It’s been a year since President Trump’s election and millions of dollars have been poured into an autopsy of the American electorate ahead of the highly anticipated 2018 midterm elections; with particular emphasis on the white working class in rural districts. But there is a danger in overemphasizing the white working class to the detriment of people of color, immigrants, women and the LGBTQ community.
A similar shift in focus occurred over a century ago as post-Civil War Reconstruction wound down and the Jim Crow Era was beginning to wind up. In the latter half of the 1800s, black suffrage was a critical plank of the GOP platform; the Southern black vote was a reliable bloc for GOP control of Congress; the number of black elected officials and jurors were rising; and there was some progress toward racial integration of public accommodations. But by the 1890s, Northern commitment to black suffrage and emancipation was eroding.
There are several reasons for this: Northern states discovered their own latent racism as black migration from the South to the North increased in the late 1800s; racial nativism was rising, especially in New England, as the Irish and Italians, who were predominantly Catholic, and eastern Europeans began to arrive; and “sectional reconciliation” between the North and South became more important.
America was also in a period of disruptive, economic change. The industrial revolution, railroad expansion westward, and recessions prompted protests by southern white farmers, who organized into a powerful political force fueled by conservative populism.
As the GOP base in Northern states grew and Southern suppression of the black vote eroded thin margins in Southern states, the “race problem” became more a “Southern question” under the guise of “home rule”. This gave rise to the Jim Crow era and the Ku Klux Klan, which tapped into the nativism movement here in Maine.
American history is rife with pivotal points in history when people of color, women, minorities, and marginalized communities were left behind in mad rushes for a political win or two.
No doubt many of us have been told to abandon identity politics and that what will win us elections is driving home a “jobs and the economy” message that appeals to the average, working class American. Increasingly, that narrative is being pushed out all across the country and the long term implications of this, for civil rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ and immgrants’ rights, worries me deeply.
To tell people of color, women, and LGBTQ people to “forget identity politics” is, in my view, a tone deafness equal to #AllLivesMatter. What those who argue this ignore is that class politics, in many ways, is identity politics; it is the politics of white, male privilege and the privilege that allows one to view things merely as jobs and the economy.
It largely ignores the disproportionate rate at which people of color are racially profiled, stopped, arrested, incarcerated, and shot and killed. It ignores that no progress has been made for African Americans in terms of homeownership, unemployment, and incarceration in 50 years. It ignores the gender wage gap; It ignores the need to protect the progress we’ve made on LGBTQ and women’s rights; and it ignores the trauma and cruelty wrought on immigrant families and families seeking asylum.
It ignores that President Trump and the far-right have made it all about identity politics when they peddle conspiracies and myths about “welfare queens”, immigrants crossing the border and stealing jobs (and lowering wages), and oppose and pass laws that limit LGBTQ and women’s rights.
Viewing things solely through an economic and class frame homogenizes and whitewashes the discrimination and disadvantages suffered by people of color, women, immigrants, and LGBTQ people every single day; not just when the economy is good or bad.
Class and identity politics are not mutually exclusive. We are at our best as a society when we appreciate the finer details, nuances, context, intersections, etc., of our increasingly diverse nation; while collectively realizing that our discrete experiences have a common source in the Human Condition.
In 2008 and 2012, we were for something; hopeful. In 2016, we were overpowered by fear and fear is better at dividing than it is at uniting.
We need to win on a message of hope. Hope is all-inclusive. Hope can embrace an economic, racial, and social justice message. Hope is what holds the power to draw people of all backgrounds together and it is the struggle for the common good that will bind us together.