Rod Graham

Is the white working class ready to trade in some of their whiteness?

One of the major narratives about working-class white Americans - white people without college degrees - has been that they vote against their economic interests. They have shifted to the right since the mid-1990s and support policies that may preserve their cultural identity but do little to address their economic downslide. Restricting abortion is a winning issue with them, but not raising the minimum wage. Banning critical race theory is a top priority, but not universal health care.

Consider Barack Obama’s infamous 2008 remarks about Midwestern working-class voters: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

I imagine that Obama regrets the language used here. But I believe he was essentially correct. Midwestern working-class voters (implied here is that the voters are white) are struggling economically, and instead of pushing their representatives to address those economic concerns, they turn their attention to issues of culture and identity.

READ MORE: When Democrats talk like sexists so they don't sound like racists

In the 2016 election, for example, data suggests that “fears about immigrants and cultural displacement were more powerful factors than economic concerns in predicting support for Trump among white working-class voters.”

In a prior piece of mine, I described the (white) American story. Let me repeat it here:

America is a unique 'city on a hill' founded on Christian faith and Western principles. Husband-led nuclear families, given the freedom to farm and build businesses, spread out across this land and turned it into the greatest nation on earth. There have been some injustices along the way, but Americans have corrected those mistakes. The history of the United States is primarily one of economic, scientific, and moral progress. You succeed based on what you and your family can do. Social support from the government is unnecessary, and 'isms' like racism or sexism are so rare as to be unworthy of mention.

This is what working-class Americans are trying to preserve, trying to remake. And they voted for a president in the last two elections who promised to do just that.

This story does not explicitly mention race. But the brush strokes of Christian faith, western principles, rejection of government assistance for the disadvantaged, and a rejection of racism paint that picture clearly.

READ MORE: ‘A deeper civic purpose’: Author explains why Ron DeSantis’ views on Black studies are dead wrong

Conservative working-class white Americans are voting for their racial identity instead of class identity. These are the “wages of whiteness,” described by sociologist WEB Du Bois.

Whiteness wages

Du Bois was a Black sociologist working in the late 19th and early 20th century, and a co-founder of the NAACP. He put forth an explanation as to how wealthy whites in the south convinced poor southern whites to vote against their economic interests. Du Bois argued that whiteness was a form of compensation – a benefit of being a member of the dominant racial group. Poor white people voted for the identity of being white, and the status and privileges that go along with it.

And so, as Joshua Zeitz wrote in his excellent piece:

In most Southern states, poor whites and wealthy whites forged a coalition that overthrew biracial Reconstruction governments and passed a raft of laws that greatly benefited plantation and emerging industrial elites at the expense of small landowners, tenant farmers and factory workers.

Zeitz goes on to argue that Trump voters in 2016 were voting for their racial identity. As Thomas Frank opined in his 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas?, in which he chronicled the rightward shift of the white working class in the state in which he grew up.

But there is some evidence now that the white working class is willing to trade in “some” of those whiteness wages for actual economic ones.

Trading in the wages of whiteness

In a recent episode of the PBS show Firing Line, host Margaret Hoover interviewed Matthew Continetti, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. The interview was about Continetti’s recent book, The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism.

In the interview, Continetti mentioned some facts I was aware of, but never considered seriously. He points out that white college degree holders have fled the Republican Party. The trend that Continetti points out, this “diploma divide,” has been ongoing since at least the 2000 presidential election and has been discussed in many outlets.

But Continetti draws a reasonable conclusion that less educated - and presumably less economically well-off - voters in the Republican Party will be less concerned with the traditional Republican issues of limiting government and entitlement reform. Instead, he says, they will want those entitlements. They are going to want their Medicare and social security. And some polls suggest that they are beginning to want universal health care, with disapproval among Republicans as a whole declining.

This dynamic will play out most among older voters.

Economic necessity will compel this group to include in their “City on a Hill” appearances from Uncle Sam. If Continetti is right, then the well-worn strategy by GOP leaders of tying entitlements to people of color, and instead urging their poorer constituents to vote for tax cuts that favor “job creators” (read: the wealthy) may fall flat.

This would be a remarkable change, as so much of whiteness has been connected to rejecting government assistance, even as that assistance can save lives. The paradigmatic work on this phenomenon is Jonathan Metzl’s Dying of Whiteness.

Moreover, white working-class millennials are more secular and liberal than their older counterparts. They are also less likely to identify as conservative, even as they vote Republican. This looks like the makings of a different cohort of white working-class voters, with profound consequences in the future.

Some have made the argument that these changes among younger white working-class voters will lead to them abandoning the GOP and embracing progressive causes.

I am not ready to go that far. But at least this group, being more secular and liberal, is rejecting the white Christian nationalist focus currently dominating the party. This rejection may occur even as they continue to embrace fiscal conservatism. In other words, this is a pro-business and pro-small government voter who is not as eager to organize their politics so tightly around whiteness and the platforming of white Christian heterosexual norms.

They won’t be freaked out about the growing presence of queer persons in society. They won’t have an irrational stance towards immigration where they imagine a viable wall can be built stretching across our southern border, keeping out a brown horde they imagined. They won’t be so keen on passing draconian abortion laws. If another Black person is again elected president, it won’t suggest to them that they are losing “their” country.

Trends suggest that younger white working-class Americans, as well as their older counterparts, are willing to trade in some of their wages of whiteness for real economic benefits.

This has the potential to improve the economic fortunes of all Americans.

READ MORE: Affirmative action isn’t discrimination. It’s politics right-wing justices abhor and will strike down

What Ye's antisemitism teaches us about right-wing hate speech

The gift of Ye

It’s showing us some ways in which the right understands hate speech and the calculation that goes into condemning it.

One of the easily understood and fun activities in a sociology class is the “breaching experiment.” The purpose of the breaching experiment, introduced by late sociologist Harold Garfinkel, is to illustrate the taken-for-granted informal rules that we live by in our daily lives.

READ MORE: Trump’s Dinner with Kanye also included a former aide accused in pay-for-pardon play

Imagine this:

You go into a store that gives free samples. There is no sign anywhere saying that samples are one per customer. Indeed, you see customers take a sample and come back a few minutes later to grab another. So you decide to stand there and eat all the samples. You may even talk with the server as you wait patiently for them to replace the ones you’ve just eaten.

What would happen in that scenario?

You’d get the side-eye by customers – even the same customers you just saw come back for seconds! You might be asked to stop eating samples, to which you could mention there’s no sign saying one per person. At some point, a manager would be called. You’d be asked to leave the store.

READ MORE: Trump claims he 'knew nothing about' white supremacist who he and Kanye West dined with at Mar-a-Lago

Why all the fuss? Who gives a damn about some free samples that are probably just overstocked items the store wants to move anyway.

Because you breached an unwritten rule governing how we interact. It feels wrong to the people who witness it. The task is to figure out what’s been breached, usually by getting people to explain why the breach feels wrong.

Kanye West, hereafter “Ye,” is a walking breaching experiment.

He’s an internationally known, independently wealthy megastar who is now spewing antisemitic rhetoric in public spaces. Whether public utterances are because he’s going through mental health issues is up for debate. Of interest here is his breaches and what his behavior mean for others.

Ye has given us a gift. the Right frequently attacks progressives for their willingness to label many phrases and symbols as hate speech. Here is Ye doing something that, for people on the left and right, feels wrong.

If it hurts me and mine

The rapper tweeted recently a photo of a swastika inside the Star of David. The tweet was deleted, and Elon Musk – the new owner of Twitter – suspended Ye’s account. The suspension was not by way of a formal process of report and review but done ad-hoc. Musk simply chose to suspend the account. Musk said Ye “violated our rule against incitement to violence.”

So much about this did not make sense to me, initially.

For one thing, hate speech has gone up since Musk’s takeover. What makes this tweet worthy of Musk’s ordering Ye’s account suspended? What line did this tweet cross that other forms of hate speech do not? Are other images of a swastika inside the Star of David deleted from Twitter? I’d say no, as there are many copies of Ye’s tweet still on the platform.

More puzzling is a comment Musk made on Twitter Spaces about his decision: “I personally wanted to punch Kanye, so that was definitely inciting me to violence. That’s not cool.” Um, wait a minute!

I thought the whole “incitement to violence” justification was because the antisemitic violence was aimed at Jewish people – not Elon Musk.

It gets more confusing when we consider Musk’s handling of an equally polarizing figure, though much less famous, James Lindsay.

Lindsay popularized the phrase “OK groomer.” Before Musk’s takeover, Twitter deemed it hate speech. It links being queer to pedophilia. Lindsay’s continued use led to him being permanently banned. Musk reinstated Lindsay’s account, and Lindsay promptly continued using the phrase.

This is free speech now, I guess.

The only answer I can come to is that Musk sees hate speech not through the lens of a vulnerable group possibly being attacked because of the speech. Instead, he sees hate speech through a lens of personal grievance.

If the speech hurts him or someone he cares about, it’s hate speech. If the speech is directed elsewhere, no matter how vulnerable, it’s free speech.

Will I lose votes?

Recently Donald Trump invited Ye, along with nationalist and Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes to his Mar-a-Lago estate for a pre-Thanksgiving meal.

The meeting was ripped by Republican darling and likely next Israel prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The meeting was “not merely unacceptable, it’s just wrong,” said Netanyahu recently on “Meet the Press.”.

Some members of the GOP spoke out. “There is no room in the Republican Party for antisemitism or white supremacy,” said Mitch McConnell. “Anyone meeting with people advocating that point of view, in my judgment, is highly unlikely to ever be elected president of the United States.”

Few would disagree, but my next thought was not be how dining with someone spewing hate speech impacts a person’s career advancement. That would be farther down the line after thinking about what the dinner means for the group that the speech affects. You know, actual Jews.

For Republican lawmakers, hate speech is more about what a condemnation means politically than what it means for a vulnerable group. The “credit” of disavowing hate speech must be balanced alongside the “debit” of cozying up to the GOP’s most popular VIP or not alienating similarly minded voters.

PBS asked 57 GOP lawmakers if they condemn the dinner. The response was far from universal, with a surprising number either not responding or performing some type of political calculation. Consider this grammatically incorrect but illustrative response from Senator John Thune: “Well, that’s just a bad idea on every level. I don’t know who is — who’s advising him on his staff, but I hope that whoever that person was got fired.”

The right’s understanding

The gift of Ye, if we can call it that, is showing us ways in which the right understands hate speech and the calculation that goes into condemning it.

Ye put antisemitism out in the open, forcing people to put their down dog whistles and to stop with the obfuscatory deliberations on what free speech means for democracy. They had to make a choice in context.

Ye as breach experiment shows the right seeing hate speech through an individual, egocentric lens. That’s a subversion of what hate speech should be about: recognizing the link between words and violence and the need to protect vulnerable minorities by placing boundaries on that speech.

That is not how the right sees it.

For many people on the right, the decision of condemning hate speech begins and ends with their own personal interests.

READ MORE: Vandals cite Kanye West in antisemitic graffiti attack on century-old Jewish cemetery

Anxious Americans are putting prices over principles

Tom Nichols tweeted recently that America “is facing the greatest danger to its constitutional system since at least the 1950s, if not the 1850s, and millions of people are like: Yeah, but gas, man.”

The Atlantic’s senior editor was expressing what many on the left feel. Americans are willing to vote for GOP candidates who may change the country in disastrous ways. The government programs we rely on - Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security – are seen as “entitlements” by Republicans and are on their chopping block.

State legislatures have passed laws curtailing abortion rights and preventing teachers from talking about racism and gender fluidity.

READ MORE: The face of liberal democracy’s enemy is white

GOP leaders have admitted that they want to make it harder for people to vote, with Mitch McConnell saying that, “If we don't do something about voting by mail, we are going to lose the ability to elect a Republican in this country." I could go on, but this is enough.

Oh wait, one more.

Some Republican are tired of this separation of church and state nonsense and say that the church should “direct the government.”

“But gas, man.”

READ MORE: Republicans would rather tank the global economy than stop corporations from destroying the planet

According to several polls, Americans are most concerned with inflation and are willing to ignore major red flags with GOP candidates, believing they are better at managing the economy.

This is a hierarchy of needs issue, with concrete and immediate concerns outweighing abstract and distal ones. This is not new, and many a politician has been ousted because they happen to be in office during an economic downturn. But something’s different here.

If the midterms go as predicted, it will be understood as a repudiation of the Biden administration and its focus on “woke” politics. This explanation does not fit reality. It would be patently false given the administration’s attempts to pass a robust Build Back Better bill aimed squarely at low-income earners’ pocketbooks.

But I would like to venture another explanation: our nation is wallowing in growing economic inequality, weak social services, rising healthcare costs, unsteady gig jobs and weak labor unions.

We are a working-class country. Our citizens will be increasingly drawn to politicians who present emotional appeals offering to assuage the anxieties associated with economic insecurity.

Globally, America is one of the higher-income nations as measured by median income. Objectively speaking, we seem to be doing well. But this is a matter of perspective – not raw numbers.

When your grandparents and parents moved through a world of economic security and capital accumulation, and here you are struggling to pay rent, burdened with college loan and worried that you are a few unforeseen medical bills away from bankruptcy, that $50,000 per year salary doesn’t seem like a whole lot.

This anxiety can make people receptive to emotional appeals from politicians claiming to identify with them, creating scapegoats to direct their pain toward, and then making empty promises to alleviate that anxiety. Scholars (including me) have been using this to explain the rise of Trump and MAGA populism on the right.

But I am talking about a recharacterization of what the soul of America as a nation is right now. I am talking about extending the MAGA explanation outward to all of us. We are not a nation of middle-class strivers that made us the envy of the world. We are an anxious people now. That means we will put prices over principles.

The Times’ David Brooks, on why Republicans are surging:

GOP candidates are telling a very clear class/culture/status war narrative in which commonsense Americans are being assaulted by elite progressives who let the homeless take over the streets, teach sex ed to 5-year-olds, manufacture fake news, run woke corporations, open the border and refuse to do anything about fentanyl deaths and the sorts of things that affect regular people. In other words, candidates … wrap a dozen different issues into one coherent class war story.

I might quibble with some of the examples Brooks gives. Do Republicans talk that much about fentanyl deaths? Is fake news still a viable topic post-Trump? But I agree with the general point that Republicans are on the ascendant, because of a false narrative that Democrats ignore the concerns of everyday people.

Never mind that the ultimate cause of economic insecurity in the United States can be tied to Republican initiatives. They are antagonistic to unions – the presence of which has historically been associated with higher incomes and job benefits, like healthcare and maternity leave. They resist investment in social services. Programs that fund childcare do not put money directly into the hands of people but decrease family outlays, freeing up money for other purposes. For the past 50 years, they have championed a tax regime that would supposedly lift all boats by cutting taxes on the rich. All it did was sink the middle class and buy the wealthy a few more yachts. Never mind all that.

These explanations are vague and academic and do not resonate with something as clear and immediate as “your gas prices have gone up. Vote in the other guy, and they will go down.” It is the difference, as cognitive linguist George Lakoff argues, between hard-to-talk-about systemic causes and easily grasped direct causes.

So there is work to be done in terms of developing a compelling economic narrative.

But we know the problem – economic insecurity. We know the solution – Democrat policies. We know how to communicate - a narrative that speaks to the anxieties of working-class America.

Yes, the Democrats will likely be licking their wounds after these midterms. But there is hope here. When so many are working class, so many Americans are potential Democrats.

We could be on the precipice of a generational shift, where people – especially younger people who are more likely to feel economic anxiety – are more receptive to old-style “look out for the little man” Democratic politics.

Let’s talk about raising the minimum wage. Let’s talk about supporting unions. Let’s talk about increasing the salaries of civil service workers. Let’s talk about taxing the wealthy and having them pay their fair share.

I have a strong belief that in a working-class America, common Republican scare tactics of labeling any reform as socialism will begin to fall flat.

And who knows?

In the process, we might elect enough politicians to keep our voting rights, abortion rights and Medicare.

READ MORE: Bernie Sanders says Democrats should hammer the 'corporate agenda of the Republicans'

By lifting debt burdens, Joe Biden unleashes the democratic spirit

President Biden’s student loan relief plan would cancel up to $20,000 in federal student loans for borrowers. Individuals making less than $125,000 per year, and married couples making less than $250,000 can have up to $10,000 in relief. If the individual received a Pell Grant, they can have an additional $10,000 in relief.

Biden’s plan has been met, predictably, with support and opposition.

Supporters are in agreement with the primary narrative used by the administration – many borrowers are struggling with either debt or default, and forgiveness would provide relief. They point out the hypocrisy of people who are opposing forgiveness but nonetheless received Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan forgiveness.

READ MORE: Polls: Joe Biden jumps while Donald Trump slumps

In a surprising and funny move, the White House communications office tweeted the loan amounts several detractors had forgiven.

Meanwhile, of many critiques, two are the strongest.

One is about fairness, exemplified by Mitch McConnell’s commenting that forgiveness is a “slap in the face to every family who sacrificed to save for college, every graduate who paid their debt and every American who chose a certain career path or volunteered to serve in our Armed Forces in order to avoid taking on debt.”

Still others argue that it will exacerbate current levels of inflation. Conservative economists have argued this. But so have other prominent centrist Democrats such as Larry Summers and Jason Furman. Furman, former chairman of President Obama's Council of Economic Advisors, tweeted: “Pouring roughly half trillion dollars of gasoline on the inflationary fire that is already burning is reckless.”

READ MORE: Forgiven student loan debt could be taxed in some states: report

Helping people who need help

I was at first tepid about the plan. Then I opposed it. I thought the arguments about fairness were right. This is, I think, a normal human reaction when other people seem to be playing by other rules.

Even so, I think it’s the right thing to do. Why?

Because of who is getting the relief.

The typical student loan borrower is not a medical or law school graduate who owes six figures but stands to make millions.

Instead, according to the Center for American Progress, most borrowers owe less than $10,000 and they did not graduate.

An analysis from the Wharton School of Businesses estimates that about three-quarters of the households benefiting from Biden’s plan make $88,000 or less. The US Department of Education, as quoted from a White House fact sheet, estimates that about 90 percent of relief will go to individuals making less than $75,000 a year.

This understanding was fundamental to changing my view.

You see, for wealthier Americans, paying a student loan debt is beneficial. It frees up money for them to invest in other endeavors.

But for moderate and low-income people – the vast majority of student loan borrowers – being relieved of their debt allows them to participate more fully in American society.

And there is research to back up this claim.

In a study from 2016, scholars found that student loan borrowers have difficulty meeting basic needs and managing finances. Of the 3,318 people sampled for their research, “Over half … experienced one or more [financial] hardships in the six months after filing their taxes, such as skipping a rent payment.”

A more recent study looked at borrowers during the Great Recession of 2007-2009. Researchers found that people with student loan debt had elevated amounts of financial stress during that time.

Measures of financial stress include being unable to pay mortgages, pay their credit card balances or having to take out a payday loan.

The researchers also found, in what is a common theme in these studies, that financial stress was more likely for nonwhite people.

The above studies used survey data to arrive at their conclusions. But nothing replaces hearing people in their own words.

A study published this year interviewed 105 young people carrying loan debt. They talked about their difficulty finding employment, paying their student loans and getting their lives started.

One college graduate, with $100,000 in debt, said: “I’ve cried … I try to be a man and not cry, but I’ve broken down some and uh, yeah, I’m pretty worried about defaulting on some of the payments.”

Another young person said she was “frustrate[d] because now I’m $50,000 in student loans and now, I wanna get married and it’s like, do I want to transfer $50,000 in debt into my marriage?”

How to restart a life

These studies resonate with me.

I hold student loans, although I can pay them and they don’t impose a heavy financial burden on me. But at one time, they did.

Like many Black people, I grew up in a low-income, low-wealth environment. Loans were a necessity. After graduating, I took a job teaching high school, and the student loan repayments began.

Those loans made it difficult to start my life.

Paying those loans, along with my rent and car payments, meant that I was barely making ends meet. There was no leftover money. Saving for a down payment on a home or investing in a business was out of the question. Had I not gone back to graduate school (and borrowed more money), I would have been stuck in that life limbo for years.

I can only imagine what it’s like today.

College costs are rising. Real estate costs are rising. People borrow more and cannot afford the one investment that traditionally builds wealth. There is rising income inequality. A few professions – finance, medicine and law – have seen wages rise. But for most other professions, they have stagnated or declined. It’s hard out there.

So while I am sympathetic with critics who argue that student loan forgiveness is unfair, this is bigger than one’s personal feelings.

Loan forgiveness is the moral thing to do.

Removing that burden off the backs of low- and moderate-income people will allow them to lead fuller and more meaningful lives.

READ MORE: 'Keep borrowers in debt': Republicans plotting legal challenges to Biden’s student debt relief plan

'Professional dividers' on social media are shattering democracy for profit

In a recent piece for The Atlantic, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that social media platforms are destroying democracy. They allow people to sort themselves into homogenous tribes, he argues.

Haidt says that they can spread disinformation more quickly. People could be attacked more easily. “It was as if the platforms had passed out a billion little dart guns, and although most users didn’t want to shoot anyone, three kinds of people began darting others with abandon: the far right, the far left and trolls,” he writes.

Haidt, an NYU professor, has been constructing this narrative for several years. He is one of a growing cadre of scholars and writers who are concerned about the heightened polarization in the United States and what it might mean for our democracy. I am one of them.

READ MORE: How 4chan fantasies and Republican rhetoric molded the Buffalo mass murderer: report

Creating conflict

As are Kevin Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer.

Kruse and Zelizer are professors of history at Princeton University. Their book Fault Lines also tackles America’s increasingly fractious society. The two historians take a broader sweep than Haidt does, arguing that America, since the 1970s, has become increasingly divided along political, economic, racial and sexual (gender) lines.

For Kruse and Zelizer, social media’s role has been to amplify those divisions. Cable stations in the 1980s and the internet in the early 2000s were technologies that had promised to democratize and expand the public square. That may have happened, but these technologies, they say, also further fragmented the population.

READ MORE: Ben Shapiro calls on Supreme Court to 'unwind' same-sex marriage

Kruse and Zelizer write that, “the fragmentation created a world with fewer points of commonality in terms of what people heard or saw, even as computing and cable technology emerged as the medium through which most people consumed their cultural goods.”

I find Haidt’s and Kruse and Zelizer’s arguments to be compelling. Both give plausible explanations for what many of us experience.

I’m more sympathetic to Haidt’s argument on social media, however. I think social media does more than amplify conflict. It creates it.

And there is a class of people, found disproportionately on the political right, who use it to exploit conflict for profit.

Professional dividers

“Grifter” is the trendy term for these folks.

I prefer “professional dividers,” though.

A grifter can be an online dating coach, or a therapist promising to solve your problems for a fee. A professional divider’s express purpose is to sow division in the population, then monetize it.

Think of Ben Shapiro.

Matt Walsh.

Steven Crowder.

Candace Owens.

They have huge social media platforms that they use to sow division. They and other professional dividers can be distinguished from professional good-faith commentators by the content they create.

  • They seek controversy. There is a hyper-focus on hot-button cultural issues or hot takes that will get clicks. As I write this, Matt Walsh has just published a video entitled “Ugly People On Reality Shows?” where he takes umbrage with what he calls the “woke mob” calling for body diversity on reality shows.
  • They demonize groups. Because professional dividers are primarily on the right, the people demonized will always be on the left. The target group’s actions will be interpreted in the worst possible way. This demonization also occurs through the spreading of misinformation or telling outright lies. Consider Candace Owen’s tweet stating that:
79% of Planned Parenthood clinics are in minority neighborhoods. This is not by accident. That is by its founder, Margaret Sanger's, eugenicist design. Go back and read her quotations. The Left sees racism everywhere except for where it actually is.

This is misinformation designed to fan the flames of controversy and paint the left as targeting Black people for abortions. Owens’ claims have been determined to be mostly false by Politifact.

  • They are predictable. Professional dividers are attempting to grow an audience, and they need to feed that audience with consistent outrage material in the same political direction. Ben Shapiro called the intro to Michelle Obama’s new book “absolutely insipid.” It is impossible to imagine Shapiro producing a take other than this. Obama is a democrat and therefore cannot write a book worthy of reading.

Turning profits

These tactics separate professional dividers from the commentators in your newspaper or newsletter of choice. The presence of this highly lucrative profession is one of the main reasons why we are so polarized. Some people sow division and make money from it.

The paradigmatic example of this is mathematician turned massage therapist turned rightwing cultural critic James Lindsay. A holder of a doctorate in mathematics, Lindsay has leveraged a strange mix of academic critique, white grievance and conspiratorial thinking to build a large social media presence.

Lindsay originally focused on demonizing academics and the academic disciplines (eg, queer studies, women’s studies, critical race theory or CRT) that catered to the experiences of minorities.

He and fellow professional divider Christopher Rufo were at the forefront of spreading the lies and disinformation surrounding CRT.

Lindsay has since moved on to other controversial topics. He has been credited with popularizing the false claim that LGBTQ people are “groomers” exploiting children sexually. Twitter has banned using the word groomer as an anti-LGBTQ slur. Lindsay’s repeated use of the word has led to his permanent suspension from Twitter.

Another example is sportswriter Jason Whitlock.

Ackshully

Whitlock, who is Black, has started a YouTube channel called “Fearless,” where he critiques leftist “woke” culture. His toxic mix is Christian nationalism with standard conservative anti-Blackness.

Consider his amazing explanation for why we didn’t have many Black quarterbacks in the NFL until recently. It wasn’t racism, he said. It was that Black boys didn’t learn to be leaders because so many grow up in “broken” homes without fathers. As a result, he said, they didn’t have the leadership skills necessary to be a good NFL quarterback.

But technology – the vast array of devices used to record, analyze and communicate aspects of the game– has made it possible for coaches to manage the game from the sidelines. “The game has actually gotten easier for the quarterback,” he said, “and more responsibility has been put on the sidelines and the coaches.”

Ah, I see.

Coaches and coaching staff (all of whom, we can suppose, had fathers?) can use Wi-Fi connections to help the rudderless Black quarterback from a tragic single-parent home manage the game.

This kind of outrageous take is tailor-made for controversy. It wasn’t racism that prevented Black athletes from playing the quarterback position. No, no. It was ackshully the Democrats and their welfare policies that put future Black quarterbacks in broken homes!

If only we took action sooner

In his piece, Haidt drew parallels between social science research on social media today and research on smoking in the 20th century.

Cigarette makers could ward off calls for regulation because, although there was a preponderance of evidence that tobacco caused cancer, the link had not been conclusive. One can ask how many people lost died because the science was not settled.

Similarly, Facebook and other social media companies have claimed that the science is not settled on whether social media harms our democracy. Haidt advocates for taking action now, as there is a preponderance of evidence that social media harms democracy.

I have the same sentiments about professional dividers.

These people threaten our democracy by purposefully creating controversy, spreading lies and disinformation, demonizing fellow Americans, and sowing division for profit.

As they are primarily on the right, they give fodder to bigoted elements within the Republican Party. Let’s keep using our free counterspeech to work on deplatforming these people.

We can’t wait for scholars to draw a definitive link between their actions and conflict in our society. By then, it may be too late, and our society will be the equivalent of a person with stage 4 lung cancer being told it was probably because of the cigarettes.

READ MORE: Ben Shapiro defends Elon Musk's tweet comparing Justin Trudeau to Adolf Hitler

The post-Roe fight for digital privacy

OPINION

Last year, Wired reported that 45 criminal cases against J6 insurgents cited Google data to place them at the scene of the J6 insurrection.

Their phones were there. They were there. The FBI obtained this information from Google through what’s called a “geofence warrant.”

A geofence warrant is different from a normal warrant. Police surmise a time and a location for a crime - a bank robbery, arson, vandalism. They then request information from tech companies about what devices were present at that time and that location.

READ MORE: Democracy without personal sovereignty is impossible

If you have opted for location services on a tech company’s product as most of us do, the company will have stored the precise location of devices signed into that product - phones, laptops, tablets, and more. You can see some of the data law enforcement will get from a geofence warrant by looking at your Google timeline.

Thanks to these geofence warrants, the FBI have brought some J6 insurrectionists to justice. They have been used with some success for other crimes as well, including apprehending sexual predators.

We may be comfortable with geofence warrants when they are trained on groups or people we believe deserve it, but when law enforcement has a cannon, you don’t know when it will be pointed at you. The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe illustrates this.

A hypothetical scenario

READ MORE: The selfish politics of anti-abortionists

Imagine this.

A pro-life group sets up a tip-line in a state where abortion has been severely restricted. Tips are collected on a healthcare provider that’s still providing abortion services. The pro-life group alerts law enforcement, who then confirm that the provider has performed unlawful abortions. That provider gets punished, possibly loses its license and ability to help people with medical issues in the future.

Then there are the women who went to get the abortion from that provider. Law enforcement could request from tech companies all the devices that were near that provider since the signing of the bill.

Many people are now caught up in this “digital dragnet.”

Their privacy has been invaded.

From there, law enforcement can find out the owner of these devices, and argue probable cause for more invasive searches. They can get a more customary warrant and rifle through a person’s email and texts in order to see if the person had an illegal abortion.

A real scenario

I say imagine, but you don’t have to.

A pro-life tipline has already been set up in Texas for months in anticipation of Roe’s repeal. In a state like South Carolina, under the “heartbeat law,” as it has been called by state Attorney General Allen Wilson, abortion providers and women seeking abortion can face severe penalties if found in violation of the law.

South Carolina law requires healthcare providers to use ultrasounds to check for a fetal heartbeat. If a heartbeat is detected, abortions are restricted to cases of rape, incest, or health complications from the mother. The provider of the abortion could receive a fine of up to $10,000 and up to two years in prison. Women who have gotten illegal abortions will face two years in prison and a $1,000 fine.

This is not good.

Only the most unreasonable pro-lifers want healthcare providers and women prosecuted for getting abortions. Even about 40 percent of prolifers supported Roe. I fall in this category. Levying fines or, God forbid, putting women in jail is a moral wrong. Most people agree.

Moreover, there is a groundswell from legal scholars and digital rights activists arguing that geofence warrants are legally wrong.

It takes time

When I teach these issues, I try to draw non-digital analogies. So imagine police coming into a gated subdivision and announcing: “there was a shooting that occurred somewhere near here. We didn’t see where the criminal went, or what they look like, or where they live. But we think they are still in this neighborhood. We are going to look in all of your closets, and maybe under your beds.”

I fully expect geofence warrants to be universally deemed unconstitutional or at the very least severely restricted. There is a history of the public – and this includes judges – being initially unaware of how a particular technology is being used in harmful ways. In Georgia, for instance, it wasn’t until 2017 that people agreed it should be made illegal to take a picture up a woman’s skirt.

Time is needed for society to mitigate the abuse of new technology.

Protect yourself

There are things you can do before the powers that be wise up.

For instance, do you need your location services?

Most of the time, no.

Really, the only thing of note you get from having your GPS turned on is a reminder of how many times last week you purchased wine or how often you went to your “friends” house at 1 am to watch Netflix.”

Maybe you can turn off your GPS off until you need it. At the very least, be aware of what police can do and turn off your GPS when going to places you don’t want others to know about.

Do you need Google?

Google is excellent at producing services that make our online lives easier. But their core business model of giving services at low or no cost, but collecting massive amounts of data is problematic.

Over the past several years, I have been slowly integrating options that do not collect my data. This includes privacy-based web browsers like DuckDuckGo and Brave. It also includes the privacy-focused Gmail and Google Docs alternative ProtonMail.

A final way to protect yourself is to support Digital Rights organizations. Organizations Electronic Frontier Foundation and Fight For The Future are at the forefront of identifying government overreach in the digital environment and securing civil liberties.

READ MORE: Nonprofits fear ‘legal jeopardy’ following Roe reversal

The right-wing attack on higher education is about the difference between free speech and academic freedom

Rightwing Republicans have since at least the 1960s accused college campuses of indoctrinating students with leftist ideologies. They call for more free speech (read: rightwing speech) in order to combat such indoctrination. And, recently, the calls have been getting louder.

The most visible manifestation of this is Turning Point USA (TPUSA). TPUSA maintains a website called the Professor Watchlist. TPUSA’s list includes academics who are well-known, including Noam Chomsky and Angela Davis. Some are lesser-known. The list also includes lesser-known but vocal academics such as Dr. Anthea Butler, whose authorship of White Evangelical Racism and frequent contributions to MSNBC are tailor-made to catch TPUSA’s eye.

On the TPUSA’s ProfessorWatchlist “about” page, one sees this passage (I bolded key points):

TPUSA will continue to fight for free speech and the right of professors to say whatever they believe; however students, parents and alumni deserve to know the specific incidents and names of professors that advance a radical agenda in our lecture halls.”

READ MORE: Hardening' schools is conceding defeat to violence and death

This statement could have come from any rightwinger.

From my perspective, as an academic, it boils down to a choice.

Do we want our academics to continue teaching and researching according to professional standards? Or do we want academics to compromise those standards in the name of free speech (read: rightwing speech). This understanding hinges on the difference between freedom of speech and academic freedom.

On freedom of speech and academic freedom

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has some ideas. In a webinar earlier this year that can be found on YouTube, DePaul University professor Dr. Valerie Johnson describes the differences between academic freedom and freedom of speech. These ideas, often used interchangeably, are quite distinct.

Freedom of speech and civic engagement is based on the equality of ideas. It is an individual right regulated by law. All speech, at least theoretically, is given equal protection. At a civic meeting, the wealthy Ivy-league educated corporate executive and the working-class custodian have the equal right to express themselves.

By contrast, academic freedom and the classroom experience are based on an inequality of ideas. As Dr. Johnson explained, academic freedom protects activities “manifesting disciplinary competence.”

An academic’s discipline generates knowledge. This knowledge is taught in classrooms. Their discipline has standards for generating new knowledge. These standards apply when conducting research. Academics are protected when research falls within these standards.

When an academic’s activities “manifest disciplinary competence,” they are free to pursue those activities. They can choose their research paths and course content. Teaching certain courses is required, but they choose readings and teaching strategy.

So what conservatives see as indoctrination is simply academics relaying those elevated ideas as determined by their discipline to their students. Sure, the students should be able to have discussions and bring in their perspectives – left, right and center. But ultimately the professor must teach the conclusions from their discipline.

Therefore, threats to academic freedom take a specific form: any group or individual who does not have disciplinary expertise attempting to regulate what academics do violates their freedom.

With this understanding of the difference between free speech and academic freedom, we can look more closely at why this rightwing push for free speech in classrooms (read: rightwing speech) will ultimately force academics to choose competence or conservatism.

Competence or conservatism

While academics tend to be liberal politically, they are bound by professional standards. Third-party accreditation bodies periodically review their course offerings (my university is going through this right now). Moreover, the specific content of a course will always be couched within the consensus from their disciplinary area.

Suppose a professor is teaching Introduction to Sociology. Certain ideas and concepts must be taught for the course to be considered a proper Introduction to Sociology course. The professor’s politics will certainly color some classroom discussions, but ultimately the core content of that course is determined by the discipline.

TPUSA has Faryha Salim on their watchlist. Salim, an adjunct professor at Cypress College, was recorded in a zoom classroom session clashing with a student about police and policing.

The student described police as heroes. Salim countered by claiming that American policing grew out of slave patrols and that police have committed atrocious acts toward citizens and gotten away with it.

Salim also said she would not call the police if in danger because she does not trust them. Her life would be in more danger. The video of that exchange went viral. Salim was removed from the class.

I believe that Salim’s tone could have been better. Students should be able to articulate their viewpoints before the professor relays their discipline’s findings. I can see the concern in that direction.

But the claims that Salim makes are widely accepted within the discipline. The claim that US policing grew out of slave patrols is at this point well understood and a standard claim in criminology. She’s also right that police have done horrible things to citizens and gotten away with it. Finally, the notion that people of color are in more danger in the presence of police is a bit hyperbolic for my taste, but she’s hardly alone in that regard. It’s boilerplate in criminology.

Indeed, if a student today graduates with a degree in criminology and does not know the ideas Salim is relaying to her student, ideas that are not hers alone, that degree program has failed that student.

Or consider Dr. Betsey Stevenson, an economist from the University of Michigan. Dr. Stevenson conducted research showing that the vast majority of people found in economics textbooks were male and that this could explain why few women pursue the field of economics.

This is considered a “radical agenda” by TPUSA.

So Dr. Stevenson is on their watchlist.

In reality, Dr. Stevenson is a paragon of professional competence. According to a write-up by her university, she, along with her co-author, presented this work at the annual American Economic Association conference and published this study in a peer-reviewed journal. Her work was then summarized in The Economist.

So what does TPUSA want Dr. Stevenson to do?

She asked a research question acceptable within her field, used the proper methods to generate an answer, presented their findings for critique by peers and colleagues, and then co-published the work.

The examples of Salim and Stevenson point to a question TPUSA and conservatives generally must answer. Do they want professional competence or do they want academics to compromise their standards in order to add more content that conservatives will like?

Choose academic freedom, not free speech

I focused on TPUSA because of its visibility. But they are emblematic of a conservative push in state legislatures across the country.

According to a report by PEN America, 54 separate bills intended to restrict teaching and learning in educational institutions were introduced between January and September 2021. Indeed, on the day that I am finishing this piece, Virginia’s Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin signed our state budget. He pushed for a provision that “requires each public college to adopt an official policy on academic freedom and begin reporting on the state of free expression and diversity of thought on their campus.”

Conservatives are calling for more free speech in order to force professors to consider unsupported conservative ideas. Progressives need to push back on this and advocate for more academic freedom.

Choosing academic freedom is choosing competence.

Why are Americans so enraptured by conspiracy theories?

In a June 2021 episode of On the Media, host Brooke Gladstone described a common debate in media circles over conspiracy theories.

Don't put those liars on the air!
I hear you, but sometimes I have to tell people what's going on!
You're spreading their propaganda for them!
It's already spread and having real-world effects!
Well, it wouldn't spread if you denied them a platform!
Gatekeepers don't have that kind of power anymore!
They might if they worked together!
That just drives it underground and it gets even worse!

The conspiracy du jour was election denial. Do you engage with election deniers, platforming and potentially legitimating them? Or do you ignore them at risk of having them spread with no critique?

In that episode, Gladstone spoke with Jay Rosen, professor of journalism at New York University and media critic.

Rosen suggested possible ways out of the puzzle.

One was to report disinformation within a truth sandwich:

When you feel you have to report on a falsehood, you should start with a true statement, sandwich the misleading one in the middle and end with a true statement.

A second was to shift reporting from national to local politics:

The more politics is rooted in problem-solving that people can see in their lives, the less likely this dueling realities universe is to take over.

I started this piece with the intent of describing how much the right-wing has been hijacked by conspiracy theories. I intended to suggest my own ways forward. But the story of conspiracy theories in the US turns out to be more complex. And more troubling.

The contours of conspiracism

Conspiracy theories are dangerous not simply because people believe them. Nor are all conspiracy theories equal. People who believe the Apollo moon landing was faked are not a societal concern. It's when those false claims power troubling behaviors that we worry.

Unlike moon landing conspiracies, election denial forms the justification for overturning legitimate free elections. It can turn a representative democracy into a fascist regime. That was the goal of the J6 insurrection, all powered by a conspiracy theory.

The American public is now learning about “replacement theory,” which is the idea that migrants and nonwhite people are systematically replacing white people. According to a recent Yahoo News/You Gov poll, about 60 percent of Trump voters believe this theory.

We don't have to think that hard to imagine the consequences of accepting this false statement as a true statement. It will lead to xenophobia and mistreatment of migrants, especially nonwhite ones.

Let's not forget about QAnon, a conspiracy theory that ran a close second to election denial since 2020. QAnoners believe, among other things, that an evil cult has taken over the world. They mistrust governments, institutions and elites. They are more likely to believe information not coming from people associated with those entities.

In February, the Public Religion Research Institute said it found that, “Across 2021, 16 percent of Americans were QAnon believers, 48 percent were QAnon doubters, and 34 percent were rejecters."

Wait, wut?

Sixteen percent is one in six people!

And only half of the country doubts QAnon?

This is significant. It suggests this may be a society-wide problem, not only clustered among Republicans. PPRI said Black and brown people were more likely to be QAnon believers than white Americans.

It’s still true that QAnon believers are primarily white (around 60 percent of total QAnon believers), and the largest share is Republican (about 43 percent). But there is more diversity here than I realized.

More research out of the University of Chicago, about conspiracies and immigration, also shows how widespread conspiracy beliefs are. Based on answers to a questionnaire, researchers sorted respondents into two categories: "high conspiratorial thinkers" and "low conspiratorial thinkers." I like this because it’s not tied to any specific conspiracy but instead taps into the predisposition to believe them.

As expected, 45 percent of all high conspiratorial thinkers were Republicans. But a sizeable 36 percent were Democrats.

Similarly, we would expect less-educated Americans to be high conspiratorial thinkers, the logic being these folks have less information literacy or have had less exposure to established facts.

Indeed, 66 percent of “high conspiratorial thinkers” are did not go to college. But that leaves 34 percent of the same who did go to college.

To say we’re a nation of conspiratorial thinkers is no overstatement.

A slightly different question

So what is the solution?

First, I don't think Rosen's suggestions are helpful. It’s all well and good to create a truth sandwich, but when conspiracy theories have as a component that elites are controlling the population, having an elite telling them they are wrong about their ideas is a non-starter.

Covering local issues, where reality is shared, doesn't seem that effective either, mainly because everyday reality simply isn't shared.

People died in Buffalo because one person had a reality in his mind that he and other white people were being replaced. Queer kids are being erased through teacher gag orders in Florida, premised on the QAnon-reality that elite educators want to groom children.

I don't have a solution.

But let me suggest that because so many people in this country across class, race and political lines believe in conspiracy theories, we have been asking the wrong question (myself included).

We have been asking why MAGA types are so invested in conspiracy theories. This question inevitably leads to answers involving racism, Christian nationalism, xenophobia and possibly lack of education.

These answers are only partially correct.

The question goes only halfway.

A full question would ask why we are a nation of conspiratorial thinkers? Once we answer that, we can address the problem.

The potential for political violence lies with normal people harboring extreme racist attitudes

On May 15, a young white man carrying a semi-automatic rifle opened fire outside a supermarket in a predominantly Black eastside neighborhood of Buffalo. The rifle barrel had the N-word written on it along with the number 14, a well-known white supremacist slogan.

Payton Gendron killed three outside the grocery store and wounded another. Then he went inside. When it was over, 10 people were dead, including a security guard with whom he had exchanged fire. Of the 13 people shot, 11 were Black. Gendron, clad in body armor, live-streamed the shooting on Twitch. (Twitch has since deleted the video).

Gendron, 18, is from a rural town 200 miles from Buffalo. There he assembled and posted online a 180-page manifesto. According to CNN, he wrote about “his perceptions of the dwindling size of the White population and claims of ethnic and cultural replacement of Whites,” and “attributes the internet for most of his beliefs and describes himself as a fascist, a White supremacist and an anti-Semite.”

Mass shooting equation

The public discourse around these tragedies follows a predictable pattern. News reports and commentary discuss how extremism was cultivated in online spaces. Once down the extremism rabbit hole, they took advantage of lax or questionable gun laws to arm themselves. They methodically identified a location where the target would be congregating, and then decided to execute as many as they could.

This is the extremism + guns = mass shooting equation.

It is correct.

To a degree.

The set of beliefs up to and including the belief that terrorism is an appropriate plan of action is clearly extreme. There is a spectrum of racist practices. Gendron was on the far end of that. No doubt.

He’s an extremist.

There is no doubt that readily available firearms are a powerful means by which extremists terrorize minority populations.

If they live in a state with no waiting period for gun purchases, the ink on the manifesto may not have dried by the time they commit mass murder. The potential for carnage, moreover, is exponentially greater if the extremist uses a rapid-fire weapon, like a semi-automatic rifle.

Clearly, the extremism + guns = mass shooting equation is right.

But we’re missing the forest for the trees.

Extreme normal people

The trees are deciphering a shooter’s manifesto. The trees are the patchwork of gun sale and ownership laws and their loopholes in the US. The trees are the quality of the numerous research papers dedicated to understanding how someone becomes radicalized online.

But we need to zoom out for the forest.

If we could look down on the American population from 30,000 feet, we would see large swaths of everyday white Americans grappling with changes in their status vis-a-vis Black people and people of color:

Racial minorities, especially Black Americans, have been pushing for more visibility in the media and more representation in institutions.
The behaviors of people of color, again especially Black Americans, have always been under scrutiny. Increasingly, the behaviors of white Americans are being scrutinized.
For the first time, possibly, since the Great Depression, white Americans are experiencing economic distress, like Black people.

These very real trends amount to a loss of privilege and status. Gone are the days when being white was the most fungible currency. White Americans are more than ever on equal terms with people of color.

This should be celebrated.

But for many white Americans, it generates deep feelings of precarity – a sense that they must do something before all is lost.

With that precarity, and sense of loss, we get a series of problematic behaviors. It would be unwise to assume those behaviors are only random acts of violence. Instead, it’s a collection of opinions and behaviors amounting to a culture of normal people who are extreme.

They are, as Jonathan Metzl argues, literally “dying of whiteness.”

They refuse to support universal health care even though they need it because they see it as a benefit to Black people and people of color.

They support deportation, voter suppression and book burning.

They fill the ranks of the Oathkeepers and other citizen-militia groups.

They are election deniers so devoted they became J6 insurrectionists.

They go to school board meetings and howl at educators to keep “CRT” out of classrooms even if there is no such thing being taught.

They vote for candidates who have no legislative or political experience but pander to their identity as aggrieved white people.

I could go on.

These are accountants, Uber drivers, custodians, lawyers and software engineers. They are normal people with extreme racist attitudes.

So even if we were able to repeal the Second Amendment and find a way to erase all the conspiracy theories and hate speech from the internet, they would find ways of acting out their racist aggression.

Is it really surprising that out of the millions of people in this culture, a Payton Gendron would eventually wake up one morning, write the N-word on the barrel of his rifle and kill 10 Black people with it?

Liberals need better media 'framing' if they want to defeat the right-wing

A press release from the Florida Department of Education, entitled “Florida Rejects Publishers’ Attempts to Indoctrinate Students,” says it had rejected 41 percent of textbooks submitted by publishers.

“Reasons for rejecting textbooks included references to Critical Race Theory (CRT), inclusions of Common Core and the unsolicited addition of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) in mathematics”, the release stated.

Incredibly, about three out of four mathematics textbooks submitted for kindergarten through fifth grade were rejected by the department.

The press release and Governor Ron Desantis's comments later on – he said the books were using “indoctrinating concepts like race essentialism” – naturally led to people asking exactly what caused the department to swipe left on the textbooks. The Timesreviewed 21 books, and as expected, there was little that had to do with race.

It is, indeed, political theater, Florida-style. But these performances, if the 2022 elections predictions are any indication, are sold out. The production of “Critical Race Theory in Schools” is still playing to packed houses. “Liberals Are Groomers” has been a surprise hit.

How?

Framing analysis

Some scholars examine how media influences public opinion through what is called framing analysis. Media outlets can set the political agenda by choosing certain issues and emphasizing certain aspects of those issues. By “media,” I mean not only traditional news organizations like Fox but also individuals with large followings like Ben Shapiro and organizations like the Manhattan Institute.

One approach to framing analysis was popularized by Robert M. Entman. A professor of political science at George Washington University, he’s written extensively on media framing. I find his approach to be useful, especially in today’s info-rich environment.

In an article discussing his approach, Entman writes:

To frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described.

Let’s unpack this.

The four frames

The first type of framing is naming.

There’s a lot going on in the world. One can pluck any number of issues to talk about. Republicans could talk about quality of life issues in ways that conform to their conservative ideology. They could talk about people mired in debt, rising income inequality, food deserts in urban neighborhoods, drug addiction and lack of access to healthcare.

Instead, right-wing media outlets identify as “problems” things like diversity training, incorporating Black people into the teaching of US history, teachers discussing variations in gender identity, and most recently, social-emotional learning incorporated in math textbooks.

The second type of framing is diagnosis.

What is the cause of things the rightwing identifies as “problems?” It could be framed as generational disagreements in how we progress as a society – an agree-with-the-ends-but-not-the-means type of frame.

It could be discussed in terms of new ideas coming from academia that are now being applied in ways people are unaccustomed to. But somehow, out of the ether, all of these problems are caused by something called “wokeism” (read: liberals, progressives, the left).

The third type of framing is moral evaluation.

It goes without saying here that when a problem is identified, it is seen as something that must be addressed. But Republicans have decided to pass moral judgments on these issues and their perceived causes.

It’s a kind of gaslighting.

Wanting to talk about the actual history of the United States - warts and all - means you are un-American, the thinking goes. Wanting to teach that Timmy has two dads means you are a pedophile. It’s not people of color who are being discriminated against - despite what all the data suggests. No, it is racist woke people discriminating against God-fearing white Christians, and so on so forth et cetera ad nauseam.

It’s mind-numbing.

The fourth type of framing is resolution.

It is astonishing that Republicans, the party of freedom and smaller government, now exclusively frame solutions in terms of expanding government oversight and restricting freedoms. The way to deal with the discomfort white students may feel when discussing slavery is to propose a law banning those lessons. The party of free speech is now supporting the banning of books and the muzzling of teachers.

A call for better framing

It’s not as if the left doesn’t frame stories. The simple choice of what to put in an op-ed is itself an exercise of it. But there’s a qualitative difference between the means of making stories resonate with one’s target audience, and, as Rick Perlstein recently tweeted in a thread:

careful propaganda campaigns to seed moral panics in order to roll back human rights for everyone who is not conservative, using techniques quite similar to Nazi propagandists.

This is on the money.

The motives and the endgame are different. The frames used by the rightwing have constructed a reality for conservatives in which “wokeism” is the most pressing issue in American society. Real Americans must do anything they can to stop it, up to and including compromising values they wrapped themselves in a decade before.

Many, including me, argue the left can wedge the audience for “Critical Race Theory in Schools” and “Liberals Are Groomers” extravaganzas by talking about quality of life issues. I still believe this, especially for members of Congress running for reelection in swing districts.

But media outlets on the left need to do more than just talk about different things. They need to be more deliberate in constructing a reality that is more beneficial to a greater number of Americans.

We need to identify problems; explain what caused those problems; give a moral evaluation; and describe how we can solve them.

In other words, we need better frames.

'Americans are increasingly wealthy or increasingly struggling': how inequality is imperiling democracy

I did my taxes Friday. I traveled down to South Carolina for the holiday. After spending time with family, I sat down and typed the necessary values into some overpriced tax software. It turns out, for the second year in a row, I owe Uncle Sam.

Around that time, a piece from ProPublica came across my radar.

Entitled “America’s Highest Earners and Their Taxes Revealed,” the report asserts: “In an era of widening gaps between the rich and everyone else, ProPublica’s analysis shows that the US tax system is making inequality worse.”

The takeaway is that the wealthiest people pay far less in taxes than they should. My tax rate was 22 percent. The report revealed the wealthiest Americans pay what ProPublica calls an effective tax rate of 3.4 percent.

After feeling a bit peeved about the likes of Lukas Walton, heir to the Wal-Mart dynasty, may pay less in taxes relative to his income than I do, I realized that other than Bernie Sanders and a few progressive economists like Robert Reich, we don’t talk enough about inequality.

Here is an explainer.

What is inequality?

We must first understand what the middle class is. That is not easy.

There is no real agreement on how to define it. An informative piece by the Brookings Institution lists 12 definitions, which, if combined, would mean “nearly nine out of ten U.S. households — with incomes ranging from $13,000 to $230,000 — are middle class.”

Clearly, this is not helpful.

I will pick one from the Pew Research Center. Pew defines the middle class as a household income of 67 percent to 200 percent of the national median.

According to the US Census, the median household income in 2020 was about $67,500. This is the middle value of household incomes.

If you arrange all household incomes from lowest to highest, the value at which half the households are below and half are above, that’s the median. It’s used instead of average (or mean) income, because adding in very high incomes, like the model and celebrity Kendall Jenner’s $22.5 million income in 2018, would produce misleading values.

According to Pew’s definition, households with incomes between $45,225 and $135,000 are middle-class households.

That passes the eye test for me.

We can imagine households in this range have enough income to participate in our consumerist society, but not so much that they can remove themselves from economic concerns about employment, inflation or saving for their children’s tuition.

There are two related but distinct phenomena that have emerged since the early 1970s with respect to this middle class.

First, the middle class is shrinking in absolute terms.

The percentage of people who are middle class based on objective measures of income distribution has declined. The share of American adults who live in middle-income households has decreased from 61 percent in 1971 to 51 percent in 2019.

Americans are increasingly wealthy or increasingly struggling.

Unionized jobs and jobs that pay solid middle-class wages are being replaced by “gig” jobs and low-paid service jobs. Meanwhile, wages for jobs in finance, law, medicine and information technology are booming.

This is the much-talked-about “hollowing out” of the middle class.

Second, the distance – measured by income, between rich and poor – is widening. A report from the Congressional Research Service on this issue makes it clear: “In 1975, the average income of households in the top fifth of income distribution was 10.3 times as large as average household income in the bottom fifth of the distribution; in 2019, average top incomes were 16.6 times as large as those at the bottom.”

Being in an upper-income household in the United States today means you are living a different life than poorer households.

In some respects, the above quote underestimates the degree of distance between rich and poor, especially in terms of wealth.

According to data from the Federal Reserve, at the end of 2021, the top 10 percent of American households controlled $99.20 trillion. The rest of the households had wealth amounting to $42.98 trillion dollars.

It actually gets worse. If we look at just the bottom half of American households, their wealth amounts to $3.73 trillion dollars.

Ok, so why does it matter?

Income inequality produces oligarchy.

Politics

Few people are so naive as to assume everyone has an equal say in who is elected and what legislation they put forth. We all know that while the vote cast by a working-class Joe or Jane is equal to the vote cast by a millionaire, the millionaire’s money influences who is elected and what legislation the elected decides to support.

But the extent to which money impacts politics is astounding.

Consider the current Alabama senate race.

According to OpenSecrets.org, Super PAC Alabama Conservatives Fund has spent $1.8 million in support of Katie Britt’s 2022 bid.

Britt is one of several Republican contenders to replace the outgoing Senator Richard Shelby. The Alabama Conservatives Fund has released several campaign spots touting Britt’s conservative principles.

Harbert Management, an investment management firm, is the super PACs biggest investor, donating $250,000. The company’s CEO is Raymond J. Harbert, who is one of the richest people in Alabama.

So what do you think your direct donation of $50 does?

To be sure, small donations do add up. But when a candidate gets a $250,000 boost from a local, well-known millionaire, that has to play into the political calculus of that candidate.

As a side note, Britt is in the vein of Marjorie Taylor Green and Madison Cawthorne. She is pro-Christian, pro-life and anti-immigration. Indeed, the person who would have been the favorite in a pre-Trump universe, current US Rep. Moe Brooks, was called “woke” by Donald Trump who then rescinded his endorsement.

Accordingly, her Trumpist Christian nationalist bona fides have gained the favor of the Alabama Christian Conservatives super PAC to the tune of $1.2 million.

This spending by super PACs is all above board and expected. In this regard, Katie Britt’s campaign is not unique. Nor is the state of Alabama.

Nor are conservatives. What is unique is the growing gap between the rich and everyone else, and the growing ability for wealthy people working alone or in concert to bend politics to their will.

I zeroed in on Alabama to show in a more concrete way how money impacts politics. But there is no solace in zooming out.

It gets worse.

According to Public Citizen, 25 people contributed half ($1.4 billion) of all individual super PAC contributions ($3 billion) since 2010.

The issue of the 2020s

Income inequality is a bacteria eating out the core of democracy.

Do we really have a political system by which everyone is treated equally and has an equal say in government? Let’s not be naive.

What we have is increasingly a nation of rich and poor.

The rich – and especially the mega-rich – are like oligarchs who influence law in their favor at the expense of workaday folks.

I hope income inequality is the defining issue of the 2020s.

Our identity as a nation hangs in the balance.

The right-wing's use of 'groomer' as a substitute for 'bigot' is a dangerous 'false equivalency'

Some right-wingers have taken to using “groomer” to describe those who are sensitive to the concerns of LGBT-plus people.

A spokesperson for Florida Governor Ron Desantis tweeted: Don’t Say Gay “would be more accurately described as an Anti-Grooming Bill.”

US Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted: “Anyone who opposes anti-grooming laws like the one in Florida is pro-child predator.”

Fox’s Laura Ingraham did a segment called “Doom and Groom.”

I agree with progressives. This is a transparent ploy having little to do with protecting children. Some argue, including Lindsay Beyerstein, that the discourse is an attempt to spread QAnon ideology. A key takeaway from John Stoehr’s interview with Gabriel Rosenberg was that “groomer speech” is being used to harden the line between real conservatives (anti-pedophile) and those who are not (pro-pedophile).

I’m interested in why the typical conservative – not the thought leader or political elite – might use the term. A more interesting reason the right uses “groomer speech” is it’s the equivalent of “bigot” on the left.

The logic appears to be this: if the left can call me a racist for all these things I don’t see as racist, I’m justified in calling the left “groomers” because they want to teach gender and sexual identity to children.

Let’s dig in.

The function of a slur

When someone hears the word “slur,” they are likely thinking of racial slurs referring to racial or ethnic groups in a dehumanizing manner.

The n-word is the paradigmatic example.

But slurs can be defined more broadly as “an insulting or disparaging remark or innuendo,” or words having “a shaming or degrading effect.”

In this sense, we use slurs quite often.

Consider the charge of being a “bigot” - a racist, sexist, homophobe or transphobe. This can be solely a descriptor of behaviors. But usually, the charge of bigotry is infused with a moral evaluation.

The identified bigot is a bad person who does not live according to what “correct-thinking people” believe is appropriate.

The identified bigot is insulted, shamed and degraded.

But slurs serve a purpose.

The French sociologist Émile Durkheim said deviant behavior has a useful function in society. I can simplify it in three bullet points.

1. When we see deviance and call it out, we clarify right and wrong.

What do you do when you discover that your male coworker thinks women are too emotional to lead a company? Call him out as a sexist! He may see this as slurring his good name, but it can be the catalyst for a positive chain of events. By calling him out, you let him know you think those ideas are morally wrong and damaging to women.

2. When people react to deviant behavior, it strengthens social bonds.

Other people learn the man is a sexist. They come together in a collective denunciation of the man and sexism.

3. After coming together against deviance, they can enact social change.

The collective agreement that sexism is wrong can lead to collective political action and the passing of legislation against sexism.

In this way, a slur can be a small catalyst for social change.

This is one reason why I vacillate between the social niceties necessary for productive exchanges. Slurring someone can end a conversation. But slurring someone can also spark positive social change.

False equivalencies

Although we don’t usually think of them as slurs, calling someone racist, sexist or transphobe is indeed a type of slur.

However.

These slurs are grounded in the link between action or idea.

They are grounded in the fact of the harm done to people.

It’s easy to chart the consequences of someone who believes women are too emotional for leadership positions. They may not hire a qualified woman for a leadership position or listen to women who are in leadership roles. And so calling that out has justification.

Similarly, we are aware of higher rates of suicidal ideation and suicidal attempts among transgender youth and adults. Efforts to suppress healthy conversations around trans identity in public settings can exacerbate the problem. A trans activist is wholly justified in calling someone who’s suppressing these conversations “transphobic.”

People on the right complaining about the left hurling accusations of bigotry at them without basis are usually quite wrong.

But what is the link between discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools and grooming? There is none.

Obviously.

There is no link between discussing sexual orientation and gender identity and setting out to abuse children sexually, or grooming.

There is no link between learning about sexual orientation and gender identity in school and being vulnerable to sexual advances in school.

(Learning does not make kids vulnerable. It makes them powerful).

Claiming that “bigot” is the same as calling someone a “groomer” is a false equivalency. The former alerts us to actual attitudes and behaviors that can lead to harming populations. The former draw spurious links between education and sexual behavior and, in the process, diminish the actual crime of child sexual abuse.

“Groomer,” far from leading to good social change, harms two groups. It introduces noise into pedophilia discourse, making it harder for people to tune into real evidence signaling child sexual abuse. It also prevents discussions about gender and sexual identity. That may increase rates of suicidal ideation and suicidal attempts among LGBT-plus people.

Ketanji Brown Jackson's confirmation hearings highlighted the rift between meritocracy and diversity

Here is Senator Cory Booker speaking to Ketanji Brown Jackson on the third day of her Supreme Court confirmation hearing:

So I’m walking here, first week I’m here, and somebody’s been here for decades doing the urgent work of the Senate, but it’s the unglamorous work that goes on no matter who’s in offices, guy comes up to me and all he wants to say, I can tell, is 'I’m so happy you’re here.' But he comes up, he can’t get the words out, and this man, my elder, starts crying. And I just hugged him and he just kept telling me, 'It’s so good to see you here; it’s so good to see you here. Thank you, thank you, thank you.'

There may have been a bit of grandstanding with Booker’s comments (he has a history of that). But I felt this one.

Booker is tapping into the emotional benefits of diversity. These are benefits that rarely make it into the conversations about diversity and representation, but they may be the most important of all.

Meritocracy vs. diversity

Meritocracy and diversity are often pitted against each other.

The pro-meritocracy side argues that diversity initiatives, especially affirmative action, is unfair. With respect to college admissions or employment, they argue that it is discriminatory to select a person based on a quality that has nothing to do with actual performance.

White and Asian students, the logic goes, have done what is necessary to attend a college or gain employment, but lose out to Black and Hispanic applicants simply because they were not the right color. Martin Luther King would roll over in his grave, they would assert.

A second, less frequent argument focuses on damage done to beneficiaries of diversity initiatives. This is the “mismatch theory” proposed by UCLA law professor Richard Sander, who says affirmative action places students in settings in which they are destined to fail.

The pro-diversity side has at least two counterarguments.

First, while few expect complete equality in terms of representation, large gaps suggest discrimination or bias are exacerbating differences in outcomes. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women comprise about 17 percent of the engineering workforce. A primary reason for this low number, the argument goes, is because of societal gender roles and expectations pushing women away from majoring in engineering. Diversity initiatives help correct for these dynamics.

Second, pro-diversity advocates argue that diversity benefits people other than the minority group. This is the primary reason why educators and some employers support affirmative action or diversity initiatives. The son of a Mexican immigrant would presumably have a different perspective on a classroom issue or a workplace concern than someone who identifies as white or Black. Having a diversity of opinion in knowledge-generating spaces is an irrefutable good.

I tend to side more with pro-diversity arguments, but neither the pro-meritocracy nor pro-diversity arguments tap into what Booker’s comments to Judge Jackson signify for many minorities.

The nod

“The nod is important. It is the internationally accepted, yet unspoken sign of acknowledgment of Black folks around the world.”

These words were from a scene in the ABC series Black-ish.

The main character, Andre Johnson, is upset that his son did not nod at another Black student at his primarily white school. By not nodding, his son was not being Black enough – a major theme in the show.

His son, living in a privileged environment and not experiencing racial exclusion, was being Black-ish. Meanwhile, Andre had grown up in Compton, went to historically Black college Howard University and was the first Black executive at his advertising firm.

The person who went up to Booker and told him “thank you, thank you” was doing some version of the nod.

At the confirmation hearings, Booker was doing something very similar to Judge Jackson.

When I seek out a new faculty hire and give them my contact information and make it clear they can contact me if they need anything, I am doing a version of the nod.

People who are “the only” in schools or places of employment gain emotionally when diversity initiatives bring in more people they can identify with. I am not entirely sure white Americans, especially white male heterosexual Americans, are aware of these emotions.

Maybe I can explain.

First is a sense of belonging.

When you are one of the only ones in a space, you can feel a sense of isolation. You may even feel like an imposter. But when you see a second or third person like you, and they acknowledge you, then you feel as if you belong.

This is a fundamental human emotion.

Imagine showing up to soccer or cheerleading tryouts and being surrounded by kids who had been there before or all knew each other from elsewhere. There is that voice in your head saying “should I be here?” You want someone to, well, nod at you and say they see you and recognize you.

There is also a sense of shared struggle.

I suspect the elder doing “unglamorous work,” as Booker describes it, is in a support staff or custodial position. Very much unlike the Stanford-to-Oxford-to-Yale Booker. But the elder and Booker share the experience of navigating a particular space as Black people.

There can also be a sense of pride and possibility.

Booker is not only navigating that space alongside the elder but doing so from a position of authority. It is one thing to identify with someone and acknowledge a shared struggle. It is another to meet someone who is emerging triumphant from that struggle.

Booker emerged triumphant.

As did Jackson.

If they did it, why can’t you? Why can’t your kids?

A way to understand this is to imagine someone from your small hometown making it big. You don’t share their paycheck, but you feel a little pride when they “represent” your hometown. People from that hometown can reason that if that person made it big, they can too.

The merits of diversity

Conversations about merit and diversity tend to ignore the psychological benefits of representation.

On the one hand, I get it.

It’s hard to quantify emotions like a sense of belonging or feeling pride. It is much easier to look at raw numbers.

The folks arguing for merit tend to focus on SAT scores or some other metric to show how unfair a focus on representation is.

Meanwhile, the folks supporting diversity initiatives are keen to look at the gaps in representation and argue for higher numbers of minorities in a particular field.

Even the support for a diversity of opinion tends to be about the wider number of views that people are exposed to.

While these points are worthy of consideration, we must not overlook the emotional benefits of representation for historically underrepresented minorities. These emotional benefits are the bridge connecting meritocracy and diversity arguments.

When people feel they belong they are more likely to invest in the task at hand and be more productive. Bringing in more people from diverse backgrounds can make that happen.

This is one reason why schools seek out minority teachers. It is not because teachers of color are necessarily better at relating to minority students. It is because their presence signals to students of color that it is a space for them.

For those folks who are not in those spaces, diversity initiatives can show people on the outside looking in that they can be a part of those spaces.

That Black girl making early life decisions as a freshman in college may decide to dedicate herself to the law, rationalizing that if Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson can become a Supreme Court justice, so can she.

In this way, there is merit in diversity.

Right-wingers are absolutely gushing over South Carolina's firing squad executions

A recent press release from the South Carolina Department of Corrections tells us that “the department is now able to carry out an execution by firing squad.”

It is worth reading the execution protocol:

Three firing squad members will be behind the wall, with rifles facing the inmate through the opening. The rifles and open portal will not be visible from the witness room. All three rifles will be loaded with live ammunition...The inmate will wear a prison-issued uniform and be escorted into the chamber. The inmate will be given the opportunity to make a last statement. The inmate will be strapped into the chair, and a hood will be placed over his head. A small aim point will be placed over his heart by a member of the execution team. After the warden reads the execution order, the team will fire.

What’s next? Is the state going to permit tar-and-feathering of convicted criminals? Sew scarlet letters on the shirts of adulterers?

South Carolina is now the fourth state to legalize firing squads, along with three other red states Mississippi, Oklahoma and Utah.

A nation against the death penalty

The thing most striking to me is not necessarily that the South Carolina legislature authorized death by firing squad, but that this embrace of barbarism is so at odds with the national zeitgeist.

According to Gallup, support for the death penalty is at a five-decade low. One could argue that, at 54 percent, a majority still favors it as punishment for murder. But when Americans are asked if they could choose between life imprisonment with no choice for parole and the death penalty, 60 percent favor life imprisonment.

This is the first time since the 1980s, when polls first asked the question, that Americans have favored life imprisonment over death.

Public opinion is clearly trending away from capital punishment. The number of people put to death has decreased over the years.

According to a brief from the Death Penalty Information Center: “2021 saw historic lows in executions and near historic lows in new death sentences. … Eighteen people were sentenced to death, tying 2020’s number for the fewest in the modern era of the death penalty.”

In 1999, 99 people were executed.

In 2020, 11 were.

Much of the decrease is because states have abolished it or because states are more narrowly defining crimes punishable by death.

We are more aware of the flaws in our legal system.

The racial bias in death penalty sentencing is well documented. Indeed, Washington abolished the death penalty in 2018 in part due to the racial bias in capital sentencing within that state.

We know the state often gets it wrong, too.

The Netflix docuseries The Innocence Files revealed in excruciating detail how our system so often gets it wrong. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, an average of about four wrongly convicted people on death row have been exonerated since 1973.

It is unconscionable for people to be put to death wrongly.

The public is now so anti-death penalty that many pharmaceutical companies no longer provide the drugs used for lethal injection.

Conservatives and the death penalty

That brings us back to South Carolina.

South Carolina has 37 people on death row to be executed because the drugs used for lethal injection have become difficult to obtain.

The legislature wants so badly to kill these people, they have reinstated a practice that belongs in the 19th century.

Why is South Carolina moving towards barbarism when it seems so much of this country is trending away from it?

The answer is simple. You probably know what it is.

South Carolina is dominated by conservative policies. According to Gallup, 77 percent of Republicans favor the death penalty. Seventy percent of “conservatives” say they support the death penalty.

The national anti-death penalty trend has not reached the south. No southern state until Virginia last year had abolished the punishment.

One could argue that Virginia is a southern state historically and geographically, but its politics are purple and oftentimes blue.

Indeed, the death penalty was abolished during Democratic Governor Ralph Northam’s administration. I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets reinstated under the current Republican governor.

Allowing the state to kill people (who we hope are actually guilty) is unconscionable and it surprises me this gets so little attention.

Canada has no death penalty. Australia has no death penalty. The United Kingdom has no death penalty. Indeed, no European country has the death penalty except Belarus.

Even Russia has a moratorium on the death penalty and hasn’t executed someone since the 1990s.

We are the only country in the Americas to carry out executions.

To be fair, the number of executions in the United States is far lower than the big five of China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Egypt.

But that’s nothing to be proud of.

So much of what is problematic about our country can be traced back to conservative ideologies that should no longer have relevance to an open, modern, post-industrial and democratic society.

Executions, now by firing squad, is a prime example.

How polls structure questions can drastically affect the way people respond – and that matters

A story in The Hill, entitled “New polling confirms Democrats' left-leaning policies are out of touch,” concludes this way:

The electorate is increasingly pessimistic about the direction in which President Biden and Democrats are steering the country and feel that the party's priorities do not align with their own.

I get it.

There’s a sizable population of once-and-future Democrats who think the preferences of the left don’t fit theirs. I think a focus on racial, gender, and sexuality issues (“identity politics”) and poorly said narratives about police reform (“defund the police”) and drug treatment (harm reduction) do not connect with a lot of voters.

My intuition is based on a well-established relationship between poor or working-class people, and what they want from their leaders. Generally, those populations are concerned with economic security and strong institutions (good schools and effective policing).

But I've learned to be skeptical of polls and news reports about them.

On the one hand, polls help us understand the opinions of people who respond to pollsters’ questions. To the extent that the answers given are true reflections of people's attitudes, they are indispensable.

On the other hand, polls can sometimes give people attitudes and opinions based on how they are written. Then the interpretation of those opinions by news outlets affects the political discourse.

Let me explain.

Do polls mirror or make reality?

Suppose we have these two polling questions:

  1. Agree or disagree: "we are not spending enough money on assistance to the poor."
  2. Agree or disagree: "we are not spending enough money on welfare."

These are the same questions worded differently.

What do you think you are going to get?

People will agree with 1 more than 2, because it’s worded more positively. "Assistance to the poor" is positive. "Welfare" is negative.

(Indeed, research from 1989, a period in which welfare reform was an important topic, showed that about 63 percent of poll respondents said the government was spending too little on “assisting the poor,” but only 23 percent said it was spending too little on “welfare.”)

Now imagine the welfare question being picked up by a national news outlet. The story leads with “New polling confirms Democrat focus on welfare is out of touch.” Maybe a congressional aide sees the story and informs her boss that constituents reject assistance to the poor.

Has the poll mirrored reality or made reality?

The poll in The Hill story was done by Schoen Cooperman Research. In its totality, it indicates the American electorate's disapproval of Joe Biden. The electorate disapproves of the job Joe Biden is doing as president and his ability to lead an economic recovery. I think this is a rather consistent finding across many polls over the past year.

But the main takeaway from The Hill was that Biden and the Democrats need to tack to the center. Here is one of the key questions from that poll that are evidence of that conclusion:

Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress are out of touch with hard working Americans. They have been so focused on catering to the far-left wing of the party that they're ignoring Americans' day-to-day concerns, such as addressing the rising prices for goods and gasoline and combating violent crime.

Forty-three percent “strongly agreed” with this. Eighteen percent “somewhat agreed” (61 percent total). Only 23 percent “strongly disagree.” Eleven percent “somewhat disagree” (34 percent total). Five percent were not sure. Six in 10 voters believe Biden is out of touch.

But look at the question carefully.

There are at least four different claims being made.

In effect, a story is being told to the respondent:

  1. "The Democrats are out of touch."
  2. "The Democrats are focused on catering to the party's far-left wing."
  3. "The Democrats are ignoring Americans' day-to-day concerns."
  4. “The Democrats are ignoring rising prices for goods and gasoline and combating violent crime."

The poll is “explaining” why the Democrats are out of touch and the “real issues” Democrats are ignoring. The use of "hard working" Americans is also a nice touch, helping to paint the picture of Biden as disconnected from the average blue-collar worker.

Then the next question:

Do you think President Biden and the Democratic Party should move more to the left and embrace more liberal policies, move more to the center and embrace more moderate policies, or do you think President Biden and the Democratic Party should stay where it is right now?

Well, after reading an excellent story about how and why the Biden administration is catering to out of touch leftists, here is what respondents say about the question of whether Biden should pivot.

Eighteen percent of respondents said Biden should move to the left, 54 percent said he should move to the center, 13 percent said he should stay where he is and 15 percent said they were not sure.

So there you have it.

It’s hard to tell whether these questions mirror or make reality.

The questions, as they are worded and the sequence they are in, may push many voters to say they think Biden should “move to the center.” Then The Hill’s reporting pushes that narrative into public discourse.

There is a there there, but where?

Surveys show a lot about the electorate.

Over time, polls asking questions about similar topics in slightly different ways coalesce around a general conclusion we can trust.

We can be confident that many in the electorate disapprove of Biden's job as president and whether he can lead an economic recovery.

But when it comes to the claim that Democrat narratives do not align with the needs of many working-class voters, it is more complicated.

As I mentioned, I do believe there’s a there there. But we need to be skeptical of how polls are written. What would pollsters have gotten had they asked respondents to agree or disagree with this:

Joe Biden and the Democrats were stopped from providing help to hardworking Americans because of opposition from Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema and all Republicans in the Senate?

My guess is you would get a different breakdown and narrative.

Indeed, within the same poll, a question brings us closer to the reality of what people really think. “Which of these issues do you feel President Joe Biden is actually most focused on? Select up to three."

Here are the top five:

  1. Russia's invasion of Ukraine (34 percent)
  2. The coronavirus pandemic (33 percent)
  3. Infrastructure; improving roads and mass transit (18 percent)
  4. The economy; creating jobs (16 percent)
  5. Inflation/rising prices (16 percent)

Wait a minute!

Where’s the identity politics? The kooky lefty policies?

There’s a there there, but where?

Many voters likely believe Democrats are worried about identity politics more than Republicans. A not insignificant number are dissuaded from voting Democrat for those reasons. But saying, as The Hill claims, Democrats are seen as "out of touch" is off-base.

Polls can be tricky.

We should be skeptical of what they say and how they say it.

How the left can overcome cancel culture's overreach

I had a meeting with some colleagues about a month ago. We were in a leadership program discussing a video about dealing with differences.

In my mind, working on autopilot, I assumed the differences were racial and ethnic. I said, somewhat offhandedly, that since our state is now run by a Republican, diversity may be de-emphasized.

A few minutes later, a colleague mentioned political diversity, and how I was throwing shade. This colleague saw my comments as dismissive.

Coming from a tenured professor at this university, it smacked of intolerance, I was told. I was not open to political diversity.

Wut?

Evidence of self-censoring

A recent piece in the Times set my corner of Twitter ablaze. Emma Camp, an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, wrote about her experiences on one of America’s premier campuses:

"My college experience has been defined by strict ideological conformity. Students of all political persuasions hold back — in class discussions, in friendly conversations, on social media. Even as a liberal who has attended abortion rights protests and written about standing up to racism, I sometimes feel afraid to fully speak my mind.”

Some of the aspects of Camp’s claims are problematic. All ideas are not the same. So “debating” ideas for the sake of debate only ever gives air to views that are discredited or sometimes bigoted.

But the general thrust of Camp’s piece, that college campuses are characterized by ideological conformity, rings true to me.

She relates one of the experiences of her college mates:

“Another friend shuts his bedroom door when I mention a lecture defending Thomas Jefferson from contemporary criticism. His roommate might hear us, he explains.”

I do not know what happens in college dorm rooms, but the notion that there are things one should not say is pretty clear to me. I have seen it. I tweeted out my own experiences of witnessing white students self-censor in a grad class I taught on race.

My experiences, along with Camp’s, are admittedly anecdotal. But the sense by conservatives that they must self-censor is widespread.

According to a Pew survey from 2020, 56 percent of Republicans reported that cancel culture “generally punishes people who don’t deserve it.” Meanwhile, only 22 percent of Democrats think so.

Or more telling is the difference between Republicans and Democrats in their view on how important it is to speak their minds.

Speaking our minds is essential to free speech. In an older survey done by Pew in 2017, 48 percent of Republicans and 45 percent of Democrats say being able to speak your mind freely online is important. By 2020 the numbers were 54 percent Republican and 38 percent Democrat.

What happened in three years?

I don’t know.

Counterarguments

Before my thoughts on what needs to be done, I should address four common counterarguments that push back against the notion that there is a culture of intolerance. Two are weak. Two are strong.

The first is that there is no evidence suggesting a culture of intolerance. I don’t know what to do with this. The data is clear. Many people believe they cannot say what is on their minds for fear of reprisal. To me, this is just straight denial, and it is delusional.

A second counterargument is that other people on the political left are censored or canceled too. This is true.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) maintains a disinvitation database, where one can see the attempts at cancellations across the political spectrum.

(I should note it is “attempts.” For example, there was an attempt by pro-Israeli and conservative groups to cancel BLM co-founder Patrisse Cullors’ commencement speech at ULA. They were unsuccessful. Sometimes they are. I lost a valued colleague recently because of a conservative backlash to some of their research. But because conservatives also do censoring does not mean that censoring is OK).

The third and fourth arguments are far more interesting.

A third is that self-censoring is normal and pro-social. I agree with this. If someone thinks trans persons are “not real” and that a person born with a penis is always a man, do I want that person to communicate what is ultimately a denial of personhood in social settings? Not really. There is little benefit in propagating bigotry.

A fourth is that lending credibility to the idea that society and college campuses are intolerant to different (conservative) viewpoints provides more fuel for conservatives to do real canceling.

I agree with this as well.

There has been a raft of legislation over the past few years to prevent ostensibly leftists from indoctrinating students. This legislation is nothing more than state censorship.

My governor instituted a tip line parents can use to report when teachers present “divisive concepts” (read: making white people uncomfortable). As I am writing this, the Florida legislature passed a bill dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. It prohibits teachers up to third grade from talking about sexual orientation and gender identity.

The struggle is real.

A way forward

Many people on the left say claims of intolerance have no evidentiary basis. Or they say the intolerance is not unique to the left and is nothing more than a ploy. I find those arguments unconvincing.

But claims that self-censorship is prosocial and prevents the spread of bigotry is a valid claim. As is the claim that overhyping the level of intolerance on campuses provides fuel for conservatives to pass actual censorship laws.

I have a few ideas.

First, we need to think about context and space.

There are certain spaces in society where we need to give people wide latitude to communicate. Neither the office nor a dinner party are the proper setting for “debate” or saying things potentially damaging.

But in learning environments and democratic deliberations, people must be allowed to say what is on their minds.

In this way, I agree with Emma Camp. She writes: “We need a campus culture that prioritizes ideological diversity and strong policies that protect expression in the classroom.” Yes. We need not only a campus culture but a political culture that respects ideological diversity.

Second, we need to apply the practices of diversity already honed for sexual and racial diversity to people holding different ideas.

I think this is what my colleague was getting at when they talked about political diversity. Progressives need to do what we have always done with groups who are different from the dominant group – give them room to breathe.

Be open and explicit about the fact that conservative ideas are often anathema on campus. By acknowledging that conservatives feel censored, and addressing it with established progressive practices, we throw water on the conservative fire.

There is no need to deny the censoriousness prevalent on college campuses and in society at large. It’s there.

But we can present clear moral reasons why this censoring is often necessary. At the same time, we have at our disposal time tested practices for people who feel they are being mistreated for their views.

We can apply these practices to people who identify as conservatives, and in the process show them the benefits of progressive ideas.

Americans need to unite as 'one tribe' to reject authoritarianism

I have been following the story of the Russo-Ukrainian War with equal parts fascination and trepidation.

A modern European country invading one of its neighbors?

Soldiers rolling in on tanks in a three-pronged attack?

It seems more fitting for an old black-and-white World War II documentary, not an event one can follow on Twitter.

And this war is scary.

One can see a path toward significant loss of life. We can see a Vladimir Putin-led Russian military attempting to subdue a pesky Ukrainian force one-fifth its size.

Then we see the international community making his task harder by providing aid to Ukraine.

And finally, a frustrated and unhinged Putin might retaliate with a nuclear strike.

The Russian invasion gave me a reason to re-read Sebastian Junger's Tribes. Junger, an author and war correspondent, weaves a compelling narrative using strands from anthropology, current events, and his own experiences in and around war.

Junger argues that the wealth and technology in modern society allow us to live lives where we don't need other people.

This sounds, on the surface, like a good thing. But Junger argues that we did not evolve to live such individualistic, disconnected lives. We evolved to live communal lives where we work together toward common goals.

As a result of being so disconnected, we, as a society, are dysfunctional. We are more often mentally ill. As wealth rises, the rates of depression and suicide increase. We are also sick politically.

Junger notes what we have all seen – a fractured society where people treat people with different viewpoints with outright contempt.

He provides evidence for these ideas by relying on his experience in and around war.

Modern American soldiers have the highest rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and trauma than soldiers of the past. Even as wars have become less deadly, mental illness has still risen.

Mental illness has also risen amongst military personnel who served during wartime but were not directly involved in combat.

Junger's explanation for this is that military personnel come from an environment where everyone is pulling together to one that is fractured. "[I]t makes one wonder exactly what it is about modern society that is so mortally dispiriting to come home to," he writes.

People miss the contexts in which adversity or a common enemy brought them closer to each other. Junger gives examples of Londoners who say they are nostalgic for the Nazi Blitz and a survivor of the AIDS epidemic who said he misses those days.

It is not that Londoners want to be bombed or people want to see their loved ones contract a terrible disease. It was the sense of community helping each other as bombs fell or the feeling of brotherhood while marching to destigmatize AIDS.

A clear morality tale
Sebastian Junger's tribes entered into my consciousness when I thought of this war as a way of uniting us as Americans.

Vladimir Putin's turn as a modern bad-guy dictator is Oscar-worthy. Hundreds of his opponents have been murdered. He illegally annexed Crimea, a region belonging to Ukraine. Russian assistance provided to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, in the form of bombing civilians, has been called a war crime by the UN. He has sent tanks into Ukraine, with an endgame not yet entirely clear.

And what of Ukraine?

This country has embraced democracy and has a growing economy. They have expressed interest in joining NATO. Indeed, Ukraine's success and interest in NATO are some of the reasons why Putin felt the need to invade the country.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy leads Ukrainians – a charismatic comedian-turned-lawyer-turned president. Zelenskyy can be seen chatting with CNN in the middle of a street in Kyiv, saying, "I need ammunition, not a ride, " responding to calls for him to evacuate the country.

It seems as if this story not only has a clear bad guy, but people we can all see are the good guys. We as Americans should be able to express clear support for President Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people.

But there is a problem.

There are elements on the right holding a candle for Vladimir Putin:

  • Conservative media personality Dinesh D'Souza says Joe Biden is more of a threat to America than Putin. Get that? A democratically elected president is more of a threat to America than a warmonger invading another country.
  • Steve Bannon praised Putin on his radio show. Talking with military contractor Erik Prince, Bannon said Americans should support Putin because he is "anti-woke." "The Russian people still know which bathroom to use," Prince replied, commenting on the push in America to allow transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice.
  • Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has repeatedly praised Putin calling him "talented" and "savvy" with "lots of gifts." Pompeo's praise came before the invasion. However, he has yet to condemn Putin's actions or modify his earlier comments.

As for his former boss, Donald Trump?

Trump has praised the invasion, calling it peacekeeping.

"That's the strongest peace force I've ever seen. There were more army tanks than I've ever seen. They're gonna keep peace all right. Here's a guy who's very savvy. … I know him very well. Very, very well."

The warm sentiment towards Putin isn't just a few lone voices at the top of the GOP or on the far right.

A January poll showed that Republicans view Putin more favorably than Biden, Harris, or Pelosi.

It is astounding for a group of people in the US to view a warmongering autocrat from another country more favorably than their own democratically elected leaders.

An opportunity
So we have a megalomaniac dictator who has jailed or killed rivals, committed war crimes, and aided another dictator in suppressing their population by bombing civilians. Now his tanks are rumbling through the streets of a sovereign country.

This is an opportunity for Americans to come together against a common enemy. We could become, for a moment in time, one tribe.

As the president said during last night’s State of the Union address:

[Putin] thought the West and NATO wouldn’t respond. He thought he could divide us at home, in this chamber, and in this nation. He thought he could divide us in Europe as well. But Putin was wrong. We are ready. We are united, and that’s what we did. We stayed united.

We did it before when we condemned Osama Bin Laden, Slobodan Milosevic, and Saddam Hussein. There was significant disagreement about the Iraq War, but no one was rooting for Hussein.

And yet, here we stand in America with Nick Fuentes asking for “a round of applause for Russia” and getting cheers of "Putin!" "Putin!" during a white nationalist conference at which Georgia representative Marjorie Taylor-Green spoke.

Meanwhile, the international community is rallying around their shared concern for the plight of the Ukrainians. Democracies - at least the leaders of democracies - have become a tribe of sorts, understanding the threat of Putin and working together to combat it.

The European Union has offered asylum to Ukrainian refugees and pledged military aid. Singapore has imposed trade sanctions. Sweden and Finland pledged weapons and military aid. And the Biden Administration pledged $350 million.

This is along with a coordinated effort by the EU, UK, US, and Canada to remove Russian banks from the international banking system.

These actions are first and foremost to help the Ukrainian people.

But they have the indirect effect of bonding these democracies closer together in friendship.

Maybe us everyday folks can see a lesson here.

Eminem honored Kaepernick for institutionalizing Black Lives Matter -- we all should

Like many Americans under 50, I found things to do other than watch the Super Bowl. So I spent Sunday night doing what many others likely did, not watching the actual event, but reading the Twitter reactions to the event.

Within my networks, what seemed to matter the most was the Superbowl halftime performance (I watched it later on YouTube). It was an homage to 90s hip hop. Eminem, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar and Mary J. Blige headlined the show, and a cameo was made by 50 Cent.

On one end, you had Charlie Kirk, president of the right-wing organization Turning Point USA, tweeting: “The NFL is now the league of sexual anarchy. This halftime show should not be allowed on television.”

Kirk’s former employee and fellow conservative Candace Owens thought differently, tweeting: “This is an excellent Super Bowl halftime performance. Undeniable hip hop and R&B excellence.” But her followers buried her with reactions that I can only interpret as the show being too Black.

On the other end, it received praise. Many saw the performance as one of the greatest halftime shows ever, on par with Prince’s iconic turn in 2007.

Jane Coaston, a Times contributor and occasional guest host of The View, tweeted: “This is the most I’ve ever seen a Super Bowl crowd seem to legitimately enjoy a halftime show.” One of the more funny responses was from former South Carolina congressman Bakari Sellers tweeting, “This Critical Race Theory halftime show is 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥.”

The show ended with Eminem kneeling in an apparent homage to quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and it's time we honor him for being integral to the social movement addressing police brutality in the United States.

Phases of a movement
There are many ways in which social scientists attempt to understand the how and whys of social movements (you can browse a popular college text here). I’m going to use one of the simpler narratives from the great sociologist Herbert Blumer. Blumer’s narrative helps me chronicle the Black Lives Matter movement and Colin Kaepernick’s place in it. Blumer wrote that social movements go through four stages that are more or less sequential:

  • Social ferment stage.
    There is a lot of uncoordinated agitation about things not being right, about policing not being right in Black and brown communities. The media is again talking about no-knock warrants, because of the killing of Amir Locke, but this is not a new issue. The legendary artist Gil Scott Heron wrote a song called “No Knock” in the early 1970’s.
  • Popular excitement stage.
    The problems are made more concrete and precise. The movement progresses from a sense of things not being right, to OK we need to deal with these specific problems. We can point to the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012 as the beginning of this phase. Martin’s death at the hands of George Zimmerman caused national outrage, and brought Stand Your Ground laws under scrutiny. In 2014, the death of Eric Garner brought into question the use of chokeholds. In 2020, the death of Breonna Taylor introduced the dangers of no knock warrants.
  • Formal organization stage.
    Organizations are retooling to deal with the problems articulated. The most high-profile organization is Black Lives Matter, which was formed in 2013 after Zimmerman was acquitted. Or other organizations like Race Forward are reorienting some of their focus toward the problems articulated. There are also many institutes, conferences, and non-profits set up to deal with the problems of police brutality and racism.
  • Institutionalization.
    The movement becomes accepted as a part of society, either as a permanent aspect of our institutions (educational system, police departments) or the organization itself becomes an institution. The civil rights movement became institutionalized with the passing of Civil Rights legislation. The NAACP is still a part of society.

So where does Colin Kaepernick fit into all of this?

Tipping a cap to Kap

In August 2016, Colin Kaepernick, then a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, sat on the bench during the national anthem of a preseason game.

It was a wonderful form of civil disobedience. He was not required to stand during the anthem, and so his sitting should have been seen for what it was, a silent, symbolic, lawful act of civil disobedience. People would, and they did, ask him why he sat. After the game, he said:

I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color. … To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.

The following month, Kaepernick’s silent protests turned into the form we recognize now, and it was a national story. Other teams participated in the protests. Obama supported Kaepernick’s right to protest. Time put him on the cover. Then presidential candidate Donald Trump, never straying from character, said protesters like Kaepernick should “leave the country.”

The team coach benched him. The organization restructured his contract, voiding his last three years. Midway through the season, he was benched.

Kaepernick opted out of the final year of his contract, but despite his solid record as a quarterback was not signed by any other team or given a tryout. For those of you who do not know, this is a very rare occurrence. Speculation was that he was blackballed. He has been out of football since 2017.

What Kaepernick did by protesting police brutality on the largest possible stage in American – professional football – helped institutionalize the claim that Black Lives Matter in this country. He helped prevent the dismissal of police brutality protests as the mere knee-jerk reactions of disgruntled youth. Why is this highly paid, highly valued football player doing this?

He helped counteract the damaging narratives conservatives were spinning about BLM being a communist organization by making protests popular across teams, leagues and diverse group of players. Our most accessible heroes – athletes – became communicators of social justice. Is Justin James (JJ) Watt from Wisconsin a communist? He took a knee, didn’t he?

The movement could not be pigeonholed and dismissed. You know something is an integral part of our country when members of Congress are participating in it. Remember when the Democrats took a knee for eight minutes and 40 seconds in George Floyd’s memory?

Colin Kaepernick did that.

When Eminem took a knee, it came full circle.

Amir Locke deserved the dignity of a knock

Another week, another state crime. Amir Locke, a 22-year-old Black man, was killed by police in a Minneapolis apartment building.

Shortly before 7 in the morning, a SWAT team approached the apartment door where Locke was staying. According to Interim Minneapolis Police Chief Amelia Huffman, it was assisting the city’s homicide unit as a part of a murder investigation. As is common practice, it executed a warrant when a search might turn violent.

The SWAT team had a “no-knock” search warrant. That’s a warrant authorizing law enforcement officers to enter without saying who they are and why they are there, if they believe these actions would create a dangerous situation or result in evidence being destroyed. Huffman said the SWAT team announced their entry “loudly and repeatedly” before forcibly entering the apartment Locke was staying in.

However, the body-worn camera footage tells a slightly different story. The footage shows an officer quietly turning a key to Locke’s apartment, and then the police yelling “Police! Search warrant!” Officers approached Locke lying on a couch, who was wrapped in a blanket. The officers kicked the back of the couch, waking Locke. Locke sat up and turned toward the officer. The footage shows Locke holding a handgun. Officer Mark Hanneman fired three shots into Locke – two into his chest and one into his wrist. Locke was treated on the scene, transported to a hospital and pronounced dead.

The search warrant did not name Locke. His cousin has been apprehended in suspicion of the homicide that justified the raid.

Amir Locke died senselessly.

Concerns about no-knock search warrants have been around for some time. Critics see them as yet another example of over-militarized hyper-aggressive law enforcement. Calls to ban them intensified after the death of Breonna Taylor in 2020, who died, like Amir Locke, from police gunfire during the execution of a no-knock warrant.

Minnesota has issued a moratorium on their use. Three states have banned them. However, these types of warrants are still legal in 47 states. Conservatives are reluctant to embrace reforms to police.

I see a blind spot in the debate.

Concentrating only on cases in which an innocent person is killed by police may actually minimize damage caused by no-knock warrants in this country. This damage is best understood as so many moments during which the dignity of everyday citizens has been stripped away.

Knock and announce
The historical approach to executing search warrants, adopted by the framers of the US Constitution, is the knock-and-announce rule.

When executing a search warrant, police must not forcibly enter without announcing who they are and their purpose for being at the citizen’s residence. They must also wait for a reasonable amount of time. Basically, “we are the police, and we have a warrant to search your premises.” They then wait for the resident to open the door.

To the police, this can seem like a disadvantage.

Most of us have watched police procedural dramas during which the police come to the door and the bad guys say, “quick, shred those documents” or “flush the drugs down the toilet!” Well, maybe.

If your focus is on apprehension regardless of collateral damage, you may see a no-knock as a necessary tool in law enforcement’s toolkit.

But the knock-and-announce rule protects everyone involved.

It protects the police. Forcefully entering with little or no announcement is a recipe for retaliatory violence. If a resident has a firearm on hand, they may understandably want to use it. Yes, the knock-and-announce rule might put evidence at risk, but it doesn’t heighten the tension of an already tense situation. Let the drugs go down the drain.

Police don’t need such protection, though. They are shielded from the violence inherent in no-knock warrants by modern technology.

When a SWAT team executes a no-knock search warrant, it maximizes the element of surprise by hurling in a flashbang (a stun grenade that unleashes bright light and loud sound) to disorient residents. They barge in wearing kevlar helmets, bulletproof armor and shields.

Citizens don’t have this advantage.

Citizens absorb the costs of tense situations.

Dignity

Protecting police is important, but they are civil servants whose occupation is to protect and serve. Some risk is to be expected.

The true value of the knock-and-announce rule is how it protects citizens. In legalese, these protections are couched in the words of safeguarding privacy and property. But I think of it differently.

The knock-and-announce rule protects a person’s dignity. A no-knock search is an abrogation of that dignity, a violation of human rights.

Can you imagine being in your home and hearing “police!” Now suppose you are not connected to a crime. Maybe a family member is suspect. Do you get up and go to the door? Or do you wonder what is happening, imagining your friend is playing some prank?

Well, what you think doesn’t matter. Your door will be kicked in.

Once a judge signs off on a no-knock warrant, you lose the right of consequence. You lose the right of free speech to explain that this is the wrong address or that this is a case of mistaken identity.

You don’t have the right to protect your body or your personal space. Failure to comply may get you killed. So you submit to having orders yelled at you, like a dog, while you are being cuffed and searched.

If you happen to be in a compromised position, say in the bathroom or the bedroom, it doesn’t matter. You are told to get on the ground even if you are stark naked or trying to pull your pants up.

That trinket your mother got from her mother that she gave to you? It’s smashed in the storm of chaos. That favorite stuffed animal of your child’s? Stepped on, muddied. And speaking of children, you are powerless as they break into tears and call for your protection.

60,000 state crimes
No-knock warrants are a part of the legal apparatus permitting police to commit state crimes – violations of human rights by a government. They give police the legal justification for stripping citizens of dignity.

How many citizens?

Exact data on the number of issued no-knock warrants is hard to come by. However, Peter Kraska, a professor in the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University, testified before Congress in 2014. He said a conservative estimate for yearly no-knock warrants is 60,000.

60,000?

If a fraction of those search warrants executed by police produce traumatic events like those above, we should be ashamed of ourselves.

Police committing state crimes are integral to a cultural and legal machine built to subjugate

Hours before police killed him, Landon Eastep was at his wife’s home. An argument ensued. She told him to “get out of the house!”

A Tennessee state trooper saw Eastep later on. He was sitting on a guardrail on Interstate 65. To get him off the highway, the trooper offered a ride. Eastep refused before allegedly pulling out a box cutter.

The state trooper withdrew. He called for backup. A 30-minute standoff ensued. It was Eastep against nine law enforcement agents, sidearms drawn, supported by a helicopter buzzing overhead.

According to a local television reporter, Eastep “pulls his right hand out of his pocket, steps forward, raises his hand in what appears to be a shooting position … That’s when officers opened fire.”

Eastep was another in an agonizing line of people killed by police.

But let’s look at the facts as we know them.

Between 2018 and 2022, Eastep had been booked into the county jail 29 times. He was charged with domestic assault. He had a restraining order against him - which he violated the morning of his death.

A state trooper came to help Eastep. He responded by brandishing a box cutter. In the face of nine cops, he decides to make a motion with his hand that could easily be interpreted as him pulling out a gun.

Nothing to see here, right?

Wrong.

State Crimes

Criminologists and other social scientists have been studying something called “state crime.” An organization sponsoring the study is the International State Crime Initiative, or ISCI. Its website describes “state crime” as “organisational deviance violating human rights.”

Americans have been slow to acknowledge state crimes. We tend to imagine bad governments in places like Africa, South America or Eastern Europe. Public officials take bribes in those places, silence opposition at the point of a gun and kill people. Not the US of A!

But we need to think about how our government has built institutions that are designed with the intent of applying excessive force and lethal violence to citizens who do not comply with such institutions.

Every day, our government is committing state crimes – violations against our inalienable human rights. We don’t need to resort to legalese to claim that law enforcement in the United States uses excessive violence against citizens they are sworn to protect.

We have seen too many video clips of people being tased for not wearing a mask or children being slammed to the ground by a police officer for taking “more milks than she was supposed to.” We have read about too many Tamir Rices, Eric Garners and George Floyds.

But we could resort to law if we wanted to.

For example, Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Being tased for not wearing a mask is cruel. Slamming a kid to the ground for “taking too many milks” is cruel and degrading. It is hard to imagine any killing of an unarmed person by law enforcement as being nothing short of cruel.

This is not some boutique view I came up with. The Global Human Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School published a study in 2018 of the 20 largest police departments. They found none met the minimum standard under international human rights laws.

State-sanctioned conclusions

The United States Department of Justice publishes a report periodically on police academy training across the country.

The report is here. The data is here. The report says “more than 90 percent of recruits received training in nonlethal weapons (20 hours on average) and deescalation techniques (18), such as verbal judo.”

You may imagine that this is good. Police are getting 38 hours of training in nonviolent techniques to prevent what happened to Eastep.

But those 38 hours are out of 833 average hours of total training. Moreover, if you look at the data, officers spend 73 hours on (lethal) firearms skills. That’s twice as much time as spent on nonviolent techniques. Additionally, 61 hours are spent on defensive tactics.

This innocent-sounding label actually describes the use of violence to subdue and arrest. This includes escort holds, compliant holds (read: chokeholds), and pepper spray (a sample manual can be found here).

These are state standards. Our government says they represent proper policing. So what happened to Landon Eastep was state-sanctioned.

Police officers demonized by the media are usually cogs in a cultural and legal machine that was built to subjugate a population. This is why so many of them are exonerated. They were just doing their jobs.

I have written about how police, trained as violence workers, visit that violence disproportionately on Black and brown communities. But no one is immune as long as you are in this country and refuse to comply.

The real crime

Let’s revisit the death of Landon Eastep.

According to his wife, Eastep had “decided to go for a walk to calm down” after their fight. So yes, he was sitting on a guardrail on the interstate. Probably upset after arguing with this wife. Is this a crime? In other words, if Mr. Eastep decided not to get into the car with the police officer and stay parked on the guardrail, is it a violation requiring an arrest? I don’t think it is.

Still, the state trooper was doing a good thing by performing what amounts to a welfare check on Mr. Eastep. But after Mr. Eastep refused to go, and there was no crime committed, what more was left to do?

I suspect that had the state of Tennessee trained their officers and provided mental health workers, the officer would have taken a different set of steps. Nothing in the video suggested Eastep was a threat to anyone else. No force, lethal or non-lethal, was required.

After being accosted, Eastep allegedly pulled out a box cutter. I suppose their training instructs officers to draw their firearms at the slightest indication of a weapon, from a mallet to an AK-47.

And so now we have heightened tension created by police, who now spend 30 minutes deescalating a situation they themselves escalated.

Kudos to them for trying, but here is another point in which a social worker would have been more appropriate. Instead, Eastep was treated as a domestic terrorist with eventually nine officers pointing weapons at him and a helicopter whirring overhead.

“Whatever you’re worried about, we can fix it,” one officer said, according to The Guardian.

Eastep refused to comply. As a consequence, he’s dead.

What the fight over affirmative action is really all about

The Supreme Court will hear two cases on affirmative action next fall. The conservative group Students for Fair Admission (SFFA) is suing Harvard and the University of North Carolina, alleging they discriminate against Asians. Given the court’s conservative tilt, this could be the end of racial preferences in colleges.



Affirmative action in context
John F. Kennedy issued an executive order in 1961 instructing federal contractors to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed and that employees are treated during employment without regard to their race, creed, color or national origin.” It was the beginning of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EOEC).

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was landmark legislation prohibiting discrimination. Its two notable provisions are Title VI, which prohibits discrimination by agencies that receive federal funding, and Title VII, which prohibits discrimination by employers.

At the height of the civil rights movement, the nation felt a more active approach to racial inequality was needed. White Americans, especially in the south, were themselves taking affirmative action to maintain white supremacy. This took the form of racial violence to keep Black people in their place and tacit racial solidarity agreements among white people to bar Black people from opportunities historically reserved for white people. Moreover, simply removing barriers to opportunities means little when Black and white people were not on the same playing field.

Our nation needed to do more. This understanding is encompassed by Lyndon Johnson’s commencement address at Howard University in 1965: “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”

That same year, 1965, Johnson expanded the government’s role by pursuing affirmative action for racial minorities. Federal contractors were required to take affirmative action. The Secretary of Labor was given the authority to develop regulations to achieve results. In 1967, Johnson issued another executive order requiring federal contractors to take affirmative action for women.

Colleges and universities voluntarily adopted affirmative action policies. Again, this was in the context of a turbulent era. Students protested the lack of people of color in historically white universities. The president of Columbia was a law student at Columbia in 1968. He told the Times: “In that time, there was a sense, pure and simple, that universities had to do their part to help integrate higher education.”



The White backlash in context
The 1960s were a unique time in the United States, leading to remarkable changes in American society. But white Americans, sensing a loss of something, challenged racial preferences in college admissions from the start, appealing to the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

It is beyond my level of expertise to detail the particulars of some of the landmark cases. But a summary of some of the landmark cases is necessary to get a sense of exactly how affirmative action is used in higher education today.

The first significant decision on racial preferences was in University of California v. Bakke (1978). Alan Bakke, a white male, was not admitted to the University of California-Davis medical school. The Supreme Court ruled 8-1 against using strict racial quotas as these violated the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment. Colleges could still practice forms of affirmative action (e.g., using race as a factor in admissions), but they could not use strict racial quotas.

Universities could still use race as one of the factors. This is a no-no for some people.

So the legal battles continued.

Barbara Grutter, a white female applicant to the University of Michigan Law School, was placed on a waitlist and then denied admission. Grutter alleged that she had been discriminated against. In Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) the Supreme Court decided in a 5-4 decision that educational institutions can use race as one factor in admissions when there is a compelling interest in using race to achieve diversity.

But, still, this is too much.

Another case reached the Supreme Court, Fisher v. University of Texas (2013) and Fisher v. University of Texas (2016). The petitioner was Abigail Fisher, a white student who was denied admission to the university. Ultimately, in a 4-3 decision, the Supreme Court decided the university had a compelling interest in using racial preferences to achieve its diversity goals.

And there you have it.

All this wailing and gnashing of teeth over a few cases where the university has decided diversity is something they want on their college campus, and using race as a factor helps them reach that goal.

Asking the right questions
There is a standard set of pro-con arguments one hears around affirmative action. The pros? Helping historically disadvantaged groups and increasing diversity on campus are the main ones. The cons? It discriminates by race, and it hurts the groups they are meant to help by instilling inferiority. They had to be “helped.”

But we need to think more critically. We need to ask the right questions.

Do you care about diversity?
Most parents and prospective students see a college degree and what it provides in a utilitarian, competitive, hierarchical way. It is an on-ramp into the labor market.

The better the degree, the better the job, and thus the higher up someone can go in society’s hierarchy. You’ve won the game of life. A black student getting a slot at a prestigious school has therefore “won” without merit.

But universities are not degree factories, nor should they be.

Universities attempt to nurture a learning environment in which students grow into productive citizens. Universities do this in part by cultivating a diverse group of people who can share experiences in and out of the classroom.

As a professor, I’ve seen the benefits of this. Classroom conversations about many issues benefit from different perspectives. Conservatives should know this given how much they lament the lack of ideological diversity on campus.

Affirmative action has withstood legal challenges because the Supreme Court has agreed with this mission. It saw racial preferences as a way of achieving it.

When someone argues against affirmative action, it may be worthwhile to ask if they care about diversity, as ending racial preferences will lower it on campus.

Would you prefer class-based preferences?
Some genuinely are concerned about racial preferences compromising our meritocracy. But most people do not consider how compromised it already is.

In an earlier piece, I quoted a passage from Michael Sandel’s 2020 book Tyranny of Merit about the stranglehold wealthy families have on elite institutions:

  • “More than 70 percent of those who attend the hundred or so most competitive colleges in the United States come from the top quarter of the income scale; only 3 percent come from the bottom quarter.”
  • “At the most prestigious schools, “there are more students from the wealthiest 1 percent of families than from the entire bottom half of the country.”
  • “If you come from a rich family (top 1 percent), your chances of attending an Ivy League school are 77 times greater than if you come from a poor family (bottom 20 percent).”

A lot of the resentment is misplaced.

That working-class kid who scores 1100 on the SATs – an excellent score – but did not get into Georgetown may want to blame the Hispanic kid who got in with a score of 1050. But in reality, it is the children of wealthy families who have taken up the majority of slots with their 1200+ scores, leaving the working-class kid and Hispanic kid fighting over the remainder.

The LBJ quote above, about starting lines and fairness, is apropos here.

When it comes to getting into elite institutions – the ones using racial preferences – they are only a little more likely to get in as black people were in the 1960s.

The narrative should be shifted away from attempting to remove preferences, and towards making preferences more nuanced. Let’s do class and race. Let’s do class and race and school district. If you argue away racial preferences, you are building the justification for rejecting any preference. Given wealth disparities, not using preferences (class, race, or whatever) entrenches oligarchy – rule by the wealthy.

Why the hyperfocus on racial preferences?
While many people object to racial preferences because it is not meritocratic, I suspect a larger group resents racial preferences for other reasons. Consider:

  • The majority of colleges admit most of their applicants. Only a small number of elite universities are in the position to reject.
  • Even in cases where a white applicant has been rejected, it is the difference between going to college 1A as opposed to college 1.
  • Positive discrimination occurs on college campuses. It happens in the form of “legacy admissions,” in-state student preferences, preferences for veterans, children of state employees and so on. In raw numbers, any of these likely dwarfs the number of Black and brown students whose race mattered in their admissions. And yet this does not seem to bother people.

What gives? Why all the wailing and gnashing of teeth?

Many white Americans cannot stand a situation in which they are not centered.

Especially if that decentering is for the benefit of black people.

It is very hard to understand the energy invested in and angst surrounding racial preferences without placing it within the context of white supremacy.

Make no mistake. Thisis about white supremacy. SFFA, the organization suing Harvard and the University of North Carolina, purports to advocate for Asian Americans. However, this organization is backed with conservative funds and is headed by Edward Blum.

Blum is the founder of the Project on Fair Representation, whose stated purpose is to “challenge[s] racial and ethnic classifications and preferences in state and federal courts.” Back in 2013, he worked to overturn provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

So just because SFFA is framing their case around the discrimination of Asians does not mean the ultimate goal is to remove racial preferences that would address white supremacy in this country.

It always seems to boil down to white supremacy these days.

The GOP is using a range of power plays to seize political control — regardless of legitimacy

Power is the ability to get what you want, even in opposition to others. In our two-party system, the party in power can pass legislation the other party may oppose.

Democrats thought they were in power, but Biden’s inability to pass his Build Back Better legislation casts doubt on how much power Democrats actually have.

In my state of Virginia, the governor in power has signed a raft of executive orders, including banning the teaching of “divisive concepts.”

We see this as a normal and anticipated aspect of democracy. We want our party in power so they can pass the legislation we think is best.

READ: Dan Crenshaw lashes out and gets heckled when a girl asks about his Jesus comment: ‘Don’t question my faith’

But we miss a crucial element in this understanding.

The party in power has traditionally had authority as well.

Power minus authority
Sociologists talk about authority as the legitimate power that one group or individual holds over another. People are said to be in positions of authority when they can issue commands and reasonably expect them to be carried out.

We don’t say parents have “power” over their children. That implies conflict and struggle. Instead, we say they have authority. We expect children to (more or less) willingly be guided by their parents.

READ: 'Truly stunning': Legal expert shows how Gorsuch abandoned his supposed principles in vaccine rule case

And so, although authority is rooted in power, it rests on a belief that the person issuing commands is doing so legitimately. Authorities manage, command, lead and govern with consent of the governed.

Power in the absence of the consent of the governed is tyranny. Since at least Obama’s presidency, the Republican Party has been making plays for power with little regard for authority.

From complex to simple
This line of reasoning is not new. There are several lines of analysis for what is happening with the Republican Party.

Some focus on the dismantling of our system of free and fair elections and call it authoritarianism. A despotic figure rises to power and attempts to corrupt the democratic process to maintain power.

READ: Former top FBI official: 'Concerning' Ginni Thomas signed letter saying Jan. 6 participants 'have done nothing wrong'

I believe Republicans have been doing this in fits and starts since the 1960s. However, this critique gained momentum during the Trump presidency, as he seemed to be operating from a dictator’s playbook and reached a crescendo after the J6 insurrection.

Others adopt a more complex sociocultural analysis and will liken the current, Trump-led far-right turn of the Republican party to fascism.

To be sure, there is a there, there. But sometimes, it can be hard to tell what counts as fascism and what doesn’t. For example, one piece points out seven themes of fascist movements.

It’s also hard to tell what people mean when they say fascism, and resorting to a Wikipedia search doesn’t cut it. Vox did a piece where eight experts weighed in. “Is Trump a fascist?” They concluded no.

READ: 'You singlehandedly blocked the Emmett Till antilynching act': Rand Paul scorched over his MLK 'commemoration'

Authoritarianism and fascism are not mutually exclusive, as a fascist government is an authoritarian government.

Another analysis worth considering is that the Republican Party is attempting to make southern politics national.

In an interview with the Editorial Board’s own John Stoehr, professor of political science Angie Maxwell argued that the American south is a one-party system characterized by “a politics of entertainment as opposed to a contest of ideas.”

Moreover, “the long history of one-party politics in the south has created real structural barriers to progress and change.”

Maxwell argues that as more states fall under one-party rule, they will also experience problems of the American South. Stoehr subtitles his interview with Dr. Maxwell “The American south as mini-Russia.”

Authoritarianism. Fascism. Mini-Russia.

These are all fruitful ways of thinking about our current political climate. But I tend to look at these issues more straightforwardly.

The current iteration of the GOP wants power. It cares nothing about legitimacy. It’s as simple as that. We may end up describing it as authoritarianism or fascism or whatever. But it’s all about gaining power by hook or crook, and their power plays need cataloging.

Where to start?
I guess the first place is voting and elections.

  1. According to the ACLU, Republicans have introduced more than 400 anti-voter bills across the country in recent years. Voter suppression has become a major talking point on the left for a good reason. Voting is the primary way people exercise their voice. The Republicans are trying to silence that voice.
  2. The nation is becoming browner, especially where Republicans are in power. The nation’s population growth in the 2020 census came largely from racial minorities in Texas, Florida, North Carolina and Georgia. In these states, Republicans control redistricting, and they are working hard at gerrymandering districts to keep them red.
  3. The ultimate power play, thankfully unrealized, was to overturn legitimate election results. One hundred and forty-seven Republicans voted to overturn a free and fair presidential election. We can’t overlook the desire to manipulate our knowledge landscape. Severing the population from truth is its own type of power play.
  4. The Trump administration had on several occasions denied access by revoking press passes and banning reporters.
  5. If one imagines this is simply an idiosyncrasy of the Trump administration, consider that Republicans are possibly withdrawing from public debates. The RNC claims that the Commission on Presidential Debates is biased towards Republicans.
  6. Across the nation, Republicans are attempting to severe the population from the truth by instituting truth bans. Since January of last year, 33 states have “introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism.”

Power and precarity
A more complex analysis will see these power plays as fitting within an overall scheme to institute a totalitarian, one-party state. I’m not sure that is the best way to understand the dynamics at play.

These accumulate into qualitative changes in how our democracy – what’s left of it – operates. But let’s not lose the trees for the forest.

Republicans are not interested in governing with legitimate authority. Instead, they are taking deliberate action that’s designed to gain or maintain power, regardless of what the population wants.

They are taking these actions not because of a grand scheme of dismantling democracy. At least, not intentionally. They are doing these things because of precarity.

They know that if they let democracy play out, they would have little authority in this country. And so, by necessity, they suppress votes, gerrymander, contest election results and ban the truth.

The American hyper-focus on individualism makes us poorer, sicker, and sadder

It is rather easy to lament the state of our country right now.

We are not wealthy. The US economy, despite the pandemic, has been doing reasonably well overall. However, income inequality is at its highest in 50 years. We are richer in the aggregate, but most of the gains have gone to upper-class families. The wealth gap is even starker, with upper-income families possessing 75 times as much wealth as lower-income families. In 1983, that ratio stood at 28.

We are not healthy. Around 42 percent of our country is obese. The Obama administration passed legislation to fight the opioid epidemic. It has only gotten worse, with New York needing to open overdose prevention centers. Before the pandemic, the life expectancy for white males was declining, with what has been termed “deaths of despair.”

We are not happy. We’re still in the middle of a national referendum on racism. Racial minorities are urging us to atone for historical injustices and address contemporary forms of racism. Trans persons have quickly gained visibility, and many people are unsettled. Some are downright fearful. Powered by disinformation and conspiracy theories, large portions of the right are convinced white students are being taught to hate themselves by teachers, Donald Trump won the election, and COVID was created in a lab for biological warfare.

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What can be done?

A popular argument is to fault the left. In particular, that the progressive, social justice-oriented “woke” wing of the left is to blame for many of our nation’s ills. Because of this group, we are discarding our commitment to reason and rationality, individual responsibility and equal rights. Because of this group, we are putting emotional “lived experiences” and group identity politics in their place.

A shift back to focusing on individual choice and personal responsibility will be the remedy, we’re told. Instead of Americans asking a nanny state for assistance, they should commit to personal changes in culture and character. Moreover, the purpose of government is to ensure individual equality under the law, not identify groups that may have been discriminated against, and then compound this mistake by discriminating against another group. A government that attempts to correct for vague “systemic” causes of racial or gender inequality will only interfere with meritocracy. This is unfair to people who had nothing to do with whatever phantom process scholars and activists have supposedly identified.

If we make this change, away from social justice “wokism” and towards the classical liberal values that made America a great country, the logic goes, we will be wealthier, healthier and happier.

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Personal troubles and public issues
I agree with the diagnosis. I do not agree with the remedy. To be sure, we need liberal values for our democratic, capitalist society to function. But I do not detect any real decline in those values. If anything, social justice movements are trying to extend rights to more individuals. And even if we had strayed away from those values, strengthening them would not address the issues I outlined above.

Instead, these social problems continue to plague us because of a lack of imagination – a sociological imagination. If anyone has taken a sociology class in the last several decades and remembered it, you may have heard this idea tossed about. It originated with one of the most influential sociologists of the 20th century, C. Wright Mills.

For Mills, the sociological imagination begins with distinguishing between the “the personal troubles of milieu” and “the public issues of social structure.” An example is unemployment. If only one woman is unemployed, we must look at that woman’s character or skills.

However, “when in a nation of 50 million employees, 15 million men are unemployed, that is an issue, and we may not hope to find its solution within the range of opportunities open to any one individual. The very structure of opportunities has collapsed. Both the correct statement of the problem and the range of possible solutions require us to consider the economic and political institutions of the society, and not merely the personal situation and character of a scatter of individuals.”

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Mills’ sociological imagination is about properly identifying the social problem – that our institutions, laws and policies are at fault – and suggesting appropriate, evidence-based solutions.

Our wealth, health and happiness problems are not individual personal troubles that can be resolved by exhorting people to think or act differently. People’s thoughts and actions occur within a given context, and we need to have more conversations about how we can change that context. This is what we are missing as a nation.

This is the remedy.

A New Year’s resolution for progressives
Many Americans see the problems we have in society as being about the individual and character. If you don’t have money, you didn’t work hard enough. If you are unhealthy or addicted to drugs, put the needle down, put on a pair of sweats and go for a run. If you are queer or Black, stop worrying about your group identity and focus more on personal achievement. What is this “herd immunity” these folks on CNN speak about? If you think you will get sick from the covid, take personal responsibility, and stay in your house.

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This hyper-focus on the individual makes us poorer, sicker and sadder.

We should pay attention to how institutions, laws and policies create problems. We should look at our tax structure and minimum wage laws to understand wealth and income inequality. Drug and alcohol abuse are symptoms of a society failing to meet the needs of its citizens, not personal moral failings. We need to lean into discussions about systemic racism and institutional discrimination. Instead of looking at individual Trump supporters as somehow being uniquely misinformed or prone to manipulation, we need to take stock of our fragmented media environment and citizens’ lack of trust in journalists.

Let’s resolve to use our sociological imaginations more in 2022.

How conservatives launder their hate into the mainstream

Sometime earlier this year, I asked my sister what a “woke” and “anti-woke” person was. She didn’t know. She had some vague sense of what it meant to be “woke” and tried in vain to derive “anti-woke” from that starting point: “Is it … not being woke?”

Of course, I knew what the terms meant. I had been raving like a madman about the problem of “anti-wokes” – people who are against what they see as the excesses of social justice – for months!

I asked my sister about critical race theory (CRT) around the same time. Again, she didn’t know. Of course, I did. The year before, I had already been a part of several conversations. I even had one with the Editorial Board’s own Mia Brett on my YouTube channel.

Yet my younger sister, a high school math teacher, was oblivious to these terms. I suspect I could have asked her what “gender critical” was. Or “viewpoint diversity.” Or “immutable characteristics.” The answer would have been the same.

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In this fragmented media environment, she had not stumbled into the communication spaces that trafficked these ideas. She doesn’t read publications like Quillette and Areo. She doesn’t listen to podcasts like The Joe Rogan Experience. She does not subscribe to Jesse Singal substacks. She doesn’t support organizations like New Discourses.

These spaces are occupied by PhDs, doctors, lawyers, accomplished writers and successful podcasters. They say they want to have honest conversations and get at the truth. They often talk in terms of science, logic and reason. To avoid a conservative label – a label that is often at odds with science – they may call themselves “true liberals.”

But many of the narratives produced in this space have the impact of undercutting disadvantaged groups they focus on. These narratives also become talking points for conservatives, even those people on the far right. In this way, they launder hate. I’ll give two examples.

“I am a gender-critical person with concerns about rapid-onset gender dysphoria”
If you’re like me, and you’re not in tune with the evolving discussions around gender, you may consider yourself gender-critical in that you believe it’s a critique of how gender has been used to oppress people.

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But no.

Being gender-critical means that one is against legal reforms that would have sex or gender be a matter of self-identification. Gender-critical people maintain that what makes someone a man or a woman is materiality – do they possess a penis or a vagina?

They claim this is not about hurting trans people, but instead protecting what they see as actual women. Do you want someone who only says they are a woman leering at women in a bathroom?

You will rarely see gender-critical folks make any claims to be anti-trans. Instead, you might see video clips of Abigail Shrier or Dr. Deborah Soh speaking with Joe Rogan about the controversial concept of rapid-onset gender dysphoria (ROGD). ROGD, in simple terms, is a social media-influenced “contagion” spreading among young girls, where they are being influenced into declaring themselves as trans and taking steps to transition. Well, clearly this is not about hurting trans people, the logic goes. Instead, it is about using science to protect vulnerable youth from making disastrous decisions.

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But there is a lot of harm in this narrative that may not be obvious if you are a neophyte to these conversations. By clinging to the notion that only people with vaginas are women, or only people with penises are men, you are, in effect, erasing people who don’t fit that criteria.

Or consider people who believe the ROGD narrative. By denying a young person’s request to begin transition, they are forcing that person to suffer, simply because they believe the young person has watched too much YouTube. As a side note, there is significant controversy surrounding ROGD – to the point where the research underpinning it had to be retracted and republished, emphasizing that ROGD was not an established diagnosis. Gender-critical folks have cleaned a dirty anti-trans narrative for the general public.

“This is true equity”

The Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism, or FAIR, claims it is “a nonpartisan organization dedicated to advancing civil rights and liberties for all Americans, and promoting a common culture based on fairness, understanding and humanity.”

The organization’s main page uses images of Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Its highly accomplished supporters include Daryl Davis, the Black musician who deradicalized Klu Klux Klansmen, and Coleman Hughes, the Black podcasting Manhattan Institute fellow on the Forbes “30 under 30” list.

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This group is ready to push us forward as a society. Right? I mean … King! Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is right there on the main page!

A recent video released by FAIR shows that even with King on the main page, or especially with King on the main page, hateful ideas can be cleaned and presented to the public. In the video entitled “Misguided ‘Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion’ Harms Science” Colin Wright, once in the academy but now an editor for Quillette magazine, narrates his frustration with being asked by universities to care about diversity:

As an academic, I care more about fostering diversity of thought and advancing science than caring about people’s immutable characteristics.

And later:

I hire candidates who happen to be the best candidates for the job. That’s true equity.

This sounds wonderful! But we know from research that Black candidates are often overlooked despite being equally qualified. I suspect this may be the case for Hispanic candidates. We know one’s social environment impacts educational outcomes, such that people growing up poor or lacking social networks will do less well in school. True equity actually means recognizing these conditions and addressing them through diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

FAIR is advocating against these efforts, as a consequence arguing for perpetuating systemic racism. And what of the notion that it is harming science – the video’s original premise? To my knowledge, there is no evidence that scientific production has been damaged by the last few decades of diversity efforts on college campuses.

My take on hate launderers
The people in these spaces will claim to be liberal and find conservative ideas problematic. They are often pro-choice, pro-legalization of marijuana, and many of them would support raising the minimum wage. They are accomplished, educated and make a big show of being rational. For this reason, the narratives in which they traffic do not have the stink and grime of hatred or bigotry.

But hate or bigotry wrapped in a patina of intellectualism is still hate or bigotry. And the thing is, the Republicans know it.

We don’t have to look further than how the term “woke” was leveraged. The negative narrative surrounding this term germinated in the spaces I am speaking about in this essay. You can do searches from 2019 and earlier and see podcasts and publications talking about the horrors of wokism well before Republicans began using it to smear anything they do not like. (As a side note: I lost a valued colleague in part because their research was smeared by conservative outlets as a “woke.”)

The same phenomena will occur with the anti-trans narratives honed in these spaces. It will be no surprise to me if suddenly, in 2022, Republican politicians will be scaring their voters with fears that their children will be tricked into wanting to cut their penises off.

And the hate cycle will continue.

The meaning of white supremacy since the rise of Donald Trump

In a speech last month at Washington’s Martin Luther King Jr. monument, President Joe Biden described the January 6 insurrection as being about “white supremacy.” Later on, MSNBC did a segment on Thanksgiving in which guest commentator, Gyassi Ross, discussed its realities. Ross, who is Indigenous, sees it as the beginning of theft, genocide and “white supremacy.” After Kyle Rittenhouse’s acquittal, Colin Kaepernick tweeted, “white supremacy cannot be reformed.”

It seemed like the term had come out of nowhere. I decided to check Google Trends. From 2004 to about 2016, there were relatively few searches for the word “white supremacy.” Then in 2016, there was an increase in the frequency of searches, with several sharp spikes. Two of those spikes were in August 2017 and June 2020. What happened?

Donald Trump. One cannot say with certainty, but his rise, replete with far-right dog whistles and bullhorns, was probably explained by many writers through a lens of white supremacy. The spikes in search frequency in 2017 was probably because of Charlottesville’s “Unite the Right” rally. In June 2020, it was likely due to George Floyd protests.

The January 6 insurrection. Thanksgiving. Kyle Rittenhouse. Donald Trump. Unite The Right. George Floyd. All of these phenomena are linked to something called white supremacy. As I suspect this term will be a part of common parlance for some time, it’s worth explaining it.

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More nuance, more rejection

The way we identify and discuss racism has changed quite a bit. That’s because the way racism is expressed has changed quite a bit.

Inquiries into racism were more straightforward 30 or 40 years ago. First, you ask: “Do you hate people of a different race than you, yes or no?” If no, they’re not a racist. Then you looked at laws and asked: “Are any laws on the books explicitly discriminating against a racial group?” If there are no laws like that on the books, then there is no racism.

Now consider how racism is discussed today. It’s rather complicated. For individuals, racism is no longer only about conscious hate and clear cases of discrimination. It’s about implicit biases and seemingly benign behaviors that have racist consequences. The focus has shifted from laws and policies that discriminate to laws and policies that may not appear at first to be discriminatory but turn out to have disproportionate effects. Scholars look at how interlocking institutions work to produce unequal outcomes, like the much-discussed “school to prison pipeline” populated by poor young Black and brown men.

All things considered, this is a net positive. Learning more about how something happens -- in this case, racial inequality -- should be seen as a good thing. Unfortunately, it is not. That, however, is primarily due to people rejecting the political consequences of this scholarship and then doubling back to question the merits of that scholarship.

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How we understand white supremacy followed a similar trajectory.

Maintaining the racial hierarchy

White supremacy has in the past meant the maintenance of a racial hierarchy with white people at the top. In a white supremacist society, white people have the most power and privilege. White supremacists actively attempt to maintain and perpetuate this hierarchy.

Liberal media outlets have linked the events surrounding Kyle Rittenhouse to white supremacy. This may seem to be a stretch for many. Or, as Briahna Joy Gray titled an episode of her “Bad Faith” podcast, “Has White Supremacy Jumped the Shark?”

Rittenhouse is the teen who armed himself with a semi-automatic rifle and drove from Antioch, Illinois, to a Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He said he was going to guard a car dealership. Rittenhouse got into an altercation with protestors, killing Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber and injuring a third, Gaige Grosskreutz. He faced several counts but was cleared of all of them.

Some say these events had nothing to do with race or white supremacy. Rittenhouse is white. He killed two white people. They will point out that in an interview with Tucker Carlson, Rittenhouse said, “I support the BLM movement.” You see, no white supremacy here.

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They would be wrong.

White supremacy is about maintaining a racial hierarchy. How that is done changes over time. People may still imagine Klansmen must be present for there to be white supremacy. Again, that would be wrong.

The Rittenhouse saga reveals exactly how people attempt to maintain white supremacy. It is white supremacy without white supremacists.

A supportive right-wing media ecosphere

Let’s start with the night of the killings. The Kenosha Police seemed to ally themselves with the militia group Boogaloo Bois. According to a statement from Boogaloo Bois member Ryan Balch, the police told the militia group “that they were going to be pushing the protesters towards us because we could deal with them … KPD made a conscious decision to abandon the people of Kenosha to people they felt [were] justified in using machines and weapons of war against.”

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Then in January, after pleading not guilty to all charges against him, Rittenhouse went to a bar and posed for photos with members of the Proud Boys, a group described as neo-fascist, and flashed what many people call a “white power” hand sign (the okay hand gesture).

In the months leading up to the trial over $600,00 was raised for Rittenhouse on the Christian crowdfunding site GiveSendGo. This is not inherently problematic, as religious communities give all the time.

But the Blue Lives Matter flag on the page and the description “Kyle Rittenhouse just defended himself from a brutal attack by multiple members of the far-leftist group ANTIFA -- the experience was undoubtedly a brutal one” has a whiff of Christian nationalism.

During the trial, Judge Bruce Schroeder made several decisions that seemed to help Rittenhouse. He would not allow the two people killed, Rosenbaum and Huber, to be called victims. “Rioters. Arsonists. Looters. Refer to them that way,” he said. Despite visual evidence of a connection, he also would not allow the prosecution to connect Rittenhouse to the Proud Boys. He threw out two charges against the defendant, a curfew charge and a weapons possession charge.

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And then there is the immediate aftermath. Far-right Congressmen Madison Cawthorn, Matt Gaetz and Paul Gosar have offered Rittenhouse an internship. The Monday after the trial, Rittenhouse appeared on Tucker Carlson’s show, pleading his case and innocence before a supportive right-wing media ecosphere.

White supremacy without white supremacists

In the same way our understanding of racism has evolved, so has our understandings of white supremacy. How America’s racial hierarchy is maintained today is not the same as it was a century ago. In 2021, we don’t need white supremacists for there to be white supremacy.

Those Fox viewers tuning in to watch Rittenhouse’s interview with Carlson would say they were concerned with “upholding the right of self-defense.” The Proud Boys would say they are against “wokism.” People who contributed money to Rittenhouse’s crowdfund may say they are a “good Christian helping another good Christian.” The Kenosha police and Judge Schroeder may mutter something along the lines of “maintaining law and order.” The congressmen offering Rittenhouse an internship may say their concerns revolved around the “erosion of gun rights in this country” and so on.

That suggests an interest in maintaining the racial hierarchy.

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It is a hierarchy where Black and brown people are at the bottom absorbing the lion’s share of the state-sanctioned violence meted out by hyper-aggressive police officers. Meanwhile, at the top of that hierarchy are white people who believe it’s their right to storm the Capitol to demand their chosen candidate be given the presidency.

The right-wing panic over critical race theory can't come to grips with what really happens in our schools

The "critical race theory in schools" narrative is in its second edition. The first edition was the stuff of activism legend. According to a story published in TheNew Yorker, a Seattle city employee sent anti-bias training materials to a local journalist named Christopher F. Rufo. Fresh off of a defeat in a city council run, Rufo saw a chance to further his political ends. He cobbled together materials from more anti-bias trainings in Seattle and wrote an op-ed for the Manhattan Institute publication City Journal.

After the City Journal article, more training materials were sent to Rufo. Again, according to TheNew Yorker, Rufo noticed that footnotes often pointed to books written by Kimberlé Crenshaw and Derrick Bell. Rufo discovered that these authors were labeled "critical race theorists." And thus, a conspiracy theory, a moral panic and the saving grace of the post-Trump GOP in 2022 were all born.

We were being told that critical race theory (CRT) was going against Martin Luther King's dream. It was separating people by race. It was teaching children that America is systemically racist, and our great nation was founded in racism. It taught "racial essentialism" — a term referring to the belief that a person's characteristics are determined by their race. White people — white children even — were born racist. Now, a GOP bereft of good ideas had something to talk about.

That was the first edition.

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Eventually, scholars, educators and every thinking person pushed back hard. It was absurd, they said, that such an esoteric set of ideas would be taught to ninth graders between gym class and algebra.

The propagandists realized their story wasn't sticking. And so, there was a need for a second edition to the "critical race theory in schools" narrative, something credible enough to continue stoking fear.

Enter John McWhorter.

McWhorter's recent op-ed in the Times claims that a "CRT-lite" is now in schools. It is not explicitly CRT, McWhorter claims, but ideas influenced by critical race theorists. OK, John, whatever you say.

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I prefer a more reality-based, nonpartisan approach to this issue. Then I can filter what is happening through my progressive values. First, I suggest acknowledging something has changed in our schools. There is indeed a there there. Then I offer an alternative, progressive narrative more consonant with these facts on the ground.

Something has changed
Critical race theory, as understood by fabulists such as Christopher Rufo, is not in schools. Everyone knows it. That's why McWhorter fabricated "CRT-lite" in order to make propaganda more believable.

But something has changed. It makes no sense to ignore it. Here is my take. It is grounded in my observation of two parallel trends.

We have seen growth in the number of Black students and students of color in our public schools, nationally. The number of students identifying as white in public elementary and secondary schools dropped from 61 percent in 2000 to 47 percent in 2018.

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These demographic changes placed pressure on educators to deal with some hard racial realities. Students' lives are textured by their racial and ethnic backgrounds. It impacts how they identify, interact with others and receptivity to educators and classroom content.

When a national school system is primarily white, a message of being colorblind to race (not seeing skin color) can be functional, even if it means students from non-white backgrounds suffer either academically or personally. But in an increasingly diverse public education system, being colorblind is simply being foolish. Educators in public school systems had a problem in need of a solution.

Meanwhile, beginning in the 1970s, social science was taking a critical turn. The societal questions deemed worthy of intellectual pursuit by the lion's share of academics were those that sought answers to inequality and oppression. They produced the best answers they could. I am not sure why this "turn" occurred. But reducing it, as many people on the right do, to a secret cabal of Marxist professors, is a self-serving lie. It dismisses the fact that legitimate, well-trained and accomplished scholars across a range of disciplines saw these issues as worthy of concern and, more or less, agreed on acceptable paths forward. Social scientists had a solution to the educator's problem.

Cultural relevancy
How many readers have heard of culturally relevant teaching? How about culturally relevant pedagogy? Not many. If you are not an educator working with a diverse student population, why would you?

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And this is the difference between K-12's response to demographic changes — culturally relevant teaching — and the GOP's response to potential irrelevancy — phantom critical race theory. The former is a slow, organic lurch of necessity while the latter is a hyper-focused pivot to propagate a false narrative for political gain.

If I gave a bar napkin synopsis of cultural relevancy, it would be (1) an embrace of students' differing cultural backgrounds and (2) a more flexible approach to teaching those students given their backgrounds.

My state of Virginia has adopted a culturally relevant approach. Here is how the state's Department of Education describes it:

Culture strongly influences the attitudes, values, and behaviors that students and teachers bring to the instructional process, making culturally responsive educators necessary for the equitable achievement of today's increasingly diverse student population. Culturally responsive educators see the diversity in their classrooms as an asset and use their knowledge on students' backgrounds to enrich educational experiences. These teachers form a thorough understanding of the specific cultures of the students they teach, how that culture affects student learning behaviors, and how they can change classroom interactions and instruction to embrace the differences.

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"Cultural relevancy in schools" is the more accurate frame for changes occurring in our modern K-12 educational system. Universities with well-regarded education departments, including NYU, Brown, Harvard and Vanderbilt teach and research a culturally relevant approach. Also prominent organizations such as Teach for America, the famed KIPP charter schools, the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the Consortium for Policy Research in Education.

The evidence for the effectiveness of culturally relevant teaching comes from case studies and survey research. This is a standard approach in the social sciences, but I would like to see, as a social scientist, future studies comparing students who are "treated" with culturally responsive lessons to those who are given standard lessons.

There you have it.

Instead of describing these well-meaning attempts by sincere, hard-working scholars and educators as yet another manifestation of "wokism," we can look at school activities as efforts to deal with the realities of racial and cultural diversity in American school systems.

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And so, when Conor Friedersdorf writes about a "CRT-inspired" Black Lives Matter curriculum being incorporated into a school curriculum in Evanston, Illinois, he is approaching it through a strictly political lens. To be fair to Friedersorf, I do believe it is a bit heavy-handed, but indoctrination it is not.

The educators believe, as I do, that this is an effective way to teach. Many of their students navigate spaces where discussions of police killings are ongoing around dinner tables and in church pews. Why wouldn't you incorporate that reality into classrooms?

CRT is in our schools and we love it
I'm aware moral panics like CRT are not combated by resorting to the truth. Moreover, I tend to avoid engaging in too many "get CRT out of our schools" conversations, as they only legitimate the lie. There is no need to engage with someone who actually believes teachers are telling their white students to hate themselves.

But there is an alternative narrative that progressives can employ: There is a CRT in schools. It is culturally responsive teaching.

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This shift in education and thinking was necessary given our more diverse public school system. It helps teachers be more effective at educating our youth. It respects a student's cultural background. It uses that background as an on-ramp to facilitate learning.

We should be happy about that.

Conservatives have poisoned people's minds about police reform — so it's time for a reset

Minnesota voters have made their decision on the Replace Police Department with Department of Public Safety Initiative. They voted "no." The vote asked if residents want to replace their police department with a collection of public health professionals, of which some will be "licensed peace officers" (police officers).

Efforts to reform the police have been proposed and attempted all over the country and will continue to be for some time. The Minneapolis ballot was more significant as it is the place where George Floyd was killed and is the symbolic epicenter of police reform.

I believe the conversation around police reform needs to be reset. Conservatives have done their best to poison people's minds. They have evaded the real on-the-ground issues and focused their attention on the Black Lives Matter organization, linking it to communism, among other things. Meanwhile, progressives and activists have perplexed everyone by latching themselves to confusing terminology. What does "defund the police" mean? What about "abolish the police"?

What follows is an explainer for those sympathetic to police reform. It is for people who wish to give it moral support, but are unsure about the rationale and evidence for it, or what reform might truly mean.

Police as 'violence workers'
Police are trained to administer lethal and nonlethal violence using a variety of weapons — handguns, military assault rifles, truncheons, battering rams, armored trucks, grenade launchers, pepper spray, tasers, and tanks. This violence is to subdue or detain individuals who have violated the law. To be sure, police get training on how to deal with the community and social issues like domestic violence. But overwhelmingly so, according to this 2013 Department of Justice report, police are trained to be "violence workers." Unfortunately, much of their job requires skills of non-violent diplomacy.

Consider responsibilities we give local police departments:

  • Managing a city's homeless population
  • Enforcing traffic laws
  • Resolving family and domestic conflicts
  • Tracking down and corralling truant children
  • Enforcing order in schools by suppressing fights or removing unruly students
  • Maintaining order in public spaces by removing homeless people, the intoxicated or the mentally ill

None of these are your standard violent crimes (murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, rape, robbery, aggravated assault) or property crimes (burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft and arson.) But these are rarely of the type requiring lethal and non-lethal violence.

There is a basic mismatch here between what police are trained to do and what they need to do. Situations requiring de-escalation, mediation and conflict resolution are "resolved" with force.

But because of media representations of police, especially reality shows, we don't see this mismatch. As a society, we have become inured to images of police administering violence to citizens. Videos of teenagers handcuffed and spread eagle on the pavement after a fight in school or a woman being tased and crying out in pain because she refused to wear a mask are not met with the outrage they deserve.

Disproportionate violence
Starting with the Nixon administration's tough-on-crime rhetoric, police departments have been modeling themselves after the military. Local police officers are being trained to be warriors, complete with military-style equipment. The "enemy" is the always suspect Black and brown residents of the neighborhoods they patrol. Policies such as the "qualified immunity" and now-discredited "stop and frisk" give police departments the legal foundation for implementing this aggression.

How does this culture and policy play out in Black and brown communities? Civil rights lawyer Jim Freeman recounts his observations in his book Rich Because of Racism:

It is jarring, as an outside observer, to see how much more aggressive officers are with residents. Verbally aggressive. Physically aggressive. Psychologically aggressive. In my entire life, I have never had anyone speak to me with half as much contempt as some officers that I have seen confronting young men and women of color. I have also never had anyone feel nearly as entitled to put their hands on me as many officers do with respect to people of color.

Many white Americans living in middle-class and wealthy neighborhoods are simply unaware of the degree of violence visited upon their fellow citizens in Black and brown neighborhoods.

The big question — does more police decrease crime?
Police reform is based on sound premises. Progressives will likely accept the notion that police are violence workers (everyone should, actually). They also understand that this violence is visited on Black and brown communities disproportionately. But the main concern for everyone across the political spectrum is — if we remove the police officers' presence from a neighborhood, will crime increase?

The short answer is that certain types of policing can prevent crime in the short run. Research by Scientific American suggests the focus on high crime hot-spots and high-rate offenders (as opposed to aggressively policing entire communities) helps reduce crime. Also, enlisting third parties, such as businesses, can help reduce crime.

However, increases in certain types of policing can be incredibly counterproductive. One such strategy is broken windows policing, where minor violations like loitering are aggressively enforced. Another is "stop and frisk," where police can search someone's person if they have a suspicion the person is carrying a firearm. Arrest rates do rise under these policing regimes, but it is questionable if these tactics reduce crime. Cities that employed broken windows strategies, including Los Angeles, Denver and New York, experienced declines in crime – but so did other cities across the country, raising doubts about its actual impact. Indeed, when New York City phased out "stop and frisk," the city's crime rates dropped to historic lows (before the pandemic). The cost of these hyper-aggressive demeaning policing strategies is the engendering of mistrust between citizens and police.

Moving forward
Even when policing achieves the goal of reducing crime, police are still administering lethal and non-lethal violence in situations where different skills are needed. The basic mismatch is occurring disproportionately in Black and brown communities. Moreover, no matter how temporarily effective police are at crime prevention, they cannot address the human needs caused by poverty, drug addiction, homelessness and a lack of avenues for building self-esteem.

These facts lend themselves to supporting some kind of police reform. And so, the question becomes, what would police reform mean in practice? What does "Defund the Police" mean?

I suggest that there are at least three broad types of reform:

  • Changing the culture of policing and the policies that govern it. Police departments can shift away from an ethic of officers as "warriors" in a "war on crime" to guardians of communities. Moreover, policies can change so that police have less latitude in applying lethal and non-lethal violence.
  • Redistributing some police funds toward public health and social workers. Non-violent professionals can be hired and trained to do some of the non-violent work police are often asked to do. For example, if a community has a serious homeless problem, professionals can be hired to address this specific concern.
  • Transforming police departments into public safety departments with an emphasis on prevention. This is the Minnesota model mentioned at the beginning of this piece. This would reduce the number of violence workers to a fraction of professionals within a wider department dedicated to preventing crime with public health and social workers.

"Defund the Police" is a broad slogan with a variety of interpretations. This range should not be seen as internal confusion within one monolithic movement. Instead, it should be viewed as proposals from different communities with different needs sharing a similar evidence-based understanding of the relationship between police, citizens and crime.

A sociologist explains how moral panics serve the right-wing agenda

ProPublica detailed a pattern of suppressing cases of sexual assault at Liberty University, a private evangelical Christian school in Lynchburg, Virginia. After female students reported being assaulted, campus officials submitted them to victim-blaming, suggesting they violated campus policy against drinking and fraternizing with the opposite sex. Students told ProPublica that staff did not even report their cases to the Title IX office, a legal requirement. This has been going on for years. How?

How can an institution of this size and visibility carve out this immoral space and thrive in it for so long? What allows staff to feel justified in minimizing complaints of sexual assault? There are many explanations, including the obvious one that Liberty University was concerned about its image of producing good Christian women and men. But I want to offer an explanation that may not be obvious.

Moral panics are the taking of anecdotal instances and making them seem more prevalent than they actually are (the panic), then demonizing groups associated with these instances (the morality).

The moral panics engineered by a philosophically bereft and culturally out-of-step Republican Party allow pockets of America to continue patterns of behavior that most of society would deem problematic.

Let me explain.

Moral panics and immoral action
Social scientists and faculty administrators have been aware for some time that women endure all forms of sexual aggression on college campuses, from unwanted sexual advances to inappropriate touching to rape. It is a long-standing problem. It is well understood in progressive and academic spaces. A common statistic shared in these spaces is one in five women are sexually assaulted on campus.

The Harvey Weinstein case of 2017 and the subsequent #MeToo Movement was a watershed moment, inaugurating a wave of women coming forward about their experiences with sexual aggression. For many, it was simply making public what was already known.

But conservatives turned the #MeToo Movement into a moral panic, suggesting that hapless innocent men were in danger of being persecuted by liberal feminists. News organizations frequently ran stories saying the movement had "morphed into a career-destroying mob," "gone ridiculously too far" and that it was a "scary time for men."

Liberty University could then position itself as being against these feminists and what they support, and double down on practices we know are harmful. Administrators at Liberty University can operate under the assumption that they are a place free of progressive, pink-haired "feminazis." At the same time, they routinely dismiss legitimate claims of sexual assault from their students.

This is how moral panics sustain immoral practices.

The panics keep coming
I chose the Liberty example, because it is the most recent and one of the more disturbing. But also because the links between Liberty's practices and the moral panic that helped sustain it are not readily apparent. Other instances are much clearer.

Consider "cancel culture." The idea is that a hypersensitive irrational "woke mob" will call for the firing or the deplatforming of someone based solely on their ideas. A few cases where people have lost economic opportunities (rarely is someone actually canceled) are used to suggest a pervasive phenomenon. We now live in an oppressive society, they say, where people cannot speak their minds.

This narrative allows people to continue to disseminate damaging ideas without considering their impacts on vulnerable populations. They can say they are against "the wokies" and will not be silenced. So instead of operating in a moral space where people are mindful that speech is an action with consequences, people propagating racist, sexist and transphobic ideas can do so with no qualification or filter.

The panic around critical race theory (CRT) is even clearer, with candidates making the banning of it a significant part of their platform. Liberal, unionized public school teachers are the demonized group in this panic. Because scholars and K-12 teachers themselves have pointed out the ridiculousness of K-12 teachers discussing an esoteric set of ideas oriented towards law school students, anti-CRT advocates have stretched the idea of what CRT is. It now includes anything deviating from Martin Luther King Jr.'s phrase of judging one another based on the content of our character and not the color of our skin.

In response, citizens uncomfortable with talking about racial inequality can hide behind the anti-CRT banner, and legislators are now emboldened to narrow what children learn. In effect, they are upholding a white supremacist version of our history and reducing the ability of our young people to think with any depth about racism.

Let's do one more example, shall we?

Society continues to move forward on recognizing trans rights. It is inevitable that conservatives will generate moral panics giving people the cover needed to continue practicing their transphobia.

But this particular moral panic comes from an unusual space. Within the conservative media sphere, stories about trans women prisoners raping female inmates are becoming more numerous. While this does happen, and we need to find ways of preventing this, these instances are exaggerated (the panic) and they demonize trans persons (the morality). In an odd twist, conservatives have finally developed some sympathy for our incarcerated population only because it allows them to push back against what they see as "trans ideology."

The politics of panics
Moral panics have utility for people who want to resist change and continue operating in ways becoming increasingly inappropriate. People attracted to Liberty University do not want to accept a world in which women are not at the sexual disposal of men. Many white Americans are uncomfortable with a school system that critiques their ancestors and our nation's history. People are uncomfortable with the visibility of trans people and chafe at requests to treat them as equals.

Panics are tools for these people.

But they also serve a broader purpose.

The Republican Party of the 21st century is struggling with rapid change. It has always been the smaller party in terms of registered voters. Recent polling suggests it is getting smaller. Few policies Republicans can offer appeal to voters who are young, educated, less economically secure or of color. One of the ways they can maintain competitiveness is to make sure their voters are energized and vote.

My concern is that progressives legitimate these moral panics by participating in the discourse. By generating an argument against them, we operate on the battlefield conservatives chose. If these panics are at best distortions, at worst lies, maybe the most effective strategy is to double down on our own, more truthful narratives.

I have invested too much time discussing why CRT is not in our schools. Why did I do that? The anti-CRT folks and the political party supporting them were not invested in the truth. My engagement as a progressive academic only helped validate an anti-CRT opposition.

I will be doing that much less now.

Rod Graham is the Editorial Board's sociologist. A professor at Virginia's Old Dominion University, he researches and teaches courses in the areas of cyber-crime and racial inequality. His work can be found at roderickgraham.com. Follow him @roderickgraham.

America is growing skeptical of the Gospel of Big Business

My mother is a firm believer in Jesus Christ as her personal Lord and Savior. When she receives an unexpected windfall, or a report of good health from her doctor, she says she's been blessed. When things are not going well, it is God testing her faith in Him. Never, absolutely never, does she question decisions by her personal Lord and Savior.

This is the relationship many Americans have with business.

Except for a contingent on the far left, local companies, major firms and multinational corporations are revered. CEOs are venerated as job creators. The decisions filtering down about wages, benefits, and work environment are justified through the gospel of the free market.

But we need to be skeptical of our relationship to businesses.

Tributes and sacrifices
We all know about efforts made by local and state governments to court business. They are like "tributes." But the scale of these tributes can be mind-boggling. Consider Amazon. Good Jobs First has been tracking subsidies — grants and tax incentives — Amazon receives yearly. According to the nonprofit, Amazon has received over $4.1 billion in subsidies since 2000. One could imagine tax breaks for a smaller, or emergent, company. But Amazon recorded revenues of $280 billion last year. It is No. 2 on the Fortune 500 list (behind Walmart). Yet the tributes keep coming. The company has gotten $650 million in tax breaks from local and state governments this year.

There's no reason subsidies shouldn't go to a profitable company instead of an emergent one. If one sees subsidies as investment, it makes sense to give a tribute to Amazon. But what Amazon gives in return are modest wages to warehouse workers and delivery drivers plus horrible working conditions. On March 17, an Amazon warehouse worker testified at a Senate Budget Committee hearing about her warehouse's "grueling" working conditions in Bessemer, Alabama.

Maybe the tributes are more like sacrifices, and meager blessings are given in return for taking the heart out of a tax base.

It goes on. We are currently in a worker shortage crisis. According to the US Chamber of Commerce, the number of job openings surpassed the number of job-seekers in July. That month, the US had 10.9 million job openings, an all-time high (the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics report estimated 10.4 million job openings at the end of August).

One interpretation of this is that the COVID relief benefits have dampened interest in working. Fox News Business asked in a recent story, "Are unemployment benefits the new welfare?" Quoting from a research fellow at the conservative Foundation for Government Accountability, the story claims: "Unfortunately, due to the recent COVID-19-related changes, unemployment insurance has been morphed into more of a long-term benefits program."

Yes, many people decided to receive COVID benefits instead of seeking low-paid employment. The "unemployment as welfare" line of reasoning ignores the responsibility of employers to employees. It assumes that if an employer "graces" us with a job offer, we should accept, regardless of how much it pays or the quality of work conditions. Businesses give us what we need, not always what we want. We should be thankful for what we have received.

A great awakening
Around 2015, my university decided to offer a degree in cybersecurity. The nation had coalesced around a narrative that there was a shortage of cybersecurity professionals. Our nation's president at the time, Barack Obama, allocated money for institutions that began offering degrees in this field. Our governor at the time, Terry McAuliffe, doubled down with even more money. As a result of government funding and some bright, industrious academics and administrators, we now have a fantastic School of Cybersecurity at my university.

Around this time I stopped singing from the business hymnal. I was on the front lines of my university's program development. The extent to which we attempted to meet business needs was problematic.

We wanted course content reflecting what students would be doing on the job. We even hosted seminars during which we listened to what business leaders wanted from graduates. This was already a problem for me, because I don't see universities as job-training programs.

At the same time, it became apparent to me that the tasks companies needed done did not require a four-year or two-year degree. Firms could train bright, hardworking people out of high school if they wished.

I worked with my university to create an elaborate feeder program, helping absolve businesses of their responsibility for identifying good workers and preparing them. My university's relationship with the cybersecurity industry is indicative of a broader problem.

We complain about the expense of higher education, and rightfully so. It is insane that a college graduate can expect to be saddled with $30,000 in debt. That is the average, but some end up owing much more. Universities deserve some blame. But remarkably, there are few complaints about businesses not hiring people out of high school.

Yet that is the central issue. Even if college were cheaper, a student, instead of owing $100,000 in loans for a job they could've gotten out of high school, would instead owe $50,000. Better, but they shouldn't owe anything or spend four years doing something they don't want.

Our deification of businesses makes it heretical to question this. But they also have a responsibility to identify, screen and train people.

Be a skeptic
We should question our relationships with businesses. Do localities need to offer all these tax breaks? Suppose no one offered them? I am sensing a growing pushback about these tax breaks, with evidence accumulating that these sacrifices do not lead to blessings.

On the minimum wage front, there is still an energetic Fight For 15 movement. Pushback will come from free-market proselytizers. But there are solid arguments for raising the minimum wage. Improving working conditions is a moral argument that must be articulated.

And the responsibility for worker training? I don't see anyone talking about this, which is unfortunate. The closest I have seen are commentaries about raising the profile of two-year colleges.

Understanding that everyone does not need a four-year degree is a step in the right direction but still does not put any responsibility on businesses. There is still a lot of work to do, but I feel good about where we are headed. We as a nation are becoming more skeptical.

Why are teachers in our country paid less? Because we devalue what they do

Our most precious resource is our children. Their development is what ensures the health of our nation. Next to parents, K-12 teachers are the most instrumental in cultivating that resource. They are the primary means of transferring knowledge from old to young.

This most important of jobs can't attract and retain people to fill them. A report published by the National Education Association details an alarming number of teachers deciding not to return to classrooms this fall. And we may be about to face a long-term teaching shortage. According to the Center for American Progress, enrollment in teacher training programs dropped by a third from 2010 to 2018.

Why?

When I began working on this piece, I was sure that I would focus on the low pay of teachers. I saw that a starting teacher in the school district where I graduated from makes $36,000 per year. This kind of compensation is untenable for such an emotionally taxing profession that requires four or five years of training.

But I shifted gears rather quickly. Something comes before pay — our belief that the job is of value. Teachers in our country are paid less because we devalue what they do.

"Women's work"
Standard views by economists as to what determines wages will include worker productivity or supply and demand. Meanwhile, many economic sociologists claim that our societal assumptions about the value of a job influence the wages it can command. If a job is seen as "women's work," the wages for that job decline.

One version of this claim links the five c's — cleaning, catering, caring, cashiering and clerical work — to lower pay, because these jobs are predominantly female. One can see this without any complex analysis.

But when complex statistical models are used to tease out precise changes in pay, it gets worse. A study in 2009 showed the changes in the average wages of a profession as women move into it.

The study looked at changes from 1950 to 2000, and the findings were eye-opening. As highlighted in the Times, the pay for jobs in recreation declined by 57 percent over that period, as women entered the profession. As women became designers, wages fell by 34 percent. For biologists, 18 percent.

"It's not that women are always picking lesser things in terms of skill and importance … it's just that the employers are deciding to pay it less," said Paula England, one of the authors of the study. In other words, wages are not simply about productivity or the demand for a job. It is also about how much we value what that person does.

Since the advent of mass public education in the mid-19th century, teaching has been a female-dominated profession. By the late 1880s, women were 63 percent of the nation's teachers. The percentage of women in teaching has only increased, even as other professions opened to women in the late 20th century. By 2015-2016, there were 3.8 million public K-12 teachers in the US, of which about 77 percent were female.

The long association of teaching to femininity is partly to blame for the devaluing of the teaching profession. But there is another reason.

Draining the pool
One of the best books I have read over the past year was Heather McGhee's The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. McGhee, the former president of the think tank Demos, describes the consequences of the racial hierarchy in the US.

Many white Americans view public policy, as it relates to race, as a zero-sum game. They interpret policies that disproportionately benefit Black Americans as them losing something.

McGhee uses the example of public swimming pools closing across the country in the 1960s after civil rights legislation made separate swimming facilities unconstitutional. McGhee argues that white communities saw a sharing of privileges with Black Americans as a lessening of theirs. They voted to close public swimming facilities. As McGhee puts it, they preferred to "drain the pool" rather than share it with Black Americans. McGhee, clearly linking this to the policies of the Republic Party post-1960, sees this dynamic in other public goods as well, from social programs to public infrastructure to health care.

And so it is with teaching.

Republicans have been attacking public schools since at least Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign. Most liberal commentators will center their discussion on school choice and vouchers — something Reagan indeed brought up during his campaign. School choice, some may argue, is a way of starving a public school system. A more cynical view is that school choice would reduce the power of teachers' unions that almost universally support liberal policies.

But there is something deeper here, and this is why I like McGhee's analysis. Our public school system is supposed to be a great leveler — a dismantler of racial and class hierarchy. Our schools are supposed to be places where young people from different backgrounds can meet, mingle and learn together. It is … a kind of pool.

Teachers are caretakers of that pool. As such, there is little mystery as to why what they do is devalued. Why would Republicans support a pay raise or better working conditions for people who are a part of a system they despise?

They want that pool drained and cemented over permanently.

Valuing value
Two factors work together to suppress the wages of teachers. There is the historical association of teaching as "women's work." And then there is the disdain by white conservatives for public goods that threaten to level a racial hierarchy.

Knowing the cause gives us some clues as to the cure. Until we address the undervaluing of teachers, an increase in teacher salaries or investments that improve their working conditions is a non-starter. The organizations that support K-12 teachers need to value value. Our expectations about what teachers deserve, their worth, and their social esteem are important in of themselves. Without public perceptions of teachers as valuable, lawmakers are simply not going to make teacher raises or smaller classroom sizes a major priority.

I am calling out our two most prominent K-12 organizations – The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. These organizations need to make a concerted effort to improve the public perception of teachers. They need to shift some time and energy away from partisan politics and invest it in demonstrating to the American public — and yes, this includes conservatives — the value public school teachers have in our society.

The truth about political bias on college campuses

A common point in centrist and conservative spaces is that academia has a liberal bias. This charge is levied most often at the social sciences. The logic is easy to follow. There is universal agreement that professors in the social sciences are liberal and vote Democratic. Moreover, it is in social science departments (sociology, anthropology, gender studies and the like) where ideas that challenge inequality are produced. You rarely see a sociologist or someone from African-American studies making claims conservatives find agreeable.

So this must mean their activities are biased. It must mean their research confirms liberal ideas about society, and their teaching will be about indoctrinating students into a liberal worldview. Right? No.

It is a fundamental misunderstanding of research and teaching.

It's the questions, stupid
There is a link between social scientists being progressive and the research they conduct. But the conservative narrative is wrong.

I am a dyed-in-the-wool progressive. I'd love for my research (whenever I get to do any) to support progressive policies. But I can't make up data or draw conclusions too far afield from what evidence suggests. I have my professional ethics in place. I could face severe repercussions for fabricating or grossly misinterpreting data.

Even if I could get away with such a thing, would I want to? If I'm researching a social issue, I want answers that work. I gain little from drawing faulty conclusions. What if my "progressive goggles" tricked me into seeing something that wasn't there? Social sciences work on the principle of "the preponderance of information." A faulty study would get swamped by other sociologists who found evidence to the contrary. For my biased conclusions to lead to a consensus — consensus is something scholars hope to achieve over time — other sociologists would need to misinterpret data the same way I did.

Conservatives want research that supports their conclusions. Unfortunately for them, conclusions are grounded in evidence even for the most value-laden forms of research (think critical scholarship).

This does not mean, though, that the liberal orientation of academics has no effect. I can tell you it does — just not in the way conservatives want the public to believe. Imagine 10 conservative scholars recruited to study racism in the United States. Do you know what this collection of conservatives will find? Well, racism in the United States.

The bias is in the questions asked, not the conclusions.

Conservatives want the public to believe conclusions are biased so they dismiss them without going through the trouble of thinking about them. Racism in policing? The research is biased. Transphobia in society? The research is biased. Dismiss it and read this opinion piece by a writer who, oh-by-the-way, works at a conservative think tank.

Dislike college climates? Blame your kids
The notion that campuses are hostile to conservatives has some degree of validity. But, again, not for reasons conservatives give.

You see, I am teaching in a hostile climate. My 1990-early 2000s references are met with dumbfounded looks from students. If I listen carefully, I can hear muffled snickers. In the face of this social pressure, I have officially retired any references to "Friends"and Beyonce. I am being silly here. Student opinion has minimal impact on me, and in turn, they care little about what I think of them. My influence is restricted to the grades I give.

The point here is that students are the enforcers of cultural norms on college campuses, not professors. Students are the ones who draw moral lines of right and wrong. A student brave enough to say "men are naturally better at math" will get whispers and looks from other students. That is what creates the so-called "hostile climate."

Conservatives have done an excellent job of indoctrinating folks into believing that academia indoctrinates folks. The story they tell is that the social norms that dominate college campuses are imposed from above by leftist professors who stifle conservative thought. This false narrative benefits them. They don't have to reckon with the idea that at a fundamental level, their focus on traditional family values, religion, raw capitalism and the maintenance of patriarchy, heteronormativity, and white supremacy are simply antithetical to most young people.

Toward a progressive narrative of bias
The purpose of this essay was to urge readers to think differently about the damaging narrative of bias on college campuses. It starts with the fact that academics, especially in social sciences, are liberal. There is no disputing this. Unfortunately, the claims of bias in teaching and research — narrated in such a way as to benefit conservative political ideology — don't necessarily follow. The conclusions from academic research are still valid and reliable, and whatever hostility conservative students feel on campus comes from their peers, not their professors.

This conservative narrative of bias on campus is self-serving and it's used to support the status quo. It encourages dismissal of academic scholarship and young people who embrace progressive causes.

This is unfortunate.

It's time for progressives to take control of this narrative. Admit that most of the questions asked by social scientists are of primary interest to people on the left. It's just a fact. We can admit that most young people are not interested in conservative values on college campuses.

Let's acknowledge these trends. Then put the onus on conservatives. They have to articulate what they want to be answered by social scientists and integrate that into what's already known. They will also have to realize they must discard their antiquated notions about class, race, sex and economic inequality to appeal to younger voters.

They probably won't want to do those things.

That's why they stick to a false narrative.

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