Ta-Nehisi Coates published an article this week that speaks to an idea I’ve been pondering lately. After finishing Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, a brilliant historical account of the Great Migration of African Americans out of the South and into Northern and Western cities in the early through mid-late twentieth century, Coates wrote,
…What becomes clear by the end of Wilkerson’s book is that America’s response to the Great Migration was to enact a one-sided social contract. America says to its citizens, “Play by the rules, and you will enjoy the right to compete.” The black migrants did play by the rules, but they did not enjoy the right to compete. Black people have been repeatedly been victimized by the half-assed social contract. It goes back, at least, to Reconstruction.
His point is well taken. The New Deal was a raw deal for people of color, reinforcing the racial caste system of Jim Crow, and cementing second class citizenship for Black and brown people in the U.S.
The New Deal was struck at a time when whites in the North perceived themselves to be in a fight to preserve their jobs and wage standards from the degrading effects of competition with black migrants whose second-class status made them especially vulnerable to exploitation. The New Deal purposely excluded people of color, especially Black people, in order to allow whites to maintain dominance, even as the economy was, in many ways, democratizing. Excluding non-whites from the New Deal is the flip side of the record concerning the rise of the American middle class, just as Black and brown exploitation, both in the U.S. and around the world, is the flip side of the record of the rise of America as a global economic superpower in the wake of WWII.
In the 21st century, history is repeating itself. The Great Migration of today is global. It is driven by a combination of baby booms in the southern hemisphere, and gross inequality in the global economy. In order to escape poverty and violence, people from the browner nations of the world are moving Northward across borders. That vast migrant stream is transforming the demographics of the U.S., and whites are again reacting, this time by waging a battle to maintain white electoral dominance and control of resources, opportunity, and national identity.
That battle is evident in conservative efforts to suppress the black and brown vote through the imposition of voter ID, decreasing voting hours and polling places, and felon disenfranchisement. As pressure for humane immigration policy reform grows ever greater, right wingers are pivoting from a simple of strategy total exclusion to offering undocumented immigrants a path to second class citizenship that will allow them to stay, but not to vote.
The battle lines are also being drawn around entitlement programs. Through demands for austerity combined with racially coded attacks on public programs, the right is attempting force us to choose which strands of the social safety net we will preserve and which we will sever based not on who is most needy, but based upon who we believe is more or less deserving, with people of color, and especially African Americans, cast as undeserving entitlement junkies living off the rest of us.
In the fight over entitlements, Obamacare, which most directly benefits the uninsured, among whom the majority are people of color, is being pitted against Medicare, whose recipients are mostly white. Programs like food stamps, that benefit one of four Black families, is framed as a burden to a white electorate among whom less than one in ten families receive food stamps. Structural racism, which results in de facto segregation, dictates that most Black families know someone who benefits from food stamps, while the most reliable voters, whites who live in the suburbs, may not know anyone receiving support at all.
Attacks on public education aren’t attempting to eliminate any and all public subsidies for education. Instead they demand that public investment in education be reduced, and public schools be replaced by schools of “choice” where the difference between the cost of a competitive education and what the public will invest is made up by private funding sources and parents. For the poor, a disproportionate number of whom are people of color, that cost differential is too dear, and makes permanent an already existing educational achievement gap that is likely to perpetuate inter-generational poverty among the economically disadvantaged.
These battles are part of a historical cycle has repeated itself in our history since Reconstruction. The last major fight for full inclusion was led by the Civil Rights Movement. And ever since, we have had to fight to preserve those gains. We’ve fought against phantoms in black face like Ronald Reagan’s Chicago Welfare Queen and Newt Gingrich’s Food Stamps president, and now once again find ourselves in a fight over voting rights and the very notion that we should have need should dictate entitlement to public support rather than arbitrary and racist ideas about morality.
As we choose sides in this fight, we should know that the battle lines have grown far more complex. We must understand these complexities or we risk drawing our bottom lines behind our own heels and in front of other people’s toes. And doing that could cost us the democratic gains of past generations on whose shoulders our rights are balanced.