Inequality Is the New Affirmative Action—for White People

Charles D. Ellison
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With 2016 on the horizon, presidential candidates are all on the new policy-wonk flavor of the year: “inequality.”

And they’re using it in a heated bid to win as many white votes as they can get.

Interestingly enough, the cognoscenti once talked up the canyon-sized gaps between rich and poor as default markers for a broader conversation on the inequality we always knew: racism. Today “inequality” is an umbrella term for all sorts of unequal conditions that are in neatly constructed sociological silos: economic insecurity keeping its distance from racial inequality, even though, as policy expert Kathleen Geier correctly notes, “they are closely intertwined.”

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Now it’s as if “inequality” has quickly evolved into the go-to populist expression of middle-class white voting rage—conveniently segregated from that uglier conversation on race. It’s what a largely white field of Democratic and Republican candidates now use to show authenticity when street cred is questioned.

On the left, Hillary Clinton feverishly embraces inequality when she’s viewed as too cozy with Wall Street; Bernie Sanders continues his love affair with inequality because, well, who doesn’t hate Wall Street? Even Republicans, from red-state firebrands like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum to the less Tea Party-aligned such as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, are clumsily fashioning themselves as proponents of the poor.    

So long as you don’t mention the underserved people of color whom inequality hits the hardest. These days, “inequality” discourse has gone the way of hip-hop: co-opted. Once an exclusive narrative of black plight, anti-oppressor themes are watered down so that white electorates can feel less guilty and fearful. It’s then, for example, better to say that everyone is unequal rather than to admit #BlackLivesMatter. 

But inequality has always shaped black life, since the birth of the nation through the era of the first black president. When have black wages been on par with their white counterparts? When have the masses of African Americans generally enjoyed access to wealth and long-term assets? When haven’t the sharp fangs of inequality disproportionately sucked us dry?

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Real inequality, if we’re going there, is constant black social immobility matched against white social mobility—or, as Brookings’ Richard Reeves notes, the place where “[t]he median wealth of white households is now 13 times greater than for black households—the largest gap in a quarter century.” 

Our national conversation on inequality might feel quaintly refreshing. But let’s not act as if inequality is a recent “thing,” just shed from the skin of the Great Recession. Inequality didn’t just show up when the housing bubble burst and markets crashed. It had stared us down for centuries in the form of systematic racial violence and black poverty.

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Yet this newfound consensus on inequality and the large-scale wealth hoarding of the “top 1 percent” have found themselves metastasized into slick political gaming for white votes. Democrats, seeing how white voters overwhelmingly favored Republicans by a 25 percent margin in 2010, 2012 and 2014, sense something of an existential electoral crisis in 2016. Suddenly everyone is so concerned about widening wage gaps and empty retirement nest eggs. White primary voters are filling auditoriums for Donald Trump and Bernie Sander waving proverbial pitchforks.

Sadly, though, inequality was never the urgent national imperative it is now until the perception hit that middle-class whites were on the short end of the economic stick. The plight of frustrated, unemployed or underemployed black men and women attempting to tell their stories is derisively dismissed as unreasonable, the calls for justice ridiculed as unrealistic. Now politicians eagerly draw on the inequality craze like legal hashish, secondhand-smoking it for populist effect as far as polls will let them.

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“Today, as the shadow of crisis recedes and longer-term challenges come into focus, I believe we have to build a ‘growth and fairness’ economy,” Hillary Clinton beckoned in a recent speech on the economy. “You can’t have one without the other.”

But you can’t have that economic-inequality discussion without the racial-inequality discussion, either, try as hard as you might to disconnect them. Still, leave the white woman running for president to tell it, and the worst critics can come up with is that she’s straying too far to the left. Yet for years, the current black president’s hint at a “fairness” economy was met by noisy conservative detractors who tenaciously charged him with treasonous anti-capitalism and “redistribution of wealth.”

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It’s when the impact of inequality hits economic growth that the white electorate quickly feels pressed to rally around the topic. But victims of inequality gain greater sympathy if there are also fewer televised doses of black economic distress; black poverty gets equated with genetic lack of willpower, while white inequality gets blamed on hedge fund robber barons.

Black thought leaders and civil rights icons were dropping anti-poverty diatribes 50 years ago, pointing out the unlivable mess of black ghettos from Chicago to the Mississippi Delta as an omen of American decline—and they were summarily ostracized, wiretapped, jailed and assassinated as national traitors or “communist” co-conspirators.

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Fifty years later, inequality becomes the issue du jour when white economists bring up an alarming 20-year rise in the gap between rich and poor—and the nearly 9-percentage-point drop in global gross domestic product that follows. Now the nation wants a full-blown inequality chat when, as the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities points out, “income growth for households in the middle and lower parts slows sharply.”

For white people, that is.

Let’s face it: We’ve never sensed that same degree of alarm when black inequality stared us in the face, because white voters don’t really care about that. Obviously, it can’t be good for the economy if 13 percent of the population, which typically wields $1.1 trillion in buying power, is constantly ravaged by a crippled labor market. Yet there’s a persistent national numbness with respect to black problems, as if they’re not as unique and extraordinary as they are.

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Instead we’re treacherously lumping every demographic into the same inequality basket, wishfully thinking that we were all equal to begin with. In the meantime, the Supreme Court hungrily sharpened its legal knives by deciding to rehear a landmark affirmative action case it had already deliberated in 2012.

We saw this coming, with significant numbers of whites (more than half, for example, in a May 2013 CBS/New York Times poll) opposing affirmative action programs, in addition to the nearly 40 percent who believe such efforts on college campuses “are a bad thing,” according to Pew. Everyone is so concerned about poverty and economic havoc, yet so intent on shutting down anything that remotely reverses black suffering.

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The problem is that we’re willing to have an inequality discussion so long as it’s not in black and white. Black inequality, since slave-ship lore, has always grown faster and been much more systemic than anything white inequality can even imagine. It’s dangerous to believe that we’re all the connected, lowly 99 percent, because African Americans are stuck deep in the dark recesses below that: Wealth inequality between blacks and whites is 3 percentage points higher now than it was in 2007.   

Fake inequality messaging will escalate as we head further into 2016. Campaigns will view the road to victory as capturing the nearly three-quarters of frustrated, college-degree-less white voters who believe that rich white guys are eating all the economic cake. But what are they so mad about? Black people never even had a chance at the main course.

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Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.

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