Race and the “hardworking middle class”: Obama’s Farewell Address

Posted on February 20, 2017. Filed under: Economics, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , , |

Hello and welcome to post four in our close reading of President Obama’s farewell speech, now available at The New York Times since it has been ousted from whitehouse.gov. We left off in our last post promising to get to President Obama’s frank address of race, so let’s begin.

There’s a second threat to our democracy. And this one is as old as our nation itself.

After my election there was talk of a post-racial America. And such a vision, however well intended, was never realistic. Race remains a potent…

(APPLAUSE)

… and often divisive force in our society.

Now I’ve lived long enough to know that race relations are better than they were 10 or 20 or 30 years ago, no matter what some folks say.

(APPLAUSE)

You can see it not just in statistics. You see it in the attitudes of young Americans across the political spectrum. But we’re not where we need to be. And all of us have more work to do.

—The last comment is important. Older members of the HP who describe their childhoods in the 1970s to teenager today may as well be talking about another planet. While it’s true that hidden racism is no better than outright racism, it’s easy to forget what outright racism represents: a consensus that there’s nothing wrong with it. Overt racism is a sign that people feel comfortable expressing racism; they don’t expect anyone to challenge or reproach them. In America 50 years ago, it was okay to be openly, outrageously racist. In America today, it isn’t, because those 50 years were spent stripping away the social justifications of and legal supports for racism. The biological arguments for racism, the “oh come on, it’s just a joke” arguments for racism, the “this is the way it’s always been” arguments, the “this is how God intended” arguments—all were at last relentlessly, righteously assaulted as the nation pushed to live up to its mandate of liberty and justice for all.

But, as the president says, that doesn’t mean racism ended. Racism will never end. It’s part of human nature. And that means the fight against racism must never end. We have to rise above our nature. All of us will always have more work to do, but if we do it, we will get closer to being free of racism, as close as it is possible to come. We cannot afford to have the work of the last 50 years undone by anti-Americans who want to go back to the old days. Their mythical view of an all-white America that was happy and strong and rich would be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous to this nation.

If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and an undeserving minority, then workers of all shades are going to be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.

—This single sentence says so much. Here the president is frank about how neo-conservatives and white supremacist/fascists do indeed frame every economic issue. This began with Reagan. His 1984 “Morning again in America” ad (you can find it easily on YouTube) was 90 seconds of showing only white Americans while a voiceover talked about hardworking people buying houses and getting married and thriving. (Yes, for exactly two seconds a black and a Latino child are shown watching an American flag being raised. But apparently when they grow up these non-white children will not contribute to America’s wealth, strength, and happiness.) Since then, “hardworking” and “middle-class” have come to be code words for “white” and “native-born”. Anyone who isn’t hardworking and middle-class is a non-white criminal. In the last presidential campaign, these ceased to be unspoken codes, as neo-conservatives and fascists and other Trump supporters applauded his description of Mexicans, Muslims, and other non-white immigrants as criminals, and stood by Trump’s refusal to call the KKK a hate/terrorist/white supremacist group.

If we’re unwilling to invest in the children of immigrants, just because they don’t look like us, we will diminish the prospects of our own children — because those brown kids will represent a larger and larger share of America’s workforce.

(APPLAUSE)

And we have shown that our economy doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. Last year, incomes rose for all races, all age groups, for men and for women.

So if we’re going to be serious about race going forward, we need to uphold laws against discrimination — in hiring, and in housing, and in education, and in the criminal justice system.

That is what our Constitution and highest ideals require.

—A loud minority of Americans want a zero-sum game. They feel that any and every advance by people unlike them (non-white, immigrant) comes only at their expense. If anyone else wins, it’s because they lose. That’s why they want to repeal laws against discrimination, ironically by claiming those laws discriminate against whites/white men/native-born white Americans. These people are Americans in name only, as they would violate our Constitution to enrich and (so they think) protect themselves.

But laws alone won’t be enough. Hearts must change. It won’t change overnight. Social attitudes oftentimes take generations to change. But if our democracy is to work the way it should in this increasingly diverse nation, then each one of us need to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction, Atticus Finch, who said “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

For blacks and other minority groups, that means tying our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face. Not only the refugee or the immigrant or the rural poor or the transgender American, but also the middle-aged white guy who from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic, and cultural, and technological change.

We have to pay attention and listen.

—It’s hard to feel a lot of compassion for white men in western society. They still have every advantage when it comes to being educated, hired, well-paid, catered to politically, and identified as the “average person”. White men do still have all the advantages, even after 50 years of economic, cultural, and technological change. Again, it’s the zero-sum mentality at work: any change for white men is seen as an alarm bell that the God-ordained proper world order is being destroyed. Not all white men feel this way. But the ones who do should only be paid attention and listened to as part of an effort to re-educate them to be Americans.

For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ’60s; that when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness; when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment that our founders promised.

(APPLAUSE)

For native-born Americans, it means reminding ourselves that the stereotypes about immigrants today were said, almost word for word, about the Irish, and Italians, and Poles, who it was said were going to destroy the fundamental character of America. And as it turned out, America wasn’t weakened by the presence of these newcomers; these newcomers embraced this nation’s creed, and this nation was strengthened.

(APPLAUSE)

So regardless of the station we occupy; we all have to try harder; we all have to start with the premise that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do; that they value hard work and family just like we do; that their children are just as curious and hopeful and worthy of love as our own.

(APPLAUSE) (CHEERING)

And that’s not easy to do. For too many of us it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods, or on college campuses, or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions. In the rise of naked partisanship and increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste, all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable.

And increasingly we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.

—Bubbles have always existed. They’re not the product of social media. Newspapers in the 19th and early 20th centuries in America were always firmly ideological—Republican or Democrat, nativist or pro-immigrant, for blacks or for whites or for Jewish people, etc. But the harm of bubbles is intensified by social media. Now we don’t even have to know that we are buying “our” paper for “our” people; we can go online to a site that pretends to be objective while it peddles ridiculous and harmful, divisive and undemocratic opinions, or, more and more often, lies. People become used to arguing with other people only when they leave those social media bubbles, not within them, and the right to argue a point is confused with the right to win an argument. It’s enough to make one wonder whether the “information wants to be free” movement that destroyed paid journalism was an anti-democratic plot after all…

Next time: the third threat to American democracy

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A voice for justice in Mississippi

Posted on April 15, 2016. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

We were pleasantly shocked to hear an NPR interview with a baker in Mississippi who took a stand against the new state law, signed by Governor Phil Bryant, allowing religious organizations, individuals and businesses to refuse service to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people if they feel offering such services violates their religious beliefs.

These sexuality laws are identical to the laws that allowed whites to refuse service to blacks in all but one way: the racial laws claimed a biological justification (that black people were biologically inferior to white people), while the sexuality laws claim a religious justification (famously summed up by some anonymous bigot years ago as “God hates fags”).

Somehow the example most commonly used to illustrate the anguish of being a business owner who has to serve someone they don’t approve of is the baker: Christian bakers shouldn’t be forced to bake gay wedding cakes.

This is bogus in all respects, legally and morally. As we said just a few posts ago,

Remember: if you don’t want to serve gay or trans people, don’t open a public business. Once you open a public business, you are obliged to serve the public—no exceptions. There’s no difference between these anti-gay laws and the anti-black laws that kept black people from eating in restaurants with white people, going to movie theaters with white people, and riding city buses with white people. Anti-gay laws are discrimination, and America finally got rid of that curse through the hard work of the civil rights movement in the 1950s-70s. You can’t teach kids in school that Rosa Parks was a hero if you then vote for a law that says you can keep trans people off your bus or out of your bakery.

But why listen to us repeat ourselves when you can listen to Mitchell Moore, a baker in Jackson, MS and an American who understands the civil liberties he has an obligation to uphold as an American:

RENEE MONTAGNE: As a baker, this bill would allow you to refuse service to people you don’t want to bake for. Have you ever felt forced to bake for clients that you didn’t want to serve?

—Right away, Montagne’s question points up the illegitimacy of the sexuality laws. Of course the answer is yes. Bakers, like other people who run public businesses, probably have customers they don’t like, whether it’s because those customers swear, or dress provocatively, have foreign accents, or tattoos, or wear head scarves, smell like marijuana, act rude and condescending, or do any of the other hundred things that can put people off.  But are there laws saying business owners don’t have to serve people whose clothes they don’t like? or smell? or language? No. Only sexuality. So we see immediately that the sexuality laws are singling out one type of potentially problematic customer, which is un-American and illegal under federal law.

MITCHELL MOORE: No, no that is not a problem. I am here to bake cakes and to sell those cakes. I’m not here to decide arbitrarily who deserves my cake and who doesn’t. That’s not what I do. That’s not my job.

MONTAGNE: Have you heard from others that they do have these objections?

MOORE: Not to my knowledge, no. Everyone that I know in the greater, say, wedding-service industry – we’re here to serve. The public’s made up of a lot of people. I don’t have to agree with what they do. I don’t have to support them. I serve them.

—So well-said: “I don’t have to agree with what they do. I don’t have to support them. I serve them.” When did we lose sight of this basic premise?

MONTAGNE: Well, I do gather that you are a Republican. But you oppose this bill. So what are your particular objections, other than it sounds like you don’t think it’s needed?

MOORE: So leaving aside the stupidity of passing it because it decriminalizes discrimination – which, that really is kind of the biggest issue – but I can actually say I think the law of unintended consequences is going to come back to bite the people who signed this bill. If it is my sincerely held religious belief that I shouldn’t serve them, then I can do that. And I can hide behind that language. But that language is so vague it opens a Pandora’s box. And you can’t shut it again.

—Why isn’t Mitchell Moore running for president? Yes, these laws do “decriminalize discrimination”. And yes, claiming religious frailty is just a way of hiding that discrimination and bigotry. And if these sexuality laws are allowed to stand, soon the laws about tattoos and clothing and language will all be crowding the state legislatures, too.

MONTAGNE: Well, do you consider yourself a religious person or would you…

MOORE: Yes.

MONTAGNE: …consider that maybe you don’t understand what it means to have a deeply held religious belief?

MOORE: I don’t think that there is such a thing as a deeply held religious belief that you should not serve people. There is no sincerely held religious belief to think that I am better than other people – to think that my sin is different than other people. And so I am a deeply Christian man, and those go counter to my belief system.

—Precisely: “there is no such thing as a deeply held religious belief that you should not serve people.” The Bible doesn’t say anything about who to sell a cake to. Neither does the Koran, or the Torah. And again, if you don’t want to risk violating your religious principles by opening a public business, don’t open one.

MONTAGNE: Why do you think your state elected officials, who presumably think they’re looking out for the best interests of exactly people like you – why do you think that they passed this bill?

MOORE: The assumption that they think that they’re looking out for us – that’s not what they are doing. A report just came out. We rank number one – our state government is the most dependent on federal money. We are the third most obese state. We rank at the bottom in unemployment, in education. We’ve got crumbling infrastructure. None of them are being tackled. Instead, we are passing, hey-let’s-discriminate bills.

—This is the first time we’ve heard someone state this so clearly: state governments that “protect” their people by passing laws that do nothing to stop poverty, illness, and lack of education are really using people’s religion to keep them down.

MONTAGNE: Coming from Mississippi, do you have concerns that this bill reflects on your state in a way that you wouldn’t like it to be seen?

MOORE: Yeah – Mississippi is an amazing place. And it’s filled with amazing people. But if you aren’t from here, if you don’t know that, you’re going to choose to not come here because of bills like this – because you see the state government as taking no action on hundreds of other priorities and taking action instead on trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. It boggles my mind.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you for sharing this with us.

MOORE: Certainly – you’re welcome.

MONTAGNE: Mitchell Moore is a baker, and he owns Campbell’s Bakery in Jackson, Miss.

Anyone want to build a memorial to this Southern hero? We do.

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