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White Liberals and Race


When I write about schools or other racial issues, I get a lot of pushback. People wonder why I keep doing this. Am I trolling? No. The answer is that I really need to keep pushing this because left-of-center whites are also pretty bad on race, as this Five Thirty Eight piece explores.

But here’s what we do know right now. In polling both before and even since Floyd’s death, white Democrats have been fairly opposed to giving reparations to the descendants of enslaved people, an idea supported by a clear majority of Black Democrats. And on a wide range of other policy ideas intended to address racial inequality, white Democrats are fairly tentative. (Republicans are much more opposed to all these policies across the board, which is why we’re focusing on white Democrats here.)

To look at these differences more closely, we focused on areas of American life where there is documented racial inequality. We then searched for polling on those issues. Our aim was to find the most recent polling available, in part to see whether views on major issues had changed in the wake of Floyd’s death, but for many issues, we had to rely on older polling, conducted before Floyd was killed. We found results in four major areas: income inequality, education, housing and the workplace.

White Democrats support increasing taxes on the incomes of very high-earning Americans as well as taxing the wealth of people with a high net worth, according to polls. Recent surveys suggest that white Democrats may be even more supportive of these ideas than Black Democrats.

That said, white Democrats are much less supportive than Black Democrats of providing reparations to Black Americans as restitution for slavery or to make up for past and current discrimination that African Americans have faced. That divide, which is consistent across a number of surveys, is telling, because reparations are clearly intended to benefit Black people specifically and in a way that, for example, expanding health care through a wealth tax is not.

There is division about more aggressive ideas, however. White Democrats are much less supportive than Black Democrats of forcing students to attend a school farther away from their home or in a school district outside their neighborhood to ensure schools are integrated. Those policies have some echoes of the controversial “busing” policies implemented after Brown v. Board and subsequent rulings that resulted in greater racial integration of schools but that also angered many white Americans.

In all, though, we see the same trend in education as in income: Support among white Democrats dips for more aggressive policies, particularly ones with explicit trade-offs or downsides for white people. On these education questions, the only polling we have available was conducted before Floyd’s death, so it’s possible that opinions have shifted. But if views on wealth and income policies are any guide, we might still see gaps between white and Black Democrats regardless.

You don’t say! Boy, I never could have figured out from my education posts here that white Democrats are really hesitant to take on their own racist privilege in educating their children. There’s more too at the post about other policies.

Now, before everyone starts crying, let me note that much of the same problem exists on the self-identified white left, which is extremely white, as the Sanders campaign, the people who write at Jacobin, the cultural productions such as Chapo, etc., represent. The fact is that whites there aren’t listening to Black leaders either. The historian Barbara Ransby:

We are seeing one of the largest uprisings in US history, and Black leftist organizers and Black working-class people are leading it. The video of George Floyd begging for his life and calling for his mother as Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, kneeled on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds made Floyd this generation’s Emmett Till. When white Americans watched that scene of unchecked racism, state power, and the toxic masculinity that permeates police culture, they had a choice: to allow that cop to speak for them or to hit the streets as part of a movement against white supremacy and police repression. Millions across the world opted for the latter.

This is not like the 1960s. White people marched in civil rights demonstrations, formed committees on interracial cooperation, and joined with the Black freedom movement, but the fire this time is hotter. We did not see this many simultaneous protests that were this large and this diverse. We also see mass militancy and the willingness of large numbers of people to take risks. During a dangerous pandemic, people are facing down tear gas, rubber bullets, and police batons. While protesters hold up the simple message “Black Lives Matter,” organizers in the Movement for Black Lives make clear that this fight is as much about ending racial capitalism as it is anything else.

The white left needs to understand that this is what class struggle in the 21st century looks like. To deny that and reduce the protests to an “identitarian” impulse is self-defeating to any serious left project for systemic change. Black poor and working-class people experience capitalism and white supremacy as intertwined: Police violence, targeted mass incarceration, and social and economic abandonment are linked. The left loses strength and credibility if it pretends that there is a colorblind class experience.

In his 1991 book, The Wages of Whiteness, historian David Roediger describes how the white working class evolved in juxtaposition to enslaved Black labor. White supremacy was a part of the psychological wage that was paid to buy the loyalty and shape the consciousness of white workers in the antebellum period, and that legacy carried forward. White workers might have been poor, but at least they were not n_____s. White workers were given a kind of caste distinction with material benefits and the social power to violate, harass, and kill Black people. For much of US history, policing was a white man’s profession, originating in part out of the slave catchers of the Old South. The psychological wage of whiteness can be read into the face of Chauvin as he looked at the cell phone camera while he murdered a handcuffed, unarmed Black man in broad daylight. Unmoved, unaccountable, and fearing no one, he projected the message: “I am empowered to do this.”

Yet a sector of the white left remains in stubborn denial about the centrality of Black struggle and Black leadership to any successful and sustainable movement for radical change. There are two versions of this argument. One clings to the notion that so-called identity politics are divisive and that the left should focus on economic platforms that can unite the entire working class. The second is an updated version that argues that systemic racism did exist but with the end of de jure racism that all changed. Supporters of these arguments lump together all Black political voices as identitarian if they foreground the fight against racism. They ignore the Black left voices that have argued against narrow identity politics, bourgeois Black nationalism, mainstream integrationism, and class-biased representational politics. From the Combahee River Collective to the Black Radical Congress to many of today’s organizers, Black leftists, especially Black left feminists, have never pushed a classless race analysis, or a raceless or genderless class analysis.

This is a pretty direct shot at the Bernie tankies who really really really don’t want to talk about race directly. Ransby’s book on Ella Baker is one of the best books on organizing written in the last couple of decades.

The fact of the matter is that nearly all white people are racist. Maybe all white people are racist. It’s not “I’m racist/not racist.” Racism in a continuum. We all suffer from it. It’s central to the white experience. The question is what you are going to do about it. Voting for Democrats is not a solution because we know that there’s lots of racism among white Democratic voters and thus white Democratic politicians too. That doesn’t mean they are the same as Republicans–obviously Republicans are more racist. But it’s not an either/or. The questions we have to ask ourselves is what to do about that. The first step is obviously admitting you have a problem. The second is to listen to Black leaders and follow them, even if it means personal discomfort. The polling itself suggests this is a huge problem. We have to face it and deal with it. And yes, that includes maybe not moving to the “good” school by which we mean little Maddie and Connor might have to be around poor people of color.

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