Rod Graham

Many white Americans feel threatened by the increasingly diverse country — and their fear is dangerous

If you put all Americans in a bag, shake us up and pull one of us out, the odds are that you will pull out someone who identifies as white. That has held since the nation's founding. However, sometime in the middle of this century — in a mere two decades — it will no longer hold. At that time, America will be a majority-minority country.

The exact date, the tipping point, tends to change based upon the latest figures. In 2018, William H. Frey, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote that the United States would become "minority white" in 2045, according to census projections at the time. "During that year," he wrote, "whites will comprise 49.7 percent of the population in contrast to 24.6 percent for Hispanics, 13.1 percent for blacks, 7.9 percent for Asians and 3.8 percent for multiracial populations."

This is a demographic change few would have anticipated in the mid-20th century. How we talk about this change – its social, cultural, and political implications – can be called the majority-minority narrative. Unfortunately, we are not talking about it enough.

Threat responses
Yale psychology professor Jennifer Richeson is one of the leading researchers in what can broadly be termed intergroup relations. In a summary published in 2017 of her work and others, Richeson wrote that white Americans who are threatened by a more diverse nation express support for more conservative policies, less support for diversity, and more racial resentment:

This emerging work suggests that anticipated growth in minority groups is perceived as threatening to whites' current status as the dominant racial group in the United States, which, in turn, triggers in-group-protective and, often, out-group antagonistic attitudes, policy support and behavior.

This dynamic is not unique to white people. This is a human response to perceived threats. It is, in the abstract, a reaction to the belief that an out-group is gaining in power and status and one's in-group is losing power and status. Thus, Richeson cites research showing that in Black neighborhoods, a growing Latino population perceived to have economic advantages is met with negative attitudes by black people.

But the main concern is how this dynamic will impact the white population for obvious reasons. They are the largest racial group and control most of the resources and authority positions in society.

The average person can intuit this dynamic without rigorous research. It's just common sense. If a white person identifies as "white people" being their in-group and then perceives that non-white people are being centered in society and occupying more positions of authority, they may feel threatened. They may feel they are losing something in terms of power and privilege. This would then lead to advocacy of policies that reduce this threat.

We see this already with voter suppression and anti-immigrant policies from conservative state legislatures. If we are seeing this now, what will happen when America becomes a majority-minority country? Will it be mainstream for white politicians and white people to begin advocating openly for "pro-white" policies? Will we have interethnic conflict? This is apocalyptic. But we're not talking about it.

Saying the loud part in quiet
We have all heard the expression "saying the quiet part out loud." It describes a situation in which someone voices an ulterior motive or says something meant to be kept secret in a public space (a compilation of Republicans saying the quiet part can be found here.)

The opposite of this would be voicing that secret thing, and no one responds. They hear it but pretend they don't, because it is such a horrible thing to talk about. It is saying the loud part in quiet.

Jennifer Richeson and other scholars who are studying the threat responses of whites in response to the majority-minority narrative are saying the loud part in quiet. People hear her, but say nothing.

I suspect that most people hear themselves think about it as well. Maybe it is too icky, too unpleasant to dwell on. Maybe, as is often the case with white Americans, they may wish to imagine they are colorblind. Talking about this would therefore violate that cherished myth. Whatever the reason, there is collective silence on this issue.

Tucker Carlson was rightly called out for his endorsing of "white replacement theory" — the idea that non-European immigrants are being brought into the country to replace white Americans. Tucker Carlson notwithstanding, these demographic changes are rarely spoken about openly in conservative spaces. Instead, they are communicated through dog-whistles. When people say things like taking "our" country back, the "our" means white Americans. Making America Great Again is about making it great for white folks, and so on.

In liberal spaces, when the topic is discussed at all, a more favorable narrative is preferred over one of a potential crisis. The narrative attached to majority-minority is that of a benign statistical oddity, if not a positive development in America's quest to be a melting pot.

More sophisticated analyses in liberal spaces point to the fluidity and complexity of race and of racial categorization. A simple binary of white/non-white obfuscates more than it enlightens, the argument goes. More people are identifying as multiracial, what it means to be white changes with time. (Hispanic Americans increasingly identify as white, and the rates of intermarriage are growing exponentially.) This is the case put forth in a recent opinion piece in the New York Times by George Mason University political scientist Justin Gest.

City University of New York sociologist Richard Alba is one of the more forceful voices on the subject. Alba wrote The Great Demographic Illusion in 2020, which summarized his arguments, and has appeared on several media outlets discussing the complexity of racial categorization in America. Talking about America in terms of a future majority-minority country is a divisive myth, according to Alba. In an essay for The Atlantic, Alba and co-authors wrote:

The majority-minority narrative contributes to our national polarization. Its depiction of a society fractured in two, with one side rising while the other subsides, is inherently divisive because it implies winners and losers. It has bolstered white anxiety and resentment of supposedly ascendant minority groups, and has turned people against democratic institutions that many conservative white Americans and politicians consider complicit in illegitimate minority empowerment.

For Justin Gest and Richard Alba, the loud part should never be heard. It is a myth and shouldn't even be said as it creates division.

We must talk openly
I am sympathetic to their arguments, and I suspect they are more right than wrong. However, the empirical reality that Gest and Alba describe is separate from the narrative and the feelings of threat it generates.

In other words, regardless of what is actually happening in society, conservative thought leaders will generate a narrative that plays on the fears of their white base. They are already doing it and there is no reason to suspect that they will change course simply because a few well-meaning academics want them to be more accurate.

Moreover, white Americans, from across the political spectrum, are not blind to the fact that the look of America has changed drastically in the past 40 years. Theoretical understandings of the fluidity of whiteness and statistics about rising rates of intermarriage or people checking boxes as multiracial will not be enough to assuage their fears.

They can look out of their window and see that the neighborhood they used to know has gotten browner, and they don't feel as comfortable walking across the street and asking for a cup of sugar. Even the most racially progressive people may succumb to this "threat."

To combat a damaging narrative, we must talk about it. We must say the loud part not in quiet, but in spaces where it's heard and discussed. Put it out there. Then address the concerns of people.

Progressives should add sex worker rights to their agenda — it’s a matter of social justice

Labor Day is "an annual celebration of the social and economic achievements of American workers." There is one industry that is far from celebrated. It provides income to many people who would otherwise have difficulty finding meaningful work. It gives leisure and emotional connections to many. I am talking about the sex work industry and prostitution specifically.

Good information on the economics of sex work is hard to come by. However, according to a highly cited study by the Urban Institute, the industry is quite lucrative. Among eight major sex work markets studied in 2007, it estimated that sex work produced $290 million in Atlanta on the high end and $40 million in Denver on the low end.

Unfortunately, those who stand to gain the most from this industry — women, racial and sexual minorities, and the poor — must work under the threat of police intimidation, abuse and exploitation. Sex worker rights groups such as the Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) have been attempting to engage the broader public on this issue for quite some time. A big step internationally came in 2015 when Amnesty International declared sex worker rights are human rights.

But America has been relatively silent. When progressives think of social justice, they need to think of sex worker rights and the end to criminalizing prostitution. There are many ways to reach this goal, but the two best alternatives, in my view, are full decriminalization, in which the government has no say in the sale of sex, and legalization and regulation, in which prostitution is legally practiced and licensed.

The case for full decriminalization
I have had several conversations with sex workers and sex worker rights advocates. The consensus is that the best way forward is full decriminalization.

I do not agree. I believe legalization with licensure is the better option. However, I'd like to describe some of the reasons sex workers and their advocate argue for full decriminalization.

One reason sex workers argue for decriminalization is because government intervention inevitably brings an antagonistic police force into contact with vulnerable prostitutes. Police harass, intimidate and even rape sex workers. Because prostitution is illegal, sex workers have no recourse.

I believe that the only group that trusts police less than prostitutes is young urban Black and brown men. Just like young males of color, this mistrust comes from decades of mistreatment by police.

A second reason is licenses are hard to obtain for poor or marginalized people. This is the same pool from which a disproportionate number of prostitutes are drawn. Licensing would make it harder for them to work in the industry, further marginalizing them. There is no doubt about this. Completing the steps for licensure — likely a combination of fees, classes and tests — would make it harder for those with fewer resources to compete for work. For some, it would be impossible.

A third reason is grounded in personal freedom. Sex workers argue they should have the right to do with their bodies whatever they please. Government should not, the logic goes, be legislating how a person uses their body or who a person can have sex with.

The case for licensure
The case for full decriminalization is a strong one. Because it is the path endorsed most by sex workers, I am more than willing to support it. While the full decriminalization idea is grounded in a libertarian ethic that I can admire, as a progressive, I believe markets left unattended are exploitative. If I were forced to choose between them, I would pick legalization with licensure over full decriminalization.

The concern about police mistreatment is genuine. But licensure can move prostitutes out of public spaces and into public-facing businesses or their own homes. It separates them from contexts in which overly aggressive police thrive. If there is a need to call the police, they are coming into a place with licensed professionals and not to spaces where they are accustomed to other illegal activities, such as drug or gang activity. Admittedly, this does not prevent police from mistreating anyone, but a shift from the street to the salon, from sidewalk sales to small business sales, would make a big difference.

The concern for marginalized people being priced out of the profession as a result of the cost of licensure is real. But I believe, in the long run, an occupation will always be stigmatized if the idea is that it is "for the marginalized." We are much better off as a society finding routes for people from disadvantaged backgrounds to attain licensure.

It may also counteract a rapidly growing chasm between the haves and the have-nots in terms of esteem within sex work. Elizabeth Bernstein, professor of women's studies and sociology at Barnard College, published an article in the journal Sexualities entitled "Sex Work for the Middle Classes." In that article, Bernstein explores the meanings middle-class sex workers — in this case, escorts — have about their profession. Bernstein writes that a hollowing out of middle-class jobs, rising costs of living in urban areas, and young women delaying or questioning marriage make escorting a viable option. Her article was published in 2007, and I do not believe that these trends have decreased. This "white girl magic" in the sex work industry is already evidence of a two-tiered sex work economy with higher-paid escorts selling sex in relative autonomy and freedom, while lower-paid prostitutes must risk violence from clients and police.

I fear that if sex work is decriminalized and there is no way of signaling the quality of service, patrons will choose "white girl magic." One of the functions of licensure is assurances to patrons that the service is of a certain quality. As such, it may allow prostitutes who are marginalized, not from middle-class backgrounds and not white to demonstrate services are safe and meet a certain standard of quality.

The third concern for prostitutes is controlling their own bodies, which I do not entirely grasp. The purpose of licensure is not to regulate bodies. It's regularing the act of buying and selling sex, i.e., the market. I am in favor of regulating markets. Moreover, and I think, more importantly, all occupations require someone doing something with their body to gain money. Why should prostitution be different?

I don't think prostitutes want to argue that their job is "special," as that plays into the conservative argument that sex is such a unique activity that it cannot and should not be sold. A more compelling argument would be that prostitution is just like any other occupation.

Sex workers rights and social justice
Whether you agree with the idea of full decriminalization or legalization with licensure or some other path that allows sex workers to practice their trade free, it is well overdue that progressives add sex worker rights to their list of "to-dos." It is a matter of social justice.

Sex workers come from the historically marginalized and disadvantaged groups we care about — the poor, women, sexual minorities and racial minorities. In this way, sex worker rights and social justice are one and the same.

A handful of Democrats are holding the rest of the party hostage in a critical game of chicken

It appears we're moving toward a massive investment in infrastructure. The Senate recently passed a $1.2 trillion "core" infrastructure bill as well as a $3.5 trillion "human" infrastructure budget resolution.

The core infrastructure bill, called the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, passed with a supermajority of 69 votes on August 10. This bill provides funding for, among other things, the repair of roads and bridges, an expansion of light rail systems and the modernization of the country's electrical grid. In what was a surprise for many, 19 Republicans voted for the bill, bypassing the threat of a filibuster. This was a small but major legislative victory for the Biden administration.

On Wednesday the Senate then approved a budget resolution for the fiscal year 2022 that would expand the country's social safety net. This was not bipartisan but passed on a party-line vote 50-49 through a process called reconciliation. The reconciliation process starts with the chamber budget committee setting general goals to be reached and the funds allocated to meet them. Committees are then tasked with crafting the policies to meet those goals. As an example, the Senate Budget Committee has given instructions to 11 Senate committees, one of which is the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. This committee has been given a budget of $726 billion to be used for, among other things, universal pre-K, tuition-free community college and job training programs. The separate committees then craft policy for meeting their goals, which is then combined into one omnibus bill for voting within each chamber. The Senate is now in that time-consuming reconciliation process.

The two pieces of legislation are now in the Democrat-controlled House where legislation is passed with a simple majority. The House returns this week. It would seem as if major hurdles have been overcome.

You first, no you first
But the Democratic Party is now fighting with itself.

A handful of moderates want the smaller core infrastructure bill passed and signed into law first before the arduous reconciliation process on the human infrastructure budget ends. Nine have made this pledge in an open letter sent to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Nine nay votes are more than enough to prevent the passage of any bill. (The House Democrats hold a slim majority of three).

Meanwhile, a larger portion led by the progressive wing, say they will not vote on a core infrastructure bill until the Senate completes the reconciliation process and passes the human infrastructure bill. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, always quotable, tweeted on August 7:

"If mods want to blow up the infra deal, that's on them. I know this is tough for some to understand, but the US is more than a handful of suburbs- communities outside them aren't disposable. And just bc something is "bipartisan" doesn't mean it's good. Look at Wall St bailouts. War was bipartisan. Tax cuts for the rich were bipartisan. Wall St bailouts were bipartisan. Fossil fuel giveaways were/are bipartisan. Just because something is "bipartisan" doesn't make it intrinsically good for people or worthy of passage. Substance matters."

The logic is clear for this wing of the party. If the core infrastructure bill passes first, moderates may then withdraw their support for the human infrastructure bill – the bigger, more impactful piece of legislation. Pelosi has sided with the progressives and agreed to not bring the core infrastructure bill to a vote until the Senate has completed the reconciliation process.

In this colossal game of chicken, progressives must stand firm.

They have received a recent boost, with both senior House Democrats and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee urging the moderates to support the budget resolution.

Income inequality, not economic growth
The letter submitted to Pelosi by the nine moderates stated that "the legislation will help create millions of good-paying jobs a year across the nation and lead to continued strong economic growth."

Democrats should be focusing less on economic growth and more on economic inequality and its damaging effects on the social lives of people. Our gross domestic product can rise, but that does not mean everyone benefits equally from that growth. Our gross domestic product (GDP) has, with some bumps along the way, steadily risen over the past several decades. Meanwhile, income inequality has increased by about 20 percent since 1980.

Yes, more people will be put to work as laborers to rebuild infrastructure. But their incomes will pale in comparison to business owners and elites. Consider who will gain the most:

  • The business owners with the government contracts to do the rebuilding
  • Other businesses that will grow because of these infrastructure investments
  • Owners of stock in those businesses
  • Highly educated professionals securing employment in management, technology, and research and development

Passing the core infrastructure bill without the accompanying human infrastructure bill will only exacerbate the problem of economic inequality.

Yes, jobs are important. They will allow a person some measure of dignity and a climb out of poverty. It will be a living wage and they will be able to purchase the latest flat-screen television. But it will hardly make the lives of poor and working-class people any easier or manageable. They will still struggle to pay for healthcare and childcare. Higher education will still be cost-prohibitive. Affording housing, especially in large cities, will be a struggle.

The focus on appeasing the economic interests of businesses and elites in the guise of increasing GDP with a simultaneous hollowing out of the social safety net is a major reason why America has low life expectancy and highest suicide rates, lower rates of academic achievement, and high rates of child poverty when compared to other wealthy countries. This is despite America having the highest GDP in the world. It is also why white American male's life expectancy has dropped over the past decade. Social scientists Anne Case and Angus Deaton attribute this drop in life expectancy directly to white males dying "deaths of despair" because their prospects for achieving the American dream are so dim.

Investing in "US"
We need to make it easier for our citizens to live meaningful, rewarding lives. A mother should be able to pay for quality daycare for her children. A father of three should be able to look forward to all of his charges going off to college if they so desire. Health care should not be a privilege for those with professional jobs. A married family should be able to find adequate housing. A middle-aged person whose job has been obsoleted by new technologies should be able to find retraining and start a second career.

This is not "pushing America towards socialism" as the Republican senator from Tennessee Bill Hagerty said on Fox News recently. No, it is an investment. The moderate Democrats are focused on investing in the US as an economic entity. This is certainly needed. But they cannot do this at the expense of investing in "us" as a people.

A sociologist tried to attack anti-racism — but he got a whole lot wrong

Anrecent essay in Noema, published by the Berggruen Institute, argues that anti-racism is illiberal. The essay, "How To Be An Anti-Anti-Racist," was written by City University of New York sociologist John Torpey. Torpey offers a way forward called "anti-anti-racism." He gets a lot right in this essay, but a whole lot wrong. It's worth a read by all progressives and a response by this particular anti-racist.

Torpey's arguments are emblematic of an important subset of the US population. It is educated and well-read, centrist or liberal in their political leanings. But they find social justice activism problematic.

I take social justice activism to mean being aware of oppression and inequality in its material and symbolic manifestations and being willing to do something about it. When Black Americans began using the term "woke" some time ago, this is what they meant by it. Anti-racism, then, is simply the application of social justice activism to issues of race.

Because anti-racism is just one aspect of social justice activism, Torpey's essay speaks to a wider range of concerns from sexism, trans- and homophobia and xenophobia. In this sense, Torpey's arguments can be modified to be a critique against social justice activism itself.

At the risk of using too much terminology, Torpey is what I would call "anti-woke." The anti-anti-racist is therefore someone who pushes back against anti-racism and is, in a broader sense, an anti-woke person pushing back against woke social justice activism. Got it?

Progressives must engage with left-leaning, intellectual anti-wokes like Torpey. I believe what they are asking for is not unreasonable or unattainable. Moreover, as liberals and centrists, they are sympathetic to social justice issues. They are our once and future political allies.

What follows are excerpts from Torpey's essay and my responses.

After an extended wave of activism fueled by police killings of unarmed Black men, scholars and activists like Ibram X. (How to Be an Antiracist) Kendi, Robin (White Fragility) DiAngelo and a cottage industry of diversity, equity and inclusion consultants led an accelerating anti-racism movement.

Yes, anti-racism is more prominent today. I am personally happy to see the national dialogue bend in the direction of people of color, especially Black people who have long been demonized in the media.

If one expands one's intellectual radius outward from Kendi and DiAngelo and downward toward prominent public figures, one will be amazed at the amount and diversity of activity surrounding anti-racism. Scholars are now studying how algorithms are biased against people of color, how the tax code has negatively impacted Black people and the causes and outcomes of the racial wealth gap.

On the ground, activists have been doing anti-racist work for a very long time–from numerous male mentoring programs to organizations doing research on criminal justice reform to teachers attempting to help Black women learn to code. There has been an anti-racist ethic within the Black community since there was a black community. Collapsing all this activity down to Kendi, DiAngelo and diversity initiatives makes it easier to dismiss anti-racism. However, it is a fundamental misreading of anti-racism in America today.

In its illiberal form … anti-racism has replaced substantive political thinking with an emphasis on symbolic cultural changes like replacing school names, [and it has] become dangerously intolerant of dissent and sidelined discussions of class exclusion and oppression that affect Americans of all races.

There are three core ideas in this passage–an emphasis on symbolic changes and "virtue signaling," illiberalism and a lack of focus on economic concerns. In my experience, discussing issues with anti-woke folks, these are three of the most common themes (the others being wokeness as anti-science and wokeness as religion).

Concerning symbolic changes, I agree with Torpey. I see something like the pasting of BLM imagery on a corporate website as being rather meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Taking down Confederate statues is less important than jobs or healthcare. My sense of things is that a Black working-class person would gladly keep the statues up in favor of a middle-class job. He might even sit at the base of that statue and eat a sandwich while on break from said middle-class job.

But being of less import does not mean they have no import. In a climate in which any substantive proposal is met with rabid pushback from conservatives, these symbolic changes are that much more welcome. For example, the Biden administration allocated monies for Black farmers to address historical discrimination. This was met with outcries of reverse racism and challenges in the court system.

The second theme–illiberalism–is also common amongst anti-wokes. Indeed, an entire media organization, Counterweight, has been established to combat the perceived illiberalism in social justice spaces. Illiberalism in its weak form refers to a narrowmindedness and intolerance of other people's opinions. In its strong form, it is the imposition of one's ideas onto another group, often by using the state (ironically, it is conservatives who are the most illiberal at this moment, with their bans on critical race theory and some of their thought leaders holding up authoritarian regimes as models.)

What Torpey, and many anti-wokes, are doing is attempting to impose their chosen brand of communication performance onto others. They emphasize civil reasoned debate and the accommodation of differing opinions irrespective of the content of that communication. When that is not accepted, they cry intolerance. This is the "Must I accommodate a Holocaust denier?" question that anti-wokes really cannot answer adequately because the logical answer for them must be "yes."

But many social justice advocates, including myself, do not take this view. We see ideas as interwoven with morality and the human condition. Ideas have consequences. As such, they can have immoral implications and are consequential to the quality of our conditions as human beings. In a democracy, those who have the quality of their conditions threatened have a right to communicate that concern.

A clear example is the discussions about race and IQ–given fresh impetus by a new book by Charles Murray Facing Reality. Murray can write whatever he wishes. His right to free speech has not and should not be violated. But I am not so naïve as to believe that someone asserting that a) there are biological "races" in reality, 2) these races are more or less intelligent and 3) success in society is based on one's cognitive ability, does not have negative implications for groups deemed to have less cognitive ability. As such, it is downright foolish to allow a "reasonable accommodation for a different opinion."

Quite frankly, I have no interest in accommodating the opinion that I and my ancestors are congenitally inferior. There is a wide array of other research questions that can be asked that do not rely on bad science–what is an "Asian"? A Korean or a Bangladeshi or an Indonesian?–or designed to justify a racial hierarchy.

I sympathize with the abstract, decontextualized notion of civil discourse and reasonable debate Torpey and another anti-wokes advocate for. I am just not sure if Torpey has been in a position where the ideas debated present an existential threat to him. I prefer a communication landscape that allows me to combat that threat. I suspect the same goes for trans people, gay people, women, immigrants, the differentially abled and the elderly.

The final part of that passage refers to discussions of economic inequality being sidelined. This is a problem. Inequalities of wealth and income are two of the major concerns of our time. There has been a steadily widening of the chasm between the rich and poor, and it threatens our democracy. It is also true that addressing economic inequality will indeed address many aspects of racial inequality.

But Torpey is asking something quite interesting here. He is suggesting that individuals who invest their time addressing racial issues in this country end these discussions and instead turn their attention to class-based issues. But why? Should an advocate for Hmong refugees give up their interest in favor of some other related social problem that will address some of the issues of Hmong indirectly?

I do not see a class-based approach as a replacement for a focus on racism. Often they are complementary. The racial wealth gap is a racial and class issue. The push for reparations is a race and class issue. They run in parallel but never intersect. This is because populations of color have their unique issues, histories and contexts. I don't think economic inequality has much to do with Black boys being disciplined more harshly than other children for the same offenses in the same school.

Torpey and other anti-wokes should know this. They should be aware that scholars and thinkers have thought about the importance of social class and factored it into their work. In any case, the reduction of class inequality and racial inequality is laudable. But they are different goals.

Such censorious symbolic politics put off many who might agree that America has deep and longstanding problems of racial inequality, but who increasingly feel like aliens in their own country. This includes many working-class whites who, indiscriminately lumped together with the "privileged"—even amid an epidemic of white working-class "deaths of despair"—are increasingly open to demagogic appeals by Donald Trump and other right-wing populist politicians.

I am surprised, again, that as a sociologist, Torpey has this impoverished view of what privilege means. Given his greater professional experience, he has likely seen more statistical models than I have showing that all else being equal, being white is associated with more positive outcomes when compared to being Black. He has also likely been exposed to more ethnographic studies than I have that show how Black Americans navigate a world where even if they attain high-status positions and wealth, their skin color still matters.

But also, again, there is truth in what Torpey is arguing. People on the left will have a hard time attracting white voters if white people are constantly being called racist or privileged. Arlie Russel Hoschild's instant classic Strangers In Their Own Land and Michael Sandel's Tyranny of Merit both make the argument that white Americans flocked to the Tea Party and then Donald Trump because they felt insulted and neglected by establishment political figures.

As the argument I make above about class and race, there is no reason why progressives cannot articulate policies that deal with class. We can let folks interested in anti-racism do their thing. But absolutely, there needs to be a similar articulation of ideas about income inequality, particularly among a white working class that is steadily losing ground relative to other groups. White working-class Americans are an interest group that needs to be courted and messaging is important. It might be empirically accurate to say that all things being equal, a white person will have an easier time navigating America than a person of color, but this is a political nonstarter for a white person who is struggling to make ends meet. Torpey is right.

What anti-wokes want

So what does Torpey see as a way forward? What is anti-anti-racism?

It is really what I suspect most anti-woke intellectuals want–a wider dialogue around racial inequality that does not demonize or exclude people who think differently, with this dialogue including class-based concerns. Torpey writes in closing that Martin Luther King, Jr.:

famously pleaded for his children to be judged by "the content of their character" rather than "the color of their skin." We need to take King's plea seriously. And that means listening to people's ideas and addressing them honestly, irrespective of the speaker's (or writer's) race, gender or sexuality. We need to rejuvenate our ability to see and hear each other. We also need to remember that King was an anti-war and anti-poverty activist, not just an anti-racist, especially as he neared the end of his life.

I think this is attainable and necessary. We should, within reason, listen to and incorporate other people's ideas. This should be done regardless of their characteristics. Despite the differences people may have in terms of their history and circumstance, the common thread of humanity binds them and we all must live in this country together.

Moreover, we do need to have a greater dialogue on the left about income and wealth. As I mentioned above, this does not need to come from anti-racists. But it needs to come from somewhere on our side.

What anti-wokes need

In reading Torpey's essay, I recognized many of the blind spots other anti-wokes exhibit. These blind spots come from a lack of humility.

I posted something on Twitter a year or so ago commenting on how growing up with dark skin was a problem, and how this is a problem for many populations of color who see European features as the standard. I was making a well-understood point about colorism. Dark-skinned people of color are devalued within their own communities. At that time, my mutuals were predominantly anti-woke, and the responses I received to this tweet were disheartening. The general thrust of the replies was to equate my experiences with "white people tanning." We are all the same, I presume, was the rationale.

No, in this respect, we are not. You cannot equate white people wanting to tan for aesthetic purposes with dark-skinned people of color being devalued in their own communities because their physical appearance deviates farther from a European norm.

This reaction illustrated a type of arrogance. Respondents were wading into a conversation without having any depth of experience. If anti-woke people are met with a hostile communication environment –what may appear to be illiberal–this is one of the reasons.

It doesn't stop there, though.

In reading Torpey's essay, I repeatedly came across instances that revealed a lack of knowledge or engagement with anti-racism activities other than at a superficial, culture war level. Anti-racism did not begin with Ibram Kendi and Robin DiAngelo, and it is not that now.

There is a wide swath of scholars studying all elements of how race is embedded in American society. I suspect that engaging with that work will demonstrate to Torpey and other anti-wokes why some anti-racists take the particular race-focused approach they do.

This is not a "read a book" line of argumentation I am building here. Instead, I am saying that to expect someone to not assume you are entering the conversation prepared to be at odds with them, it helps to assume that person is as intellectually capable as you are. I recall one exchange I had with someone on social media who was amazed that sociologists included class in their statistical models. I informed him that one cannot even get a master's degree in sociology if one does not include some measure of income or wealth in their models.

In this same vein, anti-racism is not just about diversity training. I do not doubt that there has been an increase in the number of diversity trainings, initiatives and hires. This has been matched by and maybe outpaced by the number of nonprofits addressing race-based issues and the number of activists urging local and state governments to redress past wrongs or address current injustices. These efforts are largely unknown. Anti-wokes want to be heard and not dismissed. They deserve this. But they need to exercise a bit of humility first.

The deep meaning behind the dueling reactions to Simone Biles' withdrawal

Simone Biles withdrew from the team gymnastics event at the 2020 Olympics, citing mental health concerns. "Whenever you get in a high stress situation, you kind of freak out," she said. "I have to focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being." Team USA subsequently salvaged a silver. The Russians took the gold.

As expected, the 24 year old attracted defenders and detractors.

One side saw her decision as an understandable response to overwhelming stress. If one is not able to compete at an acceptable level, the logic goes, one should bow out. Robert O'Connell of The Atlantic wrote that Biles "rejected the false dichotomy between personal well-being and professional excellence, instead pointing to the former as a precondition of the latter." Some in this group not only saw her bowing out as understandable, but also as a sign of strength. It takes courage to admit one is struggling with mental health, especially in an environment where mental health issues are stigmatized. In this regard, she showed true courage by coming forward.

Then there were critics.

Charlie Kirk, the conservative Christian Nationalist, was highly critical of Biles, calling her a "sociopath" and a "shame to her country." "We are raising a generation of weak people like Simone Biles," Kirk said. "If she's got all these mental health problems, don't show up." Admittedly, Kirk's view tends to run toward the extreme and he may not be the best representation of Biles' critics. But Texas Deputy Attorney General Aaron Reitz also joined the castigation. He retweeted a video of 1996 gold medalist Kerri Strug, who won team USA gold with an ankle injury. Reitz tweeted, "Contrast this with our selfish, childish national embarrassment, Simone Biles."

On trigger warnings and safe spaces
While some of the reactions to Biles' decision, on both sides, amount to political posturing, I believe there is something deeper at play. The fault line rests on whether one recognizes the psychological harm caused by the subjective meanings people attach to their experience. I suspect Biles' detractors are the "facts don't care about your feelings" crowd. It tends to minimize the import of subjective interpretations.

A theoretical perspective in sociology called symbolic interactionism is dedicated to understanding how our interpretations of the world impact our behavior. From the perspective of a symbolic interactionist, facts create feelings, which are themselves scientific facts that we must try to understand. Our interpretations of the world can cause psychological and physiological harm. It is not the sounds coming out of the mother's mouth that matter. It is that the child interprets those sounds as words that mean that he or she is not good enough. Some scholars, including myself, believe interpretations of situations can be so traumatic we can rightfully call it violence. It causes serious harm. For example, being cyberstalked elicits responses from victims that are reminiscent of post-traumatic stress disorder. Even if the stalker is not in the victim's actual presence, the victim interprets their environment as being unsafe.

These understandings are the rationale for several activities considered "wokish."

Consider "trigger warnings." Someone delivering a public talk or a teacher giving a lecture may wish to inform the audience of subject matter that may be disturbing. The words of the speaker or the content shown may cause unintended harm. It doesn't mean we avoid tough conversations. Discussions of sexual violence or the Holocaust, for example, need to happen. But we must allow the listener the opportunity to leave the room or to prepare themselves to hear the potentially triggering material.

Or consider "safe spaces." They rely on the same principle. People who are different in some way—their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, ableness—are often under tremendous stress. They must act in ways they may not wish to act and instead worry about being judged if and when they don't. I can relate. When I was working on my master's degree, I was the only black male in my graduate department. I felt like I was in a fishbowl, like I was being watched. I wasn't sure if the things I was accustomed to talking about would go over well. I couldn't wait to get away and decompress.

Safe spaces and trigger warnings get roasted by conservatives who proclaim that "facts don't care about your feelings" (ironically, these same conservatives feel their children are experiencing psychic pain when hearing about white privilege or systemic racism). But from the perspective of a symbolic interactionist, facts create feelings, which are themselves scientific facts, which we must, in turn, try to understand.

Sticks and stones may break bones, but words hurt too
Before the Olympics began, Simone Biles spoke of the pressure on her in an Instagram post. "I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times," she said. "I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn't affect me but, damn, sometimes it's hard." At a press conference following her decision to withdraw, Biles comments made it clear she was under a tremendous stress:

  • The "mental's not there."
  • "I just felt like it would be a little bit better to take a back seat, work on my mindfulness."
  • "It's been really stressful, this Olympic Games. I think just as a whole, not having an audience, there are a lot of different variables going into it. It's been a long week. It's been a long Olympic process. It's been a long year. So just a lot of different variables, and I think we're just a little bit too stressed out."

This is not about being weak. Biles has shown she can handle pressure, just as her joints have shown they handled pressure from the leaps and lunges that she puts them through. But as human beings, we all have a breaking point. The pitcher's arm gets tired. His fastball is five miles slower than normal. The marathoner struggles mightily to finish the last few miles strong but ends up walking the final few. The pitcher and the runner have already done all the "sucking up" they can. What they need now is rest. They risk permanent injury if they ignore what their bodies are telling them.

Biles was expected to be perfect. She was expected to be dominant. She was expected to produce the greatest gymnastics performance in human history. This is what people told her. This is what she read. This is what she saw on social media.

As former gymnast turned consultant Angie Fifer said in an interview: "So, the weight of pressure that Simone has on her shoulders is insurmountable. And the way to think about it is, imagine if you went to the office and everybody watched every move you made and made sure that every single thing that you did all day long was perfect."

Sticks and stones break bones, but words hurt, too. Biles had no safe space to decompress. And so, the gymnast, who was shouldering the pressure of being the face of one of the most-watched events from one of the most-watched global spectacles for the most-watched country, finally decided to take a rest.1 I think we all would.

A sociologist explains how minor league baseball can help save America

I'm not talking about major league baseball. I'm talking about the hundreds of minor league teams and their small ballparks scattered across the country. I'm not talking about the players or what they do on the diamond. I'm talking about the people who are standing in front of you in the concessions line or sitting beside you in the stands.

I've recently started going to minor league baseball games in the city I live, Norfolk, Virginia. Norfolk is a port city in southeast Virginia. The city is home to the Baltimore Orioles top-level minor-league team, the Norfolk Tides. The Tides play in Harbor Park, a beautiful 12,000 seat stadium. Tickets cost around $12. A hot dog is $5.

After the first 15 minutes of my first game, I realized that something special can happen in the spaces created by local ballparks. It's a space where people can come together in a nonpartisan environment. By making a day at the park a regular form of entertainment, Americans can build community across ideological lines.

Learning the local
What jumped out to me was how hyperlocal everything was. You can learn a lot about where you live by attending a couple of minor league games. The notables who throw out the first pitch, sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" or get recognized by the announcer between innings—these are people who live and work in the area. At one game I attended, the chief of the local Pamunkey tribe, Robert Gray, threw out the first pitch. At another, it was Maia Chaka, the first Black woman named an NFL official.

One way to look at this is to call it "small time." There is certainly no pretense of celebrity here. But if the concern is building community, you don't want someone who has appeared on a television show in Hollywood and is only passing through town.

You want to learn the local. The Pamunkey are a small tribe unknown to most folk. But they are historically relevant to Southeastern Virginia and people who live in the area should at least become aware of the tribe if they aren't already. Meanwhile, Maia Chaka is a graduate of Norfolk State University, a historically Black college in Norfolk.

The fans are local. I don't think tourists go to a minor league games. The people at them are your neighbors: your accountant and dental hygienist, the police officers and teachers living and working in the same area. You share mental maps. If I reference a restaurant in Ghent (a popular area in Norfolk for food and entertainment) the person I am talking to will understand. They will have the same catalog of major local events. If I want to explain when I did something significant, I can place it by saying it was just before "that big storm ... I think it was when Hurricane Matthew hit."

The sponsors are local. If I want to know where I can get my eyes examined, where to get legal advice or where to find discount groceries, the Jumbotron will tell me.

Experiencing the local
I don't want to give the impression that this is simply an exercise in cataloging local people, places and things for future reference. Being in a ballpark, smelling the hot dogs and the beer, and hearing the laughs and the jeers is what it's all about. And you are doing this with others. The shared experience is what sticks with you the most.

Because the games are inexpensive, stadiums are family-friendly, drawing a wider and more inclusive audience. Even if people are not baseball fans, the games are still a known quantity. Minor league baseball produces diverse crowds. You are sharing your baseball experience—the sights, the sounds, the smells—with a wide range of people.

Even here, where I am talking about diversity, it is still local in its orientation. Diversity in Norfolk means something different than diversity in El Paso, Texas. There is a greater urgency for folks in Norfolk to see a member of the Pamunkey tribe than it is to see a member of the Comanche Nation. Norfolk is still a largely segregated city, and the white man living on one side of town may benefit greatly from sitting in the same row as the Black woman from the other side of town, and vice-versa.

This is not to say that there is not a need for members of the two historic populations of Black and white to not have exposure to other Native tribes, or Latino and Asian populations. But that is already a national discussion. The beauty of the minor league game is that it is tailored to the specific context within which it is embedded.

Even in places that are racially or ethnically homogeneous, a minor league game may be a salad bowl of lifestyles. Norfolk is in a relatively populous metro area but is not a magnet for high-paying jobs in technology, finance and law. The cost of living is not near the crushing level of cities like Seattle or Washington. My sense is the Norfolk area does not have wide class distinctions. But we do have sharp lifestyle distinctions. The progressives come from the thriving arts community and a rapidly growing major university while the conservatives are drawn from a large military presence (Norfolk has the largest Navy base in the world) and an older white "Old South" population.

Because of Norfolk's large queer population, the park hosts LGBTQ-plus night, of which I was also in attendance. This was quite an experience for me. The LGBTQ-plus night at Harbor Park was one of the few times I have had to navigate a space that was more gay than straight. This needs to happen to more people and more often.

Local social capital
People make the mistake of assuming that conversations across ideological lines bring people closer. Let's get folks from the left and right, the logic goes, put them in a room and have them talk it out. Through dialogue we understand each other more and we come together more. I don't think that's going to work. If we want to bring people together across ideological lines, nonpartisan group activities are needed.

This is not simply armchair theorizing.

What I am talking about is something sociologists like me call social capital. There are many ways of describing it, but the definition from Wikipedia works well: "networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively." Sociologists are interested in social capital because it allows individuals to share information and work together. Criminologists are interested in it because, in communities where social capital is high, people are more willing to follow moral codes. Crime then decreases. And political scientists are interested in social capital because democracy needs citizens willing to cooperate.

In 2000, sociologist Robert Putnam wrote a book on social capital called Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. He charts the decline of social capital in our society since the mid-20th century. Putnam says this is because local civic institutions have disappeared—Elks and Kiwanis clubs, neighborhood improvements associations and, as per the title of his book, bowling leagues. I have a suggestion.

Let's go to minor league ballgames. Tickets are under 20 bucks. The stadium is less than an hour away. They play between 66 and 72 games a season, four or five times a week, day and night. Give it a try! You might enjoy yourself and help save America.

A piece of Biden's rescue plan sparked a conservative backlash — driven by a pervasive myth

A provision of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 reserves $5 billion for farmers of color. This set-aside was immediately criticized by conservative pundits and right-wing media, and derided as racist because white farmers were not eligible for the aid.

Giving farmers something because they are black is problematic. This is no better than giving privileges to someone because they are white. Instead, the government should give farmers debt-relief because they are and have been victims of discrimination.

But before society can progress to that point, we must break through the myth of colorblindness. It does not make us blind to race. It makes us blind to racism.

The bill
The American Rescue Plan was signed into law March 11. There are two parts reserving aid to Black farmers and farmers of color. The larger portion that provides $4 billion in debt-relief is explicitly reserved for "Black, indigenous, and farmers of color" who have United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) farm loans. One billion dollars is reserved for training and technical assistance to that same class of farmers.

United States Senator Cory Booker, of New Jersey, a supporter of the bill, said of the bill that the USDA "should now take this first step toward addressing the agency's history of discrimination by quickly implementing the law that Congress passed and moving forward without delay to pay off in full all direct and guaranteed loans of Black farmers and other socially disadvantaged farmers." White farmers are not eligible.

The backlash
The bill has gotten backlash from a variety of places. One is from banks. They say debt-relief will cut into their profits. The strongest pushback, however, has come from white farmers. On June 10, Milwaukee District Judge William Griesbach issued a temporary restraining order in response to a lawsuit filed by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a conservative law firm, on behalf of a dozen white farmers.

Two weeks later, the bill suffered another blow. The Pacific Legal Foundation, a libertarian law firm, filed a complaint on behalf of Scott Wynn, a white farmer from Jennings, Florida, who is facing financial hardship. Florida District Judge Marcia Howard agreed and issued an injunction blocking the distribution of aid payments.

The blindness
Since the end of the civil rights movement, Americans—especially white Americans—have been indoctrinated into the myth of colorblindness. It goes something like this:

  1. We need to be colorblind and treat everyone the same regardless of their ethnic or racial self-identification.
  2. Racism is an individual-level phenomenon and only exists when individual bad people act with prejudice or discrimination towards other individuals.

But this is a myth.

First, there is a welter of evidence from across the social sciences showing that although we say we are colorblind, we still see and act on race. The same group that says, "I don't care if the person is white, black, yellow, or green," also cares about dating choices, friendship networks, and where they live and send their kids to school.

Second, it is law, policy and institutions negatively impacting groups that are the root of racism in America today, not individual interactions between bigots and victims.

When I describe a more scholarly understanding of racism that is not focused on individuals, I am accused of changing the definition of racism. But scholars of race shifted their focus away from single Bull Connors starting in the 1970s. They have demonstrated in a variety of ways that what produces the racial inequalities we see today is best understood through law and policy that disproportionately impacts the quality of life and wealth accumulation of people of color, especially Black Americans.

As an example, while much of the public has focused their attention on Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who murdered George Floyd, most scholars would focus on the policies that allow law enforcement officials to have so much contact with Black and brown people, and act so aggressively with impunity.

The bind
Colorblindness is aspirational and has value, but it's removed from reality. It does not stop people from being blind to race. It does, however, blind them from seeing racism.

Even if a person says they don't see color, they see the associations between skin color and wealth, skin color and health, and skin color and crime. But because most people think racism must come from individual bigots, that person is blind to the wider social forces at play that produced those associations. This leads to the rejection of anti-racist policies aimed at institutions and policies. They are seen as "reverse racism" when they are meant to deal with racism already occurring or the effects of past racism.

The myth of colorblindness binds not just white Americans but all Americans to our racist past. We cannot address the effects of past racism and current racism that are ingrained into our institutions and policies if we do not open our eyes and "see" race.

We need to be color-conscious.

Color-conscious, not colorblind
Mekela Panditharatne describes the history of racial discrimination by the USDA and its anemic attempts at righting past wrongs. In 1982 and 1997, the USDA found evidence of discrimination towards farmers of color. She wrote that in 1997, the agency concluded that Black farmers and farmers of color were subjected to "arbitrary loan delays, reductions and even approvals of loan funds that never reached their destinations. The result was significant losses of land and income for these groups." A class-action lawsuit awarded damages to Black family farms but it was a small sum.

Panditharatne goes on to explain how the Reagan administration closed down the civil rights arm of the USDA for a time. During the George W. Bush administration, one claim out of 14,000 was deemed meritorious. Just one. The argument could be made that the indifference shown by these Republican administrations was party ideology of reducing the role of government in everyday life. But the Obama administration, according to Panditharatne, was little better at handling discrimination claims.

The myth of colorblindness binds us across ideologies as well as to our racist history. Most Americans, from Democrat to Republican, will say: "If everybody says they don't see color and no one is using racial slurs, then how can there be racism?"

A better understanding
Racism occurs at a system-wide level. The mistreatment of farmers was not about one or two bigoted officials screwing over a handful of Black farmers. An entire class was mistreated by a government agency, disadvantaging them in an entire sector of the economy. Individuals charged with adjudicating claims of discrimination needn't raise the bar so high there needs to be a David Duke in every loan office. If a farmer can show that he or she owns a farm or was bequeathed a farm when it was shown that the USDA mistreated farmers of color, then he or she should be eligible for farm aid.

We shouldn't think of the aid as being awarded because they are farmers of color. We shouldn't see the aid as given because the farmers are in need. We should see the loan forgiveness and other funds available through the USDA as awarded because an entire class of people has been discriminated against by that agency. This is what makes white farmers ineligible—there's simply no evidence they were discriminated against.


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