Can a progressive agenda help us face our racist past?

Watercolor of a glacier, by Julie Gabrielli, 2015, after a photograph by James Balog

One sense of the verb, “progress,” is “to advance toward perfection or to a higher or better state; to improve.” That’s what comes to mind with the term “progressive,” as in, the Progressive Agenda: “favoring, working for, or characterized by progress or improvement.” It’s safe to say, our country needs to improve. Starting with basic human rights and dignity.

I spent an embarrassing amount of time watching the Parler videos on ProPublica. I learned that the Capitol Police, absurdly outnumbered, fought valiantly for a hellish hour to hold off the mob. Their little riot gates would make better bike racks. For that tense time, conventional rules of obedience to authority held through bitter confrontations. Most people seemed content to stand there yelling their slogans. Of course we know what happened, but that long hour teetered between order and chaos.

I was also struck by things people said on the videos. Their rage was evident, but what, exactly, were the majority of them hoping to accomplish by storming the Capitol? Much ink has already been spilled over this question, and by far better writers. I want to pick up this thread: it’s out in the open now that the exaggerated, lie-fueled grievance of a stolen election is sourced in white supremacy. And “Christian values” are the lipstick on that pig.

Lying for months about the election and storming the Capitol, our sacred seat of democracy itself, are fundamentally anti-American. The best among us once again reminded that yes, indeed, this is who we are as a nation. Racism and bigotry perpetuate the toxic contradictions sourced in our nation’s history. It’s why we can’t agree on a social safety net, on healthcare for all, on housing as a human right, on a living wage. It’s why we can’t tax our ultra-wealthy at a sensible rate. Always we hear the counterargument against handouts to “lazy” people of color.

The wealthiest Americans, and laughably those who someday expect to be as rich, howl HEY! I made this money fair and square. It’s mine and you can’t take it away from me. That’s un-American. That’s “socialist.” That’s “communist.” Go back to China!

I expect we will be discussing and arguing about what is and what is not “American” in the coming weeks and months and, yes, years. For now, let’s consider that wealthy entrepreneurs conveniently leave out the consequential detail that their (usually underpaid) workers made that money for them. They leave out that living in a free society with (until recently) a stable, consistent government and (at least we thought) law and order; and public services used by everyone in their company—roads, bridges, water, sewer, airports, energy, maybe raw materials from “public” lands (stolen by genocide from indigenous people)—all of these factors directly and indirectly contribute to their success. Plus, economic systems overseen by government bureaucrats made financial stability and future planning possible. Not to mention the markets for their product or service.

They also conveniently leave out the Christian value of charity—as in, our duty to care for the least among us. These folks are so false about their version of Christianity, many subscribe to nonsense like the “prosperity gospel,” which is a straight-up con.

Take the minimum wage. $15 an hour is not even a living wage in many parts of the country. Some, like United Steelworkers, argue that if wages had been tied to productivity and the growing economy, they would be much higher than that. Instead, that value went to a few owners, who got even richer off the productivity of their workers. (Don’t get me started on “trickle-down” theory that has been proven wrong often and definitively.)

Arguments against raising the minimum wage are supported by credentialed econ professors like Dr. Jennifer Doleac, who tweeted, “The question is what to do for people who want to get into a profession but don’t yet have the skills to earn a living wage,” plus other self-justifying stuff, and was roundly (and rightly) challenged. One commenter noted, “Why do you think a ‘living wage’ is only for people with enough skills? Do you think people can suspend their need to be alive until they can afford it?”

The argument that people must work their way up, like everyone did before them, is specious at best. Many of us were born into comfortable middle-class families or we went to college when it was actually affordable, or we have the white skin that confers privileges we didn’t even credit until recently—and that many of us refuse to acknowledge even now. The plain fact is that the minimum wage has not kept pace with inflation. The Economic Policy Institute figures that “federal-minimum-wage-earning workers today are paid 31% less than the $10.54 an hour they would have been paid in 1968, when the minimum wage reached its highest (inflation-adjusted) value.”

To have any of these conversations, it’s necessary to be honest about racism. The divisive rhetoric and lies of the past five years have a long history in this country. The real, sordid history that many of us have been learning recently, thanks to the Big Lie about this recent election. The strategy is to pit poor white folks against poor people of color, to keep them beefing with each other so the rich and powerful can amass and hoard more and more.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke eloquently about the connection between poverty and racism. On May 10, 1967, he said, “We must face the hard fact that many Americans would like to have a nation which is a democracy for white Americans but simultaneously a dictatorship over black Americans.” And Bernie Sanders frequently quotes this gem from Dr. King: “This country has socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor.”

Now is the time to be bold, to infuse policies with the Progressive Agenda: Universal Basic Income to free people from scrambling for survival and allow them to work for purpose and meaning, in service to others. Health care and housing for everyone, and guaranteed jobs for all. We’ve tried the venal, corrupt, greedy, hyper-individualistic GOP approach for four decades now. That crushed the middle class, drove millions more into abject poverty, and sequestered most of this nation’s wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer mostly white men. Let’s try something different.

“People say they’re worried that giving too much money to the poor will make them lazy and entitled. Why aren’t we worried that giving too much money to the rich will make them arrogant and delusional?” ~ Marianne Williamson

from Twitter

The media is already gearing up for a narrative about how divided Democrats are on this. Centrists and so-called Conservatives (what, exactly, are they out to conserve?) are likely to resist the Progressives and cry “socialism.” It would be terrific if Democrats chose to set aside name calling and labels, and instead brought compassion to the enormous challenges before us. Start with the assumption that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity, to have opportunities to live their best life, to be happy and healthy and safe, and maybe—if they have a bit left over—to know the joy of contributing to the betterment of society.

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