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Unity Based on Justice

In July of 2020, UU Class Conversations published the blog post The Time to Unite as One America is Now about police brutality and the systemic oppression of Black and other people of color throughout the United States. It focused on how the deaths of black and brown men and women by police officers sparked international protests. The protesters were labelled terrorists, thugs and unpatriotic by some conservative media outlets and politicians.

Just a few weeks earlier, some of the same media outlets and politicians had proffered a very different response when heavily armed, mostly White, protesters stormed the Michigan capitol building, threatening to kidnap and possibly kill the governor. Why? The rioters were upset about stay-at-home orders during a pandemic.

These protesters were called patriots. Police stood down, the National Guard was not called in to quell the unrest, and there were no arrests, no tear gas deployed, and no curfews imposed and enforced. Both times Americans were exercising their First Amendment rights. Yet, there were very different outcomes and consequences for those protesting.

Down a Dangerous Road

Well, fast-forward less than six months later and due to a steady stream of falsehoods and conspiracy theories from politicians, including the lame duck U.S. president about the legitimacy of the presidential election, a mob of armed white supremacists were incited to attempt an insurrection of another American Capital building. The intent was the same: Harm the legislature, including the vice president, speaker of the House and members of the House and the Senate. This time, the riot was deadly and dozens of police officers were injured and six people have died: All this in America.

Using Racial Tropes to Obscure Class

Why? Well, the idea that real Americans can only look a certain way and cannot be immigrants or people of color or a different religion. Many Americans overwhelmingly ignore the fact that class inequalities are not just part of the black or brown experience but a struggle for all Americans who are low-income or working class. This is increasingly true also for middle class people. This ingrained belief keeps many lacking class privilege from joining others of a different race or religion and undercuts any potential unity across racial lines.

There is little self-reflection for most Americans on how their class differences shape their backgrounds and unique attitudes and behaviors. Few consider how these class differences actually can bridge racial and religious divides, if explored. The class designation is overshadowed by the ever-present racial divide. So much so that economic initiatives often proposed by progressive or moderate politicians are viewed as handouts or bailouts by certain Americans. Stimulus checks, for example, are considered nonessential because they would go to the undeserving.

The idea that those with less class advantage are lazy is often intentionally conflated as coded messages about immigrants and people of color and creates an us versus them paradigm. Imagine, if people living in poverty and those in the working and middle class actually recognized that their commonalities outweigh their differences?

Our Truth

Some White poor and working class people continue to believe that they have more in common with others of their race who have substantial class privilege than they do with black and brown people of limited privilege. They have bought the idea that the We (Whites of all classes) have to stick together to protect our country, our flag, our families and our country’s traditions as Whites – despite economic differences. It’s imperative, or the them will take over, and as the neo-Nazi chant in Charlottesville suggested, they will erase us.

The idea that the votes of people of color are less legitimate than those of Whites is a shameful part of American history that is still alive and why insurrectionists carried Confederate flags through the Capital buildings during both riots.

With the current (and much-needed) focus on racial differences, Americans overwhelmingly are unable to recognize class and classism. Moreover, American economic and political systems that widen the income gap are rarely challenged in substantive ways. The status quo is the gold standard, and U.S. policies and practices routinely benefit the wealthy and affluent at the expense of other Americans.

Until we as a nation wake up and realize that the status quo is not working for most Americans, we are destined to routinely make the same choices that continue to divide us. And, if the latest insurrections teach us anything, there is a growing angry and violent group of Americans who, if not addressed, are intent on ripping the country apart.

But there is much cause for hope in the coming months. The end of the coronavirus – while still distant – is finally in sight. The fervor of the racial justice movement is still high. New federal leadership has said it is committed to addressing class inequities and white supremacy. So, in our UU congregations and organizations let’s heighten the meaningful dialogue – and act upon – racial and class justice.

Say Yes to Resistance

Demonstrators hold signs during a rally outside Trump Tower in New York on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016, to protest against President-elect Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)by Betsy Leondar-Wright

The election outcome was a shock – but wasn’t something new. Throughout U.S. history we’ve had waves of right-wing populism, when people bought into explanations of their economic hardships that scapegoat other marginalized groups and reject traditional elites. This election was a right-wing populist upsurge that few of us saw coming. We underestimated the number of voters willing to accept racism, sexism, Islamophobia and immigrant-bashing in a candidate.

But we also saw a surge of progressive populism – the kind that criticizes economic systems and the rich – in the strong showing for Bernie Sanders’ campaign and the popularity of Senator Elizabeth Warren. And that can be our source of hope now, that the progressive populists could organize social movements and take over the Democratic Party.

Progressive Populism

The mainstream Democratic Party used to have more progressive populism in its platform, its rhetoric and its political actions, from the 1930s through the ‘70s. But I’m one of many leftists who started criticizing the party in the ‘90s for its turn to the right, for ignoring working class and poor people harmed by de-industrialization and making trade deals like NAFTA and the TPP. In particular, the national Democrats ignored white working class men, the only race/class/gender cluster who actually has lower income today than their fathers and grandfathers.

Democratic leaders didn’t treat falling wages and unemployment as true crises. After the crash they accepted the bailout of “too big to fail” banks and they didn’t push enough for a bailout for foreclosed homeowners. Gradually over the last 30 years the Democratic Party began to get more of its campaign funding from Wall Street, big corporations and wealthy individuals, and began to operate under the delusion that a coalition of well-off coastal liberals and urban people of color could swing national elections – which clearly isn’t always true. They took union support for granted, not realizing that the rank-and-file don’t necessarily vote with the leaders.

“We need to reach out and build personal and political ties with those Trump voters who aren’t committed haters, but whose economic woes and worries we can empathize with. Our first UU principle about the inherent worth and dignity of every person is hardest to put into practice with people we have profound disagreements with.″

Many Democratic leaders also fell into the cultural classism that some of us coastal liberals fall into, of regarding the Midwest as a flyover zone full of gun owners or Christian fundamentalists who are too stupid to have a reasoned political conversation with. It’s important to remember that Donald Trump won the majority of votes from college-educated and high-income whites as well, so we need to be on the alert for classist demonizing of white working class people. This is a white right-wing populist uprising that cuts across classes.

Those of us who didn’t see this coming need to ask ourselves whose voices we hear on a regular basis, why more of the voices of the disaffected rural and Rust Belt white people weren’t on our radio programs, in our newspapers, on our Facebook feeds – and in our personal circles. We didn’t hear them.

We need to stop huddling in our liberal echo chamber talking about how “they” got it wrong and we are right about everything.

Reach Out, Build Ties of Solidarity

“It will take a mass progressive movement to turn our country in a healthier direction.”

Instead we need to reach out and build ties of solidarity, both personally and politically: ties with people already being targeted by street harassment from emboldened bullies who are spray-painting racist slurs and yanking off head scarves; ties with those likely to be politically targeted for deportation and stripped of union rights, health coverage, abortion rights, religious freedom and affirmative action.

But we also need to reach out and build personal and political ties with those Trump voters who aren’t committed haters, but whose economic woes and worries we can empathize with. Our first UU principle about the inherent worth and dignity of every person is hardest to put into practice with people we have profound disagreements with. We may need to put aside disagreements over gun ownership and find common ground in preventing Wall Street and multinational corporations from taking over our democracy and our economy.

huge crowd rallying for progressive U.S. policyIt will take a mass progressive movement to turn our country in a healthier direction. Only a multiracial and cross-class mass movement can limit how much damage the Republican Senate, House and President can do in these coming years. A mass movement could light a fire under the Democratic Party to nominate progressive populists like Bernie Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren.

We need a responsive party that is loudly pro-labor, that pushes for full employment policy, that will be firmly anti-sexist and anti-racist, that will tell the truth about how crucial immigrants are to economic growth, and that will treat income inequality as a national crisis. The movement and the party I’m imagining would put forward a progressive populist message that will make sense to economically struggling people of all races and regions.

It’s too early know what effective resistance will be organized to stop the rightward lurch of our country, but when it happens, when you get invitations to join organizations, to boycott, to go to protests and to speak up, please say yes. All of us will need to say yes, say yes, and say yes again.


Betsy Leondar-Wright spoke these words on a panel about race, class and gender in the presidential election, at First Parish UU Church of Arlington, MA on November 13. She is on the board of Class Action (www.classism.org) and on the steering committee of UU Class Conversations (www.uuclassconversations.org ).

It Will Take Courage to End This Nightmare

Black men killed by police in 2015-16

by Denise Moorehead

As I listened to the news this week – first about still more unarmed black men dying at the hands of the police and then yesterday morning about 12 Dallas policemen being gunned down – I got angrier and angrier at the hypocrisy of the newscasters and pundits. To avoid being called cop haters or Black Lives Matter apologists, everyone spoke of their shock at what happened in Louisiana and Minnesota and then said, “but how could what happened in Dallas, happen?”

It is ridiculous, even offensive, to pretend that we don’t see the connection between the seemingly unending string of police shootings of black men as well as women and children – some found to be murders – and the very cruel actions of the Dallas shooter. The Dallas shooter left five families without fathers, husbands, sons, brothers, uncles and nephews. I feel truly, truly sorry for their families. It is not fair at all that these officers were randomly chosen to die in this revenge killing.

Dallas Police Makeshift MemorialTo refuse to acknowledge the connection, however, is part of the reason that the gunman did what he did. He believed that no one in power is doing anything to stop the random killing of black men across the United States.

I can never condone what the Dallas shooter did. I have a husband, father and nephew. But I do not pretend that I do not know why he believed his actions were rational. A 2015 study by the Washington Post found that unarmed black men were seven times more likely than whites to die by police gunfire. It is not getting better.

When Class and Race Collide

Police have very stressful jobs and must make life and death decisions in the moment. I’ve been told that when a policeman kills someone in the line of duty, that death stays with him or her forever. But when a string of officers kill 100s of black people each year and virtually none of the police are found guilty of a felony crime, the anger in the black community (and that of our allies) builds and builds – and eventually explodes.

And tinder has been added to the resulting raging fire by further provocations like the recent online sale by George Zimmerman of the gun used to murder Trayvon Martin, the rise of white supremacists (who have openly said Donald Trump’s rhetoric has helped their recruitment), and the continuing demonization of (especially poor and working) black people, especially young black men.

Those of us who care about ending classism and racism see the terrible irony in all of these killings – civilians and police. People from low-income and working-class backgrounds are being pitted against each other.

While black women, men and children of all classes are being harassed, assaulted and killed, a disproportionate number of those killed are less class advantaged. They are mostly low-income or working-class men hustling to make a dollar by selling CDs or cigarettes, driving old cars that have broken down, or in driving “suspiciously” through suburban neighborhoods.

While police in some big cities can make very good incomes, many do not. And most officers have class backgrounds that are not dissimilar from those they must now “police.”

About Class and Race from the Start

It is important to understand the class and race issues underlying the creation of today’s police forces. According to Eastern Kentucky University, the genesis of the modern police organization in the South is the “Slave Patrol,” created to return runaway slaves, deter slave revolts and maintain a discipline among slaves on plantations. Of course, only owning class people had plantations.

While black women, men and children of all classes are being harassed, assaulted and killed, a disproportionate number of those killed are less class advantaged.

In the North, police forces emerged from the hundreds, then thousands of armed men hired by business moguls to impose order on the new working class neighborhoods filling with immigrant wage workers. According to In These Times, Chicago businessmen donated money to buy the police rifles, artillery, Gatling guns, buildings, and money to establish a police pension out of their own pockets.

Speak Up and Show Up

The police were not created to protect and serve all classes. But we must speak up and show support for those police departments that are trying to be a force for all citizens. For example, the Camden, New Jersey, police department was completely revamped in 2013, which has since led to a significant reduction in crime. The department began emphasizing the importance of engaging with the community and forging relationships through one-on-one contact. According to the police chief, the department is focused on “building community first and enforcing the law second.”

Attend your local town meeting, or city council meetings, or aldermans’ meeting when there are police issues, and share the story of Camden and other departments that are trying to serve all classes and races.

And speak up and show up when we see wrong doing. In 2011, the Department of Justice found that the East Haven, Connecticut, police force had engaged in discriminatory policing against Latinos after a local priests’ videotapes helped trigger a federal investigation. Just three years later, federal compliance describe the turnaround within the department as “remarkable.” One person has the potential to make huge change.

Come together with other UUs and other justice-minded people to support:

  • our own people of color organizations like Black Lives of UU
  • BLM
  • the NAACP
  • and so many (below)

Refuse to become desensitized to the horror. Don’t change the channel, refuse to listen to the news or simply wring your hands. Talk to your friends and family when they say, “What can we do? It will never change.”

Educate yourself on class and race issues, and on the centuries-old fraught relationship between law enforcement and African-Americans. Refuse to refuse to believe black people when they talk about institutional racism in America.

Write letters to local, state and federal officials. Tell the Obama Administration and (especially) Congress that in a federal budget of $56 billion for police grants, it is a tragedy that only $70 million is allocated to improve police-community relations. (And much of that $70 million is for body-worn cameras, not community engagement.)

See the long list below of actions you can take and groups you can join and/or support.

And vote for people who can bring us together, not tear us further apart.

We know what it will take to end this nightmare. Now let’s summon the courage to do so.

More Reading/Listening

Organizations

Don’t Feed the Birds, Animals — or People?

Nancy Hilliardby Nancy Hilliard, M.Ed

When I learned about the latest indignity aimed at people living in persistent poverty, I had to ask myself, How did we dehumanize people living in poverty so thoroughly?

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, well over 30 municipalities have restricted or banned sharing food with homeless people across the USA. Learning about this horror made me think about how (increasingly) rare it is for people from different class groups – and even with different class backgrounds – to interact. It becomes easy to view someone as “the other” when you see them only from afar – if you see them at all.

This thought brought back memories of one summer, during the mid-80s, when I saw how the myth of “other” began to crumble ever so slightly for one young man.

Creating Change

I worked on a grassroots campaign to pass a Consumer Utility Bill (CUB), which would have allowed consumers to contribute $1 to hire an expert to rebut Utility Company testimony during rate hike hearings. No one had organized Chelsea, home of the House Ways and Means Committee Chairman, Richie Voke. Ever.

Chelsea was the poorest city in Greater Boston, and one of the poorest in the state. It was expected that my crew would last a couple of hours, at most. But with youthful optimism and energy, I gathered all the multilingual canvassers who would accept my invitation, and off we went. Our assignment was to gather handwritten letters to deliver to Rep. Voke, as well as contributions of any amount (wink, wink).

As that one evening stretched into the second week, a young man in preppie attire balked at joining the crew. “Of course, it is easy for you. You’re working class.” Ummm.

Not exactly. I explained that I had grown up in a well-to-do suburb of Boston. Once upon a time, it was known as “one of the three Ws for wealth: Winchester, Weston, and Wellesley.” Moreover, I had graduated with honors from Harvard-Radcliffe College just a few years before, albeit on scholarship.

Well, perhaps he could give it a try, even though he was coming from an upper class family on the North Shore. He grudgingly came with us to Chelsea.

Opening a Window

Given his misgivings, we agreed to a check-in within the first hour. Turning the corner toward the designated meeting spot, I wondered what I would find. Up ahead, the young man stood quietly, as if trying to avoid attention. As he slid into the passenger seat, he was beaming. He waved a letter in his hand, and exclaimed, “You were right, Nancy. Working class people are just like us!” I did bite my tongue. His sincere amazement caught my breath.

This young man joined us for a second evening, and his enthusiasm contributed greatly to our campaign. All told, we visited Chelsea for two weeks, gathered 50 letters, over 250 signatures, and many memberships. It turns out that Chelsea is a city with many different neighborhoods, and socioeconomic classes. We even received a $50 contribution (well before the gentrification and condos of the new millennium).

Richie Voke responded immediately, rescuing the CUB and setting it up for passage. Unfortunately, in October that year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a similar provision, disallowing consumers to piggy-back communication in the utility statement envelopes. Alas. The campaign was successful in so many ways, for all of us.

Widening the Circle

Perhaps my own openness to all classes developed from the economic reality of my childhood in Winchester. Recently, my mother informed me that we would have had more money if she, as a widow with two small children, had applied for welfare. Instead, my grandparents assisted with budgeting (not actual funds) and my experience of socioeconomic realities was fluid and not particularly painful. I worked from the age of nine, but then so did many babysitters.

Whatever our response to the challenges of class discrimination, we cannot leave our cross-cultural encounters to chance. Class conversations are one way to begin deliberate steps toward widening our Circle of We, and ending classism.

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