White Progressives Don’t Get It

Rinku Sen

Every few years, a white progressive man begs activists to reject racial questions and focus on the real” agenda. The latest is Walter Benn Michaels, head of the English Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who wrote the book The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality, and who was recently featured on this site (“Is Diversity Enough?” October).

Policies designed without racial justice goals can actually deepen the divide, while creating the illusion that they've taken care of everyone.

Rather than saving democracy or liberating the working class, the argument goes, progressives have been forced by narrow-minded people of color to obsess about whether they have one of each kind on their conference panels or college faculties. In this narrative, identity politics is to blame for the inability of progressives to stick together, thereby making room for the rise of conservatism. Michaels says as much, barely acknowledging any other factors, including the right wing’s brilliant (and highly racialized) campaigns to establish its ideas in the American consciousness.

For 20 years, I have worked as an organizer and journalist in racial justice organizations owned and operated by people of color, hoping to contribute to a vibrant larger movement. My current employer, the Applied Research Center, holds that it’s important to be explicit about race but not exclusive.” That’s not diversity; it’s a sensible analysis for a complicated world.

Analysts like Michaels repeatedly harp on diversity” as if that’s the only measure of racial progress. That reflects their deep lack of connection with actual communities and their cluelessness about the role that race plays in economics and democracy. They want to write off racism as a distraction from universal solutions, or as a divide-and-conquer tactic to split the working class. 

Universal solutions, however, have to deal with discrimination if they’re to be truly universal. Policies designed without racial justice goals can actually deepen the divide, while creating the illusion that they’ve taken care of everyone. 

I also often hear that rather than highlighting racial disparities in healthcare, rampant though they are, we should fight for universal healthcare. But if public healthcare were enough to prevent discrimination, then Canada and the United Kingdom wouldn’t have any health disparities. But they do. A study published in July’s American Journal of Public Health reported that nearly twice as many non-white Canadians needed medicines but could not afford them as their white counterparts, and that 18.6 percent of non-whites had unmet healthcare needs as opposed to 11.1 percent of whites. 

Racism leads Americans to make political decisions that undermine their own interests. The current attack on our civil liberties was tested on non-citizens, not after 9/11 but as early as 1996 with hardly a peep out of anybody. That year’s Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act allowed the president to label organizations terrorist” without any appeal or review, lifted a restriction against the FBI on investigations based on speech or beliefs, and let the Federal government deport or jail immigrants indefinitely for their affiliations or political activity. This is not divide and conquer; it’s about getting white folk used to the practice of shrinking rights for others – so that they will eventually tolerate it for themselves. 

In 2003, when Howard Dean said he wanted to reach out to southern men who had Confederate flags on their pickups, he was forced by both southerners and blacks to apologize. Dean was on the right track but unable (perhaps from lack of practice?) to articulate what needed to be said – that white southerners had allowed racism to lead them to vote against their own self-interest. White people who absorb racist ideas always think they’ll be exempt from the loss.

If racism dilutes progressive solutions, racial justice can improve life for everyone. Racial justice activists have learned all we could from identity-based movements. First, identity is key – we all start with what is in front of us, as true for white men as for anyone else. But identity doesn’t replace ideas, hence, the difference between diversity” and justice. Racial justice is about changing the rules of society according to a set of standards: resisting discrimination and violence, not abiding huge disparities, and expanding the role of government to protect economic, social and political rights.

It is white progressives who are stuck on identity politics; progressives of color have long since moved on. The resulting agenda requires far more from the nation, and from our movement, than representation. The failure to incorporate racial justice into a progressive program has deprived progressivism of its true potential – to build a better world for all of us.

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Rinku Sen is the president and executive director of the Applied Research Center and the publisher of ColorLines magazine. She is the author of Stir it Up: Lessons in Community Organizing and Advocacy and The Accidental American: Immigration and Citizenship in the Age of Globalization.
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