Demoralized Democrats have a road map for success in Trump’s America. It was written by Jesse Jackson.
Jesse Jackson first ran for president during the national farm bust of the early 1980s. Debt for farmers had exploded from $85 billion in 1976 to $216 billion in 1983, with little relief in sight. As Jackson laid the groundwork for his 1984 campaign, the crisis had become so acute that he often found himself preaching his “populist Pentecostalism”—to borrow a phrase from biographer Marshall Frady—to large audiences of angry white farmers in the Midwest. It was an almost unbelievable circumstance for an unusual candidate who had to make unlikely alliances if he wanted national traction.
At a rally in 1984, some of those farmers arrived wearing paper bags over their heads, to obscure their faces. It wasn’t until later that Jackson learned they were trying to hide their identities from farm bureau officials. “I looked out there, all these guys in hoods. Sort of a little moment there,” Jackson recalled a few years later in a conversation with farmer and supporter Roger Allison, as recounted by Frady. “But our people have always had more in common than other folks supposed—right, doc? We’ve both felt locked out. Exploited and discarded. People saying about the family farmer exactly what they say about unemployed urban blacks, ‘Something’s wrong with them. If they worked hard like me, wouldn’t be in all that trouble.’ Fact, more you get into this thing, more you realize that black comes in many shades. We’ve found out we kin.”
In the wake of Donald Trump’s surprise victory, demoralized Democrats have had a fierce intramural argument over how to move forward. Most call for a renewed focus on economic disadvantage. But some juxtapose this with a push against so-called “identity” politics. “In recent years American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing,” writes Mark Lilla of Columbia University for the New York Times. He urged a “post-identity liberalism” that would “appeal to Americans as Americans” with a press that would “educate itself about parts of the country that have been ignored.”
Lilla lauds Presidents Reagan and Clinton for their politics of shared identity and aspiration, which, if you’re attuned to the facts of those administrations, gives away the game. Reagan gutted federal civil rights enforcement, nominated judges hostile to the “rights revolution,” and elevated a conservative legal movement that, in the years since, has chipped away at the victories of the 1960s. Bill Clinton was an expert practitioner of identity politics, with a “shared vision” aimed at white Americans. As a candidate, he took steps to repudiate the black left. As president, he reinforced the trend toward mass incarceration and enshrined discrimination against LGBT Americans within federal law. To describe either Reagan or Clinton as exemplars of a “post-identity” politics is to submerge whiteness, maleness, and Christian belief as identities.
The fact of the matter is that Americans have never lived lives separated from the material facts of their identities. Jesse Jackson knew this. A liberalism that doesn’t, for example, engage with the specific problems of black workers or undocumented immigrants is one that can’t engage with “Americans as Americans,” if American is a stand-in for the citizens and residents who exist and not a euphemism for a certain kind of imagined American of decades past.
To be clear, what Sanders isn’t doing is dismissing concerns of identity and representation. He clearly sees that they are important. At the same time, he wants to make a distinction between compromising on racist or sexist or homophobic policy and compromising with a racist or sexist political movement. That distinction doesn’t exist in practice. Bipartisan legislative victories bolster Trump and his administration, giving legitimacy to a movement centered on white grievance and white anger. Working with Trump to raise the minimum wage, for example, invariably strengthens a politics that casts Hispanic immigrants as a threat to national prosperity or paints Muslim Americans as a threat to national safety. Building new infrastructure doesn’t change Trump’s commitment to draconian policing. For black workers, then, the gains that come with new jobs are undermined if not vaporized by a larger agenda that endangers and disadvantages. A working-class politics that leaves black and brown workers vulnerable to white nationalism isn’t a working-class politics. It’s a white politics for white workers and counterproductive to broad advancement.
Because Sanders puts those questions of identity in a silo, he misses this relationship and risks being co-opted by Trump. At minimum he is pushing an incomplete populism that doesn’t grasp how the experience of class is inextricably bound up with identity.
In our conversations around inequality and poverty, we often miss a crucial fact: Not all inequality is created equal. On average, inequality and poverty among black Americans (as well as native groups and undocumented Americans) is of a different scale and magnitude than inequality and poverty among white Americans.
When white workers attain higher wages and greater economic status, they can translate this to better neighborhoods and stronger schools. When black workers attain the same, they can’t, at least not to the same degree. Middle-class status, insofar that black workers can reach it, is less stable and more tenuous for them than for their white counterparts. “Even if a white and black child are raised by parents who have similar jobs, similar levels of education, and similar aspirations for their children,” writes sociologist Patrick Sharkey in his book Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress Toward Racial Equality, “the rigid segregation of urban neighborhoods means that the black child will be raised in a residential environment with higher poverty, fewer resources, poorer schools, and more violence than that of the white child.” Opportunity itself is redlined.
Black and white workers face the same kinds of economic disadvantage: deindustrialization, an eroding safety net, weak wage growth, and poor investment in needed infrastructure. But black workers (and other nonwhite workers) face additional challenges that move their disadvantage from a difference of degree to a difference of kind: residential segregation, discrimination in jobs and housing, and discrimination by lenders and banks, which in turn contribute to unfair and draconian policing, poor and unequal schools, and heightened exposure to impurities in air and water. They need specific and universal solutions. They need a politics that addresses all material disadvantage, whether rooted in class or caste.
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In his 1988 speech to the Democratic National Convention, the “Keep Hope Alive” speech, Jackson provided a model for a Democratic politics that balances all of these concerns—that takes identity and class seriously, that understands their relationship and interplay, that appeals to common identities and forges responsive solutions. “Politics can be a moral arena where people come together to find common ground,” Jackson said, before moving on to an extended and illustrative metaphor.
When I was a child growing up in Greenville, South Carolina, and grandmamma could not afford a blanket, she didn’t complain, and we did not freeze. Instead she took pieces of old cloth—patches, wool, silk, gabardine, crockersack—only patches, barely good enough to wipe off your shoes with. But they didn’t stay that way very long. With sturdy hands and a strong cord, she sewed them together into a quilt, a thing of beauty and power and culture. Now, Democrats, we must build such a quilt.
Farmers, you seek fair prices, and you are right—but you cannot stand alone. Your patch is not big enough. Workers, you fight for fair wages, you are right—but your patch labor is not big enough.
Women, you seek comparable worth and pay equity, you are right—but your patch is not big enough. Women, mothers, who seek Head Start, and day care and prenatal care on the front side of life, relevant jail care and welfare on the back side of life, you are right—but your patch is not big enough.
Students, you seek scholarships, you are right—but your patch is not big enough. Blacks and Hispanics, when we fight for civil rights, we are right—but our patch is not big enough. Gays and lesbians, when you fight against discrimination and a cure for AIDS, you are right—but your patch is not big enough.
That vision grows out of Jackson’s biography. A veteran of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference who worked on the Poor People’s Campaign in the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. A political organizer who worked to register voters and pressure politicians in both parties. An activist whose fights cut across class and race. Jackson gave a clear picture of his view in 1983, when he announced his first campaign for president, rooting his vision in the experience of black America but expanding it to include all marginalized groups.
This candidacy is not for blacks only. This is a national campaign growing out of the black experience and seen through the eyes of a black perspective—which is the experience and perspective of the rejected. Because of this experience, I can empathize with the plight of Appalachia because I have known poverty. I know the pain of anti-Semitism because I have felt the humiliation of discrimination. I know firsthand the shame of bread lines and the horror of hopelessness and despair.
For Jackson, a politics that cured inner cities and dismantled overcrowded ghettos was also one that rescued abandoned factories and deserted farms. It was a politics that, because of its focus on one of America’s most maligned groups, radiated outward to everyone who has struggled for dignity and recognition. Under Sanders’ rubric, identity and representation are separate from the question of a broad-based politics. “Yes, we need more candidates of diversity, but we also need candidates — no matter what race or gender — to be fighters for the working class and stand up to the corporate powers who have so much power over our economic lives,” he writes in a recent post for Medium. In Jackson’s vision, by contrast, identity and representation are critical. They ground a broad appeal that is attentive to lived experience, that stresses common threads without losing sight of the challenges facing each group, that sees diversity as integral to making progress on all struggles. This is a broad and inclusive liberalism—common vision from common struggle.
It’s not enough to offer free college or a higher minimum wage. A higher minimum wage still leaves us with high structural unemployment in black communities. Free college still leaves us with vast inequality in public education. If inequality is shaped by place, gender, and race—which is to say, if it is shaped by identity—then any effective approach has to address those constraints in particular. But this doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice universalism. It means we have to tailor universal programs to those particular constraints.
This brings us back to the difference between black and white poverty. People of all races face a sluggish economy and long-term unemployment, but this is especially acute for black Americans, and young black men in particular. They are separated from the labor market, a fact that reinforces a host of social ills, from racial inequality to incarceration to the production of racial stigma (people begin to associate being black and male with being unemployed). And that separation is worsened by a matrix of segregation and discrimination. For economists William Darity and Darrick Hamilton, fixing the particular problems of young black workers is a way of ameliorating similar problems for the whole. And to that end, they have proposed a federal guarantee for jobs. “Each job offered under a federal employment assurance would be at a wage rate above the poverty threshold, and would include benefits like health insurance,” Darity writes for the New York Times. “The program would be great for the country: It could meet a wide range of the nation’s physical and human infrastructure needs, ranging from the building and maintenance of roads, bridges and highways, to school upkeep and the provision of quality child care services.”
Critically, a federal job guarantee is both universal—it benefits all Americans—and specifically ameliorative to entrenched racial inequality.
For something less expansive but still universal and attuned to particular disadvantage, there’s the “10–20–30” amendment proposed by Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina. Clyburn, who represents a majority-black district with rural and urban pockets of concentrated poverty, has a plan for addressing those conditions using existing resources. Under his amendment, at least 10 percent of federal investment would go to communities where at least 20 percent of people have lived at or below the poverty line for at least 30 years. Again, it’s a universal program, targeted at conditions specific to particular groups. The program, as Clyburn’s office notes, would include “Appalachian communities in Kentucky and North Carolina, Native American communities in South Dakota and Alaska, Latino communities in Arizona and New Mexico and African American communities in Mississippi and South Carolina.”
As it stands, the debate among Democrats is torn between a moderate approach that disdains all “identity politics” (except those for white Americans) and one that hasn’t absorbed the deep ties among race, gender, place, and class. Both may win over some Trump voters, but one would do so at the cost of accommodating Trump’s white nationalism and the other at the risk of being blinded by its patina of populism. At the same time, there are thinkers who want to deny the reality and force of Trump’s white nationalism, full stop. This is despite the fact that Trump intuitively sees the interplay between economic interest and identity, pandering to white workers as whites and workers, who want racial hierarchy and economic revival, who see the weakening of the former as a threat to the latter, who exist in a society where economic advantage often follows the isolation and segregation of nonwhites.
But the history of the Democratic Party contains a model for moving forward, with an approach, honed by Jesse Jackson, that bridges the divide. And thinkers in the political and policy world have crafted solutions that reflect this approach. It respects the reality of the modern Democratic Party: a formation that represents—and depends on—the votes of women, young people, and people of color.
Mainstream Democrats have set their sights on white voters. But the path forward—the way to win them and energize those voters of color who didn’t come to the polls in 2016—might lie in the insights of black voters and black communities and a larger appreciation of how and why identity matters, in a politics of we kin, blackness in many shades. Against a political movement that defines America in exclusionary and racial terms—as a white country for white people—a renewed Rainbow Coalition is the only defense worth making.
Here’s What Economists
As an undergraduate at Brown University in the 1970s, William Darity, Jr. expected to learn the reasons behind the inequality he’d seen all around him growing up in the Middle East and North Carolina. He realized pretty quickly that economists were not going to be much help.
Darity, the son of North Carolinians, spent his first eight years in Lebanon and Egypt while his father worked for the World Health Organization, then lived until the age of twelve in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. During the Jim Crow era, he visited his grandmother in a town where a railroad track divided the city into black and white sections, marking two separate economic worlds.
At Brown, Darity was disappointed by how his teachers explained why some people reap the benefits in a society and some don’t. Most taught that some individuals and groups grew more prosperous than others because of differences in education — what economists refer to as “human capital.” Labor economists tended to say that educational differences meant that some people were more productive than others, which explained why some flourished and others languished in the long run. They believed that competitive markets would ensure that everybody ended up earning according to what they produced. Those with higher earnings were able to save more, and so they accumulated more wealth over the course of their lifetime.
Darity wondered, then, why disparities persist, even when markets are competitive. Black Americans, for example, are paid less than their white counterparts at every level of education.
Motivated by what he describes as youthful hubris, Darity got a Ph.D. in economics and set out to change the way economists deal with these issues. Today he is the Samuel DuBois Cook Professor of Public Policy, African and African American Studies, and Economics and the Director of the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University. With a group of colleagues that include Darrick Hamilton and James Stewart, he has developed a framework for understanding the inequality problem, which he calls “stratification economics.” The new approach —interdisciplinary and integrating economics with psychology and sociology —
expands the boundaries of how economists analyze intergroup differences.
“The traditional approach says that educational attainment is a consequence of parental investment,” says Darity, “but it doesn’t explain how parents can feasibly make those investments.” The explanation he puts forth is a blow to the long-cherished view of America as a land of equal opportunity, where it’s not supposed to matter who your parents and grandparents are or how much money they have.
But that, says Darity, is the key. In his view, the capacity of parents and grandparents to invest in their children is contingent on their wealth position.
“Parental wealth and the provision of inheritances as well as gifts over the parents’ lifetime can support the young person and give them a foundation for their own basis for wealth later,” he explains. “The greater the wealth position of your parents, the greater the degree of economic security that you experience during your childhood, so that you’re more likely to have better levels of health and a better sense of confidence about your ability to be successful in a society.”
The real driver of inequality, then, is not an individual’s level of education and productivity, but the resources that parents and grandparents are able to transmit.
“This has strong implications if we’re looking at racial and ethnic differences in the accumulation of wealth,” Darity observes. “This can be tied to — especially if we’re thinking about black/white differences — the long-term consequences of enslavement; the Jim Crow period; and social policies that created wealth for whites but didn’t do so for blacks, like the GI Bill and the subsidization of the purchases of homes with public funds which is disproportionately made available to whites.” [Black veterans had limited choices of colleges and often could not take advantage of the GI housing provisions].
Many social scientists have sought cultural explanations for racial disparities, rather than the structure of stratification Darity proposes. For example, sociologist and former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Labor Secretary under President Lyndon B. Johnson, argued in his influential 1965 report, “The Negro Family: The Case For National Action,” that the high rate of families headed by single mothers was in large part to blame for economic inequality. Darity notes that this line of thinking has very deep roots.
“If you go back to W. E. B. Du Bois’ study, The Philadelphia Negro, it kind of runs along two paths. One path is focused on the impact of discrimination on people’s earnings and their occupational status, but another path concerns issues surrounding family structure and the like that fall directly into the path of the dysfunctionality kinds of arguments.”
The cultural explanation is appealing to policymakers because it excuses them from the challenge of remedying inherited stratification through large-scale reforms.
“There’s actually something convenient about those arguments in the sense that if you took them seriously, it would mean that blacks were fully capable of engaging in the self-correction to improve their situation, so there would not necessarily be any need to rely upon social policy that would require the political support of whites,” says Darity.
But he believes that this ‘self-correction’ logic applies only in exceptional cases.
“Obviously there are always going to be individuals who are outliers, who accomplish great things with minimal resources. But if we’re thinking about patterns at the average, then I think one of the most dramatic statistics that we’ve discovered in the work that we’ve been doing is that blacks with a college education, that is, blacks who have a college degree, have two-thirds of the net worth of whites who never finished high school. That’s a stark sense in which somebody has taken personal responsibility, has been motivated, has achieved, but there’s not the same payoff.”
Some hoped that the Obama presidency might herald a new era of economic equality, but those dreams have yet to be fulfilled. Darity notes that Obama’s speeches emphasize ending a culture of victimization and the taking of personal responsibility. “That kind of message is not very different from the position that would be taken by the researchers at the Manhattan Institute [a conservative think tank],” he says. “Essentially what he’s done is to embrace a set of arguments that attribute racial disparities primarily to dysfunctionality in the black community.”
Darity is unimpressed.
“If you buy the black dysfunction story, then the key is for young black men to pull up their pants or the equivalent,” he says. “But that’s a very different policy from saying, well, we should assure all Americans a human right to work. Or even if we don’t talk about an employment guarantee, then at least the basic income guarantee.”
“If we’re concerned about black-white disparities specifically and we want to have a race-specific policy, then I think we have to start talking about a program of reparations [for slavery].” (Darity and his wife, Kirsten Mullen, are currently completing a book that details how a reparations program might be executed, due to hit the shelves by mid-2017).
“If we are not willing to pursue race-specific policies,” Darity argues, “then we need universal programs that are race-conscious in the sense that they will disproportionately benefit the most disadvantaged groups even though they are programs that everyone is eligible for.” One such program would be a Federal job guarantee.
Darity has also worked with economist Darrick Hamilton to devise a wealth redistribution program through “Baby Bonds,” which would help put Americans on more equal footing without confiscating any existing wealth.
“That’s essentially the provision of a trust fund to each newborn infant, but while it’s universal it’s not uniform. The amount would be contingent upon the wealth position of the child’s family. We think in terms of a $50 endowment for a child of somebody like Bill Gates, but a $50-$60,000 endowment for children whose families are in the lowest quintile of the wealth distribution.”
And because racial disparity in income, wealth and employment is so deeply embedded in the structure of U.S. society, he says remedying it will require truly transformative policies.
Asked if there have been improvements in the way academic economics tackle issues of inequality since his student days in the 1970s, Darity does not have particularly good news:
“Actually, I think it’s shifted even further to the right so that alternative approaches are even more marginalized now,” he says. “The ideological content of economics is masked somewhat by the high degree of technical requirements. So in some respects I think economics is even less open than it was when I was first exposed to the field.”
Darity has seen positive signs in the work of the Institute for New Economic Thinking, the efforts of economist Joseph Stiglitz, and the Roosevelt Institute, which recently put out a report drawing heavily upon stratification economics as a frame for analysis. He hopes to get a paper published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives on stratification economics that would expose a larger audience of economists to the ideas.
His work suggests that until economists deal with the reality of the structural dimension of inequality, racial disparities will not only be a stain on American society, but will continue to limit America’s broader economic prosperity.
The Museum of African American History will open on Saturday, following a week of protests over two highly publicized killings of black men by law enforcement officers. The museum will open with President Barack Obama ringing the “Freedom Bell” that was provided by the First Baptist Church in Virginia, USA Today reported.
For many, the museum will offer a unique look at the culture and history that African-Americans have contributed to the US. But for some, it will hopefully provide a history lesson to its visitors on the depth of contributions and work that the US was founded on.
“It’s a game changer, in a sense,” Reverend Jackson told RT. “The narrative has been ‘the whites brought us here’ in the most general sense.”
He pointed out that slaves have been in the US since 1619. After 400 years of people of African descent living in America, Jackson says, “we’re not the bottom, we’re the foundation. Bottom is where you end up, foundation is where you start from.”
“All those whites who got their PhD in history have got to come and get their degree recertified because if it leaves out this chapter, it’s not authentic American history,” he said.
He also pointed out that the museum is especially important considering the current civil rights struggles against police brutality.
While many on social media wring their hands over the riots in Charlotte and bemoan the departure protests have taken since Martin Luther King, Jr.’s time, Jackson offered a brief history lesson.
The 1967 Newark riots were fueled by police brutality, along with similar riots in Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles, he said.
“Dr. King concluded that riots are the voices of the unheard,” he added.
Perhaps this museum can offer some context on the current situation.