Hear something. Say something.
I am not talking about the post 9/11 admonitions to ferret out terrorist bomb threats.
No, this is a call to publicly rebuke not just flagrant examples of dangerous hatred like the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally or the unconscionable pardon of Sheriff Arpaio, but every off-handed instance of casual American prejudice, outright bigotry, and validation of anti-worker bias. The subtle remarks are the grease for the egregious. And make sure your children hear you! I’m talking about remarks at family dinners, conversations at the water cooler at work, comments overheard on line at the supermarket, and weasel statements from politicians. Yes, join the marches and shout the condemnations against the alt-right, Nazis, and KKK. Denounce Trump. But that is insufficient to combat the mutually reinforcing plagues of increasing divisiveness and growing inequality.
Under the obfuscating banner of opposing so-called political correctness run amuck ― brought to fruition with the election of an in-your-face, racist president ― vocal bigotry and hatred have been normalized again, given a bright green light. Such beliefs and values have long simmered beneath the surface in the United States. However, if loathsome ideas are not easily extinguished, it is better that they stay hidden by public moral opprobrium. I’d prefer that bigots hide in the darkness where they can rot with the rest of the decaying detritus. Normalization abets spread, and more dangerous, hateful acts and denials of human rights and social and economic justice.
Early in the prelude to Trump’s nomination, I doubted that such an overt bigot, buffoon, liar, and committed ignoramus could get very far. I overestimated the strength of the moral compass of enough Americans. I had many conversations about this among friends, family and co-workers, all of who rejected the values and policies of Trump and his supporters. Sometimes, I would say to coworkers that I had been denied a critical chunk of information. Apparently, I live in a bubble. I don’t have any conversations with any overt Trump supporters. I know the historical and sociological explanations, but on an emotional level, I can’t grasp how so many voters (but still too few to win the popular vote) could have seen past his obvious incompetence, lack of temperament to be president, or his misogyny and racism. More often than not, the response from decent people who did interact with Trump supporters was, “Oh, I know those folks but I don’t want to get into it with them. I know I can’t change them.”
Well, maybe not. If current polls are to be believed, changing the minds of enough Trump supporters to alter their votes in 2018 and 2020 appears to be a stretch. However, Trump gained the presidency because too many people ― out of apathy, disempowerment, or lack of agency ― did not vote. In addition, too many people could not differentiate between the failures of mainstream Democrats to fight for working people and against racial injustice and the virulent racism and dystopian, cutthroat crony capitalism of the ascendant Republicans.
The point of public condemnation of hatred and purposeful ignorance is to give courage and encouragement to the quiescent and discouraged majority who still harbor decent moral values.
Progressives need to popularize and celebrate struggles for economic, racial and social justice policies after a several decade-long bipartisan campaign of denigration and marginalization. Centrist Democrats and mainstream media were especially complicit as they condescendingly dismissed every outbreak of progressive initiative as impractical or hopelessly naïve. Their contempt for progressive organizing in the tradition of the union and civil rights movements reached a crescendo during the Sanders primary campaign and throughout the struggles of the Black Lives Matter movement. Now, here we are fighting a rearguard defense of competence and decency.
Two complementary strategies are necessary to reverse growing hatred and insularity.
The first combat strategy is personal commitment: We all must say something when we hear something. Even ― or maybe especially ― the subtle stuff.
At least since the Great Depression, Republicans have been identified as the party of big business and have attempted to thwart every advance and protection for working people. Alternatively, Democrats have had a more mixed history. They offered the New Deal in response to the Great Depression and intense organizing for even more dramatic solutions on behalf of working people. At least in the public imagination, Democrats became the party of “the little guy,” albeit while not challenging the systemic racism of Southern Democrats. In fact, de jure and de facto racism only diminished when unions and Democrats embraced struggles for racial, social, and economic justice simultaneously. However, that identification between Democrats and working people began to unravel in the 1970s, accelerated with the election of Bill Clinton, and again in the Obama years with his administrations anti-union, pro-market stance in education and health care.
Calling out and opposing racist and anti-worker statements should extend to Democrats who echo Republican assumptions.
For example, President Obama said in a speech at Knox College in 2013:
Here in America, we’ve never guaranteed success — that’s not what we do. More than some other countries, we expect people to be self-reliant. Nobody is going to do something for you. We’ve tolerated a little more inequality for the sake of a more dynamic, more adaptable economy. That’s all for the good. But that idea has always been combined with a commitment to equality of opportunity to upward mobility — the idea that no matter how poor you started, if you’re willing to work hard and discipline yourself and defer gratification, you can make it, too. That’s the American idea….
...And what had once been a call for equality of opportunity, the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead was too often framed as a mere desire for government support, as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself.
In the context of arguing for equity, something Republicans consistently fail to do anything substantive about, Obama managed to validate divisive stereotypes about “them,” workers, the poor and by inference, people of color.
The centrist Democratic strategy to reengage Republican-voting white workers amounted to adopting aspects of Republican rhetoric, while trying not to alienate too many of their minority constituency. They cozied up to corporate donors, but did little substantively to unite workers across racial divisions. That strategy was an abysmal failure at both the state and national levels. Over the years of stagnating wages and with the 2008 Great Recession, many financially insecure white voters concluded that the Democrats were the party for “them,” not us. The oft repeated phrase, “Everyone deserves a fair shot if they work hard and play by the rules,” rather than challenging the wealthy who make, bend, and break the rules at their convenience, served to reinforce the idea that most folks are poor because they don’t work hard or play by the rules ― that “they” want a handout. Without the Occupy Wall Street rhetoric calling out the one percent, the spectacle of arbitrary police killings of black people, the subsequent campaign of Bernie Sanders, and 2016 and 2018 election disasters, centrist Democrats would be still singing the same tired tune.
So, when you hear those Republican-sounding words coming out of the mouths of Democratic politicians and folks who identify as liberal or progressive, say something. Challenge them.
But, responsibility does not end there.
Say something. Then do something: Organize!
The second strategy is collective and overtly interracial. Middle-class admission, denunciation, and recognition of white privilege are not enough. Articulate, organize, and demand policies and programs that people can struggle for across the differences that have historically divided us. Most important, organizers must explicitly address the need to join together across race. I do not mean pabulum about loving one another and just getting along. I mean saying out loud, again and again, that racism and its subsequent divisiveness is the enemy of us all. I mean organizing integrated struggles for policies that help all people: Universal, government-sponsored health care; union rights; equal justice; a living wage and inclusive overtime regulations; wage equality; ending the pervasive inequity of funding schools through local taxes; strong measures to reverse global warming and protect the environment; strengthening Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and unemployment insurance; infrastructure projects that employ people at living wages; investment in scientific and medical research; ending tax breaks for the wealthy; affordable housing; LGBT rights; protection of voting rights; and, of course, reversing Citizens United.
Racism abets inequality. And inequality abets racism. This is America’s tragic history.
The protectors of the privileges of wealth are clear, even if they are not always forthright. They promote a be-out-for-yourself and insular subgroup ethos. They blather about “personal responsibility,” falsely claiming that they have earned their position so that each group below them on the economic latter will separate themselves from those on the next rung down and cast blame for not working hard and sucking up undeserved government largesse. These are not new right-wing tactics. Neither are the strategies to combat them: Organize in unions and community organizations across the barriers that the privileged and their would-be admirers use to divide us. While the percentage of Americans who are union members is relatively small, their power and influence benefits all workers.
Shared struggle breeds camaraderie, community, and self-worth. The internalized prejudices that support racism and structural inequality inhibit the integrated struggle necessary to create a more humane just society. But getting to know one another by working together for a common goal might be the only viable means to bridge differences and distrust. I do not believe it is possible at a distance.
Shared, integrated struggle is the do something strategy.
Arthur H. Camins is a lifelong educator. He works part time with curriculum developers at UC Berkeley as an assessment specialist. He retired recently as Director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at Stevens Institute of Technology. He has taught and been an administrator in New York City, Massachusetts, and Louisville, Kentucky. The ideas expressed in this article are his alone.