Race, Class, and Social Formation

A friend recently texted me with the following inquiry. Her public school district was conducting “yet another workshop to teach us to get in touch with our racist selves.” She then texted something else that caught my attention: “They r too afraid to talk about the socio-economic issues so they tell us if we talk about race and how it impacts behavior, then we are racist. Thoughts?”

Thoughts? Yes. First, I should say unequivocally that I agree with Cornel West. Race Matters. Second, since the formation of the Communist Party in the late 19th century and both the perceived as well as the actual threat communism posed to business interests in the U.S. and abroad, it has been taken as a given that discussions of class are well neigh treasonous, but at the very least are ideological and therefore should be excluded from all official, public discourse. This helps to explain the largely sanitized, completely innocuous version of “social stratification” dished out to nearly all public high school students and even most college students who dare venture into the dangerous field of Sociology, God forbid. But, third, this also helps to explain why such great weight has been placed upon race in the U.S., which has always been compelled to bear the burden not only of minor genetic differentiation and the social and economic distinctions that social actors invariably attach to this differentiation, but the burden as well of those social and economic distinctions themselves, as though race were itself the cause of these differentiations and not instead the reverse.

Imagine, for a moment, if public school teachers and parents of students in public schools were instead called aside for a special workshop to discuss social and economic differences and the social scientifically indisputable negative consequences these differences have on learning outcomes. Children of families that survive without a living wage display much poorer learning outcomes no matter how well or poorly teachers teach or administrators administer. (Actually that’s not entirely true. Some communities choose to distribute their resources to make sure that children from families that do not enjoy a living wage nevertheless are supported by a network of educated adult role models and tutors, enjoy easy access to free health care, are cared for by loving adults in neighborhoods that are free from violence, and are encouraged to play, learn, and grow in ways and in environments most conducive to the most desirable learning outcomes. But, more on that in a moment.) Although such workshops are virtually unimaginable, we can guess what might happen. On the one hand, they might prove terribly disempowering not only because teachers and administrators might learn that learning outcomes appear to be subject to forces completely beyond their control; but also because parents who do not earn a living wage (or who did not benefit from a college education or from college-educated parents who earned a living wage) might come to feel that the learning outcomes of their children appear to be dependent on social and economic forces completely beyond their control. This disempowerment, in turn, might then be taken as a license to do nothing.

But, such a workshop might also prove specially empowering since it would help parents, teachers and administrators to clearly identify the kinds of practical steps they have to take together in order to improve learning outcomes. In other words, rather than continuously kicking the can down the road — parents blaming teachers and teachers’ unions, teachers and teachers’ unions blaming administrators, administrators blaming poor funding and therefore bad politicians, bad politicians blaming a bad business environment or bad teachers, and so on — we might instead be able to identify the bucket of goods that actually contribute to positive learning outcomes: good health and healthcare, a network of educated, successful, caring adults intimately involved in a student’s day-to-day life, safe homes and safe neighborhoods, as well as books, pencils, computers, paper, and highly-trained, well compensated teachers who teach in classrooms with a low student to teacher ratio.

All of these goods are known to dramatically improve learning outcomes. To be sure, they have also become deeply and perhaps incurably ideological. Insofar as “productivity” and “efficiency” have become the mantras of elected officials and school administrators, the last thing they want to hear is that if we want better learning outcomes for all students, it will take more than firing a handful of pro-union teachers and depriving the rest of adequate health care and benefits. Students experience poor learning outcomes because of bad teachers. Get rid of the bad teachers and learning outcomes will rise. Never mind that were this the science with which we had sought to send men to the moon, we would never have built even a launch pad, much less a rocket.

Back to our fictional workshop. So parents, teachers, and administrators now know what it takes. They have the buckets and they know the goods that they need to put in those buckets. Let the Chamber of Commerce wail. Let the Republican Party cry foul. But, then, let the teachers, students, administrators, and parents get to work filling the buckets . . . together, as a community, for the good of students.

What will they do? They will organize together. Politically? Yes. Socially? Yes. Economically? Yes. And they will discover that they have the battle of their lives on their hands.

So, the question might be: why didn’t the workshop about race generate such commotion and turmoil? Why didn’t the Chamber of Commerce pull all stops? Why didn’t the Republican Party cry foul?

Two reasons come to mind. First, the Chamber of Commerce knows that so long as the discussion is limited to race, their constituency, business is completely absolved of any complicity in poor learning outcomes or responsibility for good learning outcomes. It’s about race, not about class. Second, the Republican Party knows full well that a discussion of race doesn’t even begin to touch the surface. It’s completely innocuous. A discussion of race places blame and responsibility right where they believe it belongs, on teachers and parents, not on administrators, legislators, and private business.

Of course, there is a coda to this little imaginative exercise. A discussion limited to race, it so happens, also doesn’t get at race. This is because race is implicated and imbricated in all of the other issues touched upon in our imaginary workshop: class, social location, economic benefits, wages, health care, community formation, and so on. That is to say, the Chamber of Commerce and the Republican Party know that if we limit our discussion to race, we won’t even talk about race.

Let’s have another, completely different kind of workshop. What do you say?

Richard Mourdock and “The Women’s Vote”

Mourdock Draws Criticism for Rape Comments in Indiana Senate Debate – NYTimes.com

And Republicans wonder why they’ve reached a glass ceiling in their drive to court “the women’s vote.” Yet, in all honesty, Republicans are not so much misogynist as much as they are misanthropist in general; and it is their misanthropy, their hostility toward human beings, that drives their misogyny, their hostility toward women. The difference is not incidental. Here’s why.

Let us suppose that what Richard Mourdock meant to say was that God loves and cares for every child born into the world, no matter how that child arrived. My best guess is that most of us would share his sentiment, if not his theology. But, now, let us suppose further that Richard Mourdock had gone on to say that because God loves and cares for every child born into the world, he believes that as a nation we have an obligation to make sure that that child enjoys sufficient health care, education, housing, and nutrition, not simply until that child can take care of itself, but, since all of us remain God’s children for our entire lives, until that child goes to meet his or her maker. Let us suppose Richard Mourdock had said this. What then?

Had Mourdock made this second statement, he would have lost nearly every Republican vote — women’s vote, men’s vote, it doesn’t matter. Why? Because this second statement challenges a much more fundamental principle of contemporary Republican ideology: freedom. Yes, God loves and wants to care for every child born into the world; but that is completely different from us as a nation demonstrating our love and care for every child by substantively providing that child with health, education, and welfare; because, in the Republican’s current lexicon, public provision of these goods relieves children and their parents of the moral responsibility they have to get a job and provide for their own. According to this lexicon, market freedom is God’s preferred means for providing for every child born into the world; public assistance, because it undermines market freedom, does more harm than good. Men and women (and their children, wanted or not) need to be subjected to the moral discipline of the market.

Now, I want simply to point out that this free market mantra is embraced and repeated by every single movement Republican; by women as well as by men; by Catholics as well as by Protestants and Jews. And, while it is surely true that the harm spread by this mantra falls unequally on women, children, and the elderly, it in no way intends to single out women, children and the elderly. Rather does it intend to subject all people to the strict discipline of the market. This is why Todd Aikin’s and Richard Mourdock’s remarks are not so much misogynist as they are misanthropist. They display a hostility not only toward women, but toward men as well. And this helps to explain how it is possible for women to embrace the Tea Party or the right wing Christian social agenda. Yes, there may be just a touch of self-loathing here; but this should not bring us to overlook the huge helping of hostility toward all people: men, women, children, the elderly, you name it.

So, what is it about market freedom that generates, even cultivates, this kind of universal hatred? Let me suggest that what generates this hatred is confusion over two very different sorts of freedom; market freedom and substantive freedom. Market freedom takes its bearings from the Kantian notion of the absence of constraint. Freedom = Nothing. Substantive freedom, by contrast, takes its bearings from “the conditions that make for freedom.” This is the classical Abrahamic (Jewish, Christian, Muslim) understanding of freedom. It always is bound to ask: freedom for what (not freedom from what)?

We can now appreciate why market freedom is not simply misogynist, but misanthropist as well. Market freedom plays upon the human propensity for us to blame our conditions for bad outcomes. If we are the subject of a bad outcome, then this bad outcome has to be the consequence of an unfavorable condition. Under such circumstances, freedom would entail the elimination of all conditions. Individuals are free only when they are unconditioned. This longing for the absence of constraint takes on a moral quality when individuals suffer from conditions that they have brought upon themselves; justice entails that they suffer for the conditions that they have produced. This helps to explain why the wealthy man or woman who has taken control and responsibility for the conditions that shape their lives is also considered both moral and free.

It is not difficult to see why, in this free market universe, while the rapist should be held responsible for his crime, his victim should also be held responsible for her choices — whether or not she carries the fetus to term. Nor is it difficult to see why, in this free market universe, the greatest crime possible is to relieve individuals of the consequences of their choices or the choices of others — say, by feeding, housing, clothing, or otherwise caring for them. When the public provides these goods for individuals, it short-circuits the consequences that ought to follow from their choices.

Substantive freedom — the freedom that rests at the core of most of the world’s religions and ethical systems — takes a completely different, nearly the opposite tack. Because it is grounded in our responsibility for one another (rather than upon the Kantian concept of the abstract, mathematical, individual, who is, literally, nothing) substantive freedom always asks about the conditions that make for freedom. I am not free to learn if I do not know how to read and write. I am not free to think and breath if I am not healthy, safe, and secure. I am not free to work for a living where employers deem my marginal cost of living still too high to hire me. And so on.

So, just as market freedom leads to an ethic of individual punishment and responsibility, so substantive freedom leads to an ethic of community service and public responsibility.

The marvel here is that right wing Christians have adopted as their ethical and political road map a system that was explicitly developed and promulgated as a secular, objective, scientific system directed against their faith. And anyone who doubts this fact has clearly never read (or never understood) Immanuel Kant, Friedrich von Hayek, or Ayn Rand.

Wouldn’t it be nice if economic injustice contained its own penalty?

The Self-Destruction of the 1 Percent – NYTimes.com

Chrystia Freeland’s op ed is well worth the read. The late Giovanni Arrighi, however, had an uncomfortable response to the dilemma of the 1 Percent: transport your wealth elsewhere. Which is precisely what the Viennese did: investing it in hedge funds, money markets, and bonds all across northern and western Europe. It would be nice if economic injustice contained within itself the seeds of its own destruction, as Marx taught. Unfortunately, politics is the only tool for justice I am aware of; political actors cannot cede their responsibility to the necessity of the market.

Your Vote Matters

Joseph W.H. Lough

Surely where the Presidential election is concerned, my state, California, is a done deal. And, unless you live and vote in one of the battleground states, perhaps you are in the same boat. I am sending out this first of three pre-election blogs for two reasons. First, when pollsters canvass your state and publish their results, they are counting on your vote. If you don’t vote, then their predictions may not prove to be accurate. Second, whether or not you live or vote in a battleground state, your vote and your active encouragement of others to vote can tip the balance. This will be a terribly, nail-bitingly, hand-wringingly, close election. You, personally, need to be actively engaged in getting out the vote, not only in your state or in your immediate circles, but in other states among individuals you may not have talked to for years or even decades.

To make your job easier, I have done, am doing, two things. First, I have published a special eBook a link to which you can send to your friends. Here it is: http://amzn.com/B009SDDDF4. This little book (less than 100 pages long) will convince anyone (1) that public institutions and public wealth are at the core of our nation’s U.S. Constitution; (2) that opposition to public institutions and public values is as anti-American as, well, flying the Union Jack on the Fourth of July; and (3) that voting Democratic on November 6th is the only way any true American – Democratic, Republican, or Independent – can show their support for their country. If you know anyone, or know anyone who knows anyone, who is even dreaming about voting Republican, or if you have some other means – a web site or blog, a radio station or show , a newspaper or newsletter – to publicize Commonwealth, you need to send them this link: http://amzn.com/B009SDDDF4.

Second, I am publishing my choices on local, regional, state, and federal candidates and ballot measures. These choices are based on the premise that while the private economy is the proper place for consumers to express their private economic choices and deploy their private wealth, public office is the appropriate place for citizens to select candidates and approve of measures that strengthen and protect the wealth we hold in common, our common wealth, or, simply our republic.

Here are my choices:

2012 Presidential and Senate Endorsement

2012 California State Assembly and House

2012 Alameda County Endorsements


2012 California House and Senate Recommendations


It’s Not About Money

For Minority Students at Elite New York Private Schools, Admittance Doesn’t Bring Acceptance – NYTimes.com

Jenny Anderson’s article from Friday’s ‘s NYT will doubtless discourage many readers who will be reminded, once again, as Cornel West has aptly put it, that race matters; but who may also be left wondering why race matters. The pastor at my church on Chicago’s south side, which I attended while going to graduate school at the University of Chicago, was fond of telling us: poverty, by definition, can be solved by throwing money at it. Now, however, I’m not so sure.
The students and families in Jenny Anderson’s article have seemingly done all of the right things. But, then, I am reminded of Jesus’ response to the rich man who had also done all of the right things. “One thing do you lack. Sell all that you have and give all your money to the poor. Then come follow me.”

I am reminded of this response because in all of the schools to which Anderson refers in her article, there is something rotten about the culture into which these students are seeking to gain entrance. This is a culture of privilege, a culture literally of “private law,” of laws (social, cultural, economic) that are different and operate differently from the laws that operate elsewhere. Nor is the privilege under which these schools operate at all a matter of chance or luck.

Parents who want the best for their children know that private wealth has actively sought to deprive the public square of any and all means to improve upon and perfect “the wealth we hold in common.” Only in enclaves where private and public wealth coincide, in neighborhoods and school districts where the wealthy are able to maintain control over the public uses of their private wealth; only there does private wealth actively promote the wealth we hold in common. Here parents are confident that their sons and daughters will gain the tools, skills, knowledge, and aptitudes they will need to maintain and perpetuate their privilege.

But what happens then when a student who is not similarly privileged enters into such enclaves? Sociologically speaking, what happens is that both the entering student and the privileged community into which she or he has gained entrance immediately recognize the differences that distinguish them from one another. Such differences extend far beyond money, drawing into play the full range of private social, political, economic, and cultural “laws” — the private laws or privileges — that have governed the actions and mediated the social relations for each student.

At bottom, however, the deepest and most fundamental distinction, I believe, is the distinction between public and private wealth itself. If I am from private wealth — and not merely its possessor — it really matters very little whether I vote for Obama or “support” public programs. Private wealth has waged a largely successful battle against public institutions. I want my child to have the best education, which means either that I will home-school, or that I will send him or her to a private school, or that I will seek to locate in a school district where private and public wealth happen to coincide. And, when I make these decisions, I am practically reinforcing a set of distinctions that, whatever I might say or believe, have the effect of supporting private wealth and private law over public wealth and public law.

But — and this is the critical matter — when I support private wealth and private law over public wealth and public law, I am lending my support for the very system of invidious distinctions and prejudices that will in turn isolate and exclude either my son or daughter or the sons and daughters of others. I am perpetuating a culture of private wealth and privilege.

Which is why we need to redouble our efforts to support public institutions at every turn; as though these institutions were the only institutions to which we and our families had access. Put differently, if you would not enroll your child in a public school, then you and your neighbors are not doing enough, not paying enough, not contributing enough to the public weal. If you would not want to be cared for at San Francisco General, then you and your neighbors are not doing enough, not paying enough, not contributing enough to the wealth we hold in common.
Nor are the reasons too difficult to discern. If we want to live in a world that reproduces excellence, the actual construction of that world cannot be excluded from the set of attributes that make up that excellence. One does not create a secure world by living in a gated community. One does not eliminate privilege by becoming privileged. Nor do we solve the problem of world hunger by feasting at Chez Panisse.

But that means that we also cannot solve the problem of privilege in education by enrolling our children in privileged programs, expecting that, once they have gained entrance, these programs will somehow cease to make the invidious distinctions or cease offering the privileges that made them attractive in the first place. We should not be surprised then when our children, assuming they do not come from privilege, or assuming they do not come from wealth, become the objects of exclusion when we have placed them in a community whose very perpetuation and success depends upon this principle of exclusion. That is why we selected it in the first place.

As I have argued elsewhere (see Commonwealth), restoring our vision for public life is not a matter of money alone; rather is it a matter of the wealth we hold in common, of our common wealth. But we cannot simultaneously support the wealth we hold in common while practically supporting institutions that undermine that wealth.

Leaders at Work on Plan to Avert Mandatory Cuts

Congressional Performative Arts

Here is what is remarkable. These are the leaders we chose. They are playing, performing, for us. They are behaving as they believe we want them to behave.

There was a reason 229 years ago the framers of the nation’s constitution locked folks like Patrick Henry and Tom Paine out of the Constitutional Convention; why nearly all the states set high wealth and property barriers to voting; and why the Constitution itself guaranteed not democratic process, but republican values and institutions. And it is the same reason why vaudeville performers perform in vaudeville halls and not at the Met.

Of course, there was an alternative. The framers could have approached the question of enfranchisement, as Aristotle had, by asking what citizens need in order to responsibly exercise their rights and responsibilities. They need, the philosopher responded, health, education, and welfare. Or, as the framers themselves repeatedly asserted, citizens need sufficient education, wealth, and leisure to govern not in their own private self-interest, but in the interests of res publica, in the interests of the wealth we hold in common.

With this in mind, the framers could have set to work making sure that every citizen had sufficient wealth, education, and leisure to make responsible political choices. But, the costs for such a venture appeared so astronomically high that, instead, they chose to limit the vote to those persons alone who already possessed this endowment.

We have chosen the worst of both worlds. We have deprived the vast majority of voters sufficient health, education, and welfare; and then we have placed self-government in their hands.

Welcome to the vaudeville hall, the clown tent, the big show. The clowns will be performing for us, not for res publica, not for the republic, not for the commonwealth. And the show is doomed to go on until we decide to grant all citizens the health, education, and welfare they need in order to govern themselves responsibly.

Romney works to disenfranchise active duty service members

Joseph W.H. Lough

Its called “caging” and here’s how it works. Take a sampling of active duty service members categorized by race. Category: BL. Send “Do Not Forward” ground mail to active duty African American service members; send the mail to their unit base. Of course, they are not at their base. They are risking their lives in the field of combat. However, since you affixed “Do Not Forward” to your ground mail, the envelop is returned to the post office; proof that said African American service member does not exist and, therefore, cannot vote. The returned mail is literally put in a “cage.” When said African American service member casts his or her ballot, you step forward to challenge the ballot, since, as you have already demonstrated, said service member does not exist at that address. And, so, without lifting a finger, you have disenfranchised one of the largest enlisted groups in the U.S. military, which just happens to vote overwhelmingly Democratic.

This is just one of the many strategies developed and deployed by Karl Rove on behalf of the Mitt Romney campaign. There are many others. (See http://ballotbandits.wordpress.com/).