Bloom Briefing 41: Identity Politics, MarchForOurLives, Race and Social Mobility
Bloom Briefing 41
Welcome to the 41st edition of The Bloom Briefing. This week, I address some common misperceptions about identity politics, talk about the March For Our Lives in Washington, D.C., and report on an article in the New York Times about social mobility and race. There is great additional reading below on how we treat gangs and frats, the moral bankruptcy of the free speech grifters, gun violence, and police lying under oath.
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Conservatives often critique the left for trafficking in identity politics. By identity politics, they, conservatives, tend to mean motivating people by appealing to foundational parts of their identity. Conservatives see the left talking about immigration with Hispanic voters, criminal justice reform with black voters, abortion with women voters, etc. and call this identity politics. Identity politics is bad, of course, argue conservatives, because it expects voters to vote along a single issue which is identity-based rather than evaluating a full suite of policy issues.
Most of these critiques are demonstrably partisan. Conservative politicians (and some centrists Democrats) have been playing identity politics with white voters for the last half-century. “Law and order” was designed to scare white suburban voters about black crime. So was the Willie Horton ad. So was the War on Drugs. So was “Make American Great Again.” So remain the appeals to heritage and history and Confederate war memorials and coded language around “inner cities,” “welfare queens,” and “MS-13.” And of course, by playing identity politics, conservatives have gotten the white working class to vote against its economic self-interest.
This week, at the New York Times, David Brooks offered a somewhat more thoughtful critique. It is less a critique of identity politics, and more a critique of what he sees as a new world in which identity politics is the norm. In this world our “perceptions are something that come to [us] through [our] group, through [our] demographic identity.” Before, when people were “busy fighting communism and fascism,” we “emphasized individual reason, and were deeply allergic to groupthink.” Not anymore.
Brooks spends two paragraphs attributing this exchange of individual reason for the groupthink of identity to Nietzsche and Foucault (and, in a barely coded broadside on the entire academy, specifically calls out “critical race theorists”). His argument is that two related aspects of postmodernism, subjectivity and power dynamics, have led to a world where demographic identity determines politics.
Subjectivity is the notion that different people experience the world differently based on their past experiences. Power dynamics is the concept that different groups of people have differing amounts of power. These two concepts intersect in places where there are certain experiences that are immediate only to certain types of people because of the power dynamics at play. For example, I can’t experience wondering whether I’ve been denied a promotion because I am insufficiently masculine or wondering whether I’ve been pulled over because I’m black. But the fact that I can’t immediately experience these phenomena doesn’t mean that they are unknowable.
The mistake Brooks makes is in conflating influence with determination. Our demographic identity informs our political views (because we have different subjective experiences depending on our position within power dynamics), but it is not our political destiny. We know this intuitively. Not every white septuagenarian voted for Trump and not every young black woman voted for Clinton. People reach their own conclusions using individual reason.
Rather than writing an obituary for the op-ed page, Brooks should be defending it. The exchange of ideas about what life looks like from different perspectives, how to be in the world, how we should work to change it is the only way we can come to greater understanding. Individual reason is not dead yet. If it were, you wouldn’t be reading this briefing and I wouldn’t be writing it.
In fact, I would argue that we have a human obligation use our reason to attempt to understand the experiences that aren’t immediately accessible to us. What does it feel like to grow up and live in a country where your risk of violent death and incarceration are high and your educational and professional opportunities are low – and to know that that has something to do with the color of your skin? What does it feel like to be afraid, chronically, of being the victim of sexual violence? What does it feel like to be the object of suspicion every time you return to your country because you wear a beard and have an Arabic name?
Answering these questions requires the use of individual reason not groupthink. We must ask ourselves these questions, investigate them with the myriad resources at our disposal, and empathize. We must imagine what it would be like to have these experiences ourselves. There is not a right way to empathize because there is not one perspective about what it means to be racially profiled by the police, just like there’s not one perspective on what it means to be a woman in the workforce.
Brooks is right that demographic identity has become a more important part of our political conversation. The widespread acknowledgement of the truth of different subjective experiences has made it central to our politics. But this is a good thing rather than a bad one. If we’re not thinking about what the world looks like to different kinds of people, we’re not fulfilling our human and democratic responsibility.
Yesterday, I attended the March For Our Lives in Washington, D.C. It was a powerful event to behold, with impressive attendance (photos in this Washington Post article), and even more impressive speeches, all of which came from students.
Emma González, one of the student leaders, gave a particularly moving speech. After reading the names of the victims, she paused for several minutes with the camera on her. The silence was uncomfortable; the only object of the captive audience’s attention was a portrait of her grief. It was a compulsory reckoning for everyone in attendance. Gun violence has human consequences. These tears are the proof. And for four minutes, we were compelled to reflect on that.
On a lighthearted note, the most uplifting part of the event may have been the small group of counter-protesters carrying “Don’t Tread on Me” and Maryland state flags. They were all, unsurprisingly, white and male. They were also old. The average age was probably about 55. And there were relatively few of them – not more than 30. I found myself thinking that if this was the opposition to gun reform, the at least 500,000 of us on Pennsylvania Avenue had a reasonably good chance of achieving our goals.
Racial Divide in Social Mobility
It will come as no surprise that race impacts social mobility in America, but the New York Times’s Upshot blog published a great story on just how significant the impact of race is. I encourage you to read the article (the data visualizations are great), but I’ve recapped some of the major points here. The top-line of the work is that a myriad of factors conspire to undermine opportunities for black boys, with the result being seriously diminished social mobility and economic opportunity.
At the top of the income distribution, researchers compared what happened to white and black boys raised in the top quintile of family income. Even if you are anticipating a divide, the results are astounding. Black boys raised in the top quintile of family income are more likely to wind up in the bottom quintile of income than the top quintile of income as adults, whereas about 64% of affluent white boys wind up in the top two income quintiles.
The researchers also compared inter-generational incomes for white and black women and found only small differences, thereby debunking arguments about the gaps being based on any kind of essentialist black-white divide. (It is my opinion that such arguments don’t need to continue to be debunked, but there’s more evidence for it here if you – or someone you know – remain(s) unconvinced.)
They also examined the percentage of white and black boys growing up in impoverished (or not) neighborhoods with many fathers present (or not). Astoundingly, only 4% of black kids grow up in low-poverty neighborhoods with many fathers present, while 63% of white kids enjoy these advantages. Meanwhile, only 1% of white kids grow up in high-poverty neighborhoods with few fathers present while 66% of black kids grow up in such conditions. Talk about the compounding effects of mass incarceration of black men, white flight, economically homogenous neighborhoods, and educational discipline.
When the researchers looked at social mobility for kids growing up in the lowest quintile of family income, they found that while a number of white boys grow up to reasonable amounts of affluence, very few black boys do. While roughly 25% of white boys from the bottom quintile wind up in the top two quintiles of income, less than 10% of boys do. If the American Dream is challenging for poor white boys, it’s nearly impossible for poor black boys.
The researchers also compared incarceration rates for black and white men by the family income of their parents. The incarceration rate for the sons of the wealthiest 1% of black boys is the same as the incarceration rate for white boys whose families earn approximately $36,000/year.
On the subject of criminal justice reform, Joseph Goldstein published an in-depth piece in the New York Times on the commonplace practice of “testilying,” when police offers embellish or make up testimony without consequence. Great reporting on yet another element of our dystopian criminal justice system.
At the Atlantic, Ibram X. Kendi penned a piece comparing our treatment of gangs with our treatment of guns. Both are charged with making their members more disposed toward violence, but our policy prescriptions for dealing with them are wildly different.
John Woodrow Cox and Steven Rich wrote a feature for the Washington Post on gun violence in America. It’s worth your time.
If you read one thing this week, read the New York Times piece on social mobility and race, but if you read a second, make it Mari Uyehara’s piece at GQ about the present debates around threats to free speech. She rightly points out that the more serious threats to speech come from the right and the state rather than the left, but that “Free Speech Grifters,” the title of the article, capitalize on the absurd tactics of campus leftists but seem to have no real ideological commitment to free speech when it can’t facilitate their particular political agenda or economic interest.