A lot has already been written about the ongoing atrocity in Flint, where a city of 100,000 people that is largely responsible for building the conditions that created prosperity in postwar America has been deliberately poisoned with lead and legionella by a dictatorial emergency financial manager system created by Rick Snyder, the sitting governor. The widely-reported reason of why the poisoning happened (to save a comparatively small amount of money) has also come under question, adding another dimension of horror to what’s already a horrible story. In a just world, what has been done to the people of Flint would result in a cigarette, a blindfold, and a firing squad for a lot of right-wing technocrats. We do not, however, live in a just world, more’s the pity.
(Allison Sparling is a social democratic political activist from Halifax, Nova Scotia. This post was originally posted on her blog Always, Always Something.)
Something that’s struck me a lot, especially since living in Toronto, is how frequently we mistake progressivism for some sort of brand to be consumed instead of a movement dedicated to tackling hard changes to save the planet and make humans more equal. When Conservatives decry the latte sipping elite, it’s a facile stereotype but they’re not wrong: social justice is not about what kind of coffee you can afford to drink, even if it treats its workers better.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t drink coffee that treats its workers well! This is good. This is important. But this is the one of the smallest parts of a social contract that needs to change. Businesses that exist in this type of economy need a competitive edge to justify their cost and continue their existence so they amplify their social good as a form of marketing to make you feel like this small choice is what you needed to to do end inequality, save the planet, justify your spending $3 when there’s cheaper coffee elsewhere. And if you spend that $2-3 at a locally owned business that treats its workers well, that’s even better.
But that’s still not social justice.
Doug’s got a piece this morning in The Kernel at Daily Dot about Black Lives Matter and the voids in its politics. It’s reproduced here.
I debated whether I should write this. I feel like this far too often when I sit down to write lately, especially when it comes to addressing something as thoroughly empty as anything dealing with Black Lives Matter. That goes tenfold for anything that happens regarding Black Lives Matter within that razor-wired echo chamber known as social media. In fact, I had not planned on writing anything more about this, and I plan to go back to doing so once this piece is finished.
But witnessing this breathtaking display of rank stupidity compels me to point out a couple of things:
- People associated with Black Lives Matter have managed to put out precisely one detailed list of demands. Those demands are tightly focused around one issue. If you abhor the quick death of a policeman’s bullet but are hunky-dory with the slow death caused by out-of-control unemployment, health disparities and outcomes, and the degradation of America’s contract with its working class, then I have to ask which Black Lives Are Supposed To Be Mattering with these demands? And if you cannot articulate a comprehensive plan of action for your community of interest, then what are the protests if they are not symbolic?
- The March on Washington….For Jobs and Freedom. Look up those demands sometime, if you ever want an example of what an actual plan for liberation looks like. If you are the kind of person who likes substance and detail, perhaps the Freedom Budget, championed by labor leader and March on Washington organizer (and a Black man to boot!) A. Philip Randolph is more up your alley.
- Related to that last point, a Black man is head of America’s second largest labor union. A Black man (and an immigrant) is the Executive Vice President of the AFL-CIO. Black people have been the largest supporters of an expansion of labor rights, and they have been the backbone of one of the most successful labor campaigns in a generation, the Fight For 15. Black people are also more likely to identify as working class rather than middle class or wealthy. The notion that pointing out this fact, as well as pointing out that economic inequalities are reduced where workers can collectively bargain, is akin to someone saying that “all lives matter” is, well, out-of-touch with reality. And history.
- And since we are talking about Bernie Sanders not protesting with Black Lives Matter, maybe this has something to do with it? It is not really about him, but the amnesia that comes over certain sectors of online activism when it comes to this one candidate has gotten to be really bizarre.
I hate writing about this stuff because it honestly bores me, even more so when you can see the fast-approaching end game of all this. I would much rather be working on my blog piece about histories of leftism in the South, or be researching my dissertation, or be outside enjoying the abundant splendor that is life in Detroit.
But at a certain point, it becomes necessary for there to be a transcript. One that will let people who look back upon this stuff know that the conversation was not one-directional, and that there were people who legitimately cared about liberation and freedom who nevertheless opposed this mild reformism, infused with radical posturing. And one that states the painfully obvious: that if every police officer put down their guns and fully disarmed tomorrow, that this would do little to put food in the bellies of hungry children, or put a roof over the heads of the approximately 20,000 homeless in Detroit, or give our kids an education system that treats them as humans, and not just numbers or dollar signs.
Labor unions have been at the fore of fighting for all of those things. And not just that: the strength of a nation’s labor movement has been shown to positively affect the responsiveness of government to its most vulnerable (Bartels 2010) as well as the size of its social welfare state (Goldfield 1987; Esping-Anderson and Korpi 1983). The backing that the fights for civil rights, Medicaid, and Social Security had from the labor movement, and their successes, should prove that in multitudes.
Labor rights are civil rights. And if we really intend to make Black Lives Matter, perhaps a simple recognition of that easily researchable historical fact should be recognized.
In the previous post on this blog, I included the following statement:
“For now, though, this is in support of someone who has dedicated their life to the liberation of communities of color here and abroad. And it is support of one simple concept: if we do not have good-faith debate and discussion, then we do not have successful movements. And without those, we have no change.“
I really should not have been surprised that people on social media would completely skip over that part of the discussion. However, intentional misreadings are as much a part of the handwaving and brand-building that goes on there as favorites, retweets, likes, and shares. Since much of the offline world is probably baffled when they hear me talk about this stuff, I figure that I would give an example of such an intentional misreading.
I really should not even have to write this post. I doubt that most would ever understand what makes this post necessary.
In fact, whenever I have to explain the stuff that happens on social media to people who spend little to no time in that world, they express a sense of puzzlement at best. It is almost as if I have told them that the oceans are purple, or that I have a third eye in the back of my head.
I have a friend that I know from my time in Minnesota. She identifies as a white person, which is not all that uncommon in a state that Chris Rock famously described as having a Black population of two (Prince and Kirby Puckett). If you saw her walking down the street, you would never suspect anything different: very light skin and an accent straight out of a scene from Fargo or Feeling Minnesota. Partnered with a Black man, you would not be able to tell the two of them apart from any other interracial couple (and there are many) in the Twin Cities.
But my friend ain’t exactly descended from Vikings. You see, she is at least a quarter Native American. In Minnesota, a state with a large and politically active Native community, that can be quite beneficial when you are going through either of the state’s university systems. This is because of the legacy of oppression towards Native people in the state. For example, my alma mater, the University of Minnesota Morris, was formed in 1960 by adding a liberal arts component to the University of Minnesota’s West Central School for Agriculture (WCSA). The WCSA was founded on the site of the old Sisters of Mercy-run Morris Industrial School for Indians, which had closed in 1909, the year before the WCSA was formed. Due to this history, any person that can prove their Native background to a certain degree receives free tuition.
Although my friend did not attend UMM with me, it is not hard to find such programs at many of the state’s universities. I used to ask her why she did not avail herself of those opportunities; after all, there were a ton of “Native Americans” at Morris that you would be hard-pressed to find at a pow-wow (a common event at the University) or at a Circle of Nations Indian Association student group meeting. She would simply say, “I was raised as a white woman. I was not raised as a Native American, and it would be wrong for me to claim a community that is not mine simply to get financial benefit.”
Makes sense, right? But judging by the reaction to Rachel Dolezal, the former NAACP chapter chair in Spokane, Washington who was born to white parents but identifies as Black, and now University of California Riverside professor Dr. Andrea Smith, sensibility no longer appears to be on the menu.
Dolezal’s road to perdition, as most people living in non-rock-based domiciles will be able to tell you, began when her parents dropped the dime on her born ethnicity. From there, all hell broke loose. It was the major story in every news outlet imaginable. By the time the story began to wind down, Dolezal was enough of a known quantity to warrant my receipt of not one, not two, but three breaking news alerts from different media outlets to my phone informing me of her resignation from the chapter presidency of a NAACP branch in a city with a Black population of barely two percent. The Andrea Smith story does not threaten to explode in the same way that Dolezal’s did. This might be due to the fact that, in the wake of nine dead at an African Methodist Episcopal church in South Carolina and at least seven church burnings in the last couple of weeks, people have decided that other things may warrant their full attention.
But we should not be under any illusions that absent such inhuman barbarity unseen in the United States since the days of Klan night rides through the South, the Smith story would not have been one that blew up in much the same way. I have blogged a lot about identity politics and the ways in which individual instances have manifested in some incredibly nasty and solidarity-killing ways. But it is time to go beyond the sturm und drang of social media slap fights to examine just how we got to this point. How have we arrived at the point where putatively liberal and progressive activists, organizations, and websites are enthusiastically repeating the foundations of an ideology once confined to far-right reactionaries?