Tag Archives: racism

What Do We Do?

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.

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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.

Thank you.

 

 

 

Trump, Moore And The “Grand Old Party”

Yesterday’s post dealt with Roy Moore’s decisive, ten-point victory over Luther Strange in this week’s Alabama GOP primary. Moore won although Strange had the (mostly) full-throated support of Donald Trump.

Moore’s win suggests that– although Trump’s election may have “unleashed” the party’s rabid base– “the Donald” cannot control it.

The GOP’s Congressional leadership is similarly unable to control the members of what has been called the “lunatic caucus”–Representatives sent to Washington from deep-red gerrymandered districts controlled by that same base.

It’s hard for many of us to wrap our heads around the reality of today’s Republican Party. For those of us who once worked for a very different GOP, the current iteration is nothing short of tragic. All political parties have their fringe crazies–the Democrats are certainly not immune–but in the GOP, the crazies have taken control; sane, moderate, fiscally prudent and socially tolerant Republicans have retreated or departed– or been ejected to taunts of “RINO.”

The number of American voters who identify as Republicans has diminished–in 2016, Gallup put it at 26%– but most of those who remain are dramatically different from even their most conservative antecedents. To the extent they have actual policy preferences, rather than the free-floating animus and overt racism that found its champion in Trump, those preferences are represented by Moore and his ilk.

Roy Moore embodies what the majority of today’s GOP–its most reliable voters, its “base”–support. And that reality is absolutely terrifying, not just because our democratic system requires two sane, adult parties in order to function, but because Moore’s beliefs aren’t just the ravings of a lunatic (although they certainly are that), they’re incompatible with every principle of the American Constitution and legal system.

Think I’m exaggerating?

Before the primary election, The Daily Beast dug out statements Moore has made over the years. During a speech he gave to a fundamentalist Christian political organization, Operation Save America, he said

“I’m sorry but this country was not founded on Muhammad. It was not founded on Buddha. It was not founded on secular humanism. It was founded on God,” he said according to reports by AL.com.

He has frequently charged that Islam is a “false religion” that goes “against the American way of life.”

“[Islam is] a faith that conflicts with the First Amendment of the Constitution,” Moore said during a 2007 radio interview with Michelangelo Signorile, “The Constitution and Declaration of Independence has a direct reference to the Holy Scriptures.”

His homophobia is notorious. In a custody decision, he wrote that homosexuality is  “an inherent evil against which children must be protected.”

CNN also uncovered a 2005 interview between Moore and Bill Press during C-SPAN2’s After Words where he compared homosexuality to bestiality.

“Just because it’s done behind closed doors, it can still be prohibited by state law. Do you know that bestiality, the relationship between man and beast is prohibited in every state?” Moore told Press. When asked if Moore was comparing homosexuality to bestiality, he replied, “It’s the same thing.”

Moore rejects evolution. He attributes the 9/11 attacks to “God’s retribution” for our national “immorality,” and insists (against all historical evidence and the text of the Constitution) that the Founders established America as a “Christian Nation.”

These and similar sentiments–including a deep commitment to White Supremacy– are the banners under which today’s Republicans march. The GOP is now the party of Donald Trump and Roy Moore and Mike Pence–proud racists dismissive of history, ignorant of science and political philosophy, disinterested in actual governance, and obsessed with their own self-importance.

This is what is left of a once Grand Old Party.

Abraham Lincoln weeps.

Tell Me Again It Isn’t All About Race

The latest polling has Donald Trump at 33% approval. Most of the rest of us find it incomprehensible that anyone approves of this profoundly damaged and embarrassing man or his Keystone Kop administration. The folks that Molly Ivins used to call the “Chattering Classes” have filled column inches, airwaves and much of the Internet with efforts to explain his election and the continued loyalty of his rabid base.

The more I read, the more convinced I become that Trump owes that victory and that loyalty to what scholars delicately term “racial resentment.” There were certainly lifelong Republicans and Hillary haters who held their noses and voted for him; their defections account for the steady erosion of his support.  His remaining base, however, is composed of the people who understood that “Make America Great Again” was (none-too-subtle) code for “Make America White Again.”

As his poll results decline and his troubles mount, Trump needs to feed and energize that base. So his administration is ratcheting up his war on immigrants (especially brown and Muslim ones), throwing some red meat to anti-Semites, and promising to protect those poor, oppressed white people from “reverse” discrimination.

As Paul Waldman writes,

To many people reading this, the idea that white people are being discriminated against in higher education — or anywhere else — is absurd. The idea that discrimination against whites is such a significant problem that it demands Justice Department action is positively ludicrous. But we should understand that this is exactly the kind of thing many of Trump’s voters wanted him to deliver. And the administration will be only too pleased to hear the condemnations from the left over this initiative.

That’s not to say that the policy doesn’t have its origins in Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s sincerely felt belief that white folks can’t catch a break in America. I’m sure it does. But it’s also part of a long and extraordinarily successful Republican project to convince white voters that minorities in general and African Americans in particular enjoy a panoply of free benefits from the government that make their lives comfortable and easy. It’s a lie, but it’s extraordinarily widespread.

Waldman reminds us that regular viewers of Fox News, readers of Breitbart, and fans of Rush Limbaugh and his ilk are constantly inundated with “evidence” supporting white racial grievance. It’s a central theme in the media that shapes conservative reality.

Hate groups and so-called “alt-right” organizations have grown dramatically since the Presidential campaign–a campaign that saw Trump endorsed by the KKK, David Duke and other panicky “race warriors” who had slithered from under their rocks to revile and demean an African-American President.

The Guardian recently reported on a gathering in Tennessee of one such group.

This weekend, American Renaissance held its annual conference at a venue in Montgomery Bell state park, an hour west of Nashville, Tennessee. Attendees and speakers clearly felt a growing confidence. They have seen appreciable growth in membership of established and emerging far-right groups. They have also seen the election as president of Donald Trump.

Speakers at the event addressed subjects including “Race realism and race denialism” and “Has the white man turned the corner?” One considered “The Trump report card – so far”….

Many were millennials. Though all attendees wore conference dress code – jacket and tie – more than a few younger men sported the “fashy haircut”, short back and sides with a severe parting, which has become a signature of the so-called alt-right.

Many such young men lined up for selfies with Richard Spencer, the president of the white nationalist National Policy Institute thinktank who has achieved fame since greeting the election result with a cry of “Hail Trump”.

This resurgence of open, unapologetic racism is profoundly depressing. Like most sentient Americans, I realized that these attitudes still existed, but I’ve been appalled by how widespread and overt their expression has become in the Age of Trump.

When Trump’s poll numbers finally bottom out, we’ll have a pretty good idea what percentage of our fellow citizens are willing to jettison American ideals in return for continued White Christian privilege.

The Puzzle of Trump Support

Americans have spent the past four plus months watching a profoundly unfit and erratic man do significant damage to America’s interests while debasing the highest office in the land, and they are increasingly asking each other how this could have happened. How could anyone have voted for a man who flaunted his ignorance of  government and the world, who demonstrated emotional instability virtually every day, and who repeatedly and publicly violated the most basic norms of civility?

For that matter, given his performance to date, how is it possible that a majority of those who voted for Trump still support him?

A number of columnists and social scientists have attributed Trump’s support to economic distress. I’m not buying it. Economic concerns, Hillary hatred and similar motives may have coexisted with other characteristics of Trump voters, but on closer look, they lack explanatory power.

Two paragraphs from a recent article in Politico come much closer to the mark:

Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement was not really about the climate. And despite his overheated rhetoric about the “tremendous” and “draconian” burdens the deal would impose on the U.S. economy, Trump’s decision wasn’t really about that, either. America’s commitments under the Paris deal, like those of the other 194 cooperating nations, were voluntary. So those burdens were imaginary.

No, Trump’s abrupt withdrawal from this carefully crafted multilateral compromise was a diplomatic and political slap: It was about extending a middle finger to the world, while reminding his base that he shares its resentments of fancy-pants elites and smarty-pants scientists and tree-hugging squishes who look down on real Americans who drill for oil and dig for coal. (Emphasis mine.)

I’m well aware that the plural of anecdote isn’t data, but the few people I know who voted for Donald Trump fit this analysis perfectly. They harbor profound racial and (especially) cultural resentments. Support for a buffoon despised by knowledgable, thoughtful people was their way of sticking it to the “elitists,” those snobs who read books and newspapers, support the arts, drive hybrids and recycle their trash.

Post-election research tells us that Trump voters weren’t poor, but they were disproportionately uneducated, white and rural, and deeply resentful of urban Americans, African-Americans and brown immigrants. (Pale Brits and Canadians are okay.) They share a conviction that the “smarty pants” are looking down on them, and if we are honest, there’s a fair amount of evidence supporting that conviction: today’s America is extremely economically segregated, and just as racial segregation fosters racial distrust and stereotyping, economic segregation reinforces tribalism and disdain for the “Other.” That disdain goes both ways.

This is not to deny the economic contribution to those resentments. If economic policy could help rural communities flourish again, the cultural hostility (although probably not the racial animus) would abate somewhat. Right now, however, the more evidence of Trump’s incompetence and volatility that emerges, the more his core supporters deny administration wrongdoing and buy into improbable apologetics and wild conspiracy theories.

They’re adult versions of the kids on the playground who stuck their fingers in their ears and said nah nah I can’t hear you.

When this bizarre episode in our country’s history has run its course, and government has (hopefully) returned the policy-making apparatus to mature adults who respect data and evidence, who understand cause and effect and the scientific method, we will need to address the concerns of people left behind by social change, people who feel adrift in a brave new world that they find utterly inhospitable.

We need to do something, because “I’ll show you!” is a really bad reason to hand the nuclear codes over to a dangerously incompetent clown.

“Those People”

Most of us have been in conversations that included someone’s dismissive reference to “those people.”

When I was growing up in Anderson, Indiana (with exactly 30 Jewish families in the whole town), the term was often applied to Jews. It was also–and remains–a favored euphemism when race is being discussed by people who don’t like to think of themselves as racists; they just substitute “those people” for the “n” word when discussing the “lower orders.”

“Those people” is also a term frequently applied to the growing number of poor Americans. And it is particularly harmful when used in the context of economic policy. “Those people” wouldn’t need health care if they didn’t eat junk foods and fail to exercise; “those people” wouldn’t need social welfare programs if they weren’t lazy; any benefits provided to “those people” must be closely monitored, because they will use food stamps for candy and/or booze…”Those people” are irresponsible.

Facts and evidence are inconvenient things. Most poor people, according to overwhelming evidence, work 40 or more hours a week. Most recipients of food stamps use them to buy food. And there is growing evidence that needy folks are anything but irresponsible when they are given cash in lieu of benefit programs that are strictly “monitored.”

A recent study conducted by the Roosevelt Institute describes that evidence.

Providing cash directly to individuals has often been met with criticism, suspicion, and fear: the thinking goes that people who need financial assistance are not to be trusted, as their financial position reflects a moral failing rather than a societal one. These objections to cash transfer programs are rooted more in myth than empirical evidence. As the debate about a universal basic income gains prominence, it is important to set the record straight about the behavioral effects of unconditional cash assistance.

In this evidence review, we explore how unconditional cash transfers affected the behavior of recipients in three major natural experiments. While the amounts dispersed and time periods were distinct in each experiment, each provided money without set conditions and without a means test. We synthesize data for the following outcomes: consumption; labor force participation (employment, hours worked, and earnings); education; health; and other social outcomes, such as marriage or fertility choices. Each of these programs shares different components of a universal basic income (UBI), a cash transfer that everyone within a geographic/political territory receives on a regular basis with no conditions on a long-term basis. By understanding the effects of these programs, we can generate answers to how an unconditional cash transfer program might affect recipients in the future.

We may well be transitioning to an economy that simply cannot provide jobs for those who want them. Automation, as I’ve previously noted, is rapidly making many jobs obsolete. Changes in the way we purchase items–especially consumer goods– is inexorably reducing the number of workers in retail occupations.

The transformation of the economic landscape is accelerating, and it is a huge challenge–one which we ignore at our peril.

A UBI–a guaranteed basic income– may or may not be a viable approach to the dislocations to come. But continuing to sneer at the behavior of “those people” and dismissing emerging evidence of the utility of new social welfare proposals is clearly less viable.

A lot of the people who use the phrase aren’t all that far from becoming one of “those people” themselves.