Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Living on the edge, but still taking up way too much space

In my checkered youth, I was at one time a community organizer in Philadelphia. I worked in black and white neighborhoods -- and believe me, the city was completely segregated. I was an exotic sight in North Phillie, but I never felt unwelcome there. In the poor white neighborhood of Fishtown, however, I felt like an extraterrestrial.

Almost everyone in Fishtown claimed to be a conservative, and expressed scathing contempt for liberals. So what were some of their conservative ideas? This was the time of the Arab oil embargo and (gasp!) gasoline at a dollar a gallon. Many of Fishtown's rabid conservatives advocated nationalizing the oil companies. Other popular conservative ideas included government sponsored health care, a higher minimum wage, stopping the developers who were deliberately creating blight so they could buy up large tracts for upscale development, massive investments in public transportation (the Kensington Ave. trolley was a foretaste of hell), cleaning up the air pollution -- all kinds of radical right wing ideas. They were mostly Catholic and went to church, but I can't remember anybody giving a shit about abortion or keeping people on life support.

Now, actual real conservatives have an iron grip over all three branches of the federal government. In public opinion polls, many more people label themselves conservative than label themselves liberal. But a majority of people also tell pollsters that they are willing to pay more taxes to protect the environment, improve the schools, and do other good things; that they want universal health care; that they want curbs on development to protect communities and the environment; that they favor keeping Roe v. Wade (that one's not even close -- 65% to 29%). 82% of Americans opposed intervention in the Terri Schiavo case by the Congress and King George. In other words that particular maneuver was less popular than legalized wife beating. And oh yeah -- the majority favor sensible regulation of gun ownership.

Now, back when I was knocking on doors in Fishtown the gay rights movement was just emerging and nobody was talking about gay marriage. I'm sure the Fishtowners would have opposed it had it come up. So score one for a position more associated with conservatism. But looking at the scoreboard, it's pretty clear that the supposedly democratically elected government is generally sharply opposed to the majority of voters on important issues of public policy.

What's going on? I confess I have left out the most important issue that the good people of Fishtown were worried about. In their own words, it was the niggers. They were all on welfare, and they were taking all the jobs. (That's right, I often got that in consecutive sentences. And by the way, I would estimate that 1/4 of the households in Fishtown consisted of single mothers on welfare, or disability pensioners.) They were going to push us into the river. They don't keep up their own communities -- why some of them moved in over in Kensington a couple of years ago and inside of a year, half the houses on the block were abandoned. (Oh yeah, that's their fault.) The nearest high school was dropping plaster on the kids heads, and there was a proposal to build a new high school in Fishtown, but the people were against it, unanimously. Why? Because black kids might have walked through the neighborhood on their way to school.

Frank Rizzo, the racist neo-Nazi mayor, was very popular in Fishtown. Now you know why.

Politics is complex. The right has cobbled together a coalition of minorities -- people who are willing to trade off issues that aren't terribly important to them for ones they really care about. Wall Street financial barons and corporate executives want low taxes on high incomes, minimal environmental and safety regulation, low wages and minimal protections for workers, and they have plenty of money to put into political campaigns. Most of them think the religious right consists of ignorant lunatics, but they're happy to scoop up the wacko vote for candidates who will favor the rich. The mass media, of course, are part of the corporate establishment and naturally favor its interests. Religious zealots may be in a minority, but they volunteer for political campaigns, give what little they have, and vote as a bloc. So that's an important part of the story.

But it is racism that makes it all possible. It is largely because of racism that we have such an underdeveloped social infrastructure compared with western Europe and Canada. Racism has divided the working class, and made the white majority mistrust social programs which they have been persuaded somehow favor the other at their expense. It is racism, and nothing else, that led to the ascendancy of the Republican Party in the states of the confederacy, once the Democrats embraced the Civil Rights Movement and resolved the contradiction between their role as the party of the Old South and the party of the urban north. It is racism, ultimately, that underlies the tendency of white Americans who hold liberal views on issues to label themselves as conservatives. Racism is still the central problem in this country. It still is. Yes it is.

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