Choose both: the false dichotomies of the center

Teal Deer


Some people say identity politics cost Democrats the election. Some people have a lot to say of the essentialness of identity politics to leftist politics but are much happier if Democrats would stop talking about economic issues. I think people should be highly suspicious of both types. In this post, I discuss the connections between social justice and economic justice and why if you care about one, you should care about both.

Following the election, there were two main responses coming from what I assume is the center-left:

1) One common reaction was the call for more sympathy for the working class, in particular the white working class. Pieces in this genre include this op-ed arguing that the left lost the race because it was too eager to call people racist, which tends to turn people off, or this op-ed that argued that a narrow focus on racial, gender, and LGBT identity politics excluded the white working class and provided fodder for right-wing outlets to attack liberals for being out of touch and ivory-tower, and that the left needs to widen the tent. In short, the wing of Democrats that never really liked the place of identity politics in the movement quickly moved to pin the blame on identity politics and to urge leftists to jettison it.

2) On the other side, there was a doubling-down on the importance, the criticalness, of identity politics to leftist politics. I actually agree with 99% of what is written here — almost all of the writing in this genre (a) recognizes it’s stupid to think that white and/or working class identity is somehow not a form of identity politics, and (b) recognizes alternative ways of bringing in the white working class that aren’t just “stop talking about ‘racism’ that I personally don’t think counts as racism.” In other words, as a rule, pieces in this genre recognized that you don’t have to choose between identity politics and including the white working class. But many were still eager to present the two as incompatible, like this New York Times news piece, which implies multiple times that Democrats have to choose between, on one hand: populism, economic politics, cooperation with and endorsement of Trump, and appealing to the white working class; and on the other: keeping minorities and younger voters (presumably through “identity politics”). Or this op-ed (and general gleeful media furor) that interpreted “going beyond identity politics” as “class alone,” and conflated “good on economic issues” with “bad on racial issues.” Or more flippant comments that the Democrat party does not need to do outreach to Trump supporters, white working class included, or that used historical record to predict that any attempts to fold in the white working class would immediately be co-opted by Trump-style white nationalist populism, with minorities being shut out of the welfare package being promised. The conflation (pitting class politics vs. identity politics) and the defeatism that imply that you can only have one — pick!! — makes me every bit as angry.

While sometimes it is fun to watch two wings of the party I disagree with fight it out for dominance in the party going forward, it is more important for me to offer an alternative that punches holes through both, because I think people should be very suspicious of both of these positions, for good reason.

That reason being: Economic justice and social justice, especially in the U.S., are extremely tightly linked. You may think you can pick which justice issues to care about and which to sideline. If you do this, though, chances are you will not be good on either. Be suspicious of people who cite the need “to not alienate the white working class” as a reason to back off of social justice — and do only that — chances are they have no serious economic reform in their platform either, and nothing to offer the working class, white or otherwise. Be suspicious of people who trot out their social justice chops in order to attack economic justice platforms as inherently racist. For them, the people of color stuck in cycles of poverty are just a price to pay for maintaining a comfy capitalist system.

Let me give you examples of how three types of justice (economic, social, and environmental) are actually hard to extricate from each other.

Black Lives Matter is a racial justice / civil rights movement started by working class black people that has received broader uptake, especially within the realm of universities/academia (well, the general media narrative tends to focus on student BLM activists; I have no data to suggest this is actually accurate). It straightforwardly is a civil rights movement, as the right de facto being denied to various people, disproportionately black, is the right to life and the right to a fair trial promised by the Constitution. (For example, even in cases where the victim is in the process of committing a crime, execution-by-cop is a very clear example of our legal system and due process being short-circuited.) However, the racial focus of Black Lives Matter is inextricably entwined with the non-racial issues of police justice and accountability and economic justice / income inequality. People have correctly noted that many of the policy suggestions BLM makes are relevant to the interactions between police and white civilians too. In fact, it is my experience that the BLM platform, when name and policy positions are carefully re-branded so as to be race-neutral, tend to get uptake and support from white centrists, even when such groups are still spearheaded by black activists.

Another example of how racial issues and class issues tend to be aligned rather than at odds is exemplified by the Department of Justice investigation of the Ferguson police department following the shooting of Michael Brown. The report details evidence of racist attitudes within the police force, but also provides an analysis of the conditions that generally foster an undesirable tension between police officers and the group of people they are supposed to serve. These conditions laid out in the DOJ report are straight-up Sheriff of Nottingham awfulness — the city government set revenue goals, a set amount of which the police department was responsible for raising. Both the total goal and the amount delegated to the police department tended to increase year over year. In pledging to meet these goals, the administration of the police department (by evaluating police officers by the amount of tickets they gave out, threatening termination for low-performing officers, etc.) inculcated a culture within the department of competing to give out the most number of tickets no matter how ridiculous the reason. This incentive structure is best described as the city imposing a regressive tax on a part of their constituency that is markedly poor and powerless (a common occurrence, the DOJ report notes, is that tickets were hastily forgiven/waived if people threatened legal action). The result of this incentive structure is best described as creating a police force that views the people it’s meant to serve as little more than ATMs. Take away the racial dimension and this straight-forwardedly is a system of economic exploitation that conjures the image of Robin Hood.

Note that this economic analysis is not incompatible with a racial analysis. Racism thrives in conditions of dehumanization of an ethnicity. A police force that views the (mostly black, mostly poor) civilians it interacts with as money sources is not likely to have empathetic, positive, humanizing views of said civilians. In addition, racism is not just a predictable result, but a very likely cause for how this situation arises in the first place, and also why it’s difficult to get white people onboard the push to fix it. In this case, it’s pretty clear that racial justice and economic justice feed into each other to the point where REFUSING to address income inequality (for example, refusing to raise taxes on richer people who can actually take the hit) is what creates the conditions under which black people are less safe and more economically exploited.

The protests surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) are an amazing mix of racial justice, environmental justice, and economic justice issues all at once.

– Racial justice: The protestors are largely Native American; the land they are protecting was part of an older treaty that protects gravesites. This conflict echoes historical incidents where federal and state governments refused to uphold treaties they made with Native Americans. If you care about racial justice, you are anti-DAPL.

– Economic justice: The company building the pipeline does not have the consent of the community nearby, and yet are able to build it because they have a lot more power and money, and power and money buys you legal rights, private security forces, and the backing of local/state/federal governments. Their stake in the community is purely financial. Why the will of a company ultimately can trump the will of people inhabiting land affected is unjust. If you care about economic justice, you are anti-DAPL.

– Environmental justice: The pipeline is an oil pipeline. Oil is an energy source that contributes to global warming and, via accidents/leaks, can contaminate water sources and kill wildlife and sicken humans. If you care about environmental justice, you are anti-DAPL.

The fact is Clinton’s politics entailed throwing indigenous people under the bus, while the politics of caring about economic justice (as Sanders does) or environmental justice (as Stein does) did not.

Yet the Clinton campaign, at the height of unrest at the protests and after much urging for a public stand, released a statement taking an ostensibly neutral stance, but one that, through calls to respect “workers’ rights to do their jobs safely,” completely undermined the entire purpose and strategy of the protestors, which was to impede the ability of workers to do their jobs, full stop.1 By contrast, Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein were two of the few politicians that came out early and very strong against the construction of DAPL and in solidarity with the protestors. Either Clinton (and other Democrats) were apathetic about all three types of these injustices, or opposed one or more of them strongly enough that they weren’t willing to take a stand on this issue. You can maybe guess which kind of justice they were actively opposed to… Regardless of which one is Clinton’s weakspot, though, the fact is Clinton’s politics entailed throwing indigenous people under the bus, while the politics of caring about economic justice (as Sanders does) or environmental justice (as Stein does) did not.

The lead in Flint’s water is very obviously a racial justice issue. The majority of the people affected by the high lead content in the water were black. Like with police accountability in Ferguson, the victims are disproportionately black, and racism enables their suffering to go on for months without acknowledgment from the government. Like with the concerns over the DAPL pipeline, access to clean, drinkable water is an environmental issue, dependent on the ability of governmental bodies to oversee large-scale protection of the larger environment from contamination. In addition, though less obvious on the surface, the whole crisis of lead in the water was started when unelected emergency managers were brought in to reduce costs. They switched to a more corrosive body of water, which damaged the lead pipes and introduced lead into the water. This is particularly close to my heart because the same thing happened in Pittsburgh: a water utility, millions of dollars in debt, desperately brings in new management for the purpose of cutting costs. The result is a drop in the quality of water and high levels of lead in the water.

“What was the government supposed to do?” you might ask. It’s not sustainable to keep piling and piling up debt. Here’s why I think racial justice is not separable from economic justice or environmental justice. The ability of black people to drink clean water is tied up in the state’s ability to invest heavily in infrastructure (replacing lead pipes, for example) and to sustainably raise the money to do so (via taxation). Privatization and profit motive are not the solution, and it’s important for Democrats to fight back against this trend.

Regulating Wall Street was often criticized by the anti-Bernie left as being a niche issue that only noisy white college students and wonky socialist politicians had the time and energy to care about. However, the 2008 crash had the devastating effect of wiping out a significant part of black wealth in the U.S. As is unsurprising given the history of racist loan practices in the U.S., black people were more likely to be given the high-risk, high-interest loans that set up the 2008 crash, even when they were as financially stable as white counterparts. Without the money to back their mortgages, many lost their homes. This is part of a larger pattern of black wealth being wiped out just when they are beginning to accumulate wealth — the right to own property in the South followed by terrorism and Jim Crow; targeted destruction of wealthy black communities; the fall of Jim Crow followed by mass incarceration and the crash. The average wealth disparity between black and white families is huge.

So, how we regulate banks is incredibly relevant to the issue of racial justice in the U.S. Using accusations of white racial privilege to dismiss concerns about taking steps to prevent the 2008 crash from happening again is self-undermining — such dismissiveness cannot hope to solve racism in the U.S.

Drug and prison reform. So basically, in the U.S., the more you read about incarceration the more depressed you become. Listing everything wrong with the legal and prison system is a daunting task, but let me briefly overview the pressing economic, racial, and political justice issues at play:

U.S. drug laws are racist by design. Being convicted of a crime often is accompanied by disenfranchisement or being shut out of employment. Black men, especially those who have not graduated high school, are especially likely to be incarcerated, with the current estimate being a one in three chance over one’s lifetime of going to jail. Imagine one in three black men permanently losing the right to vote. The use of prisoner labor resembles a legalized sweatshop. The widespread awareness of incarceration as an arm of racism created by The New Jim Crow has propelled us down a path that ends with the uncomfortable and unavoidable conclusion that incarceration is a modern form of slavery. Slavery: the O.G. marriage of racial oppression to economic exploitation in the U.S.

(The cherry on top of all this terribleness is that the U.S. (4.4% of the world’s population) contains 22% of the world’s prisoners, #1 in the world.)

Finally, private prisons are on the rise in the U.S. In addition to it being a terrible idea to give people financial incentives for locking people up (that will definitely, definitely end well /s) this undeniably ties an aggressive anti-privatization platform with a racial justice program.

If you do not care about legal or prison reform, you are throwing black people under the bus.

• The first march I ever participated in was one for the Fight for $15 in Pittsburgh. Like Black Lives Matter, this extremely influential movement was, as far as I can tell, created and spearheaded by working class black fast food workers. At the very least, the largest part of the crowd I marched with that day fell into that category. Although there is a lot of overlap between BLM and the Fight for $15, the latter is race neutral. However, it is undeniable that the people who stand to benefit from it are disproportionately non-white.

• Finally, in my experience working with black-led activist organizations since the election, none of them are about fighting racism in the form of bigotry and racial attitudes. Here are just a few examples of things black activists are fighting for: police accountability (APA), clean water and disciplinary practices in education (One Pittsburgh), and affordable housing (Homes for All – Pittsburgh). These are simultaneously issues of economic (or environmental or educational) injustice and racial injustice.

Hopefully at this point, I’ve convinced you that there are many issues that touch upon multiple forms of injustice. However, it is also important to realize that there are times when different types of justice conflict with each other. The two camps I mentioned at the beginning are not complaining about non-existent issues.

The first camp is complaining about social justice that comes from a position of economic privilege, for example: students at [insert Ivy League that people WISH they had the chance to go to] complaining about lack of black professors and microaggressions from their classmates. They have a valid complaint. But complaining about it is not cost-free, nor does it advance economic justice. Affirmative action policies which de facto benefit smart, talented, rich minorities largely avoid addressing economic issues as well.

The second camp is complaining about how economic justice tends to flow to the dominant racial group and exacerbate the racial divide. Nice-sounding economic justice policies like jobs programs make things worse for black people if contracts overwhelmingly go to overwhelmingly white companies. Trump shows you can push a platform that combines (promised) economic and political reform with the criminalization of non-white people, and white people will go for it.

However, here is what I believe: despite the above being true, social justice and economic justice are correlated, not anti-correlated. Therefore, if you view one form of justice as an enemy that undermines the other, you will overall do worse on the one you care about than if you just cared about both. Care about both.

If you’re someone who suddenly cares about class issues, are you aware that the black working class denounced Trump? Would you care to talk a bit about the support of Trump coming from the white middle- and upper-class: rich white businessmen; the young white urban alt-right; the “libertarians” like Peter Thiel in the tech industry? If you’re someone bashing class analysis and the “privilege” (of white socialists + the Green party left), are you aware how hard and how long black, Latino, and Native American activists have fought for workers’ rights and access to clean water? Or how much they need those things?

So, in conclusion, be skeptical when people imply that racial justice has to be a casualty in the name of economic justice or vice versa. You do not have to choose between fighting for working class people and fighting for racial minorities. When you hear people implying as much, remember the ways in which different types of justice are inseparable. It is simpler to just care about justice in general — as long as you take seriously justice concerns, even outside the forms that you care the most about, you will do better by the marginalized group you care most about. And you will make society a better and more just place to live in.

1 I am unable to find the full statement. It’s possibly been taken down. I also want to note that another chilling part of the statement was its affirmation that the solution to DAPL should be one “that serves the broadest public interest”. If I were a racial minority about which the U.S. majority has in the past demonstrated callous indifference to its suffering (and I am), this statement would be the exact opposite of reassuring.


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