Tag Archives: privilege

Protecting The Privileged

The composition of the U.S. Supreme Court is a key area of dispute between Republicans and Democrats. I share the concern, but for rather different reasons than most of the people vocally involved in this debate.

It’s clear that Trump’s cult will sacrifice fundamental fairness and a competent (or even barely functional) federal government in return for reversal of Roe v. Wade.  I have increasingly come to file that possibility under “be careful what you wish for”–not only would abortion still be available in blue (and probably purple) states, but the backlash would be profound; it’s hard to think of any other ruling that would activate more more opponents of the fundamentalist cult that is today’s GOP.

My concerns with the Supreme Court are grounded in its less obvious and more dangerous retreat from the civil liberties jurisprudence of the Warren Court. The current Court’s most predictable bias can be seen a steady stream of decisions favoring the rich and powerful over the poor and disenfranchised.

A recent book by Adam Cohen–Supreme Inequality— is one of the emerging discussions of that bias. An article in Time Magazine by Cohen outlined the book’s central thesis–the conservative Court’s  “deep and abiding sympathy” for the rich. That sympathy is a hugely consequential change from the 1960s, when the Warren Court protected the rights of the poor–from welfare recipients’ right to due process to poor defendants’ right to appointed counsel in criminal cases.

As Cohen documents, however, for the past 50 years, “the Court’s sympathies have been the reverse: on one legal doctrine after another, it has expanded the rights of wealthy individuals and corporations.”

After the Warren Court, Nixon was able to appoint conservatives who shaped the Court we have today. Cohen provides striking examples of the consequences.

One of the first groups the new conservative Court came to the rescue of was rich children, or at least children in wealthy school districts. There was a growing consensus among lower federal courts, state courts, and law professors that the Equal Protection Clause required states to equalize spending between rich and poor school districts. In 1973, however, the Court, by a 5-4 vote, declared that Texas, and other states, had the right to spend more money on children in rich districts than children in poor ones.

As a result of that decision, today there are gaping disparities in school spending nationwide. An analysis of funding in Pennsylvania a few years ago found that one wealthy district spent more than three times as much as the state’s lowest-spending district. In the aggregate, these disparities mean that children from wealthy families across the country begin life with greater educational opportunities, and a better chance at success later on.

Other decisions that elevate the interests of the privileged over others include Citizens United and its forerunners–rulings that gave rich people and corporate “people (!)” a disproportionate voice in American politics.

Cohen isn’t the only person to notice. This week, James Dannenberg resigned from the Supreme Court Bar in a letter to Chief Justice John Roberts that has been widely published. Dannenberg has been a member of that bar since 1972. His letter compares the current Supreme Court, with its solicitude for the rights of the wealthy, privileged and  comfortable, to the widely-reviled Lochner court of the early 20th century that favored big business, banking, and insurance interests, and ruled consistently against child labor, fair wages, and labor regulations.

Dannenberg pulled no punches.

You are doing far more— and far worse– than “calling balls and strikes.” You are allowing the Court to become an “errand boy” for an administration that has little respect for the rule of law.

The Court, under your leadership and with your votes, has wantonly flouted established precedent. Your “conservative” majority has cynically undermined basic freedoms by hypocritically weaponizing others. The ideas of free speech and religious liberty have been transmogrified to allow officially sanctioned bigotry and discrimination, as well as to elevate the grossest forms of political bribery beyond the ability of the federal government or states to rationally regulate it. More than a score of decisions during your tenure have overturned established precedents—some more than forty years old– and you voted with the majority in most. There is nothing “conservative” about this trend. This is radical “legal activism” at its worst.

When a respected member of the Supreme Court bar questions the Court’s commitment to the rule of law, it’s an ominous sign.

The question is, as always, what should we do?

We should certainly think very seriously about the recommendation by legal scholars that the number of Justices be increased–a recommendation that long preceded the current administration.

And most obviously, we need to vote blue up and down the ticket, to ensure that people who will be elevated to the court in the future are “throwbacks” to the Warren Court, rather than pro-plutocrat right-wingers.

 

Race And American Inequality

This is Black History Month, but rather than a post on black history, I think it may be useful to share some depressing information about the current status of African-Americans vis a vis the White Americans who have occupied a privileged social position in this country even after most of the legal disabilities targeting people of color were repealed.

The Institute for Policy Studies recently issued a report on the wealth gap between whites, Latinos and blacks in the United States.The report looked at trends in household wealth among Black, Latino and White households over the past three decades.

Since the early 1980s, median wealth among Black and Latino families has been stuck at less than ten thousand dollars, while the median wealth of White households, adjusted for inflation, grew from $105,300 to $140,500. The median White family has 41 times more wealth than the median Black family and 22 times more wealth than the median Latino family.

The wealth gap has gotten wider as wealth in America has become extremely concentrated.The median American family of any color has seen its wealth drop 3 percent between 1983 and 2016–a period of time in which the richest 0.1 percent have seen their wealth jump 133 percent. The three wealthiest families–the Waltons, the Kochs and the Mars–have seen their wealth increase by nearly 6,000 percent.

Wealth held by members of the Forbes 400 equals that of all Blacks plus a quarter of Latinos.

The  report takes issue with analyses that treat the racial wealth divide and the growth of economic inequality as two separate issues; instead, it finds that they are mutually reinforcing outcomes of larger economic issues–issues that result from public policies that have favored–and continue to favor–both White Americans and the very wealthy.

Just one example: As this is being written, Mitch McConnell and the Senate GOP are proposing to eliminate what they like to call the “death tax,” and the rest of us call the estate tax.

The estate tax raises $20 billion dollars a year, which is a lot of money, but a pretty insignificant part of the federal budget. It applies only to estates worth more than $5.5 million dollars, and people with lots of money can pretty easily structure their wills to avoid it.

As the Atlantic points out, however, there’s more than money involved in this debate.

The tax code is more than a ledger. It is a national statement of values. And so this little law inspires a great commotion during each tax debate. To its opponents, it is the ultimate (literally) punishment on success and an affront to the family legacy that each striving individual hopes to leave. To its supporters, it is a necessary bulwark against inherited plutocracy, which offends the national virtue of merit over privilege.

The article goes through the arguments advanced in favor of repeal and in favor of retention of the estate tax, and is worth reading for a quick review of the debate. But the argument for retention most relevant to policy’s role in worsening inequality is that, in a period defined by the rising gap between rich and poor, we need to recognize the enormous role played by inheritance.

According to analysis byMatt Bruenig, a writer and the founder of the advocacy group People’s Policy Project, four out of 10 members of the wealthiest 1 percent inherited some money, with an average inheritance in the millions of dollars….

In the last half century, the average wealth of the bottom half has gone from about nothing to about $1,000 in debt. Meanwhile, the returns at the top have accelerated. In the 1960s, families in the top 1 percent were six times wealthier than families in the middle, according to the Urban Institute. By 2016, the 1 percent was 12 times wealthier than the typical family. As wealth inequality has soared, the estate tax has been diminished, with the number of estate tax returns declining by 76 percent between 2006 and 2015. There is little doubt that 21st-century tax policy has assisted the concentration of wealth.

When ostensibly color-blind tax policy benefits “haves,” that policy inevitably benefits Whites.

And let’s face facts: money is power.

About Those Angry White Guys…

Like many women, I am still fuming over the Kavanaugh hearing. Not only was a man elevated to the Court who clearly has no business being there–for multiple reasons, not simply the very credible accusations of sexual assault–but women were dismissed, diminished and disregarded in ways that still infuriate me.

After the hearing, I posted about the extreme anger that permeates contemporary political life, and what I see as the reasons for that anger. It probably isn’t surprising that I see some  as righteous, and some as considerably less so. Those displaying the latter type, I wrote,

are primarily White Christians (disproportionately but not exclusively male) who have a well-founded fear that they soon will be robbed of their cultural dominance and privilege. They are reacting with fury to culture change and the increasing claims to a place at the civic table by LGBTQ, black and brown people, and women. Robert Jones has documented their resentment and rage in his recent book, The End of White Christian America.

It wasn’t just an analysis from one feminist blogger. A few days ago, Paul Krugman’s column made a similar point.

When Matt Damon did his Brett Kavanaugh imitationon “Saturday Night Live,” you could tell that he nailed it before he said a word. It was all about the face — that sneering, rage-filled scowl. Kavanaugh didn’t sound like a judge at his Senate hearing last week, let alone a potential Supreme Court justice; he didn’t even manage to look like one.

But then again, Lindsey Graham, who went through the hearing with pretty much the same expressionon his face, didn’t look much like a senator, either.

There have been many studies of the forces driving Trump support, and in particular the rage that is so pervasive a feature of the MAGA movement. What Thursday’s hearing drove home, however, was that white male rage isn’t restricted to blue-collar guys in diners. It’s also present among people who’ve done very well in life’s lottery, whom you would normally consider very much part of the elite.

Krugman referenced the considerable body of research debunking the notion–advanced by good-hearted albeit naive liberals– that Trump supporters were economically insecure.

What distinguished Trump voters was, instead, racial resentment. Furthermore, this resentment was and is driven not by actual economic losses at the hands of minority groups, but by fear of losing status in a changing country, one in which the privilege of being a white man isn’t what it used to be.

That resentment isn’t confined to people who are economically insecure. It isn’t even more prevalent among them.

And this sort of high-end resentment, the anger of highly privileged people who nonetheless feel that they aren’t privileged enough or that their privileges might be eroded by social change, suffuses the modern conservative movement.

As Krugman points out, that “high end resentment” positively oozes out of Trump. And Kavanaugh is cut from the same cloth.

As a lot of reporting shows, the angry face Kavanaugh presented to the world last week wasn’t something new, brought on by the charges of past abuse. Classmates from his Yale days describe him as a belligerent heavy drinker even then. His memo to Ken Starr as he helped harass Bill Clinton — in which he declared that “it is our job to make his pattern of revolting behavior clear” — shows rage as well as cynicism.

And Kavanaugh, like Trump, is still in the habit of embellishing his academic record after all these years, declaring that he got into Yale despite having “no connections.” In fact, he was a legacy student whose grandfather went there.

Adding insult to perceived injury,

An increasingly diverse society no longer accepts the God-given right of white males from the right families to run things, and a society with many empowered, educated women is finally rejecting the droit de seigneur once granted to powerful men.

And nothing makes a man accustomed to privilege angrier than the prospect of losing some of that privilege, especially if it comes with the suggestion that people like him are subject to the same rules as the rest of us.

Exactly.

Wisdom from RuPaul

Time Magazine recently published an interview with RuPaul, the celebrated drag star, and one exchange in that interview struck me as particularly perceptive and politically relevant.

The interviewer had noted that millennials “take a harder line on issues of identity” and are “a bit more affronted by the sort of wordplay and free-associative identity play central to drag.” RuPaul’s response wasn’t only wise and adult, it also put into words the proper approach to an issue that has been increasingly nagging at me.

I think the Trump era will wipe that out. To be that particular about words, you have to be in a place where you’re not under attack. I believe that those same people, right now, are so under attack that ain’t nobody got time to be dealing with “Did you call me a he or a she?” That is going to change real fast. When it gets down to survival, you have to pick your battles, and you don’t pick battles with your allies. And I think, as the Trump era moves on, your allies and your enemies will become more and more evident. The people who are mulling over certain words will have to ask themselves, “Is that word coming from a place of love, or coming from a place of hate?” That’s how you differentiate. That’s the real thing.

Pick your battles. When you fight everything, you win nothing.

I am a “mature” (okay, old) Jewish woman. I went to law school and entered the profession at a time when women lawyers were rare and anti-Semitism (while somewhat more genteel than the “alt-right” variety that Trump has encouraged) was common. What I learned was what I will hereafter call the “RuPaul” lesson: there is a difference between unintended offense that is a result of being socialized at a different time, or into a different set of cultural expectations, and bigotry.

As the first woman hired at a large law firm, I experienced plenty of insensitivity–comments that today, those same people would see as cringe-worthy. I also encountered  misogyny. There was a difference.

The same distinction applied to anti-Semitism. Most people who used phrases like “he jewed me down,” for example, were simply unaware of how offensive that phrase was, how much it incorporated hateful stereotypes.

If I had failed to differentiate between behaviors and attitudes that were a result of ignorance or insensitivity and those motivated by misogyny or prejudice, I wouldn’t have been a very effective lawyer–or member of society. More importantly, I wouldn’t have been able to educate people who inadvertently gave offense–to explain, nicely, just why that phrase or that stereotype might be sending a message that I knew they really didn’t intend.

I mention my own experience, because I think it speaks to the emergence of what I would characterize as identity politics on steroids. Women and minorities of all kinds are increasingly quick to take offense, quick to lash out angrily against real or asserted examples of privilege, “micro-aggressions” and “cultural appropriation.” Often the criticism (if not necessarily its tone and volume) is warranted. Often it isn’t.

The issue of privilege is real and important. Pointing it out is legitimate. (My jury is still out on the contemporary frenzy over “micro-aggressions” and “cultural appropriation.”) But whatever their merits, I can’t help thinking that these battles aren’t the ones we should be picking while Trump and his enablers are looting our country and trashing our Constitution.

Here’s the thing: right now, nothing is more important than ejecting Republicans from Congress in 2018. If Democrats take the House in 2018, they can halt the daily assault on economic and environmental regulations and civil rights laws, begin to reverse America’s ignominious performance in world affairs, and elect a new Speaker to replace Ryan.

If that doesn’t happen, the damage done by 2020 may well be irreversible.

Right now, Democrats, liberals, moderates and sane Republicans need to focus on the big picture. We need to remember the old admonition not to let the perfect become the enemy of the good. We need to stop criticizing people on our side for inadvertence or insensitivity or less-than-perfect policy preferences, and save our ammunition for the people whose animus is intentional–people who pose a clear and present danger to American values and institutions.

We need to listen to RuPaul: When you’re under attack, when it gets down to survival, you have to pick your battles, and you don’t pick battles with your allies.

 

When Some Are More Equal Than Others….

Contemporary American society reminds me a lot of Orwell’s Animal Farm, where everyone was equal, but some were more equal than others…

The last few years have ushered in a long-overdue recognition of the concept of privilege: we are at least beginning to discuss what we mean by white privilege and male privilege, and the ways in which unconscious cultural biases operate to disadvantage non-white, non-male citizens. Those conversations are important, and we need to continue them, but I want to suggest that it is also time–indeed, well past time–to address religious privilege.

It’s getting out of hand.

Just last week, a legislative committee in Tennessee approved a bill that would make the “Holy Bible” the “official book” of Tennessee.

In Mississippi, the legislature passed a bill that “gives protection to those in the state who cannot in a good conscience provide services for a same-sex marriage.”

North Carolina recently “protected” good Christian folks from having to share restrooms with citizens of whom they disapprove, among other things.

Other states–notably Indiana–have passed measures clearly intended to cater to the religious beliefs of some (certainly not all) Christians about abortion, despite the fact that those measures demonstrably harm women.

Meanwhile, scientists continually fight efforts to introduce creationism into science classrooms, and civil libertarians oppose ongoing attempts to introduce prayer and religious observances into the nation’s increasingly diverse public schools.

All of these efforts, even those that have been repeatedly struck down by the courts as inconsistent with our First Amendment liberties, are met with a degree of respect that we would not accord other illegal actions. For that matter, these self-proclaimed “Christians” expect–and receive–a level of deference not accorded to atheists, or even members of other, less privileged religions.

As I write this, the Supreme Court is considering whether religiously affiliated organizations that employ people of many faiths and none can refuse to allow those employees access to birth control through their health insurance policies. The government has already bent over backwards to accommodate religious objections: the employer need not pay for the birth control and needs only to inform the government of its objection; the insurer will then provide contraceptives directly to the employee. The organizations are arguing that requiring the act of notification“burdens” their religious liberty.

In an analysis of that case, The Nation recently asked a pertinent question: Can religious groups simply ignore all the laws they don’t like?

Given their constant insistence on privileging the pious, it might be well to reflect upon the performance of our sanctimonious “family values” politicians. Those of us who live in Indiana are painfully aware of the damage done by self-proclaimed Christians with little or no interest in actually governing, but it is worth noting that things are even worse in deep-red Alabama. H/T Steve Benen at Rachel Maddow’s blog, reporting on Governor Bentley’s deepening sex scandal:

The Birmingham News’ John Archibald published a brutal column today noting that Alabama’s state government is simply unraveling: the governor is mired in scandal; the lieutenant governor is widely seen as “unfit to serve”; the state House Speaker is currently awaiting trial on 23 felony counts; and the state Supreme Court’s chief justice is Roy Moore, whose crackpot views have already forced his ouster once, and who can hardly be counted on to adjudicate responsibly going forward.

But they all go to church. And hold prayer meetings. And quote the bible. And (like Indiana’s Governor) they clearly believe that those attributes–not compassion, not administrative competence, not constitutional scholarship, not personal probity– are the qualities that entitle them to use the power of the state to force the rest of us to behave as they see fit.

We really need to stop privileging people who want to impose their beliefs on the rest of us, whether those beliefs are ideological or religious in origin.

We definitely need to remind these self-righteous theocrats that in America, wrapping themselves in religious dogma does not make them more equal than anyone else.