Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Standing by the Sides of the Tracks


“I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” – Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson wrote those words in 1783 contemplating the enormity of the injustice of slavery.  Seventy-eight years later Abraham Lincoln assumed the presidency and reaching out to seceding southern compatriots, he struggled mightily against becoming the instrument of God’s justice:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Struggling over race is what Americans do.  The Civil War, the failures of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement, the fight over multiculturalism.  We struggle mightily, but, ultimately, race defeats us.  There has been tremendous progress, of course, but race remains the most important political divide in American politics.  Conflict over race defines, distorts and confounds almost every political issue in contemporary American politics.  Consider something as mundane as this year’s election for United States Senator from Massachusetts.  A credible and qualified liberal Democrat, Elizabeth Warren, is finding it improbably difficult to remove Republican Scott Brown from the seat held by liberal lion Teddy Kennedy for 47 years.  The reason Warren is running only neck and neck with Brown is that she’s a Harvard professor who has described herself as a racial minority.  Yes, it’s about race.  The struggle over race lies deep and implacable within the American psyche; it poisons our politics; it elicits not our better angels, but our most bitter demons, even in Massachusetts, even in 2012.  We all still tremble in the shadow of Jefferson’s dark reflection.

Teddy Kennedy never lost an election.  He was first elected United States Senator from Massachusetts in 1962, while his brothers were the President and the Attorney General of the United States, and he was re-elected an amazing eight times.  He was a proud liberal and he fought ferociously for minorities and the disabled, for education and immigration.  But his real passion, the cause for which he worked his entire political life, was universal healthcare.  For Kennedy the American welfare state and the social contract it represented would never be complete until every American could depend on decent and affordable medical care.  But in the summer of 2009, just as President Obama seemed poised to push universal healthcare through Congress, death finally removed Teddy Kennedy from the Senate.  And Kennedy’s dream almost died with him.  It was the subsequent special election in January 2010 that sent Scott Brown to the Senate, ending the Democratic, filibuster-proof, 60-seat majority and forcing Democrats to pass Obamacare through contentious legislative contortion.  The people of Massachusetts – one of the most liberal states but also the home of the original Tea Party – had sent Brown explicitly to kill Obamacare and also because they were frustrated with Washington’s broader dysfunction.  They also wanted the Democratic Party to know that no party or family owned that Senate seat.  All those messages were properly sent and received, and now, almost three years later, any respectable Democratic candidate should have no trouble reclaiming Teddy’s seat.  And Warren, Harvard law professor, champion of community, inspiring convention speaker, and “scourge of Wall Street”, clearly qualifies.  What almost disqualifies her in the eyes of many of her fellow Bay Staters, though, is that she claims to be 1/32 Cherokee.

Obviously, every election has its own issues and complications.  Warren is an academic, not a career politician.  She’s not a gregarious Massachusetts native like Brown.  And she’s a woman.  But some local politicians are convinced that the biggest drag on her campaign is the inability to put the Cherokee issue her behind her.  Here’s the background: Warren was born in Oklahoma in 1949; as a child she heard family stories that her paternal grandparents had not wanted their son to marry Elizabeth’s mother because she was part Cherokee and Delaware.  At age 24 Elizabeth enrolled in the law program at Rutgers University, which she completed in 1976; she taught law at many schools, including Rutgers, the University of Houston, the University of Texas and the University of Pennsylvania; she became an expert on bankruptcy and the finances of middle class families.  In 1984, she described herself as a Cherokee when she contributed to a Native American cookbook.  In 1986 she listed herself as a minority in the Association of American Law Schools Directory of Faculty.  Warren worked temporarily for Harvard in 1992, during which time that university, in complying with federal affirmative action regulations, listed a Native American woman as part of its faculty.  While Warren was back at the University of Pennsylvania from 1993 till 1995, Harvard did not report a Native American woman on its faculty.  In ’95 Warren went back to Harvard to stay.

It’s not clear if Warren’s family lore – which is similarly reported by siblings – is actually true; there is no documentary evidence. And even if it is true that she’s one thirty-second Native American, it seems that those distant native ancestors never properly registered as natives and therefore she can’t officially claim Cherokee membership.  It’s pretty clear that Warren genuinely believes both that she really is part Cherokee and that being part Cherokee has not helped her career.  She claims she never drew attention to being mixed race when applying for her various positions, including the one at Harvard.  She says Harvard recruited her and that her ethnicity never came up during the hiring process and, further, that she never knew that Harvard had used her to defend its commitment to racial diversity.  But even if all that’s true – which would seem to be the case – it doesn’t mean that Harvard didn’t use her supposed racial heritage for its own advantage.  Let’s put that another way: even if Warren didn’t deliberately use race to advance her career it still probably advanced her career.  That doesn’t mean Warren isn’t qualified to teach at Harvard, she clearly is.  And it doesn’t necessarily mean that Harvard felt the need to fulfill a numerical quota.  But it does mean that Harvard benefitted by hiring a woman they could list as a Native American woman.  Therefore – and the logic is inescapable – simply being a Native American woman can help one’s career.

The Brown campaign has acted as if all this is a character issue, as if Warren had known that she wasn’t really a Native American but was pretending to be so to get ahead.  As Brown put it in his first televised debate with Warren, “She claimed that she was a Native American, a person of color, and as you can see, she’s not.”  That’s foolish, of course, since many people of native descent appear utterly white.  The point is that Brown is accusing Warren of cheating, of pretending to be something she is not for unfair advantage.  He’s accusing her of passing.  In the old days one was considered black if one had any black ancestors; just one drop of black blood was thought to pollute an otherwise pure white genetic makeup.  Therefore, there were many who were, by the definitions of the day, genetically black but who looked as white as Rush Limbaugh, some of whom “passed” as white.  It’s hard to blame them for living as white, since life as a white person in those days was so much easier than life as a black person.  But times have changed, haven’t they?  According to Brown, now one passes for non-white.  Brown isn’t really criticizing Warren’s character, he’s criticizing a system that encourages such lapses in character.  She “passed” because Harvard and the entire multicultural and affirmative action regime made it advantageous for her to do so.

Brown tries to cover up by claiming, in effect, that he’s defending the affirmative action system, that he’s upset that a genuine Native American candidate was denied Warren’s spot because Warren gamed the system; he charges that she “took advantage of a status that was only entitled to people of true need.”  But his tender sympathies regarding the plight of minorities do not bear close examination.  His silly debate claim that Warren’s appearance means she couldn’t possibly have native blood does not exactly reveal any depth or sophistication in his understanding of racial issues.  He laughed along on a radio show when right-wing comedian Dennis Miller made a crack about sending a donation to Warren in beads rather than dollars.  And there was the quite shocking racial episode in which members of Brown’s staff heckled a Warren rally with loud Hollywood-style war whooping while miming tomahawk chops.  Yes, they really did.  

Brown’s campaign traffics in crude racial stereotypes but claims to be defending minorities.   What’s going on here?  When asked about the heckling episode, Brown gave this telling response: “It is certainly something that I don't condone.  The real offense is that Warren said she was white and then checked the box saying she is Native American, and then she changed her profile in the law directory once she made her tenure.”  How reassuring that he doesn’t condone the yahoo mockery of racial minorities by his own staffers!  (He did reprimand his staff later.)  But consider that to Brown the real offense is falsely claiming to be a minority.  Who exactly does Brown think Warren’s victims are?  Is he really worried that Warren is passing down, i.e. that she’s pretending to be a member of an oppressed group that in this limited circumstance has a small advantage?  Or is he worried that Warren is passing up, sneaking into the privileged life, as some blacks used to do?  If he really objects to passing down, he would speak up more about the troubles of non-whites, not mock them.  And there doesn’t seem to be any reasonable objection to passing up, since why shouldn’t Warren cheat a system that has cheated her merely because of her race?  He’s trying to have it both ways: It was terrible of her to cheat an immoral system.  Officially he condemns her for stealing the crumbs reserved to poor put-upon minorities, while he signals to his white constituency that the whole system is corrupt and they are its real victims.  What Brown really seems to object to is that Warren plays these convoluted race games at all, that she isn’t satisfied with being white.  For Brown, this is the real character issue.  She offends his white pride. 

There are perfectly reasonable objections to affirmative action.  For one thing, it demands legal definitions for its racial categories, definitions as silly and arbitrary as the one-drop-of-black-blood rule, a rule which to our enlightened sensibilities seems both so evil and so quaint.  If Warren’s great, great, great grandparent was a full-blooded Native American does that mean Warren is really a Native American?  What if it was four greats instead of three?  And do we make any distinction between biology and culture?  Was Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi Italian because his ancestors were Italian?  Would he still have been Italian if he had been spirited away at birth to Ireland and raised as Irish?  No, he was Italian because he spoke Italian, adhered to Italian folkways and identified with Italy, because he was culturally Italian.  Is Warren at all a Cherokee in a cultural sense?  If not, then she really is just as white as Brown says she is, regardless of her genetic makeup.  Her identification as Cherokee becomes little more than sentimental affectation. And has multiculturalism made race less of an issue in American life?  The question answers itself.  Affirmative action was created to undo centuries of injustice and violent suppression.  But it created a new – though comparatively minor – injustice, the denial in some circumstances of equal access to whites.  If being a Native American female makes it a little easier to get a job at Harvard then being neither Native American nor female makes it a little harder.  Affirmative action is not a policy well designed to effect racial reconciliation. 

The quite serious problems of affirmative action, however, don’t remotely counter the fact that simply being a white male in America, even today, has immeasurable benefits.  There may be some deluded souls who don’t find that bleeding obvious, but they’re in such deep denial that nothing could possibly convince them.  Warren was passing down, not up, whatever Brown or his constituents perceive.  But this shows why most conservatives, such as Scott Brown, have no credibility when objecting to multiculturalism: they’re blind to white privilege.  (Liberal blindness, of course, works in reverse.  They find white privilege glaringly obvious while denying the downsides of affirmative action.)  If Brown and many of his supporters really believe Warren is passing up then they must really believe that the class she’s passing into is a more powerful class.  They don’t just deny white privilege, they fear minority privilege.

But Brown’s rather visceral disgust with Warren (and, by implication, all of modern liberalism) consists of more than just white fear.  The other component is populism, the fear that there is a powerful class that discounts and injures the values and interests of the majority.  There is an elite who exploits us regular people.  Populism is the source of all effective and enduring American politics.  And the combination of populism and racial fear is as potent an elixir as American politics can conceive.  Though Warren comes from a genuine working class background and fights for the economic interests of working people, conservatives have branded her a snooty, intellectual, academic elitist.  The Brown campaign makes sure to always call her “Professor Warren” and Brown frequently called her “Professor” during their first debate.  Holly Robichaud of the Boston Herald mocks Warren’s middle-class credentials: “As a Harvard professor married to another Harvard professor, she may find connecting with middle-class voters a tough sell.”  Liberal analyst Simon van Zuylen-Wood writes that Warren’s occupation inspires resentment among both conservatives and “the historically Democratic blue-collar voters whom Scott Brown won over with a barn coat and a pick-up truck in the 2010 special election to fill Ted Kennedy’s seat.”  Brown’s coat and truck mark him as one of us, as “the king of townie Massachusetts,” as one local commentator put it.  Warren may be fighting for middle class bankruptcy relief against conservative politicians wholly owned by credit card companies, but she lacks a coat and a truck.  She must be against us.  She can’t even name any of the Red Sox!

The white working class has always been populist.  The central theme of American history consists of the white working class fighting back against exploitation by elites, from the Revolution to Presidents Jefferson and Jackson to William Jennings Bryan and the People’s Party to Teddy Roosevelt to Woodrow Wilson to FDR.  White working men have always been the heroes of American politics, the good guys.  They were the champions of freedom and equality, if only for white men.  There were two episodes in which white populism failed, and in both case it failed because of racial exclusion.  Those episodes were the Civil War/Reconstruction era and the Civil Rights era.  In both cases, the white working class was asked to expand their notion of freedom and equality to include blacks, and in both cases they refused.  The Confederacy was founded upon the notion of white supremacy, which the Confederates placed above patriotism. During the Reconstruction Era (1865-1877), the post-war period when the southern states were brought back into the Union, the federal government led by the Radical Republicans (today we would call them liberals) tried to integrate blacks as full equals into American society.  But when the North wearied of policing southern racial violence and withdrew its armies, the ex-confederates imposed second-class status – sanctioned by law and custom, enforced by brutal violence, justified by the most egregious bigotry – upon the recently freed slaves, returning them almost to the status of slaves.  The slaves had been freed but Reconstruction had failed.  And the myth arose that the fight for Confederate independence was a “noble Lost Cause”, that the war was a “tragedy”, a terrible misunderstanding among brothers, not a war to emancipate human beings from chattel slavery and white supremacy, not a climax in the war against Africans in America that had been waged for 250 years, not the failure of whites to open up their democracy to its most maligned and mistreated outcasts.  The notion that the Civil War was a tragedy allowed white populists, North and South, to return to their status as the heroes, the good guys of American history.  And blacks and other minorities paid the price for that return.  And so things remained for nearly 100 years. 

During that 100 years, however, populism made great advances – for whites.  There was the establishment of the welfare and regulatory state, first under Woodrow Wilson, then under Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Working people now had federal legal guarantees for working conditions, wages, retirement, etc.  And decades of labor agitation culminated in the passage of the Wagner Act of 1935, which protected the rights of workers to join unions.  Between populism in the form of a welfare state and populism in the form of labor unions, capitalism was tamed, was made to work for everyone.  However, these laws were generally written to keep minorities out; for example, when Social Security was enacted in 1935, it excluded domestic servants and agricultural workers, most of whom were overwhelmingly black.  And many unions explicitly excluded minorities.

But in the 1950’s black Americans fresh from fighting for democracy in Europe and Asia began to fight for it at home.  They demanded political and civil equality, refusing in various peaceful ways to comply with the racist and segregated regime of Jim Crow.  And allied with liberal politicians like Hubert Humphrey they pushed the federal government to enforce equal access to public services and accommodations, like lunch counters, hotels, buses and trains.  Populism had bestowed the good life upon the white working class, and liberals felt that it was time for that good life to be opened up to all Americans.  It was time for another Reconstruction.  But that Second Reconstruction failed as well.  No, that’s not quite fair, it half succeeded.  The Civil Rights Act of 1964 actually ended the Jim Crow legal regime and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 actually enabled blacks to vote.  And blacks and other minorities began the long, hard slog into the mainstream of American economic and social life (a slog that continues).  But race riots in several cities across the country in the same period led to a white backlash.  Whites became increasingly disenchanted with civil rights and with liberal policy in general.  Conservatives courted the votes of white working people with increasing success.  In 1964 Barry Goldwater became the first national candidate to run against the Civil Rights laws with the hope of appealing to white voters.  Goldwater won only his own state of Arizona and five Deep South states (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina), but this “Southern Strategy” was employed by successive conservatives and finally came to fruition with Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

The point is that liberals and the white working class became estranged.  Before the 1960’s American liberalism was about the interests of working people.  Pre-Civil-Rights liberalism was white populism.  But when minorities and liberals pushed for racial integration it split the ranks of white working people.  Many were ready to open up the blessings of American society to everyone, but many – most southerners, for example – were not.  This led to the liberals and the white working class to reject each other.  Liberals began to see working people, particularly southern working people, as backward and ignorant; they rejected their folkways and attitudes.  The violent hatred of racial equality shown by white southerners marked them and revealed them as unenlightened and contemptible.  This is the beginning of liberal elitism.  Liberals, in effect, told southern whites that they weren’t the heroes of American democracy anymore; this is what white conservatives really mean when they speak of liberal elitism.  Working class whites had always seen themselves as the heroes; indeed, liberals had been telling them so since the time of Jefferson and Jackson.  They were not about to abandon their populist notions of themselves as the regular people fighting against an arrogant elite.  But the more liberals looked down on southern whites as rednecks and rubes, the more southern whites looked upon liberals as intellectual, sneering snobs.  For 150 years liberals nurtured the populist myth of commoners against the aristocrats and then, circa 1964, they jumped right into the role of the aristocrats.  And conservatives were only too happy to make that case; that, not capitalists, but liberals – with their subversive education, their refined cultural tastes, and their racial sanctimony – were the real elite.  Liberal condescension made it too easy to turn liberal populism into conservative populism.  And this new brand of conservatism found favorable reception among whites in the north as well.  Southern conservatives, in effect, said to white northerners, “You are southerners, too. You are being oppressed by the same snooty liberal elite as us.”  The extent to which white northerners became aligned with conservatism is the extent to which they believed that they had become southerners too.

And it’s true even now.  Now we know what a grass-roots American conservative actually is: one who’s convinced that liberals dismiss his values and think they’re better than him.  A conservative is someone who bitterly resents that he’s no longer treated like the hero of the American story.  This explains conservative passion and it explains conservative rancor.  They’re angry because they know that they are the “real America” – they’ve always known that, even when they voted for liberals. But the rest of America doesn’t seem to recognize it anymore.  White working people and conservatives are actually not racist for the most part, at least not in the old-fashioned let’s-beat-‘em-down sense.  But contemporary white conservatism is based upon the continuing myth of white populism, a myth which now claims that small-town, religious, white folk are still the good guys; that condescending liberals are their elitist enemies who are too eager to disdain them and tax them for the sake of free riders, welfare queens and abortion-lovers.  They don’t vote conservative because they hate blacks, they vote conservative out of resentment, out of a desire to strike back and re-assert their heroism.  White working people hear Professor Elizabeth Warren describe herself as a Native American and all they hear is, “You’re not the good guys.”  Scott Brown wears the right coat and drives the right truck and they hear, “You’re still the good guys.”  That’s all they need to hear.

But, as white working people continue to support conservative populism they perpetuate the failure of the Second Reconstruction.  Their inability to see the horrible wrong and destructiveness of their past racism (and to some extent, continuing racism) hobbles and distorts their populism, and with it hopes for both economic fairness and racial reconciliation.  But liberal condescension is a big stumbling block as well.  The inability to appreciate the healthy side of faith and family marginalizes liberalism.  Liberals cannot consider themselves the party of inclusion while they disdain working class sensibilities.  It is this lack of inclusiveness which lends credibility to conservative charges of liberal intolerance.  And truth be told, liberals and working class conservatives miss each other and need each other.  Liberals have become alienated from American folk devotion and conservatives have become alienated from any higher communal aspirations.  Both groups have become pinched and narrow, clinging to their respective shreds of a once-great populism.  And the triumph over the last few decades of content-free individualism, with its blunt relativism, consumerism and materialism, mocks any sense of the community and solidarity that was once part of American populism.  Such individualism makes no room for heroes.  A liberalism with these barren cultural commitments is a liberalism unable to complete its mission: the inclusion of minorities into a broadly prosperous and harmonious society.  Liberalism must reclaim its heroism.  Conservative malign neglect of racial issues – cynically masked with the rhetoric of color-blindness – just perpetuates material and social inequality.  And the liberal response, affirmative action, is merely a band-aid on those wounds, and an ugly band-aid at that.  But only liberals can be the bridge between minorities and disaffected whites.  Only inclusive liberalism can redeem populism. 

In November 1963, when Teddy Kennedy had only been a Senator for one year, his brother, the president, was shot and killed.  A year after that Teddy’s other brother, Bobby, resigned his post as Attorney General and was elected United States Senator from New York.  Less than four years after that, in June of 1968, Bobby was running for president himself when he was shot and killed.  Bobby’s death marks the death of liberal inclusion.  Robert Kennedy was the last national figure who broadly appealed to both minorities and white working people.  He was the last symbol of that old liberalism, the one that wanted everyone to be the good guys.  Two months before Bobby was killed, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was shot and killed.  Bobby was scheduled to speak in a black neighborhood in Indianapolis that night, but when the news of King’s death reached him he was urged to cancel.  But he didn’t cancel; he spoke to the crowd that had come to greet him and he broke the terrible news to them.  Then, as someone who himself had suffered violent loss he appealed to their better angels:

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization – black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion and love . . . What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

After his death, Bobby’s body lay in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, from where, on June 8, 1968 it was delivered by special train to Washington.  Thousands of Americans lined the tracks, saluting, holding American flags, weeping, praying, mourning.  They mourned Bobby and they mourned themselves, and they mourned their lost hopes for reconciliation.  Bobby’s death cleared the way for the triumph of Nixon and the politics of resentment, it ensured the failure of the Second Reconstruction.  We all still suffer the pain of that failure.  We all still stand by the sides of those tracks, mourning our lost hope.  The most terrible wounds are those that divide us, that make us enemies instead of brothers.  Unlike the First Reconstruction, we cannot heal some of those divisions at the cost of aggravating others.  All those divisions must be healed, for God’s justice still awaits.

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