Why we can’t have Nice Things

Why we can’t have Nice Things April 4, 2017

The generally progressive agenda is really quite popular here in America. We can argue about the best approach to achieving its goals, but in almost every case most of the public likes those goals — good jobs with good wages, financial stability, retirement security, public education and affordable state colleges, health care for all, infrastructure and public works that make civilization accessible to American people and businesses, clean air, clean water, safe food and medicine, public safety from crime and consumer goods.

Most people like all of that stuff. Up to a point. The problem is that as nice as all of that sounds to most people, America also has an unfortunate history of turning against all of those nice things as soon as it turns out that they will also be available to people of color.

This is a very long and very ugly pattern. Consider, for example, public schools and state universities. Americans loved that and supported the idea, reaping the benefits of expanded education and opportunity for all … up until Brown v. Board of Education. As soon as the benefit of quality public education was extended to include black people and other people of color, white Americans abandoned the idea. Support for public schools became “controversial” and politically divisive, private “Christian” schools sprung up all over the country as an alternative for whites fleeing the no longer “separate-but-equal” inequality of segregated public schools.

Now art and music are considered “luxuries” that public education can no longer afford. Now our education policy debates are over how much public education funding can be diverted in creative new ways to fund charter schools or to vouchers for private alternatives.

Or consider labor unions — once the backbone of America’s working class, protected by law as an indispensable tool for defending the rights, safety and living wages of wage-earning Americans. Strong labor unions helped to fuel America’s post-war economic boom … right up until workers of color began demanding and receiving equal representation and protection from labor unions. After that, white support for labor plummeted. Labor became “controversial” and partisan and divisive, and anti-union politicians were swept into office, empowered to nerf and neuter unions to the point that they’ve almost become a non-factor in our political and economic life.

We could go through the whole list of New Deal and Great Society programs, or the post-war infrastructure boom of the 1950s, or the once-ascendant public support for environmental and safety regulations, or housing policy — whole libraries have been written about this dynamic in American housing policy.

This crabs-in-a-bucket mentality isn’t exclusively racial — trying to get ahead by pushing the other guy further down is an ugly, self-destructive constant in human nature. Nor is this exclusively an organic, bottom-up phenomenon attributable only — or mainly — to some moral defect unique to poor and working-class white people. Divide-and-conquer is a time-honored strategy for ruling classes throughout human history, and the Powers That Be have always found or manufactured one way or another to prevent the rest of the public from embracing the solidarity that would threaten their control.

But still.

This is America. And that means, as ever, that it cannot be understood without understanding the role that race and racism is playing and has always played. Here in America, as President Lyndon Johnson put it, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

White racism is not the only reason we can’t have nice things, but it’s a sufficient reason. Until and unless we figure out some way to deal with that, we’ll continue to be unable to have those nice things — even if they remain broadly popular and desirable in the abstract.

Want single-payer, Medicare-for-all health care? So do I, and so does a majority of the American public. But a big chunk of that public will stop wanting this for themselves if getting it means that people of color have it too. So that desirable, necessary goal will remain elusive and impossible until we change that.

And that’s my question here: How do we change that? I’m not trying to convince you that this dynamic exists. Such convincing shouldn’t be necessary and, frankly, if you’re so determined as not to recognize this obvious pattern on your own, then I’m not likely to be able to convince you otherwise. What I’m interested in here, rather, is how we get past this — how we fix this problem.

I have some ideas about that but, alas, they’re mostly in the category of reasons why some approaches won’t help. Fortunately, many others also have ideas, but to give them the time and attention they’re due, I’ll need to return to this subject later when I’m not rushing off to work.

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