Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Whiteness run amok

Writing at Vox, Zack Beauchamp (an Andrew Sullivan blog vet) makes the case for the Trump phenomenon's affinity to rightwing racist and xenophobic movements which infest European politics, notably in Hungary, the Netherlands, and France. Their anti-immigration fury propelled Britain's vote for Brexit. He calls his piece White Riot. It's terrific; do read it. I'll save my caveats for later ...

I want to share at some length one section of it I found particularly interesting and then look at what the experience of California since 1994 suggests how we went past this condition of rampant political hate.

Beauchamp names Trump a "harbinger" of a protracted struggle that democratic societies will need to wage against racist nationalism. And, from social science research about what conditions create the terrain for these movements to arise, he begins with a story:

At the beginning of World War II, the small Baltic country of Lithuania saw two major shocks. First, in 1940, it was invaded and conquered by the Soviet Union. Just the next year, in June 1941, it was invaded and conquered by the Nazis.

In the city of Kaunas, the Nazi invasion triggered a spontaneous wave of attacks against Jewish residents, who had gained an unusual amount of power under the Soviets. The perpetrators weren’t the Nazis, who hadn’t had time to set up yet. It was the people of Kaunas themselves.

Prior to the Nazi invasion, Kaunas had a reputation for tolerance; one Jewish resident called it a "paradise." Yet afterward, the "tolerant" citizens of Kaunas tortured, humiliated, and slaughtered their Jewish neighbors. Roughly 3,800 Jews were murdered in just four days.

Just 65 miles away, in the capital of Vilnius, things were different. The city had seen pogroms in the past, so you would have expected something like the horrors of Kaunas. Yet the citizens of Vilnius mostly left the Jews alone. Why?

He turns to the work of Roger Petersen, a political scientist at MIT.

In order to fully understand why ethnic violence happens, [Petersen] argued, we need to appreciate the role of resentment: the feeling of injustice on the part of a privileged portion of society when it sees power slipping into the hands of a group that hadn't previously held it. Drawing on social psychology, he theorized that one of the underappreciated causes of ethnic violence was a change in the legal and political status of majority and minority ethnic groups.

According to Petersen, that change in status comes from a sense of injustice. Members of dominant groups simply believe they deserve to be the dominant force in their societies, and resent those challenging their positions at the top of the pyramid.

"Any group that’s been dominant — well, it’s not that easy for them not to be dominant anymore," Petersen tells me.

... This helped explain the puzzle of Kaunas and Vilnius. In Kaunas, the Soviet invasion in 1940 had politically empowered local Jews, who had occupied leadership positions in the Communist Party prior to the invasion and ended up with plum Soviet jobs as a result. This sparked intense feelings of resentment on the part of Kaunas residents, resulting in the vicious pogrom. In Vilnius, by contrast, non-Jewish ethnic Poles held most leadership positions. The Soviet invasion didn’t empower Jews on a large scale, and thus failed to create any resentment toward them.

... Petersen predicts that ethnic struggle should play out differently when governments are weak, as in the wake of a Nazi invasion, and when they’re strong, as in modern France. In nations with strong and legitimate governments, the loss of status by a privileged group is extremely unlikely to produce large-scale ethnic slaughter.

But "resentment" on the part of the previously dominant group doesn’t just dissipate; it is simply channeled into another way of clinging to power and preventing another group from attaining it. Like, say, elections and government policies.

"Dominance," Petersen writes, "is sought by shaping the nature of the state rather than through violence."

My emphasis. This describes what happened in the state of California in the 1990s when a large fraction of the white population realized that soon the Golden State would be a "majority-minority" place. The actual demographic tipping point probably arrived in 1999; that awkward locution meant that no racial group amounted to a numerical majority. The prospect of tipping drove a large fraction of the white electorate (still dominant) a little nuts. In 1994, they tried by initiative vote to outlaw immigration; the feds eventually said "not your business." In 1996, lest someone get in line ahead of them, they outlawed state affirmative action programs. This one stuck and to this day the state university system may not consider racial balance in admissions. In 1998, they severely restricted bilingual education in public schools substituting English-only immersion; we get a chance to repeal that one by approving Prop. 58 in November. In 2000, they passed Prop. 21 to lock up "juvenile offenders" -- code for black and brown young people -- and throw away the keys.

And then, to the surprise, of just about everyone, the deluge of attempts to reshape the nature of the state for the benefit of old white people largely stopped. White people were still by far the largest demographic in the electorate; they (we) are projected to continue to be so until 2040 by which time several new generations will have come of age.

So what happened to staunch the racist floodtide? I think I can name three factors; there are undoubtably more.

1) Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown. We got lucky. I know, we made utter fools of ourselves by putting a cartoon character in the Governor's Mansion in 2003 in a recall election. In 2000 we'd elected a dim, gray professional Democratic politician whose claim to the office was that he was less bad than the Republican. Arnold bowled him over -- but, with a Democratic state legislature to keep his worst plutocratic instincts in check, he proved not to be a particularly destructive kind of Republican. He genuinely believed in climate crisis and put the state on a good path toward reducing carbon emissions. And he was an immigrant himself, no hater of foreigners. In Jerry Brown, the state had an experienced re-tred Governor to succeed Arnold. He's a frustrating figure, not playing much more nicely with the Democratic legislature than his predecessor. But over two terms, a tremendous amount of progressive civil rights, labor, education, and even tax legislation has been enacted. California has a functioning government. At the tipping point, we lucked out in state leadership.

2) Organized labor partners with community groups. Back in 2000, not much could be said for the state Democratic Party. But California still had quite a few functional unions. And the political leadership of those unions began to understand that, unless they could make common cause with community organizations, especially in communities of color, they'd have a hard time moving their agenda. This wasn't easy and still isn't. Labor has most of the money and the political experience, but some of the community groups have developed some real electoral skills and lend both people and legitimacy to progressive causes. The Democrats have even re-vivified themselves. In consequence, in California, there has developed some sense of what a broad front of the 99 percent might look like -- fractious but possible.

3) Forty percent of California whites never drank the racist Koolaid. This is important and not obvious. For whatever reasons and they are varied and they aren't all pretty, a lot of white voters decided they didn't want the society shaped to dominate communities of color that California Republicans were offering. The GOP is vestigial in California; their hellish vision has been repudiated. California has plenty of political fights (think Honda v. Khanna for example) but the big ones play out within the Democratic coalition. California has its share of racists (in your local police, perhaps?) but Trump-style white nationalism is a non-starter.

The project is to move the rest of the country to catch up. Here's where I fault the mainstream media. They still act as if California was the land of fruits and nuts, of hippies and commune dwellers. Take a look around folks. We're a far better place than we were twenty years ago and that makes us allergic to Trump pollution.
I can't completely leave the Beauchamp piece without pointing out that, obsessed with the European analogy, he never even mentions that U.S. racial configurations are differently complicated than European ones. Our historic white supremacy has enforced dominance over African Americans; our xenophobia toward immigrants has ebbed and risen. At present, the right is lumping Mexicans with Muslims and merely casually denigrating Black people. Not surprisingly, many people in all communities of color, for the moment, feel they are on the same team. But there is nothing in U.S. history to say that this team is static. Struggle will tell.


Brandon said...

How would a racially sensitive police force work, in your opinion? If memory serves, the San Francisco police officer who made those offensive tweets was Asian.

Hattie said...

Good summary of a complex situation. I'm wondering if the stand-pat racism of people like my now mostly deceased older relatives still exists. They are the kind who do not object to people of color in their place.

janinsanfran said...

Brandon: I think police departments must be made to operate under fierce rules that emphasize their "protect and serve" function. Any "use of force" should be viewed as a failure of proper policing, liable to hurt the officer using force's career prospects, if not immediately end a career. Any unjustified use of force by cops should result in criminal charges, as it would for anyone else. The job is to prevent violence, not to use violence. Yes, in a country with people running around with scarcely limited guns, that's scary. But that is the job. These days, police too often think of themselves as an army.

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