America is trapped in bipolar prejudice. Conservatives dislike blacks, latinos, women and gays while liberals dislike white Americans who don’t agree with them, especially men. Conservatives are encouraged by cultural paranoia and liberals by cultural narcissism.
The conservative prejudices have been more than adequately publicly outlined, but the liberal side remains largely under cover. Both sides condemn, but neither is effective at converting, and so things just get worse.
While cultural discrimination has always been a problem for conservatives, it’s only in the past few decades that liberals have turned on a former major constituency, white men.
I first noticed it in the late 1970s. In 1979 I wrote:
Part of the brilliance of the early civil rights movement was to recognize the difference between the homogenous appearance of the white community and its actual heterogeneity, between its own past subjugation to reactionary cliques of power and its potential acceptance of new ideals and alliances. Had Martin Luther King been as stubbornly ethnocentric as some of his successors in the black movement, the blood might still be spreading in Selma today. It is part of the power of Andrew Young as well; he has the capacity to move others than blacks, to speak first of universal rights and needs and only secondarily to plead a particular ethnic cause.
It is a skill that has not been highly valued in recent years. After King, the black movement – rightfully scornful of the debilitating absorption of minorities by traditional integration (as opposed to desegregation with equality) – turned on the coalition politics of the early civil righters and pursued goals in isolation, with guerilla-like attacks on the white establishment that first stunned and confounded it but later only annoyed it. Important as it was for blacks to rediscover long-suppressed values and traditions, once so armed and united they were still only a minority – and one easily turned away from the door.
The separatist politics flourished anyway. It was more important to shock than to convert, to decry than to convince. Whites were driven away from the civil rights movement just as later males would be shunned in the feminist movement. If you were black you didn’t trust whites, if you were a woman you didn’t trust men. If you were young you didn’t trust anyone over 30. If you were a homosexual you scorned straights. And if you were an over-thirty, straight white male your main role in the social politics of the nation was to be confronted and condemned. The role provided a largely immobilized, somewhat guilty mass of American men against which to sling their ideologies.
The only problem was that by deliberately disengaging a large segment of the population from the battle for rights, active resistance to these movements could function with little fear that their opposition might be reinforced by politically stronger allies. The minority of those with power could battle the minority that sought it on terms considerably more favorable to the former than in the days of the old coalitions…
If you want someone to treat you decently one of the best ways is to treat them decently. It hasn’t been tried much recently on the white American male. It might just help… It means understanding that while you may think he’s sitting on top of the world, he probably doesn’t feel that way, that he feels as much as you a victim of forces he can’t control. It means being really interested in equality rather than exchanging one form of power abuse for another…
Since then, things have gotten worse. Not unlike our bombings in the Mid East, liberals unintentionally have increased the vociferousness of the opposition. Thirty years ago there was no Tea Party, less disenfranchisement of voters, and no Congress as dramatically opposed to basic democratic principles as there is today
Liberals, in planning strategy, tend to forget that they are a minority. Historically, the way that minorities in America have done best – as with the Irish and Jews – is to find ways to lead the majority rather than simply oppose it. One historian, for example, has noted the influence of the Irish bar as a multicultural gathering place on the political influence of the Irish in places like Chicago. We don’t think of things like that these days.
Secondly, liberals tend to lump all whites together – witness the frequent talk of white entitlement and white privilege. This does not work either morally nor politically any better than the right lumping all blacks or women together.
Thirdly, the overwhelming factor of economics is ignored. For example, whites comprise, by one recent estimate, 41% of the nation’s poor. That’s nearly twice as many poor whites as blacks. There are more white than black children living in poverty. There are more unemployed white males than black males. But in recent decades, liberals have turned their back on such matters and tend to treat white males as though they all had power. Not surprisingly, a large number of white males without power have resented this.
The irony is that concentrating on economic politics would bring various parts of America far closer together than emphasizing ethnic or gender differences that liberals claim aren’t meant to matter anyway.
Martin Luther King understood the problem, as Morris Dees noted recently. Three years before his assassination, King gave a sermon in the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta Georgia, in which he said:
[In the 1963 ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,] I tried to tell the nation about a dream I had. I must confess to you this morning that since that sweltering August afternoon in 1963, my dream has often turned into a nightmare; I’ve seen it shattered… I’ve seen my dream shattered because I’ve been through Appalachia, and I’ve seen my white brothers along with Negroes living in poverty. And I’m concerned about white poverty as much as I’m concerned about Negro poverty.
And a year before ‘I Have a Dream’ , King was in Puerto Rico, telling an audience, “We must not seek to rise from a position of disadvantage to one of advantage, thus subverting justice. .. For God is not interested merely in the freedom of black men, and brown men, and yellow men; God is interested in the freedom of the whole human race, and the creation of a society where all men will live together as brothers.”
A major turning point away from such a view was the Poor People’s Campaign, started by King before his death. Other activists took the lead. Robert T. Chase of George Mason University writes:
Reverend Ralph Abernathy, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s successor to the slain Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., began the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 with the proclamation that “the poor are no longer divided. We are not going to let the white man put us down anymore. It’s not white power, and I’ll give you some news, it’s not black power, either. It’s poor power and we’re going to use it….
The five different ethnic groups at [Resurrection City] were equally represented as African Americans, Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, American Indians, and poor whites. The Convention then allowed each ethnic group to elect a spokesman….
By 1968 African Americans were left with the choice between “black power” to create a more separate and empowered black community or integration through the inter-racial movement of poor people to achieve a new socioeconomic policy in the United States. Stokely Carmichael, co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and proponent of “black power,” commented that the difference between SCLC and SNCC was between “mobilizing versus organizing.” As [Godfrey] Hodgson has concluded “to mobilize meant to rely, in the last analysis, on white help. To organize meant to stand or fall by what black people could do for themselves.”
Therefore, the “mobilizing” philosophy of the SCLC depended on white, liberal, middle-class support for the PPC. When that support failed to materialize, the PPC failed as a movement. The result was that without King and without white, liberal, middle-class support, the PPC inadvertently served as notice to the black community that integration had not worked. Thus, with King gone and the PPC a failure, the SCLC lost credibility as the forefront Civil Rights organization causing the black community to lose its primary organizational alternative to “black power.”…
The failure of the Poor People’s Campaign extended beyond questions of leadership and tactics. Ultimately, the PPC failed because the traditional constituency of the Civil Rights movement — the white, middle-class, liberals — was repulsed by the goals of the campaign itself. Bringing the poor together as a racial amalgamation of similar interests and goals heightened the issue of class in America and, consequently, Americans came to view the Civil Rights movement as an instrument questioning the legitimacy of America’s economic system and its capitalistic “way of life.”…
After the six-week debacle for the PPC, it was clear that white, middle-class, liberal Americans would only engage in the Civil Rights movement when it clung to “American” ideals. In other words, the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960s suceeded because it fought racial inequality as part of a regional and political — not national and economic — problem. The Poor People’s Campaign, however, questioned America’s capitalist system and was thus seen as economically akin to revolution. Therefore, the PPC garnered little support from the white, middle-class, liberals who could concede concrete legislative reforms for the poor but not outright change of the economic system for all Americans. Therefore, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the apathy of the middle class, the terrible weather conditions, the failure to produce anti-poverty legislation, and the inherent difficulty of managing a city of the impoverished caused the Poor People’s Campaign to end ignominiously. When the revolutionary call for a class-based confrontation failed to garner support among the traditional Civil Rights’ constituency, the Poor People’s Campaign was doomed to failure and along with it the last vestige of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “dream.”
Thus, as early as 1968, white liberals had rejected a cross-cultural economic approach to action.
Another little noted factor was that the black concentration in Americans cities would make it easy for black politicians to gain power without having to lead whites. It seems astounding today, but when Marion Barry first ran for mayor in 1978, he had so much white support that the Afro American newspaper ran a column claiming that he was part of a plot by whites to take over the majority black city. Within one term, however, Barry had moved to a more politically comfortable heavily black constituency.
Today, liberals make up less than a quarter of the electorate. Where do they find the support to get anything done? This is a key question that has not been seriously considered for several decades.
A better politics and a happier country would more likely come from changing some their current practices and thinking.
A few suggestions:
– Stop talking so much about ethnicity and gender and talk more about economics.
– If you want to complain about what some white guys are doing, identify them by name, group or class, not by terms like “white males.”
– Tackle the bad guys not because they’re white but because they’re bad and enlist the help of ordinary white men in the task.
– Find ways that minorities can lead the majority. The remarkable Moral Mondays coalition is a good example. A national blending of black, latino and labor leaders dealing with national issues well as ethnic and union ones, could have a huge impact.
– If you don’t like being stereotyped as a black or woman remember that a white guy won’t like it either
– Preach reciprocal liberty, as in you can have your guns but we get gay marriage and abortion rights.
– Don’t try to organize the future by alienating those you want to change. Discover what you have in common.