How to Reframe Anti-Discrimination Politics to Overcome Division

by Benjamin Studebaker

A few readers asked a good question about yesterday’s post. The question boils down to something like this:

How can we talk about discrimination–about racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia–if we have to show conspicuous respect for the white working class? Some of them are racist, sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic. How can we deal with them in a way that isn’t appeasement?

The people asking this question believe that we can’t fight discrimination while concurrently respecting the people who practice it. But this isn’t true–we can do both at once. Indeed, by respecting these people we can make our anti-discrimination advocacy more effective. Here’s how.

It all comes back to what I call “the core left wing premise”. At its core, left wing politics is grounded on a core belief:

People’s actions are shaped by conditions.

The right believes that individuals and groups are to blame for what they do. When the left sees poverty, it asks “What is it about our economic system that strips these people of the resources and opportunities they need to live comfortable, happy lives?” When the right sees poverty, it responds “These people should take responsibility for themselves.” When the left sees crime, it asks “What is it about our social system that is pushing people into lives of crime?” When the right sees crime, it responds “These criminals should take responsibility for themselves.” Because the right always thinks the individual is the problem, it can disavow collective responsibility for poverty and crime. To the right, these aren’t social problems, but indicators of personal moral failure. The left separates itself from the right by rejecting that view.

Yet we tend to reverse this when we talk about the -isms. When the left sees racism, it doesn’t ask “What is it about our system that is causing people to find racism attractive?” Instead, it acts like the right and says, “These people should take responsibility for what they say and do.” Because we tend to see the -isms as evidence of personal moral failure rather than as social problems, our approach to them is quite reactionary. This is what causes so many of us on the left to get so mad at racists. What we need to remember is that when we tell racists to “educate themselves” we’re no different from the conservatives who tell the homeless guy they see on the corner to “get a job”. We’re denying a collective social problem by pretending it’s a matter of personal moral failure.

As long as we go after racism the way the right goes after crime and poverty, we have no hope of making any serious progress against it because we fundamentally don’t understand what it is or how it works. Yesterday I talked a little bit about how it works–there are a lot of people who are white who believe that diversity isn’t benefitting them or people like them because their wages and incomes have stagnated in recent decades. We can reach these people by making sure that as diversity increases they do see benefits–white working class people will be less likely to embrace the -isms if they are doing well economically and socially.

In the 60s we made many major strides against racism (though our work is not yet done). This was made possible in no small part by the prosperity of that period–adjusted for inflation, GDP grew by more than 5% per year under Kennedy and Johnson:

us-presidents-gdp-growthSince World War II, no presidents have done better. The growth these Democrats delivered for white Americans made them comfortable and happy. This made it easier for more of them to see social justice movements in a non-threatening way. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson ran against a fiery, hard-right conservative–Barry Goldwater. But economic conditions were good, and so white people were much less receptive to Goldwater than they were to Trump. Johnson ended up winning 61% of the vote to Goldwater’s paltry 38%.

By contrast, look at the growth rates under Bush and Obama. These are the only postwar presidents to deliver below 2% growth. The white working class has taken a beating, especially in the rust belt states. When growth is bad, people look for someone or something to blame. The left traditionally offers the economic system as the target–it’s the fault of the poorly regulated capitalist system. The right responds by attempting to direct blame away from that system and onto individuals and groups. It wants to pick vulnerable targets, so it goes after marginalized groups with little power to fight back.

The best way to reduce the prevalence of the -isms in the long-term is to restore prosperity. When growth is good, people stop trying to defend what they have and start thinking more optimistically about how we can build a better world. That’s the climate in which anti-discrimination movements get the best traction.

Right now, growth is pretty lame, so we’re fighting an uphill battle against the right. The worse growth is, the more the right needs to push group divisions to distract from failing economic policies. To defend against this, we have to find a way to disrupt the right’s narrative. The right manages to convince members of the white working class that marginalized groups are the problem by encouraging white people to think of themselves as separate and distinct from the “problem” groups. It creates a distinction between in-groups and out-groups which leaves marginalized groups on the outside looking in.

We need to help white working class people see that these out-groups are not different from them, that they are all really part of the same group which succeeds or fails together. Unfortunately, our recent political tactics have had the opposite effect. They have only highlighted and deepened group separations and facilitated the right’s agenda.

We have put a lot of emphasis on diversity, but the consequence is that we are underlining and reifying group distinctiveness. We’re trying to get the white working class to see African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Asian Americans as different but all mutually acceptable. This is not very effective, especially in this economic climate. Instead we need to emphasize a sameness, a solidarity which cuts across these distinctions and erodes them, counteracting the right’s narrative.

The way to do this is with the language of citizenship. All Americans are citizens. Every citizen should be entitled to equal concern, equal care, and equal respect, irrespective of all other group distinctions. The thing that is the same about us is the thing that matters, not the various things that are different. Because we are all citizens, we are all part of the same collective project. Successes and failures belong to us all.

Emphasizing citizenship does not in any way diminish our ability to fight discrimination–it expands upon it. Consider for instance the Black Lives Matter movement. The slogan has, from the very start, rubbed a lot of white working class people the wrong way. They tend to react to it in two ways:

  1. “Black Lives Matter” is about emphasizing the value of black lives alone, or of black lives at the expense of white lives.
  2. “Black Lives Matter” implicitly accuses them of not caring about black lives, of being racist.

BLM is trying to fight discrimination against people of color. It has a lot of legitimate, substantive grievances that need to be heard and to which we must respond. But for many this message gets lost, because the slogan draws attention to group distinction. It encourages white people to think about black people as a separate group, and to think about black lives as a separate category. White people care the most about black people when they think of black people as like them. Because the slogan encourages white people to think of black people as a separate group, it actually discourages white people from valuing black life. Worse, it plays directly into the right’s narrative–the right wants white people to think of themselves as separate so that when the right fails to deliver prosperity white people can be made to blame out-groups instead of right wing policy. The more we emphasize a black identity that’s distinct from a white identity, the easier it is for the right to emphasize a white identity that’s distinct from a black identity.

Citizenship can fix this. The issue is not that we need to care about “black lives” as distinct from “white lives”. The issue is that some of our citizens are being treated differently by the state and by civil society on account of skin color, a ridiculous, absurd, and arbitrary basis for treating someone differently. All citizens deserve equal concern and equal opportunity to realize their potential irrespective of skin color. Wherever we see evidence that some of our citizens are being treated differently based on something arbitrary, we should do something about it to help them.

This kind of anti-discrimination argument–which is about collapsing distinctions rather than emphasizing them–pulls against the right’s narrative instead of feeding into it. Where they see distinctions among in-groups and out-groups, we just see one big group–the citizenry.

This can even help us on immigration. Why would we reject someone who wants to be a citizen on the basis of something arbitrary? The fact that someone wants to be a citizen of our society indicates that they want to be one of us, that they respect and value our collective projects and want to contribute to them. If they can do so, why shouldn’t we accept such a person into our community, especially if our acceptance can help them escape conditions of violence and suffering?

An emphasis on solidarity and citizenship in combination with a return to higher rates of wage and income growth would completely reframe these debates and take much of the wind out of the sails of the -isms. As it stands, it may be some time yet before we’re able to bring back growth. But we can begin emphasizing citizenship right away. When we talk to folks who don’t see things our way, we needn’t accuse them of -isms or treat them with disrespect. We just need to talk to them about what we all have in common and what we all deserve. We need inclusive language which reframes society along unifying group boundaries that favor the policies and attitudes we’d like to see, which gently encourage us to pay attention to the things we share with the groups from which we might feel distant.

We can start it off at the level of pronouns. Let’s use the word “we”. Let’s include ourselves in things. Let’s try to put the accusatory “you” to one side, along with the excluding “they”. Let’s try to see the whole and be the whole. It’s not easy, but if we work together we can do better. We can treat people with respect and fight for justice all at the same time.