Featured Post

Part 1: Mark Baumer Reflection: Impounding Vehicles & Immigrant Rights

This is part of a multi-part reflection I've been doing following the death of my friend, Mark Baumer . There's nothing graphic i...

"Privilege" and Electoral Politics

The first anti-segregation student sit-in in the North, says the photographer.
Various reasons have been given to favor Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. A lot of these reasons have been, frankly, ridiculous and disrespectful. There's the shallow attacks--Sanders is "sexist" because he benefits from an institutional advantage that says that men can have crazy hair or move their arms while they speak*--and the ones that have bordered on character assassination--photos of Sanders at Civil Rights protests were assailed as fake, but actually are real. But the fact that a lot of the attacks on Bernie Sanders have lacked character does not mean that there are no logical arguments for Hillary Clinton as a candidate. And so though I disagreed with the author, I was pleased to see this piece arguing for Clinton in a way that (mostly) seemed respectful and reasonable.

The piece argues for various reasons that Hillary Clinton is more electable than Sanders. The author admits that Sanders actually polls ahead of Clinton nationally--both candidates poll ahead of all the Republican front-runners--but says that for Sanders, that could change. He fears that the lie-machine that broke candidates like Michael Dukakis could come rearing back, and that Clinton--who is a known quantity to most voters--can't really be made more hated than she is (if you hate her, you hate her). On the other hand, he argues, Sanders could be "Willy Hortoned" because his record is less known than Clinton's.

Now, this is all fine and good, and is at least worth discussing and arguing.

Where the essay really goes off course, for me, is in its last--almost tacked-on--paragraph:
Finally, and at the risk of alienating you a little, I think that preferring my moral/political purity over these life-or-death questions is a privileged position to take. I think one reason Bernie’s supporters tend toward the white, young, and privileged is that we don’t have as much skin in the game as others who would be affected by a Republican victory. Moral purity is a luxury not.
I just do not accept this argument, and it kind of offends me.

The reason I think the "privilege" argument is dishonest, is that it misplaces privilege where personality should go. What (liberal) Clinton supporters are is cautious--and at that, cautious within the terms they have set up themselves. I respect caution, I just don't believe it tracks with how privileged a person is. There are privileged and non-privileged people on both sides of this debate. For that matter, there are privileged and non-privileged people on the Republican side. Whenever someone makes a long-term argument about what is right, there's the danger of ignoring the short-term interests of some (relatively) harmed individual. Do white working class workers, who often rail against immigrants' rights, have a point simply on the grounds that they are not privileged in the same way as a teacher in an inner-city school fighting for those rights? It's clearly morally right to fight for immigrants' rights, even though some "native" workers might have a point in thinking racist protectionism serves their short-term interests. We could go around and around about this.

Some very non-privileged people do support Sanders, and what unites these people most is probably that they're young enough to imagine a different world. Older voters who may like or agree with Sanders remember all manner of wounds inflicted to their optimistic psyches over the course of a lifetime, and may stray to the center less from ideology than fear. Take the young optimism of Erica Garner, for instance:

What separates Garner from other, older members of her family (who have favored Clinton) probably isn't as much politics--and definitely is not privilege--as much as it is an outlook of youth that says that a gambit for deep change is worth a try.

I've had mixed feelings my entire life about my own privilege/lack thereof. My family could varyingly be described as lower-middle-class or working class depending on the frame that one wants to use. When I look to the Yoda-like impressions of relatives long gone and try to ask myself who they might feel for, I feel like they'd be Sanders people: great-great grandparents who arrived in this country and no sooner than they settled into working class jobs also set out to do activism for their then-oppressed country of Ireland; a grandmother (still alive**) who taught me growing up that "the white flowers must be offset by the red ones for contrast--we need a little socialism to make capitalism work"; another chain-smoking grandmother (passed) who worked as an air-raid warden during WWII. Maybe other, honest, decent people have different influences on their votes, but these are mine. 

My Nana, who is no longer alive, weighs heavily on me when I think about racism. I have frozen her in my mind in a way that probably makes her a lot more uncomplicated and positive than she might have really been. But a story rings out, and plays over and over for me. My mom told me it again and again growing up.

My aunts and my mom were out in the street playing with friends, when one of the kids, a Filipino kid named "Pee Wee", started winning at whatever game they were playing. The kids chanted:


My Nana came out the front door, grabbed my aunt and my mom by the elbows, and started wailing on them with a shoe. "DON'T YOU EVER LET ME HEAR YOU CALL SOMEONE NAMES FOR HIS RACE! I'LL BEAT YOU WITHIN AN INCH OF YOUR LIFE! NO CHILD OF MINE. . . "

"But mom, we weren't calling him names! That's his name! He's called Pee Wee."

"Oh. Well, okay then. Go out and play."

No sorry, no nothing. "Hit first and ask questions later" my mom always said of her parents.

And I come away from this story feeling like, on the one hand, that this represents everything that's kind of white trash and icky about my family--Rachel, for instance, was never smacked as a kid!--but on the other hand, it's a core memory, having been told this story. My Nana died when I was in third grade from a life of chain-smoking, but I feel her presence over me telling me that I better not let her down. It says, "don't you ever let me find out. . . no grandchild of mine. . . ".

When I was in eighth grade, I was having a tough time. My family was splitting apart from domestic abuse. The church had started dropping bags of groceries at our house. My mom would go back with the bags of groceries and drop them off and say that we didn't need them, that there must be someone else. Take them back she'd say. But really, we needed them. In college, a friend of mine made me pancakes for breakfast as a kind gesture, and it was hard to explain her her--a fancy liberal arts school graduate with a trust-fund--why I didn't like pancakes. "I just have had all the pancakes I want in life" I said.

In the midst of this, I had a really close friend who I'll call George, who lived in the apartments near our rowhouse. He was white (which is relevant). His dad had just up and left him. It was a lot worse for his family than ours. His single mom had never had an ounce of support from anyone. And my friend really showed the stress. But he was kind to me, and we got close. We would play Magic card games (which I found boring, but humored him on). I actually had him over the house a few times (I remember convincing my mom that his apartment was definitely more messy than our house, and so it was okay).

George started dating this girl who was in our circle. She was always nice to me--kind of Gothy, and little "off"--but nice. Then she started saying weird things. Racist things. She'd talk about how black people weren't as good as white people. She'd say this stuff like that, and smile creepily at people's reactions. And George never blinked. It was fine with him. We were sitting with another friend, who was black--I'll call him Jamel--and George's girlfriend said something about how white people were better and then turned to the black friend and said "But not you. You're okay." Jamel grinned through the interaction, and didn't debate her. But I spoke up and said, "That's fucked up. You're being racist and you're tokenizing Jamel."

I told George that he should break up with his girlfriend, and that I couldn't be friends with him if he didn't. He came back with some eight grade boy bullshit, like "Man, that's my girl. Don't talk about my girl." And I'd try to argue with him, and say that he was disrespecting Jamel. "Jamel is our friend, and you're treating him as if he doesn't matter at all just because this girl's going to date you."

I came out of school one day, and a crowd of people was all around me. George was in the middle, and was really angry, calling me names, saying that I wasn't going to talk shit on "his girl'. The crowd, for whatever reason, actually had my back. I'd like to say it was because they understood the racism involved, but actually I think it was because they perceived George as even poorer and more white trash than me. Some kid told me to punch him, that George was a "faggot". I tried to walk away, and couldn't. The crowd walked me up the block until I was backed against a fence. 

I took a swing. I missed. George--who was halfway to a black belt in karate--swung back. He knocked my glasses off my face. I fell back. I tried to claw my way up against the chain-link fence and swing again. I missed. George hit me a couple more times and then I fell, sobbing openly in front of the others.

Something happened which was interesting, which was that George's anger suddenly broke. He came over and asked if I was okay, apologized. He kept dating the girl, but a few days later she apologized to me and said that she'd apologized to Jamel (I don't know if she actually did, but my courage had its limits. I accepted her version of events).

There's absolutely no doubt that I have white privilege, and yet the complex realities of my class and my relationships to communities of color around me have always made me resent upper-middle class white people telling me that my experience is just like theirs. It always feels to me like their reality of a white-bread world is simple and one-dimensional because, for them, it is. My world always feels a lot more complex. There's a delicate dance that always happens around this. I am privileged. I am not privileged. I am both. I'm happy to accept a back-seat and listen sometimes, but I'm also not going to sacrifice my agency to this P.C. bullshit.

I get the notion that people want to subvert themselves to an imagined community in need, to be cautious on behalf of the greater good, even at times sacrificing more passionate goals towards gradual change. And for certain, there have been times when I've listened to people around me and made the same choice. I voted for John Kerry. I wanted to vote for Ralph Nader, but I didn't. I voted happily for Obama the first time, but not as happily the second time--I wanted to vote for Jill Stein. But I voted for him, nonetheless. Being someone who until recently lived in a swing state, and understanding that the candidates I liked were not viable, I listened. But now we have a candidate who is viable. Do I know for certain that Bernie Sanders will win the election? No, I do not. Do I fear the results of a Trump or Cruz victory? Yes, I do. But there has to be a point at which we decide that it's worth risking something for progress. It's one thing not to vote for a candidate who polls at 3%. It's another thing entirely to come up with complex scenarios in which a candidate who polls at winning levels "might not" poll that way in a few months. You get to a point where such calculations make voting seem ridiculous, like an activity without any agency associated with it.

The other reason I don't like the privilege argument is that it feels to me to be made by white people who have no realistic way of understanding the working class white vote. I'm not trying to play games here. I understand that "working class white" has complex contradictions associated with it, and I'm not going to romanticize myself or my family. Part of what was always odd about going to activist groups in college is that I would automatically assign myself to a "middle class privilege" discussion group, only to find that when I got there that none of the other "middle class" people seemed to have much in common with me. It felt confusing, and what I realize now is that an awful lot of people think of themselves as middle class when they're not. I've seen it on both sides. I've worked in inner-city schools where almost everyone is Latino or black, and had students tell me about their day at the Food Stamps office and then, in the next breath, declare that they belong to a "middle class family". I've met friends--many of them very good people--who seem to think that their trips across the globe from country to country are part of their "middle class" privilege. I want to shake these friends and tell them that they're not in the middle at all. But what it means to be lower-middle-class/working-class and white is to understand that voters who track to the right sometimes respect courage. White people who aren't super wealthy don't like being told about racism for various reasons. Sometimes they don't like it because they're racist, and that's a real problem that people like me should work to address from within our families and our communities (and I try). And sometimes white voters don't like being told about racism because they just don't like the feeling that someone with a university degree and a Subaru is telling them how privileged they are. I feel like Sanders, who grew up in the milieu of people like me, and who has taken a few potshots to the head standing up for justice, comes off as different to these voters than the average Harvard-bred liberal professor. Is Bernie Sanders like Michael Dukakis? Maybe in belief, but not in any other way.

Maybe I'm wrong. But whatever else might be true, I respect Bernie Sanders because he feels like me. I just wish people who never had Bisquick boxes show up on their doorstep in paper bags, who never got punched in the head in front of friends standing up against racism, would stop calling people like me privileged. It pisses me off. We're all trying to assess what the best way to address privilege is, and a Clinton supporters' choice to take the cautious path is best thought of as their earnest effort to do that. Sanders supporters are trying their best too.

I also just feel like, in the final analysis, that the work of honest activists should be to fight to make ideas known and understood. The author of the anti-Sanders piece says that voters don't understand the idea of democratic socialism. Well, first off, this isn't 1988. And secondly, if that's the case, why not go out and try to explain it to them? It gets tiring for me--going back to my point about friends who seem to fly off to this-country or that- for vacation--that the same people who often have money and time for this kind of outright luxury then come out of the woodwork to sanctimoniously Vassar-rant about "checking one's privilege" later on. We're struggling pretty bad, and we managed--in installments--to put together $27 for Bernie Sanders campaign. If you've got time and money to live such a supposedly self-aware existence in the midst of your privilege, maybe you should haul your ass over to Ohio and start talking to some swing voters.


NOW you can have the same Transport Providence experience you've always had, except you can PAY FOR IT. :-)

Want to donate?          Consider a donation to my Paypal account using the email  address james.p.kennedy@gmail.com.

*Which, to be fair, probably has a tiny bit of truth to it. Women are held to different standards of dress than men. I've seen it at meetings where women are still wearing horribly uncomfortable shoes because it's expected. And this is wrong. But it's also a weird way of casting aspersions against a good person who's spent his whole life on the right side of gender and sexuality issues, and ignores the really deep issue-oriented ways that the Clintons have furthered racism or sexism through their careers.
**I haven't talked to my grandmother about the election this year yet, so she might come away voting totally differently than me; but this is a real story, and given that she told me "that Amy Goodman is such a nice girl" last time I saw her at Christmas, I'm guessing she's at least on the fence.

No comments:

Post a Comment