I originally wrote this as a Comment in 2017, before this blog existed. I stumbled on it and thought it was especially relevant to today, with a few minor tweaks….SS
As “good Catholics” cross themselves when entering a church, “good Americans” start political debate with an affirmation of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. The “unalienable Rights” that are “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” are acknowledged, followed by a dap to a “more perfect Union… Justice…domestic Tranquility…the common defence…the general Welfare, and…the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
Mainstream debate tends to ignore the Constitution’s “Three-Fifth Compromise” – the legal classification of Black slaves, Indians, and indentured servants, and Indians as 3/5 a person or nonexistent. No one discusses the Constitution’s assumption that that women are not worthy of political rights because “the Woman’s realm was inferior and private.”
Polite conversation shuns the idea that the Constitution is a rich man’s document, and silences James Madison’s words on class and politics. It is frown upon to thread race, gender, and class, especially when discussing power and how the Constitution has been used to deny Blacks, Latinx, Asians, Indigenous peoples, women, and the poor political rights including the right to vote.
No matter how “civil” the debate or deep the denial, history confronts convention. Below is a timeline of the lifting of voting restrictions based on race, ethnicity, gender, and class. It can be read two ways: One is an illustration of the “forward progress” of the “American idea”, and, two, as an example of how deeply ingrained white supremacy, patriarchy and classism is in our country:
1789: The Constitution of the United States is adopted.
1790: White men born outside of the US are allowed citizenship with full rights.
1792-1856: States abolish property qualifications for white men.
1868: 14th Amendment guarantees citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the US.
1870: 15th Amendment guarantees people of color and freed male slaves the right to vote.
1877: Reconstruction ends. Southern states use Jim Crow laws to suppress the voting rights of blacks and poor whites.
1887: Through the Dawes Act, Native Americans are granted the right to vote if they reject their tribe (this was considered forward thinking at the time).
1920: 19th Amendment guarantees women voting rights. States still use class and race to restrict the vote.
1924: Citizenship for Native Americans granted regardless of tribal affiliation, includes the right to vote. States still use class to restrict the vote.
1943: Magnuson Act allows Chinese immigrants to become US citizens with the right to vote. States still use class to restrict the vote.
1961: 23rd Amendment grants residents of Washington, D.C. the right to vote in US presidential elections. States still use class to restrict the vote.
1964: 24th Amendment abolishes the class-based Poll Tax. States still use class to restrict the vote.
1965: Voting Rights Act of 1965 protects of voter voting rights for “racial minorities, later applied to language minorities.” States still use class to restrict the vote.
1966: Supreme Court strikes down “tax payment and wealth requirements for voting in state elections.” It is not forbidden to use class to restrict the vote.
2013: Shelby County v. Holder. Supreme Court strikes down the Voting Rights Act “coverage formula,” which helps prevent states from instituting voter suppression laws and engage in race-based gerrymandering. States start using class to restrict the vote.
For most of this country’s history, wealthy white people have used race, gender, ethnicity, and class – often in combination – to deny people political rights, including the right to vote. This is not an opinion. It is historical fact. The proof is enshrined in the nation’s founding documents.
As race, gender, ethnicity, class and sexual-orientation have been used to limit democracy by keeping people down and divided, it would seem that a successful fight for democracy and full rights to all peoples demands organization across identity. Researchers Ian Haney López and Anat Shenker-Osorio have data that supports this assumption.
López and Shenker-Osorio write, “In empirical testing, we found that Democrats can prevail by telling a story that ties together race and class, calling out the right’s exploitation of racial anxiety as a tactic to divide and distract.” Moreover, class-based arguments (“color-blind economic populism”) are more effective when combined with race than centered on class alone (a finding that counters many Marxist and “class war” assumptions). Also encouraging is their finding that the race-class combo resonates with people across the political spectrum.
Let’s start with the Democratic base. López and Shenker-Osorio“define the ‘base’ as those who held progressive positions on racial justice, economic equality and a positive role for government.” They found that 73% of progressives polled responded positively to a race-class argument, while 68% were moved by color-blind economic populism. Additionally, 77% were willing to share a race-class argument with other people. Colorblind populism’s share percentage remained at 68%. (Note that progressives “made up 23% of the study’s national sample and was 56% white, 19% African American, 18% Latino and 5% Asian American.”)
López and Shenker-Osorio surveyed the “American Middle,” people who “find merit in both progressive and conservative views, tending to toggle between them.” Demographically, these people mirror the nation. They are 63% white, 16% Latino, 12% African American, 6% Asian American. The study found that the “race-class narratives outperformed color-blind economic populism across the board.” Depending on the wording, 70% to 67% of the American middle responded positively to a race-class narrative. Class-only titillated 64% and a conservative narrative appealed to 66%.
The study also found,
Overt mentions of race outperformed color-blind statements in rebutting conservative talking points. In one example, respondents considered this language: “We need elected leaders who will keep us safe from terrorists, secure our borders and prevent illegal immigrants from taking advantage of our country.” They weighed that against one of two progressive statements. One called for rejecting division and helping working people but did not name race directly: “We need elected leaders who will reject the divide and conquer tactics of their opponents and put the interests of the working people first.” The other repeated the first message, but it ended by naming race: “put the interests of working people first, whether we’re white, Black or brown.” In both cases, the base resoundingly rejected the Trump-esque message, by 79% to 16% in one and by 86% to 11% in the other. But among the nearly 60% of U.S. adults who are persuadable [the American Middle], we failed to break even with a message that was silent on race: 45% preferred the message promoting racial fear to 42% for putting “working people first.” In contrast, when we asked about putting working people first “whether we’re white, Black or brown,” the progressive statement won [the American middle] 48% to 41%, a 10-point swing in net approval.
That last point is important. It shows the power of combining race and class as a winning message, that Trump’s message falls flat when divorced from Trump and placed side-by-side with something decent. Also heartening is this finding:
Republicans require dog-whistling to win. In our head-to-head matchups, conservative arguments for cutting taxes and reducing regulations lost by big margins when competing against progressive ones about expanding economic opportunity and investing in people, even among respondents in red states. In our separate Indiana survey, for example, a progressive economic platform polled 40 points ahead of the conservative economic pitch. (In Indiana, where we had a smaller sample, the margin of error was plus or minus 4 points.) But when the conservative messages we tested included racially coded phrases like “illegal immigrants” or “people expecting handouts,” the reactionary messages beat race-neutral progressive ones among [the American middle]. Only the progressive race-class theme bested them. In Indiana, for instance, a dog-whistle message scored a positive dial rating of 66 among [the American middle], compared with 63 for color-blind economic populism — and 70 for the race-class message, spoken, we would note, by an African American man.
The reason people respond to a progressive
race-class narrative is because they sense that it is true that the
“reactionary rich” use “racism as a strategy…against all people.” Framed this
way, discussions of racism escape the mainstream definition of “identity
politics” (“Vote for me because I am [a minority]”). Race-class also gives
white people a reference point that they can understand and aren’t defensive
It is no shocker that white people and people of color perceive racism much differently. Polling shows that while 66% of people of color think that racism is a serious problem in America, only 39% of white people do. Only 56% of white people think that racism against black people is widespread. White people are even more blind when it comes to racial discrimination in the workplace or by the police. [Recent events – particularly Black Lives Matter/civil rights protests – have stated to change white people’s ideas on racism and white supremacy.]
There are two reasons for this blindness. First and foremost is that white people only experience what white people experience. They don’t personally experience racism against people of color. They might witness it. It might impact members of their family, but that is different from being a direct target of racism or experiencing institutional/structual racism. No moral judgement needs to come of this. We have no control over what we experience.
Second is that most white people don’t see
themselves as racist, and, on a conscious level that is true. White people benefit
from racism, participate in racism, act racist, and think racist thoughts (I
know I do) but it is not the overt, aggressive racism of a white cop shooting a
black child at play or burning a cross on someone’s lawn. No one gets a pass
for being subconsciously racist (or having implicit bias), but it is necessary
to acknowledge that much racism is borne of conditioning from parents,
relatives, friends, media, and culture. We live in a white supremacist society
and that is going to rub off on us.
Whites who don’t understand this dynamic react defensively when “white people” are identified as “racist.” White people take “white people” as meaning them personally. For most white people, “racist” is not a descriptor but an epithet, and they do not want to be identified as such. They believe that they are living good non-racist lives. They don’t personally discriminate against people of color. They don’t use racist words. They like “black music.” They like their black coworkers. They have black friends. They believe that they are doing everything they can do be a decent person and, consciously they are. Subconsciously, that is a whole ‘nother mess-around.
I became consciously racist at 13-years old, when I went from a 98% white Hubert H. Bancroft Elementary School to a 50% black/50% white Kit Carson Middle School. My transformation to teenage racist came about more because of tribal affiliation than any strong feelings about race. I was a white kid with white friends from a white neighborhood now in a bi-racial school with a long history of racial tension. To escape peer disapproval and avoid shunning, I identified as white and silently pledged allegiance to my tribe.
Our teen tribal mores demanded that we associate only with other white kids. We were to reject all blackness, except for whatever had been appropriated or claimed as white, such as rock & roll. The only black people who were okay were Jimi Hendrix and Phil Lynott. A black kid who liked rock & roll was alright, but he wasn’t one of us. Listening to funk or soul was so forbidden that I hid my Earth, Wind, & Fire and Cameo records in my closet lest I be called a “n– lover.”
Before I turned 15, I got into punk rock and chose to become The Other, at lease culturally. I rejected conscious racism and became “not-racist.” I thought that was that. I was mistaken. No matter how many black friends I had or how much I loved “black music,” racism was in my core. My subconscious was saturated with racist stereotypes and racial fear. I framed interactions through a racist lens, completely unaware of it, even when it damaged close friendships and preempted romantic relationships.
My ignorance of subvert racism was destroyed by five words. My brother dropped by the Loft with a black friend. I asked his friend why black people didn’t rebel against racist white people, something I had ranted about to my black friends at work. My brother’s friend replied, “I don’t know. I am not black people.” Those five words – I am not black people – challenged me to examine my racism. Without knowing anything about the subconscious or implicit racism, I started rooting around my insides to see what was there. Of course, what was there wasn’t good, but getting to know my poison was.
Through time and reading, I understood why I acted differently among white people than I did among people of color. I talked differently to people of color? Yeah, I did. I started cuing in on cultural stereotypes (there were a lot. My parents loved ethnic humor, especially about their own – Italians and Poles). I learned how media portrayals if black men as dangerous and physically imposing (or athletic) made me fearful of blackness. I realized that my racial attitudes would always be with me. However, I also learned that, now conscious, I could mitigate and control these things when they crept out of my subconscious. Now conscious, I could actively fight white supremacy and call myself anti-racist.
(My acceptance of my sexism came much later, not until my forties. My mom had raised my brother and I to believe we were feminists. To mom, feminism was not being told what to do, her boys doing their fair share of the chores, and knowing the importance of Billie Jean King! Over the years, I set my feminism bar a bit higher, but not high enough to recognize my own sexism. That realization came through crisis and harsh self-examination.)
Prior to my self-realization, if you were to call me racist or sexist or any kind of bad-ist, my defenses would take over. If you were a person of color or a woman, you’d probably see a stoic outside composure, maybe even a nod of acceptance, but inside I would be saying, “No! That is not me!” I rejected any need for self-examination or change. And if anyone pushed, not matter how gently, I felt under attack.
My thinking was, “I am not a bad person. I’ve read W.E.B. DuBois. I know why Robert Williams is important. Jo Freeman has had a profound influence on my thinking. I’ve met bell hooks. I’m part of the solution, not the problem. I do good things. I’ve felt pain. Yeah, sure historically, the pain of your people is worse than the pain of mine (but let me tell you about how Italians were lynched in the South yabba dabba babba…), but I suffer, too. I feel pain and rejection and fear and shame. I am alone and apart. My country has failed me. My government doesn’t care. I hurt, too.”
This injury, this unexamined, festering wound rots in isolation. Infected with rage and resentment, I negate your pain and become a victim in denial, ignorant of what created and perpetuated my injury, isolation rage, resentment, negation, pain, feelings of victimization, denial, and ignorance. Of course, I hurt. I am drowning in all this shit. I need a lifeline, any lifeline. Hate’s no good. It furthers my isolation and ultimate leads to self-immolation. I need something that leads me to an empathetic community.
That something, that lifeline is two ideas. The first is Dostoyevsky’s “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” The second is the IWW’s motto “An injury to one is an injury against all.” I understand these two statements through class consciousness.
I am a white, seemingly straight, fully-able man. But, for most of my life, I have been poor. Not desperately poor, but too often living from paycheck to paycheck, without a safety net, knowing that one misstep will wipe me out. I’ve eaten too much Top Ramen and PBJ because that was all there was to eat. I darn my socks and stitch the holes in my underwear. I have never felt financial security. When my parents die, I get nothing. Every luxury requires extra work. I’ve worked very hard, often for free or poor wages, and I am more-or-less fine with that in a “c’est la vie” kinda way, but I know that I deserve more. And, I know that you deserve more, whether you are white, black, brown, whatever ethnicity, whatever gender, whatever whatever. None of us deserve to struggle.
López and Shenker-Osorio write:
By moving away from conversations about racial prejudice that implicitly pit whites against others, the race-class message makes clear how strategic racism hurts everyone, of every race. It signals to whites that they have more to gain from coming together across racial lines to tackle racial and economic injustice than from siding with politicians who distract the country with racial broadsides. “The politicians,” a white guy in our Ohio focus group said, are “telling us you have to hate the black man because he does all the bad stuff . . . They’re dividing us so they can conquer.” A white woman in the group responded, “If we would all come together, the politicians wouldn’t have the strength they have.”
All we have is each other. When we recognize that and are conscious of our strengths and weaknesses, we are very, very powerful thing. We might not know that, but those in power sure do. That’s the god damn truth of it.