Category Archives: Racial Equality

The White Grievance Party

The chaos of the Trump Administration–not to mention the willingness of Trump’s GOP to abandon “dog whistles” in favor of straight-up bigotry–has led a few of the remaining old style Republicans to admit what they’d previously been loathe to see: Trump is the inevitable consequence of the path the party has pursued for the past fifty years.

New York Times contributor Thomas Edsell recently reviewed a book written by Stuart Stevens.  Stevens is a Republican media consultant with what Edsell tells us is “an exceptionally high win-loss record,” who served as a lead strategist for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004; in the book’s mea culpa, he admits that a more accurate name for the GOP might be  the “white grievance party.”

Stevens didn’t just work for Bush. The list of his clients is a list of Republican eminences: Mitt Romney, Roger Wicker, Roy Blunt, Chuck Grassley, Rob Portman, Thad Cochran, Dick Lugar, Jon Kyl, Mel Martinez and Dan Coats — along with a handful of current and former governors.

Nonetheless, Stevens’s forthcoming book, “It Was All A Lie,” makes the case that President Trump is the natural outcome of a long chain of events going back to the 1964 election when Barry Goldwater ran for president as an opponent of the Civil Right Act passed earlier that year.

“As much as I’d love to go to bed at night reassuring myself that Donald Trump was some freak product of the system — a ‘black swan,’” Stevens writes, “I can’t do it”:

I can’t keep lying to myself to ward off the depressing reality that I had been lying to myself for decades. There is nothing strange or unexpected about Donald Trump. He is the logical conclusion of what the Republican Party became over the last fifty or so years, a natural product of the seeds of race, self-deception, and anger that became the essence of the Republican Party. Trump isn’t an aberration of the Republican Party; he is the Republican Party in a purified form.

“I have no one to blame but myself,” he declares on the first page. “What I missed was one simple reality: it was all a lie.”

The Republican Party promoted itself as defender of a core set of values: the importance of character and personal responsibility, opposition to Russia, fiscal responsibility and control of the national debt, recognition that immigration made America great, and the fiction that the GOP was a “big-tent party.”

The truth was that none of these principles mattered, then or now. The  Republican Party is “just a white grievance party.”

Stevens asserts that a race-based strategy was the foundation of many of the Republican Party’s biggest victories, from Nixon to Trump.

With Trump, the Party has grown comfortable as a white grievance party. Is that racist? Yes, I think it is. Are 63 million plus people who supported Trump racist? No, absolutely not. But to support Trump is to make peace with white grievance and hate.

As the remainder of Edsell’s column demonstrates, definitions of racism vary widely. Some people equate it with genuine hatred, others with unthinking acceptance of social attitudes that attribute certain traits to specific groups. Still others would apply the word to social structures that continue to disadvantage historically marginalized groups.

Whatever your definition, it doesn’t take a genius (very stable or otherwise) to see that racial resentment is pretty much the only genuine “value” embraced by today’s GOP. Stevens says not all Republicans are racists, and I’m sure that’s true. But everyone who casts a vote for a Republican candidate is telling the world that she (or more often, he) doesn’t consider racism to be a disqualification for public office.Is that really so distant?

As one of the scholars quoted in the column put it,

We have focused attention on bigots and white nationalists and not held ordinary citizens accountable for beliefs that achieve the same ends.

And so here we are……

It Explains So Much…

Americans argue endlessly about the reasons for our inadequate social safety net–it’s the influence of the plutocrats, the demise of unions, globalization, capitalism, the two-party system, etc. And certainly, all of those things are contributors to our peculiarly American refusal to  expand government safety-net programs. But an opinion piece that ran in last Sunday’s New York Times identified the real “elephant in the room.”

The reason we don’t have such programs is racism.( It’s the same reason we have Trump.)

The author, one Eduardo Porter, sums up a good deal of social science research when he asserts that the reason Americans have repeatedly rejected expansions of the social safety net is because that expansion inevitably collides “with one of the most powerful forces shaping the American experience: uncompromising racism.”

Why does the United States suffer the highest poverty rate among wealthy nations? Why does it have the highest teen pregnancy rate? Why are so many Americans addled by opioids? We blame globalization and technology. But these forces affect everybody — the French and the Canadians and the Japanese as much as us.

The United States alone has crumpled because it showed no interest in building the safeguards erected in other advanced countries to protect those on the wrong side of these changes. Why? Because we couldn’t be moved to build a safety net that cut across our divisions of ethnicity and race.

Porter revisits the New Deal and later efforts by President Johnson to expand social programs, and reminds us that–along with the positive results we remember, like Social Security and Medicare–there were “compromises” that effectively prevented African-Americans from sharing the benefits of those programs.

In order to win support of Southern Democrats, Roosevelt ensured that major parts of the New Deal excluded nonwhites. The Federal Housing Administration, to take one New Deal creation, is celebrated for expanding homeownership, but it also refused to back loans in predominantly black neighborhoods, or for black people period.

New Deal labor codes allowed businesses to offer whites a first crack at jobs and authorized lower pay scales for blacks. In their first incarnation, Social Security and the Fair Labor Standards Act excluded domestic and farm jobs, which employed two out of three black workers.

That Nixon was a racist and an anti-Semite isn’t news. Notes taken by H.R. Haldeman (who certainly looked like the prototypical Nazi) recorded Nixon saying “You have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.” That was in 1969.

Reagan excoriated undeserving black “welfare queens.” Bill Clinton, who had promised to expand health care, instead ended “welfare as we know it.” He replaced AFDC with TANF, and funded TANF with block grants that allowed states to play games with the money and, as Porter notes, ” withhold aid as they saw fit.”

Other rich countries have continued to expand and improve health care, education and child care —Porter says that such services today amount to about 10 percentage points more of their G.D.P. than they did in the 1960s. Meanwhile, in the United States, that proportion has barely budged. What did grow was incarceration.

And thanks to Michelle Alexander, we know that mass incarceration disproportionately targeted African-Americans–it was the “New Jim Crow.”

Porter is not optimistic about our capacity for change.

While minorities might eventually reshape American politics into something more inclusive, until that happens politics will be determined by the efforts of freaked-out whites to resist this change. Republicans’ efforts to ensure a conservative majority on the Supreme Court for a generation, like state-level efforts to suppress the vote of people of color and gerrymander districts to dilute their electoral clout, are a clear expression of white fear.

Whether Mr. Sanders or Mr. Biden wins the nomination, the Democrats will spend the rest of the primary promoting an expansive vision for America’s safety net. As they do, they also need to admit that they are envisioning an America that has never existed.

Ask yourself why the United States, alone among the world’s richest nations, still doesn’t provide its citizens comprehensive, universal health care. Ponder why Obamacare is being so relentlessly whittled down by Republican governors, the courts and the Trump administration. Racial animosity is at the root of all this — and until America finally grapples with it, even the grandest plans will amount to nothing.

The Coronavirus pandemic may make it impossible to ignore the consequences of our “original sin.”

The reason I keep harping on voting “blue no matter who” is because over the past forty or so years, the two-party system has basically sorted into a racist and an anti-racist party.  There are undoubtedly still racist Democrats, and people of good will likely remain within the GOP– but given the Grand Old Party’s current base, good will is impotent.

Until we defeat America’s pervasive racism, it’s not just Medicare for all we won’t get–it’s an adequate social safety net.

 

Can The Arts Save Us?

Indianapolis, like many cities, has experienced an explosion of arts over the past ten to fifteen years: theater companies, art galleries, dance venues…all have proliferated. Even more significantly, the quality of those venues has dramatically improved.

Last weekend, my husband and I had tickets to two plays and a cabaret performance. (It was an unusually busy weekend for folks in our age cohort.) The cabaret performance was wonderful (Indianapolis has one of the very few Broadway-caliber cabaret theaters in the U.S.) but I really want to focus on the two plays we were privileged to see, because that experience illustrated why theater, especially, contributes to a culture of inclusion.

In times like these, when Americans are so divided, theatrical performance becomes particularly important, because it is through stories that we advance human understanding and self-awareness. (It was recognition of the importance of stories and how they are told that led to the establishment of Summit Performance, a new, woman-centered theater company in Indianapolis that endeavors to tell universal stories through a female lens.)

Last weekend, we saw two truly riveting performances: The Agitators and The Cake.

The Agitators, at the Phoenix Theatre, explored the long and often-fraught friendship between Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglas–a friendship of which I had been totally unaware. It may be comforting to believe that representatives of different marginalized groups fighting for equal rights will do so in solidarity, but of course, reality is much more nuanced. The play–superbly acted–probed uncomfortable questions about uneven progress toward equality and our inescapably parochial perspectives–questions that we tend to gloss over.

The Cake, at the Fonseca Theater, defied my expectations. Part of the Fonseca’s stated mission is to be a forum for “pressing conversations.” The Cake was described as a play about a same-sex wedding and a bakery, so I expected a theatrical presentation of the legal challenges that have been in the news–the baker who refuses to lend his craft to an event he considers inconsistent with his religious beliefs, and the clash between civil rights and claims of religious liberty.

What I saw, instead, was a deeply affecting story about good people who were–inescapably– products of their upbringing, and how they reacted when forced to respond to a changing world, especially when people they dearly love are part of that change. No legal arguments, just people trying to reconcile their own contending beliefs.

Both performances reminded me that the arts are important, not just as outlets for human creativity and communication, but as necessary “threads” that very different people use to stitch together a social fabric. Plays, movies, well-done television presentations and the like allow us to travel to places we otherwise wouldn’t visit –some geographic, but others interior and highly personal–and to understand the issues that divide us in new and more nuanced ways.

In the program notes accompanying The Cake, Brian Fonseca quoted a patron saying “We sit together in the dark to know how to love each other in the light.”  I don’t think it is accidental that so many artists–actors, painters, dancers, whatever–are among the more compassionate and accepting people I know.

Readers of this blog who are in Indianapolis or surrounding areas really should try to see both of these productions.

 

Revealing Metaphors

Mitch Daniels–formerly the Governor of Indiana–is the current President of Purdue University. He was appointed by Trustees of the University who–not so coincidentally–he had appointed to those positions, a somewhat incestuous situation that raised a lot of eyebrows.

Daniels’ performance as President, while entirely satisfactory to those same Trustees, has been controversial among educators. There was, for example, Purdue’s acquisition of for-profit Kaplan University, in order to create Purdue Global, a marriage which is evidently not going so well. Forbes reports that Purdue Global had a net operating loss of $38.4 million last year. There was also an initiative encouraging students to finance their educations by pledging a percentage of their future earnings to investors, which some have dubbed “indentured servitude.” But most grumbling has been quiet.

Remarks Daniels made a few weeks ago, however, sparked a national discussion. As G. Gabrielle Starr, the President of Pomona College, wrote in the New York Times,

In late November, the president of Purdue University, Mitch Daniels, told students that he will soon “be recruiting one of the rarest creatures in America — a leading, I mean a really leading, African-American scholar.”

“Creatures?” a student asked. “Come on.”

“It’s a figure of speech. You must have taken some literature,” Mr. Daniels said. “One of the rarest, let me say, rarest birds, rarest, rarest, rarest phenomena.”

In just a few sentences, Mr. Daniels seemed to question the possibility of sustained black excellence. In response to the uproar that swiftly followed, he complained that he had “never felt so misunderstood” and that he had simply used a “figure of speech.” On Wednesday, he apologized and retracted the statement.

When I learned about Mr. Daniels’s words from another African-American scholar on my own campus, I felt indignant but also constrained. The standard etiquette for college presidents, like me, is to let the remarks of another leader pass on by.

Even though he apologized, I can’t do that. The idea that scholars of color are rare is a damaging fiction. Yet it’s pervasive in academia, causing untold damage. It allows some faculty deans to simply throw up their hands and give up on their recruitment efforts. It leads to small recruitment budgets for minority candidates.

Dr. Starr noted that the Purdue faculty had pushed back on the notion that black scholars are “rare birds” and he went on to identify a few of the many outstanding African-American scholars:

After Mr. Daniels’s remarks, Purdue faculty members said in a statement that “the idea that there is a scarcity of leading African-American scholars is simply not true.” Indeed, one might look to scholarly societies for leading figures: Alondra Nelson, president of the Social Science Research Council; Elizabeth Alexander, president of the Mellon Foundation; Cecilia Conrad, a managing director at the MacArthur Foundation; and Claude Steele, chair of the board of the Russell Sage Foundation. Or leaders at American colleges and universities like Jonathan Holloway, provost of Northwestern; Raynard Kington, president of Grinnell College; and Michael Drake, president of Ohio State University.

Starr’s column is eloquent, and worth reading in its entirety, but I remain bemused by the nature of the outcry that followed Daniels’ remarks. Most of the criticism I saw focused not on the inaccurate and damaging notion that black academic success is rare, but on Daniels’ use of the term “creature.”

I do understand black sensitivity to language that seems to equate African-Americans with animals, given America’s unfortunate racist history. But we are all creatures, and this reference seemed– to me at least– far less reprehensible than Daniels’ obvious assumption that black intellectuals are few and far between.

I’ve taught at the university level for twenty years, and during that time, the number of African-American scholars on our campus has grown significantly. My black colleagues have contributed enormously– to the educations of our students, to the scholarly literature, and–perhaps more importantly–to the creation of an inclusive, multicultural campus culture. I have to assume the same is true at Purdue.

Do we have a way to go? Sure. But ignoring the substantial presence of black scholars in academia isn’t just inaccurate. It’s evidence of implicit bias–and it deserves to be called out.

 

 

 

Peter Wehner Explains The Inexplicable

Like most Americans today, I occupy a bubble. My friends, family, colleagues and neighbors all tend to see political reality largely the way I see it.

So I was taken aback–floored, really–by a conversation I had during a weekend visit to New Buffalo, Michigan. Our daughter and son-in-law had treated us to the visit and a tour of the 1932 World Fair’s “Homes of the Future” sponsored by Indiana Landmarks. We were staying in a lovely Bed and Breakfast, and while I was getting coffee, I chatted with a guest who turned out to be from Carmel, a suburb of Indianapolis.

What began as a cordial exchange devolved when he mentioned that he “loved” President Trump. (I’m sorry to report that I didn’t bite my tongue; I suggested he’d been drinking the Kool-Aid, and he stomped off.)

This encounter bothered me immensely. Here was a person who was obviously comfortable financially, who didn’t look like someone who ignored the news, or was mentally incapacitated. Why would he “love” this pathetic excuse for a human?

My husband’s theory was that Trump justifies the guy’s probable racism, but the exchange was still rankling when I read Peter Wehner’s column in Monday’s New York Times, titled “What’s the Matter with Republicans?”

One might hope that some of the party’s elected officials would forcefully condemn the president on the grounds that there is now demonstrable evidence that he had crossed an ethical line and abused his power in ways even beyond what he had done previously, which was problematic enough.

But things are very different today than they were in the summer of ’74. Mr. Trump was on to something when he famously said, during the 2016 campaign, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, O.K.? It’s, like, incredible.” What most people took to be hyperbole turned out to be closer to reality.

Wehner–who was formerly a staunch  Republican–then asked the same question I had asked: why? What would account for continued fealty to someone who is not only a demonstrably unfit President, but a truly repulsive human being with what Wehner accurately describes as “a mobster’s mentality”?

Why, then, are so many Republicans yet again circling the Trump wagon rather than taking this opportunity to denounce what the president did and declare some independence from him by doing so? Why has Mr. Trump, an ethical wreck of a man both before and after he reached the White House, earned such fealty from Republicans?

Wehner says it isn’t policy, and I agree.

Understanding the close compact between Mr. Trump and the Republican Party starts with acknowledging the false hope many establishment Republicans placed in the shady real estate mogul as he rose to power. They misdiagnosed the individual they were dealing with, assuming that Mr. Trump would “grow in office” and that they, the “adults in the room,” would be able to control and contain him. At the outset of this unholy alliance, they were convinced they would change Mr. Trump more than Mr. Trump would change them. But the transformation turned out to be in them, not him.

Wehner acknowledges that politicians’ self-interest is threatened by the loyalty of the GOP base to Trump. But what accounts for the devotion of that base–of people like the man I had encountered?

As a conservative-leaning clinical psychologist I know explained to me, when new experiences don’t fit into an existing schema — Mr. Trump becoming the leader of the party that insisted on the necessity of good character in the Oval Office when Bill Clinton was president, for example — cognitive accommodation occurs.

When the accommodation involves compromising one’s sense of integrity, the tensions are reduced when others join in the effort. This creates a powerful sense of cohesion, harmony and group think. The greater the compromise, the more fierce the justification for it — and the greater the need to denounce those who call them out for their compromise. “In response,” this person said to me, “an ‘us versus them’ mentality emerges, sometimes quite viciously.”

“What used to be a sense of belonging,” I was told, “devolves into primitive tribalism, absolute adherence to the leader over adherence to a code of ethics.”…

As the psychologist I spoke to put it to me, many Republicans “are nearly unrecognizable versions of themselves pre-Trump. At this stage it’s less about defending Trump; they are defending their own defense of Trump.”

“At this point,” this person went on, “condemnation of Trump is condemnation of themselves. They’ve let too much go by to try and assert moral high ground now. Calling out another is one thing; calling out yourself is quite another.”

And then there’s that shared racism….