Demonizing, Not Engaging

Recent discussions about the white working class and racism (me, DeBoer, Mystal, et al) have me flashing back to the fascinating world of 2008 LGBT politics. In that year, the majority of Black voters came out and voted in favor of proposition 8, a successful referendum that sought to eliminate same-sex marriages in California. Needless to say, this put LGBT writers and activists in a tough spot: do you take out your frustrations and demonize Black people as anti-gay bigots fighting against equality or do you blame yourself for failing to adequately engage Black people on the issue?

After some initial grumbling, the consensus position was to blame themselves for not engaging. In a post at The American Prospect titled “Engaging, Not Demonizing,” Adam Serwer argued:

Andrew Sullivan agrees that “this community needs to be engaged not demonized, and we haven’t engaged enough,” but in the weeks before the vote Sullivan was telling everyone on the Internet that the black community was “the most homophobic ethnic community” which sounds a lot to me like demonizing. That’s not the way to build a political coalition, anymore than Barack Obama won the election by telling white people how racist they are.

Dean Spade weighed in similarly:

Current conversations about Prop 8 hide how the same-sex marriage battle has been part of a conservative gay politics that de-prioritizes people of color, poor people, trans people, women, immigrants, prisoners and people with disabilities. Why isn’t Prop 8’s passage framed as evidence of the mainstream gay agenda’s failure to ally with people of color on issues that are central to racial and economic justice in the US?

Jessie Daniels at The Society Pages shared similar sentiments:

I heartily agree with the authors’ re-frame of the failure of Prop 8. The mainstream gay political movement has failed to do the hard work of coalition building with people of color, whether straight or LGBT. While I’m not prepared to argue that gay marriage is inherently racist as some do, I do think the fight for marriage equality has got to re-think it’s white-led agenda and connect to broader social justice goals in order to be successful.

Of course, white LGBT advocates never did successfully engage Black people well enough to bring them around on the gay marriage cause. Instead, what happened is gay marriage advocates ran up their support among whites so much that it didn’t really matter what Black people (a 13% minority) wanted. Put bluntly, majoritarian support for LGBT rights was largely won through a GOP-like demographic strategy of maximizing white margins.


Nonetheless, what’s interesting to me about the 2008 moment is the rallying cry of “Engaging, Not Demonizing.” The liberal response to Blacks opposing gay marriage was not to demonize them as anti-gay bigots that can go fuck themselves for all liberals are concerned. They certainly could have responded that way. As history shows, winning the support of most Black people was not remotely necessary to win gay marriage. But instead liberals responded with calls for further engagement, calls for further outreach, and, crucially, calls for finding “broader social justice goals” and “issues that are central to racial and economic justice” that could possibly unify the LGBT and Black causes.

This is contrasted with some recent liberal sentiments about lower class whites, which are more about Demonizing, Not Engaging. Specifically, the fact that many lower class whites are racist is enough grounds it seems for many Discourse Liberals to say to hell with them.

DeBoer argues that this new posture shows that liberals have evolved towards more conservative modes of thinking, modes which emphasize that only the morally good are worthy of concern:

Yet in a deeper sense I think conservatives have won a major victory, one not understood by them or their antagonists: they have written the notion that dignity, respect, and material security must be earned into the progressive imagination. They have made the notion of a moral meritocracy inescapable in American civic life

While I’d agree with DeBoer that this is a particularly conservative approach, the reality is that these Discourse Liberals do not actually adhere to the approach for populations other than lower class whites. As discussed above, they didn’t and don’t say “to hell with Black people’s needs” just because most Black people oppose LGBT marriage rights. And right-wing efforts to talk about how many Muslim communities across the world hold views about women and LGBT people that liberals find abhorrent are shrugged off instantly. For these and other groups, being morally problematic (under the liberal framework) does not make them undeserving of dignity, respect, and material security.

So what’s going on, then? If liberals haven’t evolved generally towards a “moral meritocracy” worldview, then why do they seem to apply that worldview to the case of lower class whites? I don’t pretend to know the answer to this, but Emmett Rensin suggested to me earlier that the main dividing line here is whether liberals think you will vote for Democrats or not. That is, lower class whites are seen as largely outside of the Democratic coalition and therefore their moral failings are seized upon as adequate grounds for dismissing them and their problems. But other groups, such as Blacks and Muslims, are seen as inside the Democratic coalition, meaning that when they hold morally degenerate views (again under the liberal framework), the proper remedy is not to dismiss and demonize them but instead to do more and better outreach. Which is to say, the moral high ground that Discourse Liberals stake out with regard to lower class whites is mostly motivated by a more crude partisan tribalism.

This is obviously just a speculation on Rensin’s part, but it seems plausible enough. At minimum, it accounts for why some groups are subject to moral meritocracy while others aren’t.

What Makes Police Reform Racial Justice?

The punditry consensus appears to be that proposals aimed at cutting down on police violence definitely fall under the racial justice umbrella but proposals aimed at cutting down on poverty do not. I’ve eagerly consumed these kinds of arguments for the last six months, but I still cannot figure out why anyone thinks they make sense.

Race Neutrality
One argument against categorizing poverty reduction as racial justice is that poverty reduction is a race-neutral policy that merely indirectly helps people of color. It’s not targeted at uplifting people of color even if it happens to have that effect.

The problem with this argument is that it equally applies to police reform stuff. When you look at police reform platforms (such as Campaign Zero), you don’t see any race-specific stuff except possibly platform planks pertaining to altering the racial composition of police officers. Other than that, it’s just a big slate of race-neutral proposals that merely indirectly helps people of color. Body cameras will help all police victims, not just people of color. Demilitarization will help all police victims, not just people of color. And so on.

If race neutrality disqualifies something as racial justice, then both poverty reduction and police reform are disqualified.

Another argument that shows up in this debate concerns disproportionality. The fact that police violence disproportionately affects people of color is held out as evidence that police violence is a racial justice issue. But, of course, under this logic so too is poverty.

According to the Washington Post police shooting database, last year 514 White people were shot by police and 264 Black people were shot by police. Thus, for every Black person shot by police, 1.95 White people were shot by police.

This ratio exactly matches the official poverty figures. In the last year, 19.652 million White people were in poverty and 10.058 million Black people were in poverty. Thus, for every Black person in poverty, 1.95 White people were in poverty.

Of course, the 1.95 ratio is based on raw levels of poverty and police killings. When you adjust for differences in overall population sizes, you find that there are 2.6 Black people killed by police for every White person killed by police. The same is true for poverty: 2.6 Black people for every White person.

However you want to represent it, the underlying point remains the same: the disproportionality is present in both. If disproportionality is enough to make something a racial justice issue, then both poverty and police reform are racial justice issues. If it’s not, then neither are.

Other Stuff
The equivalence between poverty reduction and police reform expands to basically everything I’ve read on the two topics. Is police violence and the criminal justice system racialized? Absolutely. So is poverty. Is there a reluctance to fix glaring criminal injustices because of the racial composition of those involved? Absolutely. So too with poverty. I could go on and on.

The reason I bring this up is not to stir debate about which of the two issues is more important. Rather, it’s because I am completely bemused by the degree to which uplifting the bottom of the economic hierarchy has been shafted as some kind of aloof All Lives Matter thing, without any coherent justification.

The police reform movement thus far has put together race-neutral policies that would help all victims of police violence, which is disproportionately people of color. Likewise, poverty reduction involves race-neutral policies that would help all victims of poverty, which is disproportionately people of color. There is no difference in the basic form of these two policy agendas. Yet one is somehow the true substance of racial justice while the other is cast as almost offensively ignorant of true racial justice.


Race and Class Part 2

In my last post, I broke down five social indicators — poverty, health coverage, employment, incarceration, and life expectancy — by race and class (using educational attainment to stand in for class). The point was to show that, while the disparities across classes are the biggest, there remains significant racial disparities within classes. This suggests race and class both operate in society as drags on well-being.

Multiple commenters have correctly pointed out that the analysis does not make note of the fact that there is a racial disparity in how people are concentrated in each class. A full account of the racial and class effects needs to include that fact as well. I avoided the concentration point in the prior post because this point is normally the one used to suggest that racial disparity is just about class disparity. I wanted to show that racial disparity remains even after you’ve essentially controlled out the racial disparity in who winds up in what class.

Nonetheless, it’s easy enough to present figures that take into account this concentration effect as well. Below, what I do is compare for each indicator:

  1. The overall black:white disparity. This will reflect both 1) the within-class racial disparity and 2) the racial disparity in class concentration.
  2. The black-low:black-high disparity. This is the disparity between black less-than-high-school (low) and black college-educated (high).
  3. The white-low:white-high disparity. Same as (2), but for whites.
  4. The white-low:black-high disparity. This is the disparity between white less-than-high-school and black college-educated.

1. Poverty
Here is poverty broken down this way.

The first bar says that blacks are, overall, 2.3x as likely as whites to be in poverty. The second bar says blacks in the “lower class” are 10.1x as likely as blacks in the “upper class” to be in poverty. The third bar says whites in the “lower class” are 8.7x as likely as whites in the “upper class” to be in poverty. The fourth bar says whites in the “lower class” are 6.3x as likely as blacks in the “upper class” to be in poverty.

Where the two bars in the middle are higher than the bar on the left, as in this case, that suggests the class effects are bigger than the combined effects of 1) racial disparity within classes and 2) racial disparity in the who winds up in each class. The bar on the right is just kind of interesting to consider.

2. Health Insurance
Here are the same figures for health insurance.

3. Employment
Here are the same figures for employment. Because a higher employment rate is the better outcome in this indicator (unlike the above rates), I have done 1/ratio in order to make the bars visually comparable with the above.

4. Incarceration
Same figures but for incarceration.

So, as you can see, bringing in descriptive stats that reflect the class concentration disparity between races just confirms the basic story in the prior post. In all cases, the within-race class disparity dwarfs the overall racial disparity. Nonetheless, for the reasons explained in the prior post, it would be wrong to say, as some do, that class is the only thing going on here. It does not explain within-class racial disparity and does not explain racial disparity in class concentration, both of which are very significant disparities.