Left Critics and the Biden-Harris Ticket



By Darren Barany

Unsurprisingly (and sadly), many Americans relate to campaigns for major elections in ways that reflect the society’s pervasive individualist culture. One way this happens on the right and left is that voting is treated as a form of fervent self-expression and identity formation, kind of like being a superfan of a favorite sports team. Another, probably more common on the left, is that people compose a list of personal deal-breakers (the so-called purity test). With this, just one ding against a candidate becomes felt personally as an affront against one’s identity instead of a single factor put within a larger context to better understand what’s politically practicable, like advancing a net social benefit or considering courses of action in relation to activism around particular issues.

Much chatter is informed by this sort of individualization of the political and ego-investment in relation to political personalities, parties, labels, etc. That said, I still think the bulk of criticism levied at Joe Biden and Kamala Harris is legitimate. To emphasize, I’m definitely not saying to refrain from criticism. I think it’s actually crucially important right now. I just think we need to keep our eyes on the mission and think about what the potential consequences of defeatist and cynical narratives are in the current moment. There are profound problems with the records and past policy decisions of both Biden and Harris, problems that have had oppressive and deep-rooted structural consequences. However, and this is important, Trump is much worse. With a Trump victory, even if the senate is narrowly flipped and the Dems control both chambers of congress, checks on his power will not neutralize him as a social and political threat. As long as he has the mandate and veneer of legitimacy provided by winning the electoral college, and has a mouthpiece, he will continue to incite white supremacist and fascist violence, continue to terrorize immigrant families and children, appoint anti-choice judges, preserve the anti-labor NLRB currently in place, and more.

I think those who’ve weighed in on this like Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and renowned MIT linguist and social critic, Noam Chomsky are right on this one. We have to focus on defeating Trump. Though, we also must focus on keeping pressure on Biden and Harris, hold them to their concessions to the movements, and keep pushing left. Although, it is worth noting. If they win, pressuring Biden and Harris to do what’s necessary – like addressing the ensuing environmental catastrophe, working to implement universal healthcare coverage, implementing an actual plan for managing the coronavirus pandemic response, addressing the current economic crisis, confronting systemic racism and other forms of bias in our institutions, etc. – will be possible only if those moderates who were incensed by Trump’s demeanor and incompetence and who became politicized and activated after November 2016 show up after November 2020.

Darren Barany teaches sociology at LaGuardia Community College and lives in Elmhurst, Queens. He has an MPA from the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center. His book, The New Welfare Consensus: Ideologcial, Political, and Social Origins, looks historically at the conservative attack on the American welfare state. He also frequently hurts himself while riding a skateboard. Follow him on Twitter @_BARANY.

Modern Evidence and Speculation: Or, “What if Trump Did It?”

Welcome_BioPic By H. Alexander Welcome

The 2016 U.S. Presidential election signaled a number of important changes in U.S. society, including approaches to evidence and speculative thinking. During the 44th presidency, evidence about presidents wasn’t in high demand. Barack Obama’s name, general background and skin color were pointed to as evidence of his Muslim heritage and lack of U.S. citizenship. Then speculation about his Muslim heritage and lack of U.S. citizenship led to the conclusion that he must be a tyrant. Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and presidency have been immune to many of the laws of evidence. Just as it has been immune to grounded and critical speculation.

Collusion and treason are crimes. Our current discussions about the difference between the two have distracted us from a very important point. Once convicted of a crime, you are not allowed to maintain any benefits or results stemming from that crime. This leads us to two questions that demand serious critical speculation. What should happen to the laws, policies, and appointments spearheaded by the Trump administration if Donald Trump is convicted of either treason or collusion while he is alive, or if evidence of treason or collusion emerges after he has died?

These two questions have not been a significant part of the political and media coverage of the Trump Presidency. Their absence highlights two very different ways in which we live the past. In many ways, our experiences of time are social. We choose to remember certain events and people; some things, we choose to forget. Furthermore, we choose to address events that have taken place, while we leave other events unaddressed.

Broken treaties with Native Americans and chattel slavery in the U.S. are two examples of the latter. And, they reflect a trend. U.S. national policy tends to leave unaddressed wrongs committed against people of color, but U.S. policy takes a different approach to wrongs committed against white people. The events of 9/11 impacted people throughout the U.S. However, the increases in anti-Muslim sentiment and nativism that occurred afterwards framed those as an attack against white people. As a result—continually, at home and abroad—the bodies of Muslim people are forced to atone for the happenings of that day.

In the U.S. and around the world, there exists what we can call a Haitian dichotomy.  Wrongs against people of color are sealed in the past, while wrongs against white people are memorialized, lived, and vindicated unto eternity. For this reason, the handling of the accusations against Trump will signal a radical moment for ideology. The three possible outcomes are complete innocence, ignorant stooge, and guilty as hell. The last event has no true parallel in the history of American ideology. The treason of the South during the Civil War was the treason of the masses. More importantly, after the Civil War the nation was directly and indirectly reliant upon the labor of those traitors. Richard Nixon was not the masses, and his crime was not on the level of the least of the charges of which Trump has been accused.

If Trump is guilty of the lesser charges of collusion, he, at best disenfranchised the people who opposed his presidency. At worst, he disenfranchised those who opposed him, and he defrauded those who supported him. Many of Trump’s policies are dehumanizing. There is no question that we must fight them now. But, doing so should not distract us from the multiple levels on which we might have to fight them in the future.

H. Alexander Welcome is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at LaGuardia Community College. His work revolves around the dynamics of alienation, the specifics of the racial wage paid to white people, the social nature of existential experiences of time, and how all three of these aforementioned elements emerge in the stand-up comedy of Richard Pryor and Jackie “Moms” Mabley.

Please Put Down Your Sledgehammers: On the Parkland Students, Left Reductionism, and Aversion to Strategic Alliance

By William J. Weikart

When I Facebook reposted a .gif rendering of Emma González that said “I Stand With Her”, I was feeling her emotional courage, and inspired at the fact that high school students seemed, at least for the moment, to be leading something…what might be the start of a movement…a budding social movement for more or less common sense steps to regulating guns and gun augmentations (manufacture, access); reigning in the excessive influence of the NRA; increasing access to (not imposition of) mental health care; and for finding ways to make school children – ANY and ALL school children, but really, all people – less endangered by mass shootings and wanton violence.

A recent Facebook post, that has, if not gone viral, certainly generated a lot of heated controversy and discussion, [1] has alleged “white supremacist roots” of the March for Our Lives “movement.” [2]  This is an irresponsible overstatement (which is perhaps itself an understatement). The seemingly deliberate and hyperbolic conceptual slippage/obfuscation – gun control advocates are white supremacists, regardless of their claims and allegiances – and the radical reductionism, of nuanced difference and political identification on the left, and even amongst liberals, therein, points to a number of lessons the left can potentially learn from — or, more modestly, to problems I have seen, first-hand, that dog the US left at least since the late 90s and the so-called anti-globalization protest mobilizations, if not since well before (perhaps going back to Hegel).  I have many problems with the piece:

1. The overstated need for attention to Hogg and González’ backgrounds.  Reducing them to their class backgrounds is quite simply an example of what Marx called ‘vulgar materialism’, and in many ways is partly to blame for the excesses and distortions of many of the well-intended but ultimately horrible (and failed) outcomes of the 20c experiments in applying Marxism (China and USSR, even Pol Pot in Cambodia).  You come from bourgeoisie, you ARE bourgeoisie.  Don’t get any on you.  Of course we know many revolutionaries in history have come from relative privilege.  Here, class functions very much like race does in racist discourse.  The two converge in a kind of paranoid, zero-sum biopolitics: They must die so that we might live.  Know backgrounds, but know that they also do not determine absolutely and mechanistically.

2. The problematic claim that most of the Manifesto items are unanimously calling for more policing in a traditional sense – ie, more police officers. Item 9 – “increase funding for school security” – does call for more armed school officers (which may technically be distinct from police) and this represents the most overt call in the Manifesto for policing.  There is a lot to discuss (out of my purview) as far as how armed personnel (not the teachers!) in schools could/would (mal)function on a day to day basis, and this is not the place.  I’d certainly improve the Manifesto here by calling for increased school funding but have it be applied to things like infrastructural safety (metal detectors, locking doors, bullet proof materials, and education/drills), even though these are expensive.  This may indeed be the most problematic part of the Manifesto, and it is right to call it out…maybe just leave it out, this item.  May I start by suggesting the books/research of Alex Vitale on policing in NYC.

3. While Bloomberg, who certainly presided over a racist (in its implementation) policy in ‘stop and frisk’, put money towards the March, it does not necessarily follow that he is somehow successfully attaching a stop and frisk agenda to that money.  He may or may not be trying to.  In his influential work, The Practice of Everyday Life (1980; English ed. 1984),  Michel de Certeau shows us how consumption is not merely passive, and how consumers of mass culture alter and subvert not only those objects and their proscribed uses, but the intended (ideological) meanings of said objects.  The left can learn a lot from this, by extending it to money itself.  There is no ‘clean’ money, but also, money is not a perfect, closed circuit which perfectly transmits ideology in a 1:1 fashion.  Instead of assuming that general money corrupts absolutely, and/or that particular money transmits perfectly, learn from the rock group Royal Trux, who used their savviness to legally get millions from Virgin in the late 90s, and channeled that into their own semi-autonomous activity, such as building a recording studio (a petit means of production) – money that went back into the musical undercommons, as it were.  Bloomy may want to support the cause but perhaps we can take his money without strings…or cut them.  These situations are to be approached carefully, and taken very much on a case by case basis.  Stepping back, what is important is that the Parkland Manifesto I see on The Guardian’s website says nothing of reinstalling stop and frisk, or similar.  It does not seem to be calling for measures that, at first glance, would prioritize urban, versus suburban or rural enforcement; or target particular racial or economic groups.  This is the “slippage” I speak of; really just a rhetorical sleight of hand.

4. If the Parkland Manifesto contains significant racial blind spots, and it well may, they of course can and should be addressed.  This is a work in progress.  It quite remains to be seen if this is indeed a social “movement”, and Hogg and González are so far simply media faces, not leaders.  Leftists in the US (not liberals!) have for years (at least since the late 90s) been calling for the demilitarization of municipal police forces, and sometimes even the disarming of police, as unarmed black youth are killed with impunity, and police have come to increasingly resemble occupying armies, especially at protest rallies – using tear gas, rubber bullets, riot gear, sound cannons, armored vehicles etc.  The Parkland students and others need to, and will, learn about ideas like demilitarization, and I see no reason these ideas can not be integrated in, to strengthen the (tbd) “movement”.  These are high school students getting their feet wet politically, learning to lead.  They of course have a lot to learn.  While I don’t see items on this Manifesto that are blatantly concealing a bias towards enforcement on or in communities of color, the FB post has the merit of being a legit warning of what to be vigilant for – ie, racist implementation.  Original intentions always can and do shift.  But a complete dismissal of Hogg and González, the Parkland Manifesto, and all attempts at common sense gun regulation, would be throwing the baby out with the bath water.  This is simply too much of a media flashpoint/opening.  As I write, it already seems to be losing steam as the media circus shifts to an imminent Mueller firing, and Stormygate. [EDIT: now, Syria.]

5. I’d encourage those interested to probe deeper into the political agenda (found in the post’s myriad sub-threads) that the author is pursuing and prescribing, as I find it rather far-fetched, to say the least — or better, alarming:  wildly anti-democratic; deeply authoritarian; and decidedly quite essentialist.  In sum, it’s a formula for the further reification of “race”, and a dire, cynical will to something like what I think has to be a state of permanent warfare.  I do not want to dismiss the author’s concerns and general trajectory; but it is also important to know, then, where she is coming from, and the proposed “answers” or solutions[3].  The one arrived at is, I would argue, NOT the only “answer” that an anti-racist platform for common sense gun control must arrive at, as she would have it.  While she treats anti-racism and gun control – indeed – as incompatible (which is the crux of what I find so objectionable), it turns out that she actually IS for a kind of gun control, but you’d be forgiven for not guessing its specificity.  By now you may have figured that the author’s invoking of white supremacism conflates it with denial of – or insufficient copping to, ignorance of – white privilege, and hence refers to a very wide swath of people on all over the political spectrum – mainly, people who do not accept her solution(s):  all of liberals, and frankly most of leftists. (Please see point 1.)  How are these sneaky, crypto-“white supremacists” (people calling for gun control – for it identifies them!) any different from Trump or even overt neo-Nazis?  They are not, at least on issues of race (allegedly).  This move is sheer reductio ad absurdum, par excellence.

Of course, Hogg and González – but really, the student co-authors – are not proposing anything outside the realm of mere liberalism – except perhaps when the Manifesto hints at manufacture/sale regulation (which cuts, albeit so gently, against the most crass forms of free market neoliberalism).  The left needs to learn that strategic alliances with liberals (even Democrats) are sometimes desirable or necessary…especially when everything shifts so damn far to the right – and acknowledge when we sometimes have alliable interests.  These alliances will be modular, temporary, highly specific, highly qualified, pragmatic, and flexible.  The FB post represents an extreme example of a nonetheless prevalent left will-to-reduce, and the dogmatic/purist aversion to strategic alliance – indeed, to strategy.  Influence is not necessarily unidirectional.  If constituted power is only destined – mechanistically, fatalistically – to recuperate all movements, gestures and desires towards emancipation, we may as well throw in the towel.  I’m not.[4]

[1] As of today (4/17/18) this Facebook post is public with 6,369 shares and 2.1 thousand comments:


[2]The Parkland Students’ Manifesto:  https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/commentisfree/2018/mar/23/parkland-students-manifesto-americas-gun-laws

[3] I am basing this claim on the original post, and on my interactions with her re the original post.  I have not read all the proposed links she provided.

[4] A final admission is that I have no idea if this “movement” is “infiltrated by police”, as claimed; I doubt it is by “white supremacists” in any meaningful sense (addressed somewhat here).  Let’s not conflate one protest march with a social movement.  Another left tendency is to become prematurely worried that since a few lefties posted a meme, that all left resources and energy will suddenly be directed/usurped in full to that movement or issue.  It doesn’t negate or preclude the work that is always already in progress.  As the FB post author would seemingly agree, this is NOT a movement (yet?) for the disarming of police.  Only then could I really see police becoming super interested in infiltration, as I think they have bigger fish to fry.  If the author is so against this “movement”, it is unclear how she has the informed perspective that it is indeed ”infiltrated by police”, unless she is also infiltrating it.

Liam Weikart is a recluse living in semi-rural southwest Virginia.

Facebook Death

Eren_BioPic By Colleen Eren

I deleted my account and disappeared from the facebook newsfeed suddenly 2 weeks ago. A message came into my e-mail the next day from a colleague, “hey, just checking to make sure you and your family are okay? I saw that you got off of facebook….” Several others expressed curiosity as to my rationale, as I am a regular participant.

Just as there is an emergent genre of “quit lit,” describing–in almost confessional manner—why PhDs and graduate students are choosing to leave academia, so too the declarations of abandoning facebook and rationales for doing so abound. I’m not attempting here to analyze the themes of facebook “quit lit,” why such announcements seem to need a public performance (although it is very sociologically interesting), or to make an impassioned argument for either continuing to use the platform or not. I’m also not going to wade into the discussion about whether social media platforms like Facebook strengthen democracy (such as its role in the Arab Spring) or weaken it (such as with Russian interference in the 2016 US elections.  My N=1.

I am an associate professor of criminal justice, I recently published my first book, Bernie Madoff and the Crisis: The Public Trial of Capitalism. I am in the midst of trying to get speaking engagements and interviews on podcasts and reviews. So why the abandonment? Don’t I need facebook to promote my work and my “brand”?  Won’t I lose potentially useful contacts or make them less interested in me as a friend or colleague because I am not interacting? Won’t I be all but completely unheard, irrelevant, for all intents and purposes—dead?

I will take not figurative, but literal death as the starting point for this very brief note. My father died suddenly, unexpectedly, in his sleep at the end of 2016. I fell down a vertiginous existential black hole, where other than the seemingly unending pain of the loss, everything else—including, yes, politics—no longer could cause me to feel anything. Having sat in the basement of a funeral home filling out with my mother the almost laughably paltry forms necessary to have a human being cremated—a human being with an entire life’s history of aspirations and struggles—the idea of caring about my book, a career, or other’s opinions of my life, became ridiculous. To interact with others on facebook at that time felt almost physically nauseating. Life became stripped down to its essentials, its entire meaning brought back to the simplicity of love, loss, deep friendship, family. I asked my partner to post a message just mentioning my loss and that I wouldn’t be on for some time. I didn’t look at it again for months.

Very few of my approximately 400 “friends” on facebook actually contacted me about my loss via a visit, phone, instant message, card, e-mail, or even text—in spite of the fact that my partner had explicitly written that I would not be on the platform. Instead, they chose to leave a comment. I wasn’t angry or even disappointed—I didn’t feel much of anything– but as the year passed, it emphasized for me the complete superficiality and (excuse the hyperbole) soullessness of the form, and the narcissistic individualism it cultivates, the false sense of significance. You don’t understand, you don’t understand, you don’t understand, I thought, otherwise, you wouldn’t be here on facebook. As I gradually returned to facebook, I did so at first with the sensation of looking into a fishbowl, an outsider. I had a heightened awareness of the disturbing way in which it falsely presents the image of a concerned community, a network somehow constantly embedded in each others’ lives. I wanted to play Jonathan Edwards, to break through the mystification, to announce “death comes unexpectedly!”

This feeling of dislocation, and of seeing the fatuousness of facebook, the sense of loss of a human community and of life lived independently of its performative social capital, continues for me. Perhaps it was the recent one-year anniversary of my dad’s death and its subsequent bringing me back into depression that subconsciously led me to feel the imperative to get off of facebook. I was reminded how the veil was lifted on the nature of my relationships following that day, how small the circle in fact became when mortality in all its unpleasantness greeted me, how few people who I considered “friends” went past what is understandable discomfort with grief to actually physically, or even emotionally be present with me.

Facebook, from my vantage point, does not solidify or create relationships which endure moments of crisis. It may well be useful for promotion. But even in my experience of promoting my book, one glaring observation I’ve made is that the people who show up are not those I’ve invited on facebook. During my book launch, for instance—of 55 people, the vast majority of those who showed up do not even have a social media account. They found out from me personally, responded to my e-mail announcement, or through word of mouth. Almost all of the invitations I’ve received to give a talk are from individuals who contacted me through e-mail and who are not friends with me on facebook. Facebook allows us that false sense of having participated by merely clicking “interested,” or giving an “RSVP,” regardless of whether we actually “show up” for our friends and family, or for that matter, for issues which we consider important. It also gives us the “out” of not having to explain our absence, contributing to a culture where flaking becomes customary.

Maybe I will miss out on some opportunity by not being on facebook. Maybe someone would have seen one of my self-aggrandizing, self-promotional posts and thought that I would be fantastic for a plum job I hadn’t even considered. But those scholars and activists I most admire, who write important work, who have a considerable audience, and who are deeply embedded in causes, such as my long time friend Silvia Federici, somehow have done so without needing to post about it, and have shown up for me in moments of darkness and joy. If we do important work, if we are engaged, if we are present—and not just in writing “so sorry for your loss” or “so happy for you!” in the comment section, we are not—even in our absence on facebook—dead. We are, in fact, more alive.

Colleen Eren is a sociologist and teaches criminal justice from a critical perspective at LaGuardia Community College, where she is an associate professor.

Responses to Privilege

Photographer By Angelique Harris

The purpose of this essay is to compare and contrast two cases which highlight the influence that race, class, disability, and privilege play in the responses to assaults targeting disabled students.

On October 23, 2015, a group of teens allegedly tortured and sexually assaulted a special-needs teen with a coat hanger in front of other students in a locker room in Idaho (http://www.cnn.com/2017/01/05/us/chicago-facebook-live-beating/). These assailants forcibly inserted the coat hanger into his rectum while another repeatedly kicked the coat hanger while inside the victim, causing damage which required medical attention. This was one of many horrible assaults the victim experienced at the hands of the assailants and his football teammates. In addition to being called racial slurs, he was forced to strip naked on a school bus in front of teammates. Nonetheless, law enforcement only focused on the sexual assault. Two of the assailants were tried in juvenile court while the other, the one who kicked the hanger, was tried as an adult. All three assailants were charged with forcible penetration with a foreign object, a charge which carried the potential for life in prison. We do not know the fate of the two tried in juvenile court, but we can likely base their sentences on that of their adult teammate, the assailant tried as an adult. Ultimately, he entered a plea deal for injury to a child and received a reduced sentence. He will serve no prison time and will not have to register as a sex offender, but will serve up to three years of probation. If he successfully completes the terms of his probation, his conviction will likely be dismissed. He will officially be sentenced on February 24th of this year, and legal analysts expect the judge to accept the plea. Again, if he adheres to the terms of his probation, charges will probably be dismissed.

Compare that case in Idaho to the case in Chicago that just unfolded earlier this year. Three teens and one young adult allegedly kidnapped, beat, and tortured a special-needs teen and streamed the assault live on the social media site, Facebook. After the victim was allegedly kidnapped, these assailants recorded the beating, kicking, and slashing of the victim for 30 minutes, all while yelling racial slurs. At one point, the assailants even carved a piece of flesh from the scalp of the victim; again, all of this, streamed live on Facebook. The alleged assailants have been charged with kidnapping, unlawful restraint, aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, and they were also charged with a hate crime. Legal analysts have suggested that these assailants can spend decades if not the rest of their lives in prison if convicted on all counts. As this incident has just recently happened – they were charged January 5th – we don’t know how it will turn out just yet, but it is likely they will serve prison time.

In both cases, the alleged victims were special-needs students who were violently assaulted in front of others in attacks likely motivated by disability and race. Although both cases are similar, their responses, both in the legal court and the court of public opinion, have been quite different. The Idaho case received little national media attention when it took place back in 2015. In fact, the assault in Idaho did not receive much media attention until the light punishment (with no one facing prison time) was made public. A likely reason could be that the victim was a minor and the perpetrators, with one exception, were juveniles at the time of the crime. Whereas, in the Chicago crime the victim and alleged assailants were all 18 and over. Or the difference in response could simply be that 2015 was a long time ago, in “media time,” and with the recent election and rise in White Nationalism, there has been an increase in racially motivated attacks and more attention being paid to these assaults. So now, racially motivated assaults are getting more attention. Or it could be because the victim in the Idaho case is Black while the assailants are White, and victim in the Chicago case is White while the assailants are Black.

It is first important to note, I am not arguing that one crime is worse than the other. The concern, on the other hand, is with the response to the crimes and the types of attention received. Let’s first examine the court of public opinion, otherwise known as social media. In the Chicago case, Glenn Beck and other conservative media commentators were quick to point out that the assailants were Black and blamed Black Lives Matter, using the #BLMKidnapping hashtag (http://www.theverge.com/2017/1/5/14177494/chicago-teen-torture-facebook-live-video-black-lives-matter), an odd association considering the assailants never mentioned BLM. It’s especially odd considering that the #BLM movement is focused on addressing police brutality and emphasizing the value in Black lives, neither of which have anything to do with assaulting Whites. Conversely, although some media were quick to point out the race of the White football players in Idaho and the Black victim, and media reported that he was made to sing KKK songs (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3608814/White-high-school-football-players-raped-disabled-black-teammate-coat-hanger-stripped-naked-bus-forced-sing-Ku-Klux-Klan-song.html) while being tortured in front of his football teammates, there has been no widespread call to associate the Klu Klux Klan with this assault (and, of course, the KKK is an actual terrorist group founded to target and terrorize Blacks). In particular, conservative media remained silent on this case.

In terms of the legal response, I am not a legal analyst. However, it is important to note that despite all of this, the White assailants in Idaho were never charged with a hate crime. Law enforcement emphasized that one of the reasons why the victim was attacked in Chicago was because of his mental disability, not necessarily his race, and that this was the primary reason for the hate crime charge (http://abc7chicago.com/news/hate-crime-charges-filed-against-4-in-facebook-live-torture-case/1687517/). If this is the case, the teen in Idaho was also mentally disabled and, according to reports, targeted in part because of it. Now of course, we are looking at different cities and states with different legal statutes and such, so I am not sure as to why this was the case. It is important to note that the assailants in Chicago have been charged, but have yet to be sentenced. However, unlike the alleged assailants in Idaho, it is unlikely that the three teens and one young adult convicted in the Chicago case will be able to enter a plea deal for lesser charges or have the possibility of having their convictions dismissed. 

Obviously both cases are horrible and absolutely disgusting, but the contrasting social and legal responses highlight the role that race and class play in public and legal discourse. Clearly we have two narratives: 1. good kids who made bad choices, and 2. thugs who beat and tortured a disabled kid because of his race and/or mental state. Consistently, privilege dictates which narrative gets attributed to the White assailants. So as opposed to being a group of thugs who target and tortured a disabled teen because of his race and disability, the assailants’ privilege keeps them from serving prison time. The assailants in Chicago do not have the privilege or the resources to rewrite the narrative to be simply kids who made horrible choices, and, given a chance, to be able to turn their lives around. Now this is not to sympathize with any of these alleged assailants at all, but rather, to emphasize how these cases clearly serve as examples of how race and privilege help construct vastly different responses to two very similar crimes.

Angelique Harris is the founding director of the Center for Gender and Sexualities Studies, the director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program, and Associate Professor of Sociology in the Department of Social and Cultural Sciences at Marquette University. Her research and teaching interests include race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, medical sociology, religion, urban studies, media studies, and social movements. Dr. Harris’s research examines social problems and issues within marginalized communities, primarily focusing on the experiences of women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ communities. She has authored and co-authored several books, including The Sociology Student’s Guide to Writing and AIDS, Sexuality, and the Black Church: Making the Wounded Whole.

On Inequality

karen_biopic By Karen Miller

A couple of weeks ago I observed a colleague’s Introduction to Sociology course. He was talking to his students about W.E.B. DuBois’ idea of the “racial wage.” He reminded them that they had already spent a significant amount of time talking about what race wasn’t, but this lesson was about how race worked. My colleague emphasized DuBois’ important point that poor and working-class whites only needed to be positioned slightly higher than African Americans within a brutal system of exploitation in order for them to see their interests as congruent with those of white elites. As DuBois put it, white capitalists “compensated the low wage earning whites with a sort of public and psychological wage.” Poor and working-class whites’ sense that they belonged to a “superior race” meant that they saw their interests as unrelated to the interests of their African American neighbors. The increasing disenfranchisement of African Americans alongside aggressive occupational segregation, the suppression of black wages, African Americans’ minimal access to industrial employment, and black criminalization all contributed to whites’ sense that African Americans were naturally inferior. White poor and working-class men and women in the South as well as the North embraced racial inequality as a foundational piece of their racial identity and saw its amplification as a way to build a better world.

The current debates about whether race or class can help us understand Trump’s victory in the Electoral College misses the inextricability of race and class that DuBois so effectively explained in Black Reconstruction. Not all white workers or poor people side with elites and against people of color who live in similar economic circumstances. But, in order to understand those who do, we need to remember the affective power of the racial wage. Trump supporters believe in inequality. So tax cuts to the rich are a win if you may be rich one day, and if you believe that white wealth is a marker of superiority. Meritocratic fantasies can be soothing because they make the world make sense, even if you, yourself, will not benefit materially from Trump’s organization of wealth and power; even if you will lose out as the state’s redistributive programs are defunded and dismantled. Trump supporters will find deep, deep solace in knowing that racial inequalities are amplifying. Part of the affective draw of his demagoguery is that it’s built on the fundamental belief in inequality. In this system, racial inequality, which Trump and his supporters cast as normal and natural, also needs to be upheld. Understanding that in spite of our national creed, Trump and his supporters believe in inequality, and particularly in racial inequality, is absolutely urgent.

All this needs to be understood at the same time that we should see that whites who voted for Trump were disproportionately better off than those who did not. The median income of the white Trump voter was $72,000. Statistically, poorer whites were more likely to have voted for Clinton. They see their interests as more in line with a redistributory state. The racial wage gap is smaller for them, and is less able to animate their politics.

Still, understanding the racial wage helps us see why a white middle or lower-middle class person who depends on government programs like Medicare, social security, state-funded education, roads, garbage pick-up, mail delivery, bridges, tunnels, mortgage interest tax breaks, the Affordable Care Act and other non-means-tested benefits may vote for a party that promises to defund the non-militarized aspects of the state.

I strongly believe that the political answer here is to mobilize people who have not voted by developing a far stronger commitment to redistribution than the Democratic Party is willing to embrace in its current state. We cannot fight the racial wage by telling whites that it is a myth because sadly, with the current organization of power and resources it is not a myth. They do benefit from their whiteness and those benefits, while not always monetary, are material and real. The only way to fight the racial wage is to first imagine and then produce new realities that undercut its power. That is only possible through radical struggles for economic and racial justice – ones that recognize that these political categories can never be disentangled. The time is now.

Karen Miller is Professor of History at LaGuardia Community College and in the MALS Program at the CUNY Graduate Center. She is currently writing a book about internal labor migration and the US colonial state in the Philippines. Her first book, Managing Inequality: Northern Racial Liberalism in Interwar Detroit shows that white northern leaders embraced egalitarian ideas about race in the 1920s and 30s at the same time that they helped build racially segregated and unequal cities. Dr. Miller’s articles and reviews have appeared in the Journal of American History, The Middle West Review, The International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, The Michigan Quarterly Review, Michigan Feminist Studies, and Against the Current and the edited collection, Groundwork: Local Black Freedom Struggles in America.

“Choice” and the Limited Sphere of Presidential Electoral Politics

karen_biopic By Karen Miller

I think Trump and Clinton will be equally bad on foreign policy. Both firmly believe in American Empire (which by the way is not in decline). Their differences are superficial, as are the differences between the parties generally when it comes to international engagement. Promotions of free trade, consensus that the massive exploitation of workers globally serves the “interests” of the U.S., zero commitment to climate justice, or any other forms of justice, accountability only to the ruling class, the full-on embrace of different forms of global racism, misogyny, and I could go on and on.

That being said, I think that while the Dems are awful, there is some tiny tiny way they need to stay accountable to their progressive flank when it comes to domestic politics. Tiny. Don’t get me wrong. So for me, it’s that tiny space that has me wanting Hilary to win over Trump.

I also think presidential voting is not a site for real politics. It’s a site for assessing which aspects of the ruling class may be open to some form of accountability from “the people.” I know that there are millions of examples of the ways that Clinton has failed to be accountable. Of course. But the question for me is not about those failures. It’s about the 3 times she may have been open to even pretending she cared. It’s about the little-bit-less-reactionary judge she may appoint. It’s about an anti-union NLRB rather than a union busting one. It’s about tokenism rather than (like we see in the Brazilian coup) the full on rejection of any compensatory gestures from the state.

Trump is building his political career on his claim that he has no interest in being accountable to POC, working people, etc. etc. at all. And while I don’t believe that Hilary is even remotely adequately accountable (I hate her as much as you do), I do believe Trump when he says that he is accountable to the forces of reaction. If we had a stronger movement of workers and disenfranchised people this would not be our choice. But we don’t. And it is.

Karen Miller is Professor of History at LaGuardia Community College and in the MALS Program at the CUNY Graduate Center. She is currently writing a book about internal labor migration and the US colonial state in the Philippines. Her first book, Managing Inequality: Northern Racial Liberalism in Interwar Detroit shows that white northern leaders embraced egalitarian ideas about race in the 1920s and 30s at the same time that they helped build racially segregated and unequal cities. Dr. Miller’s articles and reviews have appeared in the Journal of American History, The Middle West Review, The International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, The Michigan Quarterly Review, Michigan Feminist Studies, and Against the Current and the edited collection, Groundwork: Local Black Freedom Struggles in America.

Liberal Growth Machines and the Production of Urban Racial Segmentation

karen_biopic By Karen Miller

New York City is whitening. Poor and working class people of color who were maligned for staying in urban “ghettos” a generation ago are now being pushed out of their previously denigrated neighborhoods as rents skyrocket, boutique coffee shops open, and access to affordable housing shrinks. FIRE (finance, insurance, real estate) sector leaders cast these shifts as natural outgrowths of urban desire. “People,” they suggest, now prefer cosmopolitan living and more densely populated spaces, amenities that suburbs cannot provide. So, cities are filling back up with the well appointed. Since the American class system is also a racial caste system, wealthy migrants are majority-white. Debates over urban development – both residential and non-residential – are sites of struggle over how resources, production, and commerce should be organized in cities. These are spatial and racial debates over urban power, ownership, and access.

Mayors and council members of large and medium-sized cities are often self-identified liberals who cast themselves as allies of working people, align themselves with the interests of disenfranchised communities, and talk convincingly about their belief that cities should remain both interracial and class diverse. But, these urban liberals are presiding over economies that are harshly exclusive and housing markets that are expanding rather than reducing class and racial segmentation. Ultimately, liberals’ embrace of the market-logic thinking that FIRE leaders, and their allies, promote compromises their ability to offer meaningful alternative programs or visions.

I live in New York City, and have watched urban leaders foster wealth creation and promote increased property values as working people of color get shut out of more and more neighborhoods. At the same time, these elites have stripped away or gutted programs like public housing and rent regulations that have eased working people’s exposure to these inflated “market” prices. For twenty years, Republicans held onto Gracie Mansion, but these practices can be traced back before their tenure. Ed Koch, a liberal, certainly embraced them, and they have continued under de Blasio, a self-styled “progressive.” De Blasio’s affordable housing plan requires developers to build “affordable housing,” but at prices that will exclude many working people, especially people of color who are both less likely to own their dwellings, and more subject to predatory landlords. Supporters of this plan argue that liberals are limited by the realities of the market and suggest that nothing can be done about its racially differential impact. The history of discrimination that has produced these inequalities, they imply, is not their responsibility to address. But, as always, activists call on de Blasio to embrace a different vision, one that recognizes that his rezoning plan is essentially a subsidy to the wealthy. “By greatly increasing the value of the land,” Jonathan Westin argues, “we need to be capturing that value and converting it into a public good.” One that will be distributed with a history of both discrimination and racial exclusion in mind.

In my book, I examine the historical precedents to these dynamics. White liberal leaders’ commitment to urban growth in interwar Detroit both reinforced existing racial inequalities and produced new forms of racial segmentation. When I talk about white liberal leaders’ support for “growth,” I am talking about their interest in sustaining and expanding capitalist forms of accumulation. Specifically, I demonstrate that local, state, and federal officials, in dialogue with industrial leaders and other elites, promoted a vision for how to organize production, labor, and space that fostered increasing economic inequality and stratification. At the top, wealthy white urbanites – owners of the means of production – amassed spectacular fortunes and fought to consolidate their control over city resources and political power. Near the bottom, workers earned wages and some benefits in exchange for their labor and their submission to a punishing discipline both inside and outside of factories. These inequalities took on an increasingly racial cast between the two World Wars as the First Great Migration brought African Americans and other southerners flooding into northern cities. City leaders used racial segregation as a tool for labor management, lending it new life and a new set of meanings in the North, and integrating it into their vision of urban growth. These same urban elites – including politicians, businesspeople, and philanthropists – came to adopt the language of race neutrality and increasingly embraced the idea that a gradual move toward racial equality was morally good. At the same time that a majority distanced themselves from the most egregious expressions of racism, none supported any form of state intervention into practices that upheld racially unequal relations of power, or the increasingly racially segregated spatial order.

Liberal political leaders often aligned themselves with the interests of the “downtrodden.” However, they were careful to divorce their concern for the less fortunate from critiques of private property and capitalism. Instead, they cast elite political power and control over resources as natural and legitimate outgrowths of urbanization and industrialization. These dynamics, they conceded, produced problematic excesses like poverty and unemployment that were especially acute among African Americans, but they did not call into question the morality of profit and inequality themselves. White liberal politicians did not live up to their promise to produce a more racially equitable society because they did not believe in a racially or economically redistributive state. Even as they (often ambivalently) embraced the language of racial equality and expressed empathy for the plight of people of color, they embraced a class vision that equated urban growth with the accumulation of wealth at the top of an unequal, racially stratified pyramid.

Karen Miller is Professor of History at LaGuardia Community College and in the MALS Program at the CUNY Graduate Center. She is currently writing a book about internal labor migration and the US colonial state in the Philippines. Her first book, Managing Inequality: Northern Racial Liberalism in Interwar Detroit shows that white northern leaders embraced egalitarian ideas about race in the 1920s and 30s at the same time that they helped build racially segregated and unequal cities. Dr. Miller’s articles and reviews have appeared in the Journal of American History, The Middle West Review, The International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, The Michigan Quarterly Review, Michigan Feminist Studies, and Against the Current and the edited collection, Groundwork: Local Black Freedom Struggles in America.

The Purpose of Higher Education


Mehmet_BioPic By Mehmet Kucukozer

The Behavioral Sciences Department (BHS) at Dutchess Community College (DCC), of which I am faculty, runs a seminar series each semester called A Conversation Across the Disciplines. The idea is to invite faculty of the various departments to speak and share perspectives from their respective areas of study on various topics of academic and social significance. We, the organizers, thought it would be timely to have an event on “the purpose of higher education,” as the State University of New York is pushing system-wide curricular reforms to which, as a member college, we are subject. We saw it as an opportunity to address some of the long-term implications of restructuring that emerge from the current drive to edit credits, courses, and course requirements.

As one of the invited faculty at the event providing a sociological perspective, I made the case that key ideas within the sociological tradition have served as vital philosophical and conceptual foundations for education, and that those ideas, perhaps more than ever, need to play a role in structuring the future of education. I draw on the seminal work of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim who defined the critical function of education as developing engaged and active citizens for the formation of democratic societies. I follow up with references to the works of Howard Zinn and Paulo Freire in illustrating how Durkheim’s conception of education can be put into practice in the classroom. My hope is to spur further discussion and reflection.

To be sure, the influence of the sociological tradition in education during the twentieth century is well acknowledged.  It is indeed present in our college’s banner and motto: “Towards a Democracy of Excellence.” This echoes Durkheim’s view that education instills “the respect… for the ideas and sentiments which are at the base of democratic morality”[1]. At its core for Durkheim, education has a moral quality in developing the kinds of people who through obtained beliefs and knowledge can act in ways that benefit the public good[1]. As humans are inherently social beings, morality is measured by peoples’ participation in society. The important questions that emerge for us educators are these: To what extent is a democratic morality currently the foundation for classroom instruction? How is then such a system of education to be structured in the classroom?

Certainly, the twentieth century, being the most destructive period in human history, has brought to the fore significant concerns about the (moral) purpose of knowledge and thus education. Indeed, the great social historian Howard Zinn notes, “In 1937 sociologist Robert S. Lynd wrote a little gem of a book entitled Knowledge for What? In which he attacked the divorce of scholarship from the problems of his day… In the interim the world has experienced Auschwitz and Hiroshima and Birmingham, yet the accusation in that book against the world of scholarship remains exactly as true in every line”[2]. As these words were written close to fifty years ago, one can argue that this divorce is still in effect. Sociologists who explicitly look to apply their research to solving social problems are seen as doing something distinctive, and their work is labeled “public sociology.” In general, such scholars are known as “public intellectuals.”

How does education suffer if democratic morality is no longer the underlying principal? Democratic morality provides a basis for an intellectual orientation that can only fully develop if two key interrelated components are the focus of classroom instruction. These two components are developing a student’s (1) ability for critical analysis, and (2) his/her sense of agency to effect positive social change as citizen. The best illustration of this comes from an observation in which Zinn describes a classroom scene in one of the “Freedom Schools” set up by civil rights activists during the summer of 1964 in Mississippi:

One day, it was an editorial in the morning’s Clarion-Ledger, charging that civil rights workers were teaching people to break the law. “What do you think of the editorial? Is it true? If you could write a letter to the editor about it, what would you say?…Here’s paper and pencil, go ahead. We’ll pick out one or two and really send them to the editor.” This was not education for grades, not writing for teacher’s approval, but for an immediate use; it was a learning surrounded with urgency. And the students responded with seriousness, picking apart the issues: Are we for the law? When is civil disobedience justified? Then the teacher explored with them the differences between statutory law, constitutional law, “natural” law[3].

The style of instruction here is promoting critical thought and agency by sparking what Paulo Freire refers to as a dialogue between theory and practice[4]. Theory is understood as a framework for knowing and explaining the world. In this case, the students are learning and questioning the theory of law: What is its purpose? How is it structured? How does it relate to the concept of rights?

Theory serves as the basis for practice. Without knowing, one cannot act. Practice is action, or the (re)structuring of the social order in action. Education that focuses on the dialoguing of theory and practice forms what Freire calls the “ontological vocation” for students[4]. Through knowledge obtained in the process of learning, the student becomes a “subject” with the capacity to shape his/her world and thus create history. Thus students are imbued with a sense of agency, which constitutes the essence of democratic citizenship. In Zinn’s classroom observation, students are given the tools to act through their learning of law.

Within the sociological tradition, as put forth by Durkheim and echoed by others, the purpose of education is to foster an intellectual orientation for effective participation in society.  “Effective” comes from those who have developed the capacity to exercise a democratic morality, an ability to engage in an ongoing dialogue between theory and practice—more specifically, an ability to critically assess theory in terms of its moral application to social practice. This tradition of education is perhaps becoming more important as we sail into an increasingly uncertain global future.

[1] Cladis, Mark S. “Education, Virtue and Democracy in the Work of Emile Durkheim.” Journal of Moral Education. 1995, Vol. 24 Issue 1, p. 37, 16p.

[2] Zinn, Howard. “Nonviolent Direct Action.” Howard Zinn on History. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2011[1966].

[3] Zinn, Howard. “Freedom Schools.” Howard Zinn on History. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2011[1964].

[4] Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. (Trans.: Myra Bergman Ramos.) New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2012 [1970].

Mehmet is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Dutchess Community College, SUNY, currently teaching Introduction to Sociology, Social Problems, and Sociology of Religion. His areas of interest include historical comparative analysis of resistance movements, social change, and political economy.

How Liberals in the 1960s Laid the Groundwork for Killing Welfare in the 1990s

DB_BioPic By Darren Barany

The 1960s are often associated with the left counterculture and activism and movements for social justice of the period, e.g. the anti-war movement, the black freedom and civil rights struggles, the feminist movement, gay liberation, the various struggles for economic justice, etc. However, the American political culture shifted significantly to the right through the decade, particularly around issues related to anti-poverty policy, work, family, and the role of government in controlling poverty and inequality. The capturing of the Republican Party by the hard-line conservatism around the Barry Goldwater campaign via the formation of his sizable grassroots conservative base helped build a conservative political foundation on which future political and intellectual figures would acquire status and come to positions of power and influence (e.g. the election of Reagan in 1980). This base encompassed a white America which was resentful of gains made by the civil rights and black freedom struggles (and other movements) and which was distressed by the methods of direct action politics employed by them. Sweeping federal actions like the war on poverty and enforcing the integration of schools were seen as giving in to the pressure of riotous and unruly urban black activists.

Perhaps more significant than the rightward shift of the GOP at this time was the parallel shift among liberal intellectuals to the right, especially with regard to the US welfare state. This comprised the migration of an intellectually diverse array of leftish writers, researchers, and academics to the political right – New York-based intellectuals like Norman Podhoretz, Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol, and Nathan Glazer, as well as political figures like Daniel Patrick Moynihan. While conservative intellectuals were mostly discussing policy in the economistic and abstract terms of the libertarian critique of big government which saw the welfare state as a slippery slope to full blown communism, these intellectual defectors from the left went on to produce a policy analysis which utilized coded references to cultural dysfunction and the “pathology” of the black family.

Respectable liberalism in the US would become a politics of compromise and appeasement, a liberalism which was “reasonable” as opposed to that of the “doughface progressive,” to use Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s distinction. The doughface was characterized as a naïve “wailer” who led him or herself to become the “accomplice of communism.” This movement of the left toward the “vital center” opened the way for the embracing of many conservative principles by American liberals. The effects of this transformation have extended far ahead through history and its legacy had become plainly evident with the signing of the Welfare Reform Bill of 1996 by the Clinton Administration. Republican presidential candidate, Bob Dole allegedly complained that Bill Clinton was stealing his issues during the 1996 campaign which included measures like toughening criminal justice policy, cutting taxes, and rolling back welfare. Revealingly, these measures have proven recently to be somewhat bothersome for Hillary Clinton and her 2016 presidential primary run, as she supported these measures back then and now they inconveniently contradict her recently adopted progressive political persona.

The vital center approach to politics anticipated the neoconservatism of Kristol, Bell, et al. who had steadily retreated from their social and intellectual progressivism. Their position on anti-poverty policy articulated a necessity for limited government provisions but shied away from any type of social wage or income guarantee or anything seen as disruptive to traditional institutional or class arrangements. As the 1960s progressed, more and more attention, energy, and print was devoted to their skepticism of more progressive welfare policy and strategies which sought to enhance the collective political agency of the welfare poor. For example, strategies like the Community Action Programs (CAPs) implemented in the War on Poverty would be criticized as socially disruptive and as exacerbating perceived social and political crises.

The shifting political milieu corresponded to social and economic transformations which were unfolding during the decade, which preceded the economic downturn of the 1970s, and which fostered an atmosphere of white racial, patriarchal, and class angst. Changes related to the economy, residential displacement, and the transforming American family structure by the late 1960s were successfully framed in terms of individual behavior and work ethic, ethnic and racial identity, declining sexual morality and loss of tradition, and family disorganization. These changes produced greater demand for social services. However, black men and women were much more likely to face discrimination, live in poverty, and experience unemployment. This had a devastating effect on black families, and as fewer impoverished black households were inequitably excluded from receiving benefits, eligibility and participation in poor relief programs expanded. Moynihan, who (according to conservative policy expert, Karl Zinsmeister) was the “original sentinel of welfare-linked social decay,” observed these shifts and noted that AFDC went from being seen as widow’s program to “what in certain important respects became a Negro program.” These perceptions were highly detrimental to AFDCs legitimacy and legacy and contributed to the further stigmatization of AFDC mothers.

As the proto-neoconservatives made the gradual political and intellectual transformation from left to right or, as Glazer described it, going from being a “mild radical” to a “mild conservative,” their level of public exposure and influence was expanding. They exploited the shifting demographic composition of the welfare rolls mentioned above. Their analysis highlighted persistent reliance on AFDC due to chronic poverty, and the apparent increase in the proportion of children being born to unmarried parents was presented through language which constructed the welfare poor, especially black female headed families, as culturally/ behaviorally deficient. Terms like “dependency” and “illegitimacy” became common refrains in mainstream policy discourse. Their emphasis on behavioral dimensions of poverty and hostile response to the more progressive demands of the civil rights movement would resonate with the fear experienced by many whites who fit the now notorious “silent majority” archetype and further solidified the individual in the social imaginary as the main bearer of responsibility for his or her social position.

A soft progressivism was maintained. Bell in particular scorned McCarthy as an enemy of cultural freedom. Members of the group opposed the Vietnam War and Bell, Glazer, and Moynihan rhetorically defended the basic philosophical foundations of the New Deal, but were variably conflicted about the social consequences of welfare. For example, Bell accepted (and reinforced in his work) the myth of the meritocracy arguing that those in positions of power in the society have “earned their authority.” Glazer felt that the proposals of anti-poverty activists were too far reaching and could ultimately prove to be unachievable, damaging, and impractical. These refrains are currently quite familiar as the progressive presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders has experienced similar criticism from Hillary Clinton and her supporters, who are presented as more pragmatic, sensible, and cautious. Of the group, Kristol traveled farthest to the right on these issues, denouncing outright welfare’s social consequences as “perverse.” In particular, he bemoaned that it promoted the independence of single mothers to the extent that it made the “head of the household” into a “superfluous man,” robbing him of “his economic function.” Advocacy for methods of politics or particular causes which were too far beyond the status quo or too inconsistent with white, middle class values was often regarded as self indulgent, short-sighted, naïve, or ideological. Criticisms of welfare state programs, of the anti-poverty and welfare rights movements, and of the so called “negro problem,” while containing an air of “being honest about race,” was often itself suffused with racism, white racial guilt, and anxiety.

This wavering liberalism was an establishment liberalism fearful that the challenges confronted by the society could effectively and radically restructure the institutions of traditional power from which they had benefited. This conservative liberalism was a distinctly white, American liberalism and desperately tried to shed its critical orientation in favor of an unwavering and rosy perception of institutions, power, and authority.

Their discourse revealed an overt fear and traumatized consciousness – a sort of theory of society informed by post-traumatic stress. Kristol once famously quipped that a neoconservative is a liberal who had been “mugged by reality.” In an infamous essay titled “My Negro Problem and Ours,” Podhoretz, after recounting several instances where he had been assaulted by and made afraid of black youths in Brooklyn during his childhood, warned of the “writers and intellectuals and artists who romanticize Negroes and pander to them, assuming a guilt that is not properly theirs.”

Bell and Kristol had founded The Public Interest policy journal in 1965, the year the famous Moynihan Report was released, and it decisively challenged the tenets of progressive liberalism and the perceived egalitarian impulse of the social sciences. Kristol once identified as a common thread linking neoconservatives “their dislike of the ‘counter-culture.’” An article in the Spring 1966 issue by Earl Raab, a high school friend of Kristol, challenged the achievements of the War on Poverty, which in addition to expanding economic opportunity, had been a “kind of sociological surprise ball.” The essay suggested that the War on Poverty was a clandestine part of the “Negro revolution, of the direct action demonstrations and anarchic ghetto restlessness.” The result was an anti-poverty program which unfairly targeted an urban, black population, even though they were only a portion of the country’s poor, and the article further warned that “the American Negro is not… going to be satisfied with mere equality of opportunity.”

Moynihan was a periodic contributor through the 1960s. He and other contributors to the journal had readily appropriated Oscar Lewis’ concept of the culture of poverty. The concept was constructed to illustrate that poverty did not merely correspond to economic hardship but also constituted “a way of life” for those living in adverse material conditions. Lewis hadn’t intended the term to be used as a means for placing the blame for poverty on the poor themselves. He wrote, “In the case of a relief system that barely keeps people alive, both the basic poverty and the sense of hopelessness are perpetuated rather than eliminated.” It is precisely the opposite inference, that benefits were too generous and therefore encouraged a permissive and deviant culture of poverty, which would constitute the misuse of the concept by the neoconservatives and become such an important feature of contemporary policy discourse.

The Negro Family, the Moynihan report’s actual title, provided a moral dimension to the critique of the welfare state. It culled from Lewis’ culture of poverty framework elements which underscored behavioral patterns among America’s poor that were considered out of synch with white, middle class values. This contributed to revitalizing old, stigmatizing distinctions, like worthy and unworthy, for the poor. While he didn’t use the term, culture of poverty verbatim, he described these behavior patterns for black Americans as a “tangle of pathology.”

In contrast to Lewis, Moynihan merely touched on larger economic and social forces like the legacy and effects of black slavery, discrimination, and poor economic conditions, and he emphasized that the “center of the tangle of pathology” was the “weakness of the family structure.” He argued that, “In essence, the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is so out of line with the rest of the American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole.” A few years after the release of The Moynihan Report, he would describe the “crisis in welfare” as one where the “escalating violence” and “mounting dependency” in American cities was leading to a situation where “a massive withdrawal of support for programs to eliminate poverty” was taking place.

Contextualizing black poverty in behavioral terms helped to sustain the social stigma associated with poor black communities. By connecting the so called culture of poverty with welfare, Moynihan helped reinforce the stigma connected with receiving AFDC and other benefits. Perhaps seeing, like Lewis did, a “great potential for revolutionary protest” in the culture of poverty of poor African American neighborhoods, the neoconservative reaction ranged from cautious and skeptical to anxious and fearful, especially regarding the organizing efforts of the welfare rights movement by mostly poor, non-white women. At the heart of the “welfare crisis” was the loss of traditional authority, be it through the emergence of the “female-headed” family which signaled the decline of patriarchal authority over women and children or of CAPs indicating the decline of the authority of traditional agency representatives and bureaucrats over poor urban residents.

CAPs were a particularly hard pill to swallow for this group. Kristol, in an effort to express just how “frothy” the political climate was in the mid-1960s, wrote that “The centerpiece of the War on Poverty was the sociological fantasy that if one gave political power to the poor, by sponsoring ‘community action,’ they would then lift themselves out of poverty at the expense of the rich and powerful.” Moynihan saw CAPs as a significant failure of the War on Poverty. Through such measures, Moynihan (and the others) asserted that the New Left was using welfare as a political weapon. This was a sort of trademark in the analysis of the burgeoning neoconservatives. The dictum was: On the one hand, people need help, but on the other, those receiving relief are behaviorally deficient or are represented by activists who lack expertise and understanding and are too militant. At times, Moynihan interrogated racism and patriarchy in a namesake fashion, but he tended to use those same ideologies to make his points more popularly compelling. Finance Committee Chair, Russell Long, who was viciously condescending and bigoted in his comments regarding opposition to the 1967 reforms by advocates, was defended by Moynihan. Regarding the welfare rights movement and welfare mothers more generally, Long argued that if benefits weren’t structured just so, a poor welfare mother would sit around “drinking wine all day” without wanting to do more than “swat a mosquito off her leg.” He also asserted that instead of political engagement, they should “do something constructive” like “clean up the mess in front of their own houses.” Shamefully he referred to black welfare mothers and activists as “Black Brood Mares, Inc.” Moynihan blamed the mean spirited and racist tone directed toward them on the mothers themselves and the radical anti-poverty activists politically mobilizing them. He declared that “in truth their tactics have invited such racial slurs.”

This blame-the-victim premise underpins the entire framework and continues to shape the parameters around acceptable political discourse today, that people should just play the game politically and adopt the preferable cultural characteristics without asserting any kind of collective political agency or using disruptive political strategies. For the (formerly liberal) neoconservatives, and this is also an attribute of contemporary, mainstream liberalism, if socially subordinated groups do go the route of self-conscious collective political action, the bases and motives must be unjustifiable and ideological. Consider the recent patronizing and demeaning treatment received by Black Lives Matter demonstrators who disrupted Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton campaign events. During the now infamous incident in Seattle last year, Sanders stepped aside so Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford could speak, but his (mostly white) supporters responded with hostility with some shouting “All lives matter” and “Bernie matters.” More recently, when Black Lives Matter protester, Ashley Williams interrupted a Clinton fundraising event in Charleston, her actions were dismissed as “rude” and “inappropriate” by those in attendance and Clinton, without supporting the young woman or positioning herself in solidarity in any way, was clearly shaken and couldn’t wait to get “back to the issues.” Clinton was being asked to apologize for her role in supporting her husband’s 1994 crime bill which exacerbated mass incarceration, especially for minority populations, and for referring to kids in gangs with the racial code-word, “super-predators” in 1996. She also advocated and supported her husband’s welfare reform bill in that same year. The bill has had devastating consequences for poor families, but in the existing political culture it is still largely celebrated as a resounding bipartisan success. Despite Sanders raising this issue in debates with Clinton and on the campaign trail, the “ability to get things done” and “pragmatism” associated with the “New Democrats” still resonates with large swaths of Democratic voters across demographic lines. The entire US political spectrum, along with “the vital center” has shifted rightward over the decades. Therefore, the fetish of tepid politics illustrated in the policy analysis of the liberals who drifted rightward in the 1950s and 1960s and which offered that reasonable discourse be moderate and centrist, paved the ideological and political road which culminated in the end of welfare as an entitlement in 1996. The good news is that the edifice of the established liberalism of the white ruling class is showing signs of fracture with the ascendance of the Sanders campaign and its refreshingly grassroots democratic organizing and message. However, we will see if primary voters, the DNC, and the Democratic Party will permit such a challenge to establishment liberal politics to prevail.

Darren Barany teaches sociology at LaGuardia Community College and lives in Elmhurst, Queens. He has an MPA from the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center. His most recent research and writing looks at the ideology and politics of policy reform. He also frequently hurts himself while riding a skateboard.