The Epidemic of Civic Amnesia Is Spreading to Liberals
When supposed progressives go wobbly on social justice, we need to engage them, not ignore them
I was at a dinner party the other night when a well-to-do woman I know, an ardent Hillary supporter in the last election, put down her wine glass and said to no one in particular, “Maybe 150 years is long enough.”
She was referring to affirmative action, public housing, social services, urban renewal, and everything else she perceived to be part of a vast effort at reparations for black people since the Civil War. After more than a century of such programs, African Americans still have lower employment, worse health, less education, and fewer assets than their counterparts in other ethnic categories. “Other minorities have figured it out without the advantages,” she continued. “Why should Koreans and Mexicans be able to work it out, but not the blacks?”
Of course, most everyone else at the dinner was shocked. People explained that, unlike Korean and Mexican immigrants to the United States, African Americans were shipped to this country as slaves. They didn’t arrive to working-class neighborhoods with extended families and mutual support. Once freed, they didn’t even get the 40 acres and a mule once promised by General Sherman. They just got more prejudice, lynching, and segregation. Eventually, they were the beneficiaries of some social policies, but even those seemed intended less for reparation than separation: Public housing projects don’t simply house — they segregated and isolated black communities from the rest of the economy and society.
She had downed a few glasses by then and felt free to follow her ahistorical logic to its conclusion: Everyone should get the same opportunities for advancement. “No preferential treatment to anybody,” she said. “It’s only fair.” We tried to explain to her that everyone isn’t beginning at the same place. It’s like a race where certain people start out two laps ahead — not because of affirmative action but because of wealth. The kid with wealthy parents doesn’t have to hold down a job while going to college, has the luxury of taking a “gap year” or unpaid internship after college, or gets the use of a free apartment in the city while pursuing entry-level jobs at firms of their parents’ friends. (I, for instance, just agreed to speak to the sons of some former high school friends of mine about their careers—and they only knew me because we’re from the same elite suburban enclaves.)
I don’t need to convince you, dear readers, that there’s a logical lapse in the premise that the United States has been making a legitimate effort to promote the welfare of its black citizens for 150 years or that “leveling the playing field” is possible without also redistributing assets.
But what’s interesting to me is that something had given her permission to share what had likely been on her mind for a long time. A certain civic amnesia has taken hold of even many formerly progressive people, freeing them to consider whether, well, we can just jettison the social justice baggage we’ve been carrying around since at least the civil rights era, if not the Civil War, and enjoy being privileged, guilt-free. Heck, all this compassion is really just a form of disempowerment in the long run anyway. And it has failed. So screw it.
I expect such thinking from bigoted distant relatives I’m forced to mix with at funerals or even some of my undergraduates, but not from people in my own social circle. I understand that even thoughtful people may try on regressive ideas for a moment or two, but they’re usually quick to dismiss them before uttering them out loud.
But now I attend town meetings where people want to know why they have to pay school tax if they don’t have kids in school, why they have to pay for someone else’s health problems, or why we have to spend money on ramps so disabled people can access a public building.
I should probably be glad people are asking the questions that are truly on their minds. Better to ask than to repress. But I can’t help but suspect the ethical standards on which our social contracts are based are beginning to erode. The lowermost limits on what is an acceptable social stance are lowering still more.
On the one hand, we can blame Trumpism. We are all becoming inured to attempts to label immigrants as “animals,” black people as “dumb,” or Nazis as “fine people.” Likewise, Trump’s successful redefinition of presidential power and political norms has lowered the bar for what potential adversaries will accept. It is permissible for the president, at this point, to do things — like firing the attorney general and replacing him with a con man — that he couldn’t have gotten away with earlier in his term. Democrats now are keeping their powder dry for only the most egregious violations of the public trust. When the lines around permissible behavior are changed, however, the standards change everywhere. When the president considers whether it’s appropriate to use the military to mow down immigrants, the liberals of the suburbs begin to consider whether it’s appropriate to tell black people to just get their collective act together already.
But I suspect the underlying cause for the newfound freedom of inappropriate speech has less to do with the failure of social good than its successes. The anxiety around affirmative action and the promotion of equal rights is an acknowledgment of the fact that they’re finally working well enough to be giving white folks a run for their money. For example, it’s harder to get into a competitive college today than it was a decade ago. That’s partly because all the kids who previously couldn’t afford to go now know about scholarships and financial aid. While public education for the poor still lags terribly behind everyone else’s, black unemployment is steadily declining, and college graduations are increasing.
So while anything approaching economic equality or opportunity is still elusive (more a product of black families beginning with less than one-tenth the assets of their white counterparts), white families — even the wealthiest ones — are beginning to feel the pressure of genuine competition. We now live in a world where a wealthy white kid with a B average can lose his spot in college to a black kid from the projects with a B average. They may even have the same SAT scores. What’s the point of being wealthy — of working one’s way to the top — if not to deliver a competitive advantage to one’s kids?
It’s a weird logic, this combination of libertarian survival of the fittest with legacy advantage for the already wealthy. It is contradictory and, ultimately, flies in the face of American values.
But this is a conversation we should not fear but welcome. If the wealthy feel free enough to openly discuss their misgivings about the progressive policy agenda, we should feel confident enough in our convictions to entertain their fears and help them find their way back to their humanity.