Clarity can often be hard to come by. This is one reason to be thankful for it when it comes one’s way. If used properly, it has the potential to become one’s personal or a society’s collective oracle – the future becomes less mysterious, and consequences are a bit easier to map out. We have such a moment now. The election of Barack Obama clearly did not mark the beginning of a post-racial America and, clearly, the American dream, from the perspective of class, is not an egalitarian ideal – one, it seems, cannot merely go out and do what one will just because one happens to be an American citizen. On both counts – race and class – our society seems ever more fixed in the past and in the status quo, rendering the future not so much uncertain as democratically endangered.
It may seem odd to reflect on an event that has yet to happen. And it certainly is not my purpose to predict the outcome of the 2012 election, at least not with respect to who will win the White House. Rather, I want to reflect on a state of affairs that will seem to persist no matter the victor – thus, in some senses, you might say I’m offering a prediction of who in the polity will lose. It should be clear by now, I do not mean to indicate who will lose the election, but who will lose as a function of the politics that have already hamstrung the discourse around that election. As I said, clarity can serve the role of oracle. I’d like to suggest some ways of leveraging this moment for the sake of our collective political project.
The facts that concern me are so commonly known or easily knowable that I will take for granted that most find them as uncontroversial as I do: racial inequality persists and is getting worse in many cases (against a historical back drop of American slavery and Jim Crow) and material inequality in general is continuing to widen at alarming rates. The question to be asked is: apart from knowing the facts, do we understand their meaning? And upon understanding their meaning, can we better understand the socio-political moment we find ourselves located in?
Going in order: what to these facts mean? It is a commonplace among a cross-section of Americans that there exists a very tight link between one’s effort, dedication, and what one can expect to get out of those from the American system of distribution. A remarkable outcome of the 2000 elections was that a candidate that openly did not represent the least well-off managed to dominantly command the votes of the Rust Belt. One supposes that such folks, despite being losers in the system to which they give their allegiance, believe that 1) one day, they too will be able to become winners in the system, and 2) that the system is fair enough such that if they ultimately lose, they lost. What about the issue of general class inequality? If one were to look through a copy of Jacob Riis’ early 20th century work, The Way We Live, one will be met by images of working class squalor, worse for those without a job. It shouldn’t be surprising given that he composed his photo-journalistic account in the midst of America’s decisive turn towards industrialism in the midst of the Great Depression. That event led to the development of an American welfare state – a system of material distribution such that no American need face existential endangerment. I want to acknowledge that many Americans still live that way. But I want to make my next point by actually being generous to the objector who might state that one would have to look high and low for Americans living in such terrible conditions. Let’s grant that point. Yet, as has become widely known, a remarkably small percentage of Americans (1%) control an overwhelming amount of the nation's wealth (upwards of 40%). One doesn't need widespread conditions of squalor to appreciate that in effect America currently represents something akin to a capital-centered oligarchy, which has real implications for politics generally.
The racial facts, I think, remain more disturbing. We don't even really need numbers - racial inequality, as a determinative, predictive category of social, political, and economic disadvantage is alive and well. Despite the fact that a small percentage of blacks have been able to access the halls of privilege, blacks own a small portion of the wealth whites own, are arrested at higher rates, according to Doug Massey, find their health endangered by their social conditions, and on and on. We can compare this to a striking fact feature of the Tea Party: for all their talk of being under threat by the "establishment" (which from many blacks' perspective, Tea Party members indeed are a part of), they have been able to easily access the halls of power and make their ideology known and felt. But, blacks continue to falter under systemic inequality. Maybe the contrast can be made more crisp, thus allowing a more fair reading of who is under threat by recalling how easily we referred to Katrina victims as refugees in their own country. The term ‘refugee’ is typically reserved to refer to those ‘from the outside’, those who ‘do not belong’, are ‘not one of us’, thus accommodating them requires extra-ordinary justification. I don’t think more needs to be said.
Of course, none of the above observations are offered in a systematic, and none the issues I am highlighting are susceptible to one, reductionist explanatory account, but, on my view, the above indicates that the facts mean this much: neither blacks or the needy are really the concern of our democracy, thus of our democratic project, thus much worthy of any of our individual concern.
So now, our second question: what do these facts say about our current socio-political moment? An answer to this question is, for me, essentially a reflection on the 2012 election.
It seems to me that despite recent counterdevelopments to the Tea Party, namely, Occupy Wall Street, our society’s fascination with material prosperity threatens to undercut the very force of the locution: we are the 99%. More pointedly, while I don’t doubt that the great majority of OWS sympathizers would like that fascination more suppressed around them and in their own lives, the fact remains that a great many people who might be willing participants in OWS, at the end of the day, have to go to the jobs they have, increasingly insecure as those jobs appear. And every step of the way, they are encouraged to spend their wages in order to keep America prosperous, lest the jobs that are around simply disappear. As simplistic as this picture sounds, some things really are basic and I see few ways for those of us concerned with material greed and the way it increasingly dominates our public ethos to extricate ourselves from the cycle of goods of which we in fact are a deep part. Given a marked unwillingness to hold the titans of industry accountable (thought they are not solely responsible) for increasing inequality, the poor will remain losers in the 2012 election, no matter who wins the White House.
And what of race? As much as questions of class concern me, those of race concern me more, and they have become more concerning each month that passes under Obama’s leadership. Whether he is being called a liar during his State of the Union Address, or having Jan Brewer’s finger being pointed in his face or having his citizenship challenged, it is clear that America is not quite at ease with the very leader it elected. To be sure, many Americans have genuine respect for the president, but so few are willing to call his mistreatment what is is, and so many are willing to insist that it isn’t what it is – the historical artifact of American racism. But at the end of the day, though Obama has aged a great deal in three years, he will be okay. What of the average brown American? I don’t need to predict that they will be the losers of the 2012 election – they already are. On the one hand, there is an increasingly strong movement, I argue, due to Obama’s presidency, to literally re-imagine Confederate history such that slavery was not really that big a deal, thus neither was race. On the other, mostly following the Tea Party’s lead, there seems a very real willingness to use Obama to extend a tired but effective racist trope: the black man as riding the good will and prosperity of the white man. If you doubt this, simply look at the recent campaign commercial from Congressional hopeful Mark Oxner wherein Obama is at the helm of what by all appearances seems to be a slave ship. And there is the small matter of Obama’s newly assigned moniker as our “food stamp president”. One doesn’t need to exercise a whole lot of imagination to make the connection between the trope of the underserving black person on welfare to our first black president as only too happy to give out the goods for free. Add this to the slave ship reference, and it seems that beyond blacks merely holding an unequal amount of goods, there seems a fairly self-assured perspective that now is the time to remind America of blacks’ lower social place and value. It’s hard to say for how long this strategy can be sustained for many non-blacks genuinely find it odious, but this much is clear – it’s been fair game so far, making blacks’ social value fair game. And as I said, clarity can serve as an oracle of things to come. While I wish it weren’t so, blacks’ are and seem poised to remain losers in the 2012 election, no matter who wins the White House.
I began by stating that on account of our society being seemingly fixed in the past (racially) and in the status quo (class wise) our future is not so much uncertain as democratically endangered. What that endangerment looks like deserves separate treatment, but this much can be said. Our political moment now is definitive. Obama's election was widely hailed as marking a post-racial era. As that proves increasingly false, blacks are likely to feel increasingly frustrated and alienated from the American system which they fought to be a part of. And while I have used Obama as a proxy, he is merely that: the situation around race began to deteriorate almost immediately after the Civil Rights victories. The same can be said in some senses with respect to class. Roosevelt's push for a welfare state has partially created the very conditions for resentment and negligence of the poor. By making all Americans who are better off partially responsible for those who are less well-off, that system has increasingly come under attack as the refuge of the unwilling and undeserving, and, I think, this marks the major hurdle for overcoming poverty generally. So two large constituencies have good reason to be doubtful of America's promise to treat them equally. One wonders how a stable democracy can be sustained under conditions of justified resentment and increasing alienation.