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Moral Arguments Against Forward Progress

Let's start from the shared assumption that the United States was born from the genocide of indigenous and African people; the indigenous people killed for the land and its resources, the Africans for the labor to harvest those resources, driving down the value of labor for low wage free workers. The nation has yet to collectively reconcile that history or commit to any form of restorative justice for it. It would be fair to say of the nation that created a system of chattel slavery while still referring to itself as the Land of the Free with no sense of irony or shame that finding institutions, policies, or programs without racist origins, exceptions, or execution would be as rare as a total solar eclipse. It's helpful to start there because it's reflective of the actual reality of our nation.

It's also helpful to start there because there's a strange social media narrative that people promoting universal programs to deliver medical services to everyone and provide free public university are blind to that underlying reality. By extension, the insinuation is that the programs they promote are probably racist. Former lawyer and current scourge of centrist Twitter Briahna Joy Gray wrote recently about this phenomena
If you’re #online, like I am, you’re probably already familiar with the main argument. It goes something like this: If a policy doesn’t resolve racism “first,” it’s at worst, racist and at best, not worth pursuing.
The argument itself has evolved and grown more sophisticated but that remains the underlying premise of the critiques of universal programs, even when the authors say they believe in the policy goals. To get a sense of the reasoning that has been employed to call universal policies racist and sexist it's worth checking out the Twitter thread that Gray solicited for her article in it she asked for examples of people making variations of the argument. Reading it was a reminder of many people who have blocked me because I found it difficult to let go of some of the ridiculous things they'd said. One of my "favorites" is bot herder Sally Albright. She has a number of  entries in the thread. An example:

The notion that these policies are being pushed to the exclusion of identity politics is central to the critique and built on a false binary that falls apart under simple questioning: Why do Black people need to choose between their civil rights and economic justice? I've yet to receive an answer.

There are a number of reasons why the narrative is both evolving and expanding; the primary reason is because the ire was initially reserved for Bernie Sanders, his supporters, and anything he promoted. It needed to expand because his platform has continued to expand. It needed to evolve because, frankly, it was idiotic. The suggestion was that he only ended up in VT because of white flight and stuff and thus racist. So he's only supported by white bros because his policies are only good for them. (Seriously, read that thread.) It is at once both plainly ludicrous and so indecipherably convoluted. Albright offers a great example of this type of argument, she seems to have no purpose beyond bashing Berne, and is content to stick with the idiotic. It's clear that the extent of her understanding is "identity politics". The evolution of the narrative is due to it being taken up by more thoughtful and gifted thinkers. They've removed the binary, added a connective tissue of logic and grounded their critiques in history. As I'm writing this I'm beginning to realize that I have overestimated the degree to which the narrative has moved beyond Bernie. In fact, even with the more gifted thinkers contributing, even when he's not explicitly mentioned, the narrative remains anchored to Sanders and only expands to include any new supporter of his policies and any policies they promote. So while it was initially Medicare 4 All, free college, and a higher minimum wage that were racist or insufficiently anti-racist it has expanded to include the New Deal, unions, legalized marijuana, and now penalizing profitable companies whose workers need social services. Essentially, because the Democrats remain resistant to policies 70% of voters want and have misplaced accountability for the ridiculous loss of 16 everything is basically a proxy war for the ongoing intra-party  civil war/never-ending-primary.

This ongoing dialogue reminds me of a conversation from the primary that still annoys me. A sudden flashback to it brought the epiphany that this argument is a proxy. A Hillary supporter was trying to promote her by saying that he totally wanted more progressive policy than she promoted, it was just that Bernie wasn't the best vehicle for that policy. I'm annoyed by that conversation because he was gaslighting me and his statement was false and it's not clear to me if it was entirely conscious. I'm annoyed because I accepted his word and didn't push back. If one wanted progressive policy when in the last 40 years had there been a better opportunity than after the failure of incrementalism? Who was a more credible steward of those policies for the national stage? Could we afford to wait for a better steward to develop? The answers to those questions make it clear that if you were supporting Hillary because Bernie wasn't the best steward of progressive policy, you probably did't support progressive policy. Similarly there are an increasing number of people who say they support M4A but it doesn't do enough to address racial inequality and segregation of services. I ask whose ideas for addressing that segregation they support and how does giving every Black person healthcare not also address the racial inequality that exists in Black access to doctors, to no response. It's also important to note that their critiques of policies they say they promote boil down to those policies not addressing another intractable problem the policy's not written to address.
What truly convinces me that this argument is a proxy for the internal dem battle between centrists and progressives: almost to a person the people worried about the racist application of universal programs that currently don't exist get really defensive when you point out that dems take Black voters for granted or that Hillary ran a white supremacist dog whistle campaign against Obama.

I'm concerned with the idea of policy with political credibility. I don't mean this in relation to the constrictive conventional wisdom, but in relation to the breadth and depth of the needs the policy fulfills, as well as its potential to build coalition across that need. So, for example, although single payer was depicted as fantasy, according to conventional wisdom, its current level of support should come as no surprise when GoFundMe is a more reliable means of funding medical needs than insurance. I engage in these arguments with centrists because I think the way they address their concerns over racial inequality and universal programs are disingenuous, and I'm actually interested in addressing racial inequality. Proposals like M4A or a higher minimum wage have disproportionately positive effects for Black people who are disproportionately impacted by poverty and deprivation. The ACA only covered just over a third of the Black people previously uninsured. These programs also have the potential for building broad coalitions, which make them politically credible. It's telling that a number of the people who express concern over universal programs point to reparations as the best way of addressing racial inequality.
It seems, at least in part, to be a nod to Ta-Nehisi Coates eloquent Case For Reparations. The thing is Coates is making a moral case not a political one. Writer and professor Adoph Reed calls reparations a political dead end, in his Case Against Reparations.
To put it more provocatively, how does a project that seems so obviously a nonstarter in American politics come to capture so much of the public imagination? After all, support for affirmative action has eroded significantly, and reparations raises the ante on compensatory policy exponentially. Why has this idea attained currency now?
If we consider the assumption with which we began. the moral case is even somewhat limited. Putting aside the political credibility of a policy focused on giving a trillion dollars to 12.6% of the population, I have yet to hear the case for reparations that includes addressing the dispossession of indigenous people. I have yet to hear from the people who worry about how universal programs might discriminate and prefer reparations because of the racist nature of the country how to build coalition for this very Black-centric initiative.

My knowledge of history has vast holes, really easy state of being in which to find yourself. Because of this I have been somewhat reluctant to challenge narratives heavily reliant on analysis of history or what I assumed was an analysis. In actuality what most often happens is that people recount history and leave it to you to infer the relevance to the universal policy being criticized. Recently Bhaskar Suhnkara wrote about unions as a means of fighting racism and sexism. He says
As Jake Rosenfeld and Meredith Kleykamp point out, when President Franklin D Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, which guaranteed the right of private sector employees to collectively bargain, less than 1% of black workers were in unions. By the early 1950s, 40% of black males working in the private sector were unionized. This high level of union membership wasn’t an accident – excluded groups consciously used collective bargaining to fight against discrimination and win a better position in the labor market.
Bearing in mind the assumptions with which we began it should surprise no one that the US has produced unions that have replicated the racism of the larger society, far more than have challenged those racist structures. That doesn't change the fact that access to unions increased wages for Black workers and even offered a degree of protection for non-union workers. Despite the racism of unions they were a net positive for Blacks because while replicating the systems of the larger society, by their nature they were more egalitarian Yet, some critics have intimated that the racism was greater than the benefits by either arguing something else and ignoring the actual facts or essentially pretending other factors rendered them moot.
They start by accusing Sunkhara of omitting important information. Over the course of 20 tweets back and forth it becomes clear that whether the union is public sector or private sector wages are higher for Black women in a union. In fact, the obvious conclusion to which they seem reluctant to arrive would be that we should ensure Black women easier access to a union. They attempt to portray the history of unions as uniquely racist rather than as institutions in a racist society by ignoring any positive contributions.

Much like Coates I don't necessarily believe in the eradication of racism from the US. I do believe it's possible to begin to address some of the racial disparities. To do that requires cohering around policy with actual political capital and credibility. Thoughtfully designed universal programs offer the potential of addressing racial inequality and being politically credible. The nation born of unreconciled genocide is not one for making the moral case for justice.

Comments

  1. This is a great piece.

    Well to do Liberals latch onto Reparations because it is the ultimate anti-racist policy but also has 0% chance of happening politically. So it allows them to virtue signal that they are the "true anti-racist" while simultaneously opposing every policy that could realistically improve the material conditions of Black people. Paradoxically, these are the same people who chide Medicare-for-All supporters for being not being "pragmatic enough".

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    1. Thanks, it feels a little unfocused to me, but apparently it gets the point across. I'm reflecting on the degree to which these people critique things like M4A as being insufficiently anti-racist is because the specific disparity being addressed is not one that effects them and they are usually dealing with much less material manifestations of racism.

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