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“Ronald Reagan Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”: Why It’s High Time Liberals Stop Tiptoeing Around Race

Earlier this week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, along with a gaggle of bored reporters and some boldfaced names in the progressive movement, unveiled a “Progressive Agenda to Combat Income Inequality.” Much like the media event that accompanied its unveiling, the agenda is supposed to be understood as a kind of 21st-century, liberal version of the storied “Contract with America,” the PR stunt that, as legend (erroneously) has it, rocketed Newt Gingrich and the Republican Party to power after the 1994 midterm elections. As my colleague Joan Walsh reported on Thursday, this backward-looking attempt to lay out a forward-looking platform for the Democratic Party did not go entirely according to plan.

Which is not to say it was a failure. In fact, for a photo-op held during a non-election year in May and headlined by a relatively unknown local politician, the unveiling of the agenda probably got more attention than it deserved. Even so, as Joan relayed from the scene, there was some tension at the event — and not only because President Obama’s hard sell of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is driving some liberals to distraction while making others defensive. Sure, the agenda does call on lawmakers to “[o]ppose trade deals that hand more power to corporations at the expense of American jobs, workers’ rights, and the environment,” which is basically how the TPP is described by its foes. But that discord was for the most part kept under the surface.

The real reason de Blasio’s stab at playing the role of Progressive Moses was a bit awkward (despite going much better for him than it did for Ed Miliband) is knottier and harder to ignore. And it didn’t only trip up Hizzoner, but also marred a same-day Roosevelt Institute event on “rewriting the rules” of the economy, which was keynoted by no less a figure than Sen. Elizabeth Warren. It’s an issue that’s long dogged the American left, and the United States more generally, and it’s one that will not go away, no matter how fervently everyone may wish. It is, of course, the issue of race; and as these D.C. left-wing confabs showed, it will dash any hope of a liberal future unless the “professional left” gets deathly serious about it — and quick.

If you haven’t read Joan’s piece (which you really should), here’s a quick summary of how race wound up exposing the fault lines of the left at two events that were supposed to be about unity of purpose. Despite American politics becoming increasingly concentrated over the past two years on issues of mass incarceration and police brutality — which both have much to do with the legacy of white supremacy and the politics of race — neither de Blasio’s agenda nor the Roosevelt Institute’s report spend much time on reforming criminal justice. To their credit, folks from both camps have agreed that this was a mistake and have promised to redress it in the future. Still, it was quite an oversight — and a shame, too, because it justifiably distracted from an agenda and a report that were both chock-full of good ideas.

I wasn’t in the room when de Blasio’s agenda or the Roosevelt Institute’s report were created, but I feel quite confident in saying that the mistake here was not a result of prejudice or thoughtlessness or even conscious timidity. I suspect instead that ingrained habits and knee-jerk reflexes — born from coming of age, at least politically, in the Reagan era — are more likely to blame. Because while the radical left has been talking about and organizing around racial injustices for decades, mainstream American liberalism, the kind of liberalism that is comfortably within the Democratic Party mainstream, is much less familiar with explicitly integrating race into its broader vision.

Let me try to put some meat on those bones with a concrete example also taken from earlier in the week. On Tuesday, President Obama joined the Washington Post’s E. J. Dionne, the American Enterprise Institute’s Arthur Brooks, and Harvard’s Robert Putnam at Georgetown University for a public conversation about poverty. And while you’d expect race to come up — what with the African-American poverty rate being nearly three times that of whites, the African-American unemployment rate being more than two times that of whites, and the African-American median household income being barely more than half that of whites — you would be incorrect. As the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates noted in response to this strange conversation, “the word ‘racism’ does not appear in the transcript once.”

Again, it strikes me as unlikely that simple bigotry is the reason. A more probable explanation is that mainstream American liberals like Obama and Dionne (Brooks is a conservative and Putnam is not explicitly political) have become so used to tiptoeing around white Americans’ racial anxieties that they cannot stop without a conscious effort. For the past 30-plus years, mainstream liberalism has tried to address racial injustice by focusing on the related but distinct phenomenon of economic injustice. The strategy, as Coates puts it, has been to “talk about class and hope no one notices” the elephant in the room, which is race. And for much of that time, one could at least make a case that the strategy worked.

But as I’ve been hammering on lately in pieces about Hillary Clinton, the ’90s are over. What made political sense in 1996 doesn’t make nearly as much sense today. Like the Democratic Party coalition, the country is not as white as it used to be. And the young Americans whose backing liberals will need to push the Democrats and the country to the left are the primary reason. If it was always true that the progressive movement could not afford to take the support of non-white Americans for granted, it’s exponentially more true now, when the energy and vitality of the progressive movement is so overwhelmingly the product of social movements — like the Fight for $15 or #BlackLivesMatter — driven by people of color.

As Hillary Clinton seems to understand, a key component of smart politics is to meet your voters and your activists where they are, rather than where history or the conventional wisdom tells you they should be. For the broader progressive movement, that means shaking off the learned habits of the recent past — and, more specifically, overcoming the fear that talking forthrightly about unavoidably racial problems, like mass incarceration, will scare away too many white voters to win. Economic and racial injustice have always been seamlessly interconnected in America; but as leading progressives learned this week, the time when liberals could talk about class but whisper about race is coming to an end.

 

By: Elias Isquith, Salon, May 16, 2015

May 18, 2015 Posted by | Bill de Blasio, Democrats, Racism | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Why Are Conservatives Condemning Cliven Bundy?”: Yikes! He’s Openly Espousing Long Held Conservative Principles

Republicans who praised Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy for standing up to the tyranny of the federal government are sprinting away from him following Bundy’s remarks suggesting blacks were better off under slavery “picking cotton.”

“I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy?” Bundy said in remarks first reported by the New York Times. “They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

Bundy recently became a hero to some on the right after officials from the Bureau of Land Management confiscated some of his cattle, because for 20 years he’s refused to pay fees for grazing his herd on land owned by the federal government. Hundreds of gun-toting supporters rallied to Bundy’s side, and a stand-off with federal officials ended with the feds releasing his cattle. Fox News has devoted nearly five hours of effusive prime time coverage to Bundy, pundits at conservative publications like National Review likened him to George Washington and Mahatma Gandhi. Praise was not unanimous, some conservative outlets like the Weekly Standard called him lawless.

It’s perfectly consistent to believe the federal government owns too much land and also believe Bundy’s remarks are offensive. Nevertheless, Bundy’s central point – that black poverty is less a legacy of two hundred years of slavery and institutionalized racism than the welfare state – is a notion conservative speakers have espoused and conservative audiences have applauded for years.

Former Florida Republican Rep. Allen West wrote in his recent book that “the Great Society has left a legacy of economic dependence, a new form of slavery, and to me, a far more dangerous one, because it destroys the will and determination to excel.” Aging former rock star and Republican campaign surrogate Ted Nugent once wrote that “President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society” would do “more damage, cause more harm and become responsible for more destruction to black America than the evils of slavery and the KKK combined.” Conservative columnist Thomas Sowell wrote that ”The black family, which had survived centuries of slavery and discrimination, began rapidly disintegrating in the liberal welfare state that subsidized unwed pregnancy and changed welfare from an emergency rescue to a way of life.”

Sometimes the Jim Crow South is substituted for slavery, like when Duck Dynasty star and last year’s conservative pop culture martyr Phil Robertson said that ”Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”

This all trickles down from somewhere. Slavery analogies are common among conservative figures like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, and it’s one of the reasons many conservatives have fallen in love with Ben Carson. In Washington, the critique of the welfare state is finessed into a more sophisticated argument that lacks references to slavery, and where race is usually discussed through euphemism or not at all. That’s when we begin to hear things like Rep. Paul Ryan speaking of “generations of men” in “inner cities” who don’t know “the value and the culture of work.” Then again, sometimes you have multimillionaire former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney railing against the “gifts” Barack Obama promised to “the African-American community, the Hispanic community and young people.”

At best, these kinds of statements combine a genuine desire to sympathize with the black poor with many conservatives’ pre-existing ideological views about government. At worst, they reflect ancient myths about black people that predate the welfare state and reassure white conservative audiences of their own innocence when it comes to racial disparities–not to mention a startling blindness about the brutal realities of chattel slavery.

Bundy has absorbed the conservative critique of the welfare state and combined it with his own perceptions about black people. But it’s no small irony that Bundy is freeloading on public land while railing against goodies the federal government doles out to shiftless blacks.Though Bundy himself may not realize it, he’s exemplifying one of the eternal paradoxes of the American welfare state – that government assistance is only a mark of shame and indolence when other people get it, especially if those “other people” are born into poverty rather than wealth. Naturally, it doesn’t occur to Bundy that two decades of grazing his herd for free on land he doesn’t own hasn’t turned him into someone who can’t work for a living.

Even as white people enjoyed an explicitly privileged status in the U.S. from the nation’s birth until the civil rights act in 1964 and the voting rights act in 1965, somehow they found a way to make do even with all the extra help.

In fact, before the modern welfare state even existed, there were white people who complained about black people being reliant on it.

As historian Eric Foner writes in Reconstruction,  when radical Republicans in Congress considered redistributing land owned by defeated Confederates to former slaves, their more moderate comrades offered arguments like “for the government to give blacks land would be an act of ‘mistaken kindness’ that would prevent them from learning ‘the habits of free workingmen.” Freedmen were begging for land so they could work it for themselves instead of being forced to work the land of their former masters for pitiable wages–former masters who had grown wealthy on generations of slaves’ uncompensated labor. Still, opponents of land redistribution believed this would make blacks lazy.

Officials at the Freedmen’s Bureau, charged with managing the aftermath of emancipation in the South, held an “assumption that blacks wished to be dependent on the government” that “persisted in the face of evidence that the black community itself, wherever possible, shouldered the task of caring for orphans, the aged, and the destitute, or the fact that in many localities more whites than blacks received Bureau aid.”

The conservative critique of the welfare state on the merits is severable from ancient racist assumptions about black people. But while Republicans are rushing to condemn Bundy for his remarks, they might take a moment to consider why, exactly, he put them together so comfortably.

 

By: Adam Serwer, MSNBC Blog, April 25, 2014

April 28, 2014 Posted by | Cliven Bundy, Conservatives, Racism | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

   

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