Ta-Nehisi Coates, March 30, 2014
This crew has been doing the elite quite a few favors lately.
This certainly is a specimen of progress—much like the ill-tempered man might "progress" from shooting at his neighbors to clubbing them and then finally settle on simply robbing them. His victims, bloodied, beaten, and pilfered, might view his "progress" differently. Effectively Chait's rendition of history amounts to, "How can you say I have a history of violence given that I've repeatedly stopped pummeling you?"
In my opinion, Ta-Nehisi Coates is the best essayist the left has to offer, and his most recent piece recounting his ongoing discussion with Jonathan Chait is no exception. It's a coruscating, must-read narrative that speaks uncompromisingly about the differences in perspective that two people, likely with similar political ideologies, can have about the American story.
Chait is, of course, correct in his basic premise that over the years, the African-American condition in the United States has improved. Over the course of a too-long sesquicentennial, our country has progressed from an economic foundation of chattel slavery to electing an African-American president. But Coates takes Chait to eloquent task for bowdlerizing the long, painful and arduous path along the way—recasting as a smooth transition what was actually a winding path full of blood, tears and brutally systematic repression of an entire people and culture.
The enlightening discourse between Coates and Chait is most relevant, and at its most visceral, regarding perceptions of the place of the black community in the American story, but other communities have their own stunted stories of progress to tell. Women have the right to vote, and are supposed to enjoy a constitutional right to reproductive autonomy. The trail of tears is a thing of the past, and we're certainly not lynching Latinos in California or beating them up in the streets of Los Angeles because they dared to dress too loudly for the tastes of whites. And did I mention that the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed after being on the books for only 61 years?
So of course Chait is right: When measured with the appropriate dose of sanitation, progress is palpable. But it's easy to see how so many recent events could make one so wary of a backslide toward the good old pummeling days.
More below the fold.
As The Oracle from The Matrix once asked and answered: "What do all men with power want? More power." And the Roberts Court is very inclined to give them just that. This past Wednesday, the highest court in the land struck down aggregate limits on an entity's campaign spending in a federal election cycle. The case, McCutcheon v. FEC, was brought by a wealthy white male donor who was aggrieved that he could not use more of his substantial wealth to give more widespread support to conservative Republican politicians. Unsurprisingly, the Republican National Committee, which benefits most greatly from the profligate campaign spending of the ultra-wealthy, latched onto the case. Equally as unsurprising, of course, is the demographic of just who gains "more freedom of speech" from this ruling: white men.
These superdonors — those who are now freed to open their wallets even more to as many candidates, party committees and political action committees they deem worthy — include conservative billionaires David and Charles Koch, director Steven Spielberg and banking titan Charles Schwab.
Only a quarter of these donors were women, according to the analysis. Almost half of them lived in the richest 1 percent of neighborhoods, as calculated by per capita income. Fewer than 1 in 50 lived in a majority African-American or Hispanic neighborhood, as compared to 1 in 6 of the general population. And 28 percent of them worked for Wall Street or had roots in the financial sector.
“These elite donors stand apart from the rest of America; they are overwhelmingly wealthy, white, and male,” the report read.
The end result of the ruling will be that candidates will be even more inclined to represent the interests of these powerful mega-donors than they already do, furthering the political power of a group with the highest of advantages. But the same Supreme Court does not seem nearly as ready
to guarantee freedom for women to spend their wages on the health care that works best for them, simply because one old white male justice could be worried that upholding the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate could theoretically, at some point in the future, force corporations to have insurance that pays for a legal medical procedure:
Kennedy did something different, he did not weigh in on the question of whether non-abortions can count as abortion — indeed, he seemed to understand the difference between birth control and abortion. Nevertheless, he looked at the government’s requirement to provide birth control coverage and envisioned a future law compelling Hobby Lobby to pay for actual abortions — just as he once gazed upon a requirement to buy health insurance and imagined the government forcing everyone to buy broccoli. In Justice Kennedy’s Courtroom, the government doesn't have to defend the law it actually passed, it has to defend the worst law Kennedy can imagine them passing — even if that law would never make it through Congress.
Funny, is it not, how the thought of far-distant adverse consequences only applies in certain circumstances? Even as access to abortion is being constricted seemingly every day by the vice grip of conservative state legislatures, one man could end up choosing to overturn an law of fundamental fairness just to prevent an outcome that has practically zero chance of happening anyway.
Not that women's rights are the only ones under attack. White conservative politicians have also decided they don't like it when minorities vote, because minorities don't vote for white conservatives. So what have they decided to do? Eliminate the types of voting hours that minorities often prefer when casting their ballots:
CINCINNATI — Pivotal swing states under Republican control are embracing significant new electoral restrictions on registering and voting that go beyond the voter identification requirements that have caused fierce partisan brawls.
The bills, laws and administrative rules — some of them tried before — shake up fundamental components of state election systems, including the days and times polls are open and the locations where people vote.
Republicans in Ohio and Wisconsin this winter pushed through measures limiting the time polls are open, in particular cutting into weekend voting favored by low-income voters and blacks, who sometimes caravan from churches to polls on the Sunday before election.
In some states like North Carolina, the only reason these new laws are even possible is because the same Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. And speaking of white conservatives in Wisconsin, how about that new budget document produced by Paul Ryan? It purports to help the poor by converting needed social programs like food stamps and Medicaid into block grants—something which has the documented effect
of hurting the poor:
According to data crunched by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, states have diverted billions of dollars of welfare block grants for uses these funds were not intended to support. In the first year of welfare reform, about 70 percent of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant went to pay for basic cash assistance for poor families. By 2012, that number had fallen to 29 percent and states were spending just 8 percent on providing transportation, job training, and other services intended to help people transition from welfare into the workforce.
Paul Ryan, of course, is the same person who
blames inner-city poverty on the lack of a "culture of work" and thinks that food stamps make people lazy and prevents people from dreaming
. Funny that, seeing as how he goes to work in a a capitol building whose construction was dependent on the forced labor of black slaves
. But surely their descendants have just gotten lazier since the 1860s?
In his essay, Coates made a very important point about what informs the differences between his view and Chait's on the social policy progress that both agree has occurred:
What's missed here is that the very culture Chait derides might well be the reason why I am sitting here debating him in the first place. That culture contained a variety of values and practices. "I ain't no punk" was one of them. "Know your history" was another.
Know your history.
Imagine viewing the recent decisions of the Supreme Court, or the Paul Ryan budget, or the abortion restrictions and the Hobby Lobby case, not from the desensitized mountaintop of centuries of halting change, but through the cultural context of what previous generations like you actually suffered, and how eager the descendants of those who oppressed your ancestors seem to revert to the old ways of bias, restriction and disenfranchisement. From that perspective—a perspective a white man like me can only seek to comprehend as an intellectual entity but will never actually experience—these things must not simply be issues to be fought against in the pursuit of justice in the moment, but represent a more existential threat.
If there's any truth to this, it's not something I really understood before. But after reading Coates, it's hard not to grasp.