Race, Class, and Systemic Reform

intersectionality2Can compassion-minded activists justifiably talk about human rights without also talking about civil rights? Can we justifiably talk about what it means to be human without talking at the same time, in the same sentence, about race, class, gender, and the other pigeonholes that the System uses to divide and conquer? Or can we first affirm universal principles, and then later, time or space permitting, oppose specific forms of oppression? Might we build a broad coalition based primarily, most fundamentally, on universal principles, while also, secondarily, affirming the rights of people whom the System classifies and oppresses based on certain arbitrary characteristics? In order to mobilize the white working class, do we need to emphasize economic issues more than social issues like race?  

Many post-election commentators are saying that class is more important than race. Robert Borosage for example has argued, “Clinton [talked] about removing barriers, with constituency-specific agendas, rather than focusing on a populist economic message that would lift all (emphasis added).” Borosage concluded, “Democrats better learn how to sing from Bernie Sanders’s gospel….”

Bernie’s post-election message is: “One of the struggles that you’re going to be seeing in the Democratic Party is whether we go beyond identity politics,” which, according to wikipedia, “refers to political positions based on the interests and perspectives of social groups with which people identify.”

In The Guardian, Heather Long says, “As I re-read King’s addresses, I can’t help but think that if he were alive today, he would be preaching and organizing first and foremost about income inequality…. The most pernicious problem in society today is the haves and have nots”

On NPR, Mark Lilla cited as a positive example a man who reported:

I belong to a bowling team with black and Latino coworkers. And when we get together and we talk about politics … we don’t talk about Black Lives Matters. We talk about what matters to our families. We talk about jobs, and we talk about the fate of the country. That is America, and you can reach those people.

In his “The End of Identity Liberalism” essay in the Times, Lilla objects to the proposition that “we should become aware of and ‘celebrate’ our differences.” He argues that “the fixation on diversity” has encouraged people narcissistically “to keep this focus on themselves” and that “younger journalists and editors [believe], that simply by focusing on identity they have done their jobs.”

Lilla criticized Clinton’s campaign for

calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters at every stop. This was a strategic mistake. If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded…. Fully two-thirds of white voters without college degrees voted for Donald Trump, as did over 80 percent of white evangelicals…. Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it….

National politics in healthy periods is not about “difference,” it is about commonality…. We need a post-identity liberalism,… As for narrower issues that are highly charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away, especially those touching on sexuality and religion, such a liberalism would work quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale.

But as Steven Shults posted on Facebook, “You can draw attention to the plight of the poor without pitting the issue against other issues. This is not a zero sum game. (It’s not a game at all.).” It’s not either/or.

As I see it, Clinton’s mistake was not her calling out to specific constituencies. Rather, it was not calling out to more of them — as examples of a larger problem. Society systematically labels, ranks, and discriminates against countless categories of people. It’s systemic. The problem is the System, which serves to divide and conquer.

If one has only a sound bite, it’s not feasible to present a long list of examples. But in a standard stump speech, it is.

Economic populists, however, want to heavily emphasize economic issues and reject that intersectional approach. Intersectionality” argues:

We should think of each element or trait of a person as inextricably linked with all of the other elements in order to fully understand one’s identity…. The classical conceptualizations of oppression within society—such as racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia and belief-based bigotry—do not act independently of each other. Instead, these forms of oppression interrelate, creating a system of oppression that reflects the “intersection” of multiple forms of discrimination…. Socially constructed categories of differentiation interact to create a social hierarchy…. There is no singular experience of an identity. Rather than understanding women’s health solely through the lens of gender, it is necessary to consider other social categories such as class, ability, nation or race, to have a fuller understanding of the range of women’s health concerns…. Seemingly discrete forms and expressions of oppression are shaped by one another….  [This] analysis is potentially applied to all categories (including statuses usually seen as dominant when seen as standalone statuses).

Or you could use Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom” to make the point:

Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight

Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight

An’ for each an’ ev’ry underdog soldier in the night…

Tolling for the rebel, tolling for the rake

Tolling for the luckless, the abandoned an’ forsaked

Tolling for the outcast, burnin’ constantly at stake…

Striking for the gentle, striking for the kind

Striking for the guardians and protectors of the mind

An’ the unpawned painter behind beyond his rightful time…

Tolling for the tongues with no place to bring their thoughts

All down in taken-for-granted situations

Tolling for the deaf an’ blind, tolling for the mute

Tolling for the mistreated, mateless mother, the mistitled prostitute

For the misdemeanor outlaw, chased an’ cheated by pursuit…

Tolling for the searching ones, on their speechless, seeking trail

For the lonesome-hearted lovers with too personal a tale

An’ for each unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail…

Tolling for the aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed

For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse

An’ for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe

It’s not easy to talk about intersectionality. Some may believe that I as a white man have no right to do so. But partly because what I have to say, I believe, echoes what I’ve learned from people of color such as Howard Thurman, Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr., James Baldwin, and Mahatma Ghandi, I feel compelled to speak.

To transform the System, we need to set aside labels and affirm our universal humanity, while also opposing specific forms of oppression. The various identities the System inculcates in us overlap and reinforce one another. In that way, the System is integrated, combined into a whole. We can better transform that System with communities that are integrated in the same way — that is, communities whose members acknowledge and accept their multiple identities. From that perspective, if one talks about class one generally needs to also talk about race, and vice versa. However, it is also justifiable at times to go deeper and talk only about our essential humanity. One can hope for the emergence of a broad vision that inspires a massive human rights movement that also affirms civil rights.

I’m not fully comfortable with that approach. It may be wrong. But for now that is the perspective affirmed by the latest draft of the Holistic Transformation statement of principlesI envision that additional publications will address specific forms of oppression.

Criticisms and suggested changes for that work-in-progress are welcome.

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