Both Race and Class: A Time for Anger
By Dan T. Carter
Vol. 19, No. 2, 1997 pp. 19-22
As we look at the economic changes in the United States over the last quarter century, we can see that a revolution has taken place. Since the late 1970s, there has been a 40 percent increase in real income in the U.S., but over half of this increase has gone to the top one-half percent of America’s taxpayers. At the same time, people who make up the bottom 20 percent of income earners have seen a substantial decline in their standard of living. As a result, we have a gap between rich and poor which is greater than at any time since the 1920s.
That gap is growing every year; we are well on our way to the creation of a nation in which a small elite accumulates unimaginable wealth while an increasingly insecure majority struggles to maintain middle-class status, only a step away from a growing underclass of the desperately poor.
What role can a democratic government play in reversing these forces? It seems to me that this is a question of central importance as we think of our future, but it’s essentially a non-issue in terms of political debate. Clearly we have lost any sense of the possibility of collective action to reverse these trends.
I believe it is because we have lost faith in the power of a democratic government to promote equity and justice.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Alabama Governor George Wallace set up half the equation: the federal government–the “central government,” as he described it–was always evil. The “government” consists of bureaucratic elitists who live off the hard-earned wages of working people and delight in social engineering. Now we know that the mainspring of Wallace’s anger toward the federal government lay in its efforts, however timid, to end racial discrimination. But Wallace clearly touched a resonant chord across the nation which went beyond race.
The federal government had fought the depression, won the second world war, and laid the foundations for a stable middle class with policies which essentially benefitted that emerging middle class: subsidized housing loans, the GI Bill, Social Security, and a host of other programs. By the 1960s, however, that middle class was restive under the “burden” of taxes and uneasy over the social upheavals of the decade: civil rights, feminism, court protected free speech, a rising crime rate, the inconclusive war in Vietnam etc. Thus, when Wallace harped on the evils of busing or the rise of a parasitic welfare class–both issues with racial resonance–Americans across the nation proved receptive to his argument that government was part of the problem, not the solution.
In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan carried through where Wallace left off. He continued Wallace’s argument that government is inherently “bad,” but he made the circle complete by offering a solution: unleashing the beneficent forces of the marketplace. Everything is the best of all possible worlds as long as the government doesn’t interfere. The marketplace alone can adjudicate every economic conflict equitably and render rewards and punishments on the basis of individual achievement.
I’m normally not one for believing that intellectuals have much of an impact upon our society. But Godfrey Hodgson’s recent book on the triumph of conservatism documents the skillful way in which wealthy right-wing individuals and corporate interests have created a broad network of subsidized think-tanks, grants, fellowships, and research sinecures which skillfully promoted their ideological agenda. Nothing is more ludicrous today than conservatives’ complaints of a “liberal media.” The fact is, the assumptions underlying laissez-faire economics and a “free-market” economy dominate public political discussion. And that is true whether we are talking about the print media, Sunday television news programs, the major networks, or public television and radio.
It will not be easy to break out of this ideological cul-de-sac. While the economic expansion of the last twenty years has primarily benefitted the wealthy, enough crumbs have trickled clown to the middle class to make possible the diversionary focus upon the poor, immigrants, and racial minorities. At the same time, conservatives’ success in subverting the role of positive government for working Americans and minorities has led to their increasing cynicism and withdrawal from the political process. In part, they’re correct, of course. Government is not working in their interest. The end result of that withdrawal, however, has been the creation of an electorate which is disproportionately white and affluent.
But we have to continue to struggle for racial and economic justice and to change the terms of the debate and to focus on the issues which will arouse the electorate.
It won’t be easy to confront racial issues. Despite the progress of the last forty years, this nation remains deeply divided along the color line. The climate of opinion is particularly hostile to affirmative action. In part this is because of the success of conservatives in misrepresenting its purposes and scope and convincing whites–it didn’t take much convincing–that discrimination is a thing of the past and that we truly have an open society. We also have to face up to the reality that opposition to compensatory action is deeply rooted in American’s notions of “fairness” and equal justice.
Still, I think we can take heart from the fact that there has been a deep shift in the thinking of most white Americans. A quarter-century ago, there would not have been the assumption that there ought to be minority group representation at every level of political and economic life. We have to build upon that shift by challenging the glib arguments used to misrepresent affirmative action.
We should challenge the worship of a handful of standardized tests as though they alone could judge what makes a person qualified for a job or for admission to college or professional school. We have to talk about the ways in which people actually succeed in college, in the workplace, and in life in general.
I’m most familiar with college admission procedures, and I know that my university constantly makes decisions on the basis of a variety of factors other than Standard Achievement Test (SAT) scores. We seek geographical representation. We look for different life experiences from our applicants. We seek students with a range of talents. And, yes, we seek to create a racially and ethnically diverse student body in the belief that there is strength in diversity.
We have to defend the freedom to make those choices in our public life as well.
That, I confess, is still a hard sell.
I think we can be more successful in refuting conservatives’ argument that the legacy of centuries of discrimination has miraculously disappeared over the last few years, and the reason minorities continue to lag is simply because they have been paralyzed by the “culture of dependency” fostered by welfare programs. We have to ask those who would throw the poor overboard to sink or swim: “Do you really believe that someone who has grown up in a culture of poverty, who has very limited education, lacks the kind of skills that the marketplace wants, with no financial reserves, no health care, and few resources–do you believe the solution to their situation is simply to throw them to the forces of the market?”
But I want to return to the original point that I made at the outset of our conversation. Discrimination in our society is rooted in both race and class; neither problem can be addressed separately and if we’re going to build any kind of effective political coalition, we have to make that linkage clear. Of course right-wing conservatives will cry “class warfare,” but that seems a hollow charge corning from a group that has waged relentless war against the weakest and most helpless members of our society.
Just as we must counter the shibboleths of the new racism, we have to challenge the ideological foundations of the new conservatism, driving home the argument that an unrestrained free-market economy does NOT protect the interests of working and middle-class Americans. At the same time, we have to stop passively accepting the big lie that all social investment is wasteful and makes no difference in the lives of the disadvantaged.
I recently spoke to an Atlanta service club about the enormous problems that primary and secondary educators face in impoverished communities. The disadvantages these children face are so great, I argued, that they cannot be overcome by teachers in the classroom, however dedicated. What is needed, I said, was a broad program of support including income assistance, child care, health care, and comprehensive job training for parents trapped in the cycle of poverty. It won’t be cheap, I argued, but it is the right thing to do and, in the long run, it will benefit all Americans.
As you can imagine, that didn’t go over very well. Afterwards, I was greeted with a chorus of dismay which faithfully echoed what has become the conservative mantra: there is no connection between spending money and improving education or solving social problems.
I like to think that I am a tactful person, but I’m afraid my answer was not very conciliatory. “If that were really true,” I replied, “why do we have parents clamoring to get their students into my university at a cost of $25,000 a
year when they could send them to community college at $600 a semester?” What you’re really saying, I told them, is that money doesn’t count when it involves poor kids, but it certainly does when it involves your own.
At the same time, we cannot create the kind of political climate in which needed social investments are made in our society unless we face head-on the “no new taxes” chant that has become dogma to both political parties. And the best way we can do that is by creating a simple, straightforward, progressive tax system stripped of the kinds of convoluted provisions which seem to have rewarded the most rapacious and parasitic individuals and groups within American capitalism.
Having to make this argument does make me realize I’m getting older. No one in the 1960s would have questioned the ethical basis of a progressive tax system, but one of the horrendous accomplishments of the conservative revolution has been to justify various schemes whereby the rich contribute less and less to society, but justify their greed on the basis of some kind of moral superiority, defined of course, by their success in manipulating capital and corrupting the political process.
It is true that middle class Americans have not seen their taxes go down over the last twenty years. But, what Americans need to be reminded is that–despite all the talk of “tax cuts” in the Reagan years–the changes in the tax code in the 1980s brought benefits to a very small portion of the population. The bottom 50 per cent of the population actually saw its taxes increase as rising social security, medicare and excise levies more than offset marginal declines in their income tax rates. There was relatively little change in the tax rate of the population between the fiftieth and ninetieth percentile. In contrast, the closer to the top of the pyramid, the greater the reductions in the effective federal tax rates. For the top 10 percent there was a 5 percent reduction in taxes; for the top 1 percent a 15 percent cut. Cumulatively the effect has been to save the wealthiest tax payers billions of dollars over the last fifteen years and to play a significant role in transferring wealth from the working and middle classes to the very wealthy.
Never satisfied, the new rich in this country remind me of the grasping landowner who claimed that he wasn’t greedy: he just wanted all the land abutting his farm. And so this summer we are greeted by the sordid spectacle of a Republican congressional majority intent on reducing capital gains taxes to a maximum of 20 percent, even though studies by the Internal Revenue Service show that
three quarters of capital gains go to the top one per cent of American taxpayers. (In 1989, ninety-three per cent of all families received NO capital gains.)
Now is when we really need a little class warfare.
What happened to the notion of the dignity of labor? Where is the morality in a system which decrees that Bill Gates–among the richest men in the world–should pay 20 per cent capital gains tax on the hundreds of millions of dollars he has made from his stocks while the nurse who cares for the sick and the elderly pays 28 per cent income tax on every dollar she makes over $23,000.?
I’m certainly not suggesting that we emulate the conservatives by substituting capitalist scapegoats for immigrants, gays, blacks and other minorities. I am saying that people have a right to be angry about a political and economic system which is rigged in favor of the privileged few.
For the last thirty years, conservative demagogues have successfully deflected the anger of middle and working class on the victims of the system rather than the real perpetrators of economic and racial injustice. But there is an opportunity to shift the ideological ground and to begin to build coalitions at the intersection of race and class.
Let me suggest two of the many battlefields where I think advocates of social justice can begin their counter-attack.
The first revolves around the issue of childhood poverty. For thirty years, conservative ideologues have revived the nineteenth century notion of the “undeserving poor” by blaming the victims of poverty for their own plight. But it is difficult to speak about “lazy, shiftless children,” or “undeserving toddlers.” It seems to me that this is one of the issues around which political coalitions can be built. Certainly in advocating universal children’s health care we can bring up the interrelationship between race and economics because we know that Hispanic and African-American children are disproportionately excluded from adequate health care.
Secondly, we can support a revived labor movement. Given the kinds of pressures that working people in the white collar job-force are facing, I believe there is also a potential for that revival. For all the past failures of America’s unions, they are the greatest hope we have for building a political base to protect the economic self-interest of working people.
Although blacks, whites, and Hispanics remain segregated in housing, schools, and (to a slightly lesser extent) in higher education, the workforce at the working-class level is going to be integrated simply because of the growing percentage of the Hispanic and African-American population. There is obviously an opportunity here to create an inter-racial coalition. I don’t mean to underestimate the difficulties of revitalizing the labor movement in this country; certainly it will be unlike the the industrial, blue-collar movement of the 1930s. And, while racial suspicions still divide workers, I don’t think there is any question that flagrant racial prejudice is less in the 1990s than it was in the 1930s and 1940s. So there is at least the potential in the twenty-first century for an interracial political coalition based upon common class interests.
I’ve talked a great deal about the role of the federal government on issues of taxation and social investment on a national basis. But the last point I would like to make is that a revival of the politics of social justice has to begin at the grassroots level.
As a black candidate in a newly configured majority-white congressional district in Georgia, Cynthia McKinney would, I feared, lose her bid for re-election in 1996. But she won by a substantial majority and I think she did so by focusing on political issues which cut across racial lines. In local communities as in the McKinney campaign, there are opportunities to build coalitions around issues of child welfare, health care, housing, the inequities of the criminal justice system, and the degradation of our environment.
Above all, we have to remember that authentic political movements always begin at the grass roots level and have their greater impact when we least expect it. It is always hard to predict where, when, or how the next movement for social justice will coalesce and emerge, but we have to learn from our mistakes, build upon our defeats, and move forward with the kind of arguments and proposals that–right now–don’t seem to have much prospect of success. Perhaps we can take heart from the words of St. Paul who urged the early Roman Christians to take heart from their troubled past, knowing that “tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope….”
Dan T. Carter is Kenan Professor of History at Emory University. He is author of The Politics of Rage: George Wallace. The Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics (Simon Schuster, 1995). His most recent book is From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich: Race in the Conservative Counterrevolution, 1963-1994 (LSU Press, 1996). This essay was developed from an interview with Southern Changes editor Allen Tullos.