The prey bite back
by Tom Sullivan
After November 2016, Democratic centrists urged the party to abandon "identity politics." Mark Lilla suggested a conservative politics that rejects the existence of a common good is not best countered by one that "fetishizes our individual and group attachments."
He may have a point up to a point. But either/or arguments always raise red flags for me. The counterargument from centrists here is a rejection of competing stances that throw babies out with the bathwater.
A discussion Rebecca Traister hosts for New York magazine looks instead for synthesis. Felicia Wong, the head of the Roosevelt Institute in New York, plus Institute fellows Dorian Warren and Andrea Flynn, three of the authors of Rewrite the Racial Rules: Building an Inclusive American Economy, addressed how economic fixes fail to address unwritten rule sets that perpetuate inequality.
Wong tells Traister, "Democrats need to figure out how to combine issues linked to gender, race, and immigration — identity politics — into a more coherent economic framework that reduces the sense that one group wins at another group’s expense."
The three suggest that the populist push to increase working people's paychecks may boost their incomes while still leaving them unable to build wealth. The barriers to home ownership Ta-Nehisi Coates addressed in his reparations piece for Atlantic touched on some of that. But the Roosevelt fellows find:
... in order to understand racial and economic inequality in America today, we must look below the surface and understand the web of rules and institutions that lead to unequal outcomes. While those unequal outcomes are very clear to the vast majority of Americans, many still believe they are the result of personal ambition and individual choices, and that the solution is for individuals to take more “personal responsibility.” This belief is incorrect, and a rules-based analysis will illuminate how and why: Our rules and institutions are rarely colorblind, and even when policymakers intend on race-neutral results, policies are refracted through historical institutions, current rules, and societal norms, resulting in disparate impacts on black and white Americans.A surprising example both of how those rules privilege one group over another and how economic policy and identity issues intersect is in the collapse of anti-trust enforcement. Felicia Wong explains (emphasis mine):
FW: Anti-trust is a super-hot topic these days, but also seems abstract and technocratic. But across almost every piece of the economy — the health sector, the banking sector, the airline industry — you’ve seen more and more corporate concentration. In every sector of the economy you’re seeing fewer and fewer companies as incumbents. And they are squeezing out new businesses and squeezing out the growth of innovation at medium-sized businesses. So there is a kind of sclerosis of the economy at the top and fewer and fewer corporate structures controlling more and more. Why is this important to our race lens? Because you see fewer black and brown Americans and women in ownership and executive positions; they just don’t have the opportunity because there are fewer corporate strongholds. Look at the Fortune 500 list; it really is white men, almost exclusively. If you’re gonna be all-American about the importance of healthy capitalism, it is not healthy to see this kind of corporate concentration at the top.This view shifts the left-populist conversation from "corporate oligarchs are bad" to why corporate oligarchs are bad for your American Dream. It is a message that blends class analysis with race analysis in a way that joins the economic interests of the Democrats' diverse, urban base to those of voters in paler areas of the country where they once drew more support. Their fates are linked.
This is also a rules story, because the reason you see so much corporate concentration is because you saw a relaxation of all of the merger rules starting in about 1980, starting with the Bork Doctrine, which said all you should really look at when you judge whether a company should be allowed to either merge or grow bigger is whether there is a price effect on the consumer. What was ignored was what that merger would do to wages, to the structure of the whole market, and whether new businesses would be able to start. It’s a very narrow consumer-focused lens that ostensibly is supposed to be better for the consumer and a new liberal mind-set, but has all these other ancillary effects, including race effects for workers and even executives. If people aren’t owning grocery chains and insurance chains and midsize businesses, they aren’t growing wealth; they become task acceptors, not task definers, in a way that is going to keep them trapped in low-wage work.
As noted, many progressives consider economic policy alone to be a sufficient remedy for these issues. But for black Americans, higher incomes or more education do not remove the threat of injustice. Indeed, the continued shooting of unarmed black Americans underscores the limits of economic policy in addressing systemic racism. A progressive economic agenda that seeks to raise the minimum wage, for example, will benefit black Americans, but it will not change the fact that a dollar of income in black hands buys less safety, less health, less wealth, and less education than a dollar in white hands. Nor will it address the underlying structures of racial exclusion and discrimination that cause black Americans to be overrepresented among unemployed and low-wage workers and underrepresented in the middle class, let alone the 1 percent.One solution, the Roosevelt team agrees, is changing who writes the rules. Rules reflect the sensibilities and interests of those who draft them. Dorian Warren explains:
I believe social movements matter more than representation. I believe that social movements then lead to representation. One could argue that the big changes in this country have always been some result of social movements taking hold of the political system and either reforming it or seizing it or capturing it.Which is why Traister leads by observing that our tradition of electing "a certain kind of person — the white male kind" leads to rule sets that reflect their interests to the exclusion of others'. With unprecedented numbers of women running for office in 2018, we are in a moment in which a seismic shift in power could begin to rewrite them. "If you don't have a seat at the table, you're probably on the menu," as Sen. Elizabeth Warren likes to say.