off economically “because most just don’t have the motivation or will power to pull themselves up out of poverty?”
A majority — 55 percent — of white Republicans agreed with that statement, compared to 26 percent of white Democrats…
The survey also asked people to rate the races on how hard-working or lazy they are, which allows us to compare whether people rate some races higher than others.
In this case, 42 percent of white Republicans rated African Americans as being lazier than whites, versus 24 percent of white Democrats.”
In light of this data, are we really supposed to believe that all those voters who said they liked Trump because he “tells it like it is” and “isn’t ‘politically correct’” were reacting to his position on trade?
Racism and stereotyping may be more pronounced among Republicans, but as the General Social Survey results showed, Democrats are hardly immune. Refusing to admit how persistent and consequential racism is, refusing to recognize how many of our political and social attitudes are rooted in disdain for those who don’t look like us, those we label “Other,” distorts our public discourse and perpetuates bias and misunderstanding.
If we are going to solve these problems, if we are going to come out of this very precarious time still looking like the America most of us grew up believing in, we simply cannot afford the polarization and tribalism that has re-emerged with such force. It isn’t just race. It isn’t just anti-Semitism. It’s anti-immigrant, anti-Mexican, anti-Muslim, anti-“elitist,” anti-science, anti-intellectual…It’s Anti-Other. It’s “us” versus whomever we classify as “them.”
If we are to productively attack these issues, we need to enlarge our public understanding of who we are talking about when we talk about “us.” We need to enlarge our definition of who “we” are.
Let me explain what I mean by that.
America is a country that was founded on Enlightenment principles, and foremost among those principles was a respect for personal autonomy—the right of every individual to self-determination, our right to “do our own thing.” The heart of our legal system was the libertarian principle: your right to live as you like and do what you want, until and unless you harm the person or property of someone else, and so long as you respect the equal right of others to do their own thing. Partly as a result of that founding philosophy—which was very different from the European countries our settlers came from—America is known for its emphasis on individualism. We take personal responsibility, we stand on our own two feet, we’re “can-do” entrepreneurs—and that’s all good. But it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Community is equally important.
When people are categorized as “other,” when they are not really members of our community, not one of “us,” it becomes easy–and acceptable–to generalize about them and to demonize them. It wasn’t so long ago that we heard that the Irish are all drunks, Catholics all do the Pope’s bidding, Jews are shifty businesspeople…We still hear that blacks are lazy and women are overly emotional. Membership definitely has its privileges, and the most significant of those is acceptance into the polity and the right to be judged on our own merits, as individuals, and not as members of this or that “tribe.”
Of course, membership also implies exclusion of those who don’t belong. Too much exclusivity leaves us without a membership sufficient for national cohesion and purpose. Society becomes atomized, a collection of self-serving tribes and individuals. It’s also true that excessive emphasis on nationalistic “we’s” can lead to fascism or authoritarianism. The trick is to find the proper balance–enough community to give us a sense of belonging and to generate mutual support, enough individualism to facilitate the exploration of our human distinctiveness. The Greeks called it “The Golden Mean.”
As we’ve seen, President Trump sneers at “political correctness.” This plays well with the so-called “alt-right” that is the heart of his base—the white supremacists, anti-Semites and the like who dismiss civility and mutual respect as political correctness, and who defend their nastiness and overt bigotry as “free speech”[–or in Mike Pence’s case, “religious liberty.”] The Mayor of Charlottesville had a letter in the New York Times not long after the events in that city that not only rebutted that characterization, but also answered the question I began with; the question “what do we do?” He provided a list of things that people of good will can and must do to fight back against those who want to divide this country into we and they, us and “other.”
Mayor Signer noted that events like those in Charlottesville are always accompanied by calls for restricting the right to protest, and he warned against going down that path. But if retreating from our constitutional liberties is not the proper response, what is? Signer didn’t simply recite platitudes; he spelled out who should do what: companies must use their economic clout to press for tolerance and diversity, “whether that means pressuring states on transgender bathroom laws or refusing to sell services to groups that advocate hate.” Colleges and universities must “recommit to instilling the values of deliberation and civility in their students.” News organizations must not only convey correct facts, but “present contextual and fact-checking resources.”
Individually, we must all make a broad social commitment to organizations telling the stories of embattled minorities, whether Muslim Americans or African-Americans or LGBT youth, so they are humanized to the rest of the country. Law firms should dedicate pro bono hours to stand up for the rights of the harassed and the oppressed. Mentors and teachers must teach young folks that that they don’t always have to fight to get what they want, that carrots often work better than sticks. Politicians should agree to sit down together and negotiate to do the people’s business, rather than posture for and pander to their bases. As the mayor concluded,
“And it means government finally telling the truth about race in American history. It means strong new programs to build bridges between isolated communities. And yes, it means political parties and organizations actively reaching out to the economically dispossessed, who feel left behind by today’s cultural and economic changes.”
To which I would add: each of us needs to become a civic activist. We need to relentlessly pressure our elected officials; we need to march and protest when those actions are appropriate. We need to join so-called “Resistance” groups, and support organizations like the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and Lambda Legal, among many others. We need to reach out to neighbors who don’t look like us, and initiate respectful conversations.
And we desperately need to return an in-depth, rigorous Civics education to our public school classrooms. What makes us Americans—what entitles us to membership—is allegiance to a particular approach to self-government. When we don’t know what that approach is, when we are unfamiliar with its history and philosophy and evolution, we increase polarization and lose what it is that makes us a genuinely American community.
I read the Charlottesville Mayor’s letter as a call to active and informed citizenship, and at this perilous moment in American national life, a properly mobilized and informed citizenry is probably the only thing that can save us.