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UUJEC Issues & Actions Blog

Dr. Dick Burkhart's review of Paul Street's article “How the Left Can Gain a Footing in White America”

May 27 2018

     This article from Truthdig by Paul Street lays out the deep hole that the left-leaning identity politics of the liberal UU establishment has dug for itself. Thankfully it then elaborates on 12 steps to redemption. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 was a blazing advertisement for the catastrophic failure of this identity politics. Yet what has been the dominant UUA response? – To avoid serious discussion (perhaps because it hits too close to home) and to simply bear down harder. The prime example: How the UUA has tied itself into knots over the phrase “white supremacy”.

     So let’s take a deeper look at “white supremacy”:  what the numbers actually say, to illuminate the election of Trump, and dare to speak the “unspeakable”. First off, around 70% of US citizens are of predominantly European descent. So it would be quite exceptional historically if this group did not have a dominant role in the US power structure. What has changed dramatically is that economic class is now, quite literally, trumping, the old racial categories. The basic story is well known, but not fully understood or appreciated.

    Consider this statistic: “In 1960, 55% of the top-paying managerial and professional jobs in the U.S. economy were filled by white men without college degrees. Fast forward to 2014, and that group held only 14% of top-paying jobs” according to the report by researcher Stephen Rose. Another shocking number is that the pay of “laborers and low-skill sales and service workers”, a more diverse but still predominantly white group, declined by %11 from 1960 to 2014. At a time when US GDP has soared, this disparity has propelled a powerful surge of despair, anger, and resentment from the bottom.

     The result has been a vast shift of wealth and income from the middle and working class and poor to the upper middle class and the rich. This corresponds to the “de-industrialization” of American, the decline of unions and benefits, the rise of the “gig economy”, temp work, outsourcing, etc. And who had most of those good jobs prior to 1980? - White Americans, of course! So who were the big losers? – the Same. That’s right, the elephant in the room is the enormous loss of white supremacy, or white privilege, or whatever you want to call it, over the last 40 years.

    Yes, the top 20% is still doing very well, and is predominantly white, but that’s due to their class status, not their ethnic or racial background. They have even strongly recruited minorities to join their ranks, both domestically (like Obama) and internationally (like the new Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, from India). There has also been heavy recruitment at the lower end, such as Mexican farm workers. It’s all about things like talent and cheap labor, regardless of ethnic or racial background.

    Minorites like Hispanics and African Americans have always been at a disadvantage. Consequently they did not have much to lose. In fact they have actually inched ahead over the last 40 years, and women have made substantial gains, leaving working and middle class white men to take the big hit from globalization, automation, union-busting, etc. Significant numbers of these white men are absolutely poorer than they were 40 years ago, with vast numbers relatively poorer, resulting in a dramatic decline in social and economic mobility. Is it any wonder that so many white voters fell for Trump’s rosy promises and egregious scapegoating? What we’ve seen is not a resurgence of real white supremacy, but of the rhetoric of white supremacy, based on nostalgia for the loss of the prosperity associated with old fashioned white privilege.

    Thus Paul Street’s step #9 is “Don’t exaggerate the white privilege payoff in capitalist America”, and his step #10 is “Appeal less (or not at all) to guilt over white privilege and more (or entirely) to white working-class people’s self interest in interracial solidarity with black, Latino, Asian, and Native American working-class people…” Contrast this with the implicit, but false, liberal narrative that whites don’t need our help - they have white supremacy and privilege after all. The truth is we need a new “Welcoming” program aimed directly at the bottom half of the US population, not only welcoming all, but seeking to energize a powerful wave of UU support for the 12 steps described by Paul Street.

     We need to challenge our upper middle class UUs – the top 20% nationally – to become powerful allies of our struggling brethren, both black and white and whatever, and to themselves draw back from the rat race of affluence. And I don’t mean offering just personal help, but a powerful political movement – local, regional, national, even global. Especially: To build the foundations for a big surge forwards when the next crisis hits. Historically, such crises have meant war or other cataclysms. Today, another financial crisis or major recession may present such an opportunity. If not, we should prepare for the worst. History may not have much respect for “American exceptionalism”.

     A final thought from popular writer and historian John Michael Greer: “It’s when a movement for social change makes common ground with the unorganized masses of the heartland that real change becomes a possibility”

By Dr. Dick Burkhart 


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