Friday, August 26, 2016

Tearing ourselves apart

The United States faces in my opinion the second greatest political crisis in its history, less serious only than the civil war, largely because the idea of genuine national unity has evaporated.  The two political parties are divided, literally as never before, along lines of race and gender--indeed, those divisions are much more significant than those of class.  Donald Trump, who has run almost explicitly as the candidate of white American in general and white male America in particular, will probably lose the election, but he is likely to win more than 40% of the vote, compared to the 13.5% that George Wallace won playing the same part in 1968.  His voters will probably emerge from the election angrier than ever.  Meanwhile, among the black community, the ideas that discrimination, racism and the legacy of slavery have created specifically oppressive conditions that demand race-specific results seems stronger than ever, as exemplified by the Black Lives Matter movement.

Belonging as I do to the left side of American politics, I am going to focus on what my own side has done to help create this mess.  It is not merely that Hillary Clinton specifically rejected Bernie Sanders's class-based appeal during the primaries, arguing that decreasing income inequality wouldn't do much about racism, sexism and homophobia.  She is also explicitly running as the candidate of women, minorities, and immigrants, and raising the rhetorical ante this week by labeling Trump as the candidate of racist white Americans.  The whole emphasis on racial disparities in the economy, education, and the criminal justice system that began half a century ago has promoted the idea of our economy as a zero-sum game in which white males have too much and everyone else has too little.  The increasingly popular concept of "white male privilege" contributes to the same view.  In my opinion, this view, which is mainstream in the Democratic party and hegemonic in academia, has done a great deal to bring about the rise of Donald Trump.  It has convinced millions of Americans--white, black, and Hispanic--that most poor people are minorities and that most federal programs only help them--two facts that are clearly and demonstrably false.  Our problems, which are not racial in origin in my opinion, are invariably interpreted through a racial lens. The effect of this in many cases is obscure both the scope and the depth of the problems we face, and to make it much harder to address them seriously.  And to illustrate this I am going to take one of the problems most under discussion: the issue of mass incarceration.

The other day, a facebook friend posted this graph and the accompanying story.  The graph shows what happened to incarceration rates in the US from 1960 to 2010, broken down by race and gender.  The headline, typically, stressed that the gap in incarceration rates between whites on the one hand and blacks and hispanics on the other had increased.  Typically--and trust me, from the googling I've just done, I am not making this up--the graph and the story dealt entirely in percentages, not in total numbers.  I decided to look up some census data and get a better perspective on these statistics. Combining different data sets always has problems, and I am sure my figures are not exactly accurate, but they are close enough to paint a clear and true picture.

Because segregation still prevailed in much of the United States in 1960, far fewer women earned their own living, and gays generally had to stay in the closet, it is fashionable to portray the 1950s as a hopelessly unenlightened and oppressive era, one that no one in their right mind would want to return to.  I can assure you without much fear of contradiction, though, that there are 1.5 million Americans today--or as of 2010--who would be delighted to return to 1960 if they could, because they are in prison today and would not have been in prison then.  Leaving race aside for a moment, the increase in incarceration in our society since 1960 is absolutely staggering--one of the biggest single differences, I would argue, between the US then and the US now.

The population of the United States in 1960 was 179 million people.  Of those, according to the incarceration rates in the table that I linked above, 375,790 were confined in jails and prisons. (I used US census data to get to the totals.)  That amounts to .21% of the population, one fifth of one percent.  In 2010 the population had reached 309 million--and the prison and jail population was 2.3 million, .74 percent--more than three times higher.  We had 375,790 people in prison in 1960; we now have nearly 2.3 million, about six times as many.  Even if we apply today's incarceration rate to the much smaller population of 1960, we get a surplus of 1.5 million prisoners--the source of the figure that I gave in the last paragraph.  That is why many states--such as California, the largest--now spend more money on their prisons than on higher education, the reverse of the situation in 1960.  This is an appalling situation--and its effects are not confined to minority populations.

Yes, the incarceration rates for blacks and Hispanics are much higher than those for whites, but the absolute numbers are not.  If my calculations are correct, black prisoners do represent a plurality of the prison population.  I show 830,000 black prisoners in 2010, 815,000 white ones, and 446,000 Hispanics.  (The Hispanic numbers have grown by far the most since 1960 because, of course, their total numbers have grown the most.)  But that still means that there are more than twice as many white people in prison now than there were total Americans in 1960, and the population has not doubled.  In fact, among demographic categories in the table, the biggest single percentage increase in incarceration rates, 1960-2010, was for white women, whose rate went from 11 per 100,000 in 1960 to 91 per 100,000 in 2010.

The terrible irony of all this, it seems to me, is that it is probably in the blue states, where the white population (and a substantial chunk of the minority population) is much better off, that the racial disparity in prison populations is the greatest.  There are poor white people everywhere, but there are far more of them, percentage-wise, in the poorest states, which are red states almost without exception.  The Trump voters know all about poverty, crime, and incarceration in their own white communities and they know that the Democratic Party always seems to talk about these issues in racial terms.  I continue to feel it's pathetic that they are voting for man who will do less than nothing for them, but their resentment of my side is quite understandable.

I do not have time today to look up the figure again, but I recently did confirm that most of the people killed by police officers in this country are also white.  Yes, proportionally, they are fewer--but in absolute terms, they are more.  I am afraid that when BLM activists insist on focusing only on black deaths, and when white liberals stress statistical disparities, it does imply that the white deaths aren't important, because they are proof, in some bizarre way, of "white privilege," since there are proportionately fewer of them.  When I pointed this out on a very interracial facebook page, two young black people asked why the white community wasn't more upset about their people who were killed by the police.  That's an interesting question.  It may be that it is an aspect of being part of what has been the largest and dominant group that one does not attribute misfortune to race, and is more likely to blame it on circumstances or, in some cases, on what the victim actually did.  All of us ought to ponder that question.

Let me address my concluding remarks to my fellow liberals, black and white.  For 50 years we have argued that race was the key to problems of poverty, education, and the criminal justice system.  What has happened? Education is only marginally more integrated than it was then, poverty is still very widespread, and the percentage of Americans in prison has tripled.  And it has become much, much harder than in the 1960s to build a political coalition to do something about these problems.  Sadly, it is clear to me that white liberals--especially in academia--see it as a mark of their own virtue to put a racial cast on these problems.  It isn't.  They all affect millions of white people as well--and casting them in racial terms alienates those people and makes it harder to find solutions, as the state politics of the red states prove beyond any doubt.  The nation desperately needs causes around which all of us can rally.  Poverty, education and criminal justice could play that role--if we recognized that they affect us all.

The great winner in this story has been corporate America. Around the turn of the 19-20th century, when Populism swept what we now call the Red States, southern politicians turned white voters against disenfranchised blacks to defect their anger from railroads and banks.  Now both parties are playing the same game from different sides of the fence.  Corporate America has leavened its upper reaches some female and minority executives, but in general, it impartially exploits all the rest of us.  It will continue to do so until we can impartially unite to limit its power, as we did from the 1930s through the 1960s, with extraordinary results.  Both Trump and Clinton are now deepening the racial divide.  They are both members are allies of our corporate and financial elite.


Sean Love said...

Thank you for doing this.

A pundit I highly admire, Michael Lind, has been saying this (i.e., your conclusion) for decades. It started with his book, The Next American Nation, (1995). Interestingly, he started his career in the 1980's as a protege of William F. Buckley Jr., arguably THE protege of WFB jr, as I think he was being groomed to take over TNR. But in the early 90's he had an epiphany and described his conversion as one to "liberal nationalism". Your analysis here would fit perfectly within a liberal nationalist framework (as described by Lind).

Unfortunately Lind wrote a scathing book review of The Fourth Turning in 1997, but seems to have come around to some of its ideas since even if not explicitly so.

-Sean Love (member of Dr. Kaiser's aforementioned Facebook page)

Unknown said...

I don't think basing your argument, with which I agree, on raw numbers of those incarcerated is on firm ground. If the total number of whites and blacks in prison is roughly equal, that doesn't mean that blacks do not have a gripe. When the black population is about 13% of Americans but constitute 41% of the prison population there are reasons beyond just economics that must be addressed in the interests of equity and fairness.

If I understand, your argument is that there is too much emphasis on identity politics and so the larger issues of income disparity and poverty become opaque. This is only going to get worse for every worker regardless of race or gender. If the world continues globalization, low paying jobs will continue to migrate to developing countries, and if the world de-globalizes it will be because technology replaces repetitive work, which is where the less educated make a living.

The US is at a point where the future "fields of endeavor" may not support a full level of employment, or even enough income for a robust middle class, the golden goose of American prosperity. There are those who are thinking about this, and what they are proposing are ways to avoid massive civil unrest, not only in the US but in developed and developing countries, as well. As you have eloquently stated in your writings, the US is hamstrung in dealing with the broader issues by the polarized paralysis of our national government. Let us hope that our political class extracts their heads from rectal defilade and deals with the real issues of our time. You have been looking for a unifying cause, but let's hope that US citizenry does not find it in the same or similar way that the Russians did in 1917 or the Germans in 1933.

Bozon said...


Great post. Sums it up.

I want to talk about some issues you discuss, which have set domestic politics on fire, in a somewhat wider context, for a moment.

The idea of genuine national unity here was never, in my view, a powerful American ideal.

Americans had ideals, strong ones indeed, such as loose federalism, global brotherhood of all rebellious libertarians regardless of race or religion, favored weak anti aristocratic and anti monarchist governments everywhere, democratic government by all the people, separation of church and state, and much else.

Other aspects of the current crisis, domestically, have to do with the breakdown in a liberal international order based on Western and Americanist, civilization-neutral religion-neutral and race-neutral, economic and political ideals, which other civilizations, states, and empires have never shared, and which were even foreign to the West itself until the 18th Century.

One could call the global crisis the backlash of Western liberal Enlightenment colonialism. It has a deeply racialist flavor, as well as an economic religious and political one.

Who are the big success stories in the global economy lately?

They are the Japanese, then the Chinese and other Asian societies the Tigers etc., who are rather racially and culturally segregationist in their ideology and politics, both against each other, and against all others.

The Muslims are also in their way a big success story, especially those who had oil, and mostly share the kind of racial, political, and religious intolerance seen elsewhere.

Trump can rub these successes in Americans' noses because they are an enormous, quite obvious, fact.

Having Mexicans streaming over the border in millions has not made the long hopelessly uphill task of national unification here easier, going forward, but rather impossible forever.

You characterize corporate America as the big winner domestically. There used to be such a thing as corporate America, but the globalization that has gone on for so long now has transformed American corporations into mostly global ones, with much of their asset bases and markets strewn across the globe.

All the best

ed boyle said...

Good article, great comments. We often talk of tipping points and individuals making a diference. I was too young to remember but I read an article about Nelson Rockefeller. One fine day ca. 1970, as drug addicts peacefully lined the NYC streets during one of the long hot summers he decided to go Rudi Giuliani on them. His imprisonment response to hippie liberal drug addiction of boomers was universally emulated, creating the situation we see now. Crime was not necessarily drug problem. I read an amazing article showing that lead in blood due to lead in gasoline caused lots of crime, violence and that crimeper capita in every community, black,, white has statistically reduced as lead has reduced(I believe it stays with those who absorbed it so people have to age to reduce crime and next generation comes on line).

Next tipping point. Ronald Reagan, summer 1981, air traffic control. Absolutist response taken as green light by private sector to destroy unions through all means, foul and fair. Done job. Rockefeller and Reagan almost same age great generation. Draw own conclusions.

2nd comment insightful. Global overproduction similar to 1875-1890, 1930s recessions. Need for income, meaningful employment, decoupled from population growth which industrial capacity, food production has allowed to come into being. This must channel into dissatified young men looking for trouble in crime, civil war, insurgencies. Classic crisis war scenarion from strauss and howe. Couple that phenomenon with the search for profits by the wealthy in low interest environment and we are ready for a war. Lots of young men bored plus endless capital laying around to make weapons. The spark is a renewed severe recession, right around the corner.

And last comment is certainly right. European attempts to go American in terms of melting pot are unsuccessful.London has 57% non british native population. In 15 years cockneys will be extinct. Judge Nigel Farage as you will but the fall of the empire meant an open door policy to former colonies as a price to maintain influence. If such a trend were to continue against burgeoning 3rd world population white british will eventually go extinct in toto, Merkel's invitation to the global poor notwithstanding. If Brexit is a signal, Merkel's invitation was a trigger point in history bringing down unified Europe. Only Germany was so brainwashed post WWII to accept anything imposed on them due to guilt. Everyone else has common sense and identity. I read as France will after presidential election effectively exit EU like Poland, Hungary, ignoring austerity rules from Berlin, World Bank system. The control over EU via franco-german alliance and UK is basis of NATO, USA economic dominance transatlantic. US power is falling apart from orkneys to incirlik. This is also typical crisis scenario, everyone goes own direction. Result is European dissent if not war, no useful ally for America vis-a-vis Russia, China. Putin just has to bide his time to get peace on Western front. Neocons want war, profit growth for wall street only through expansion, siberian resource grab. Peace is no option. Such an attitude does not help working classes. Jobs might come to masses by import restrictions, low automation factories, freeze on innovations. IOW opposite of progress. We are superfluous.

Bozon said...

Sorry to post here again. I thought your readers of this post deserved something bewildering to ponder: We think of race relations here now as at some kind of nadir, since 1960s.

The far right, though, can easily, now, with global civilizational religious fundamentalist conflicts heating up, and do to all American people of color what they have already tried to do with President Obama, paint them all as Muslims under the skin, analogously to what had been done to Jews, turn a racial characteristic into a religious marker or moniker, even though most all American blacks have been converted to Christianity for hundreds of years.

It is not a stretch, and would not at all surprise me.

All the best