Tuesday, August 2, 2011

To Preserve the Welfare State, Fighting Racism Is Key

Last week I wrote about changes in Western Europe relating to the mass immigration of darker skinned and Muslim people. Steve Hill, author of Europe’s Promise, called my analysis shallow and “glass half empty.” I’m sure it is shallow – I’m a blogger, with a degree in political theory, not comparative European politics, while Steve has spent years researching European political systems. Since getting that feedback, though, I have sought out the opinions of a lot of European experts, and I haven’t really heard anything that contradicts the thesis I put forth in “Song of Norway” – that immigration and global economic conditions are pushing even the most progressive countries of Europe to the right (which doesn’t mean they are going to get there or stay there).

But I was not trying to paint a gloomy prognosis for Europe’s decline into nativism and fascism. Rather, I meant to point out that over the last half century, the most egalitarian countries in Western Europe have also been the most monocultural. As they become more heterogeneous, they might want to take heed of the experience of this country, where fear (or maybe just hatred) of the Other has been used quite disastrously to wage war on programs that promote equality.

One of the things we need to remember, when mourning the slow death of the U.S. welfare state, is that it was never motivated by compassion for people of color. Noam Chomsky points out that even in these anti-tax-and-spend days, a majority of white U.S.Americans actually favor giving more government money to poor people – unless those people are Black. They make a distinction between “supporting the (deserving) poor,” and “welfare”, which we have been trained to see as synonymous with “giving money to (undeserving) Black people or immigrants.” Not coincidentally, the attack on the welfare state grows in ferocity as the political power of African Americans is increasingly curtailed, by a combination of voter suppression, redistricting and gentrification of urban population centers.

In the mid-1930s, when the New Deal was enacted, the population of the U.S. was 88.7% white, 9.7% African American and 1.2% Mexican (in the 1940 census, Mexicans were recategorized as white). The only other groups counted were Native Americans, Chinese, and Japanese, who together made up 0.5% of the population. The electorate was well over 95% white, since 77% of African Americans lived in the South, where they could not vote.

White unemployment in 1933 was about 25%. In 1930, African American unemployment was slightly lower than that of whites (because their wages were much lower) but by 1935, it was nearly twice as high. Many African Americans were thrown out of work so that whites could take their jobs. At least half a million Mexicans were deported (“repatriated”) in the thirties, 60% of them U.S. citizens. Many of the New Deal programs, including Social Security, either expressly or de facto excluded African Americans. Nearly two-thirds of all African Americans in the labor force (as well as over half of women workers) were not covered by Social Security. Waiters, butlers, domestic and agricultural workers were all excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established the minimum wage.

The New Deal was possible because so many white people were homeless and out of work that nearly everyone, with the exception of the wealthiest white Americans, had close friends or family members who needed the help. Today that’s not the case. We say that unemployment is 9.3%, and many commentators point out that it’s really more like 16%, but even those numbers obfuscate the reality, that certain communities are affected much more heavily and others scarcely at all. Even to say that white unemployment is at 8%, African American 16.5% and Latino 12% is misleading, because those rates are not constant across racial groups. For whites rural unemployment and poverty are much higher than urban, while 40-50% of young African American men in some cities are unemployed or marginally employed.

For whites with college degrees, the unemployment rate is 2.9% while for those who haven’t finished high school it’s 12%. Since in the 2010 midterm elections, the turnout was 78% white and college educated and only 13% of voters had family incomes under $30,000 a year, we can kind of see why we’re in danger of losing our Social Security.

By far the best news I’ve read in ages is in an article called “Don’t Worry, Be Happy, Be More Equal.”  Three psychologists have recently found that Americans are happier “when national wealth is distributed more evenly than when it is distributed unevenly.”

The bad news? The wealthiest 20% don’t follow the trend.

Neither the U.S. nor Europe has a long tradition of tolerance. Contemporary Europe was built by exporting people it saw as undesirable, while the U.S. was built by exterminating them. But let’s not forget that Europe has done its share of exterminating, both on its shores and abroad. If we don’t want to see those bloody histories repeated, we must – all of us – work on creating true multiculturalism, something none of our societies have ever had.

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