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.