There seems to be some bickering happening in the post-mortem analysis of the recent election. I sense a failure among shell-shocked liberals to communicate because of a false dichotomy: Those who argue that economic dislocation or privation is largely responsible for the election result are often accused of trivializing the expressions of racism and other forms of bigotry that accompanied this turn of events. Similarly, they feel that their critics trivialize economic concerns.
I believe that the two classes of issues are intimately related. While there is certainly a subset of voters who harbor purely reflexive suspicion, disdain, or hatred for others based solely on identity (and I speculate we all fit this description to some degree), it’s not a useful observation in itself. If politics is the art of the possible, then what do we propose to do about bigots who vote? Put them in internment camps for re-education?
The history of racism, gender discrimination, xenophobia, and indeed, all forms of oppression in our country is tightly interwoven with economic issues. We didn’t rip Africans from their homelands and haul them across an ocean because it was fun for white folks to feel superior. We abducted people to be slaves to run plantations and serve other economic purposes. Racist attitudes were cultivated and reinforced by the economy. We don’t redline neighborhoods primarily because we care who lives in the houses. We do it because we deem classes of people financially unworthy. Redlining can be managed completely without regard to race and purely by the numbers, and is an example among many forms of institutionalized, structural, or algorithmic racism that are self-perpetuating. This is a distinction without a difference for the victims of the discrimination, and is not any kind of justification, but it is essential to understand to get past it.
We don’t have to love or approve of our political adversaries. But they needn’t be our adversaries if we can placate them in ways that we find acceptable. That means putting our own justifiable anger aside and doing what we need to do to live and govern together. It doesn’t mean compromising principles, but it does mean compromising, and it does mean swallowing some pride. There are not 60 million virulent, violent racists in the United States. There is instead a very complex continuum of individuals, each with their own set of motivations, and their own experiences and circumstances. A relatively small number of these people are those with whom we cannot coexist peacefully — or even respectfully.
When we speak of justice, we often refer to symbolic issues like the words we use and the gestures we make. But most of us know that real justice involves economic justice. It means pay equity for women. It means changing policy and procedure to end the mass incarceration and disenfranchisement that is a burden imposed disproportionately on people of color. It means being vigilant against discrimination and protecting potential victims. This remediation is concordant with policies that lift up unfortunates in every swath of society, and that might include some rednecks and neo-nazis. But we cannot legislate emotions.
In the Venn diagram of our society there is huge commonality among the economically deprived and the victims and perpetrators of racial and gender-based discrimination. The environment fostered by rivalries for power and prestige is a breeding ground for generalized intolerance and its free expression. Thus we see hate crimes and hate laws perpetrated against categories of people who might appear to be above the economic fray, in particular, LGBTQ people.
I would never suggest that we forget about slights and indignities of victims of bigoted behavior, much less the appalling acts of intimidation and violence, nor should they be excused. But I hope we will get away from the Us vs. Them narrative and lean more heavily on nuance. If stereotyping is part of the problem, then we would be well served by a reduction of hypocrisy.
Bill Michaelson is a software developer who lives with his family and his opinions in central New Jersey. He has been engaged with various social justice matters and governance in various capacities over decades. He writes about education policy when he feels like it.