Combatting Progressives’ Self-Destruction
Entering 2020 at a time of growing existential threat to basic humane values in America, and across the world – concern for human decency, respect for science, valuing democratic institutions – it would seem to be an overriding imperative for progressives to do all in their power to unify the forces of human decency in the service of an inclusive vision of social justice. But I have become deeply distressed by the recent tendency I have seen among many groups on the Left of developing an increasingly intolerant racialized politics.
Losing sight of the historic concern of progressives for building an egalitarian multi-racial, multi-ethnic, democratic society committed to combatting all forms of ethnic, racial, religious, and gender prejudice, many having taken to blaming white people, often particularly white males, as the cause of the suffering of black and brown people. And they have shown increasing intolerance for any who challenge their racialized politics, rather promoting an identity politics that explicitly sets racial and ethnic groups at odds with one another, and denigrates and alienates vast segments of the population. And this regardless of the widespread and shared suffering of so many that results from the vast disparities in wealth and power consequent upon de-industrialization, privatization, deregulation, automation, the decimation of the organized working class, unconscionable reductions in government income due to the practical disappearance of taxes on the wealthy and large corporations, and the consequent evisceration of the social “safety net,” not even to speak of the growing existential threat posed by global warming.
Having spent a good part of my adult life fighting for the values embodied in the mission statement I wrote more than 40 years ago: “promoting sustainable development, revitalizing local communities, enhancing human dignity, creating effective democracy, and achieving economic, social and racial justice,” it has particularly pained me to see two local historically progressive organizations, Citizen Action of New York and the Long Island Progressive Coalition, with which I have long been associated, increasingly lose interest in that inclusive progressive vision. Rather they have become relatively uninterested in the general societal issues effecting all working people. They have increasingly come to see all issues in racial terms, tending toward exclusively prioritizing a racialized politics. They have thus become quite comfortable blaming white people for the oppression of black and brown people, even going so far as to claim that all white people are racists. And they have become increasingly intolerant of divergent opinions, thus creating a toxic interpersonal environment for any who dissent from their “group think”. This view was exemplified recently by a LIPC Board member who said that he didn’t give a damn about the working class in general, or for the Labor movement, in particular. A further clear example of this trend can be seen by Citizen Action’s recent appointment as its Statewide Political Director of a person who had recently posted a blog entitled “All White People are Racists – A History Lesson.”
I find these views quite unacceptable. The entirely legitimate and necessary concern with fighting racial discrimination has degenerated into a racialization of political discourse which it has long been the goal of progressives to combat, namely that of stigmatizing an entire population because of the color of their skin. Is that not the classic definition of racism? Further, such a policy, beyond being morally indefensible, is politically disastrous. How can we expect to build an effective progressive movement while alienating the majority of the population? Rather than such demonization and divisive attacks, progressives should be building that multi-racial, multi-ethnic, socially inclusive, program which maximally unifies the 99% around a program of social justice and democratic empowerment, not one which divides that potentially empowering majority. We must repudiate such racialized attacks, and rather give renewed voice and vitality to that inclusive vision so brilliantly articulated by Dr. King when he dreamed of a world in which his “four little children will … live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character … and (where) little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers”? That’s a vision that we must not lose sight of, and one which should continually motivate our work and guide our activity. And any organization that would move us in an opposed direction certainly does not deserve our continuing support.