For decades now, I’ve been arguing that when it comes to politics, liberals and leftists need to stop talking about race and focus instead on class. It’s not that racism doesn’t exist and cause genuine suffering, I would argue, but race divides the majority from the minority, while class could, and should, unite them. The way to help poor black and Latino people is to help poor people, period. (Wealthy black and Latino people can help themselves.) I still believe this, but I’ve also come to believe it’s hopeless.
Initially I understood the primary roadblock to be identity itself. People of color insisted on identifying themselves first and foremost as people of color, and they looked to leaders who served as reflections of their ideal selves. On those rare occasions when transracial and transethnic movements succeeded in America, they did so through the paradigms of race and ethnicity rather than by transcending them. Many responses are possible to Werner Sombart’s famous 1906 question, “Why is there no socialism in the United States?” The most obvious, however, is that the patch-quilt racial and ethnic composition of the US working class has made it easy for capitalists to divide and rule.
But another reason—one whose power and resilience I admit to have underestimated—is the problem of institutional white racism. Events of the past year or so—together with some of the research I did on inequality for my recent Nation eBook, Inequality and One City: Bill de Blasio and the New York Experiment, Year One—have convinced me that people of color, especially black males, live in a different country from the one in which whites live, whether rich or poor.
Most of my friends are liberal white journalists, academics or professionals of some sort based in Manhattan or Brooklyn, and many have graduate degrees. I’ve been doing an informal survey of them lately, asking them to estimate the number of “stop and frisks” undertaken by the NYPD between 2008 and 2012. I’ve gotten estimates as low as 40,000 and as high as 200,000. Not one of these Fox-hating, sophisticated news consumers has come close to the actual figure, which is over 2 million, 90 percent of which were of blacks and Latinos and 90 percent of which were of innocent people.
This is to say nothing of the widespread use of the “public view” provision of the marijuana laws that led the NYPD to arrest people for pot possession. According to the Marijuana Arrest Research Project and the Drug Policy Alliance, those caught in this net were “not criminals” but “ordinary high school and college students and young workers” who now spend the rest of their lives followed by easily accessible criminal records. And guess what? As a New York Times editorial pointed out, “86 percent of people arrested were black or Latino, despite data showing that whites and minorities use marijuana at similar rates.” Add these together, and one can see why people of color may insist on viewing themselves through the prism of race. Society forces them to do so and then jails them for it.
Or look at Ferguson. Sure, cops shoot innocent people with depressing frequency, though we have no idea how often this happens because there are no decent statistics on police killings in the United States. But however tragically unjust this phenomenon may be, the number of people who have been victimized by it is still relatively small, statistically speaking. What we have learned since Ferguson is just how widespread is the victimization of minority communities by police forces in which minorities are barely represented. The shocking contents of the recent Justice Department report regarding what the Associated Press termed “racial disparities in arrests, bigotry and profit-driven law enforcement—essentially using the black community as a piggy bank to support the city’s budget through fines” may have focused on Ferguson, but “its findings have resonated beyond the St. Louis suburbs as residents in some communities across the country say they feel they face the same struggles with their police departments and city leadership.” Indeed, the practice is nationwide, exacerbated by “broken windows” police tactics that, in New York and elsewhere, disproportionately victimize communities of color. America’s shameful incarceration figures reflect this practice, aided and abetted by morally and intellectually indefensible drug laws.
The problem hardly stops with the criminal justice system. As a recent report by the Brookings Institution demonstrates, “There are race gaps in almost every conceivable social and economic dimension,” including: “incarceration, early learning, parenting, schooling, attitudinal racism, employment.” Another report, this one by Demos, demonstrates that black and Latino people face special hurdles in home purchasing—which is the primary manner in which Americans accrue wealth and pass it along to their children. The net result is that “the typical black household now possesses just 6 percent of the wealth owned by the typical white household, and the typical Latino household owns only 8 percent of the wealth held by the typical white household.” And because they attend worse schools and graduate from them at a far lower rate than do white Americans, they earn less money over the course of their lifetimes. Most black children are actually downwardly mobile. This is the exact opposite of what Americans are taught about their country; it is a nightmare, not a dream.
At the elite level, conservative pundits and so-called “intellectuals” seek to blame the “culture” of minority life as well as the welfare state for encouraging counterproductive behavior. Interestingly, Charles Murray, their champion on this issue, made his name in the mainstream media by making two directly contradictory arguments. In Losing Ground (1984), he blamed government social policies for encouraging antisocial behavior. Ten years later, in The Bell Curve, he blamed an allegedly inferior genetic inheritance. In both cases, however, the “medicine” he recommended was the same: stop giving these people money.
More recently David Brooks has diagnosed the problem as follows: poor children’s lives have been “destroyed by a plague of nonjudgmentalism,” a lack of “norms” to hold them responsible for themselves. “There are no basic codes and rules woven into daily life,” he argues, which hampers society’s ability “to assert that one way of behaving [is] better than another.” Not all wrong, perhaps, but it would make a great deal more sense if the pundit were addressing the genuine perpetrators of the crimes he describes rather than their victims.