Derek Shearer has written about U.S. politics and society for Inroads. Here he takes a retrospective look at James Fallows and Deborah Fallows, Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America (New York: Pantheon, 2018). An earlier version of this review was published by the Clinton Institute, University College, Dublin.
In 2012, two journalists – Jim Fallows, a correspondent for the Atlantic, and his wife Deb Fallows – returned to the United States after years reporting from China and decided to reacquaint themselves with their own country. Making use of Jim’s skills as a pilot, the couple crisscrossed the country in a small plane for five years, looking for stories of change and renewal, mostly in midsize towns. They chronicled what they found in articles in the Atlantic and compiled them in a best-selling book, Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America.
It is fair to say that the Fallows were looking for good news about America – examples of locales where people came together to solve civic problems and improve their communities – and they found plenty of uplifting stories to report. While not ignoring race and class divisions, they did not emphasize them. They largely completed the book before the election of Donald Trump and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
After the book’s publication, the Fallows did not move on to reporting from another country or choose another topic for a book. Instead, they decided to expand their domestic work on multiple media fronts – cooperating on an HBO documentary based on the book and then, even more significantly, establishing the Our Towns Civic Foundation, which uses the tools of 21st-century communication – Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and an electronic newsletter – to build a virtual network of civic-minded Americans engaged in renewing their communities.
Among the optimistic stories in the most recent newsletter is one on an effort in Erie, Pennsylvania, to support refugee-owned business startups and another on the Lake Area Technical College in Watertown, South Dakota, one of the best community colleges in the country. The examples that the Fallows continue to uncover and document are not trivial or inconsequential. In many instances, these efforts transcend left/right, progressive/conservative and Black/White categories. They are not about winning partisan battles but about reclaiming the American democratic spirit. The tools include microbreweries and minor-league baseball stadiums as well as community colleges and community newspapers. The abiding faith is that America can be redeemed and renewed through democratic means.
I’ve been giving copies of Our Towns to foreign ambassadors and consuls general, encouraging the diplomats to use the book and the newsletter as guides for getting out of D.C. and seeing areas of the country that CNN and Fox News ignore. I’ve also recommended to President Biden’s administration that it instruct his new ambassadors to link up citizens in the country where they’re serving with the Our Towns network to make it an international web of civic activists, so that we learn not just from ourselves at home but also from citizens around the world.
Is the Fallows’ faith in civic activism justified? As the country slowly emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, is there hope for building a better, fairer and more productive America? Can citizens connect on a community level beyond culture wars and Trump-inspired conspiracy theories? The country is still deeply split along partisan lines. A majority of Republicans don’t believe that Joe Biden is the legitimate president and most support antidemocratic efforts to suppress voter turnout.
As a California native I’ve always been an optimist about the prospects for renewing the democratic promise of America – but I’m not Pollyannaish. I’ve tried to base my optimism and activism on what works in practice to make a better society. I understand from experience how deeply ingrained racial divisions and the long-term effects of institutional racism are.
In 1984, I received a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation titled “Learning from Ourselves” for travel to cities across the country to examine case studies of citizen participation and urban renewal. In the eighties, I was also a co-founder of the Conference on Alternative State and Local Policies, which sought to bring together activists to share ideas and strategies about political and economic reform. Our first gathering was hosted by Paul Soglin, the young liberal mayor of Madison, Wisconsin, and his deputy, former investigative journalist Jim Rowen.
In subsequent annual meetings, we brought together elected officials, administrators, community activists and policy thinkers from midsized California cities like Berkeley, Santa Monica, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara and Davis; from midwestern cities like St. Paul, as well as Chicago and Detroit where there were mobilized Black communities; from northeastern cities like Burlington, Vermont – where an insurgent community organizer named Bernie Sanders had been elected mayor – and Hartford, Connecticut; and from southern cities like Austin, Texas, where populist Jim Hightower had been elected state agriculture commissioner. It felt like a democratic wave was spreading across the country – at least among our generation. Activists who had been in the streets protesting the Vietnam War or demonstrating for civil rights decided to engage in electoral politics to bring about societal reform.
I co-edited an annual Policy Reader for the meetings in which we compiled examples of local legislation and programs such as urban farmers’ markets, well-designed affordable housing, community-based policing, sustainable environmental planning and neighbourhood-based economic development. We commissioned policy studies, including consultant Ed Kirshner’s The Wealth of Cities on the underused resources of urban jurisdictions and a study of publicly owned banks like the state-owned Bank of North Dakota. We published articles in Working Papers, a quarterly journal of politics and public policy; I served as west coast editor.
Pierre Clavel, a professor at Cornell, chronicled many of these reform efforts in his book The Progressive City: Planning and Participation. Clavel also established a valuable Progressive Cities archive at the Cornell University School of City and Regional Planning. Some of the participants in our network went on to higher office including Bernie Sanders; North Dakota’s populist tax commissioner Byron Dorgan, who became a U.S. senator; Cleveland’s mayor Dennis Kucinich, who was elected to Congress; and Arkansas’s attorney general Bill Clinton, who made it to the White House.
On the basis of this experience, I wrote a national urban program for President-elect Clinton, hoping that the Department of Housing and Urban Development might promote and support these local progressive efforts. Unfortunately, Clinton’s choice for HUD secretary, Andrew Cuomo, showed little interest. I found myself pushed out of domestic policy matters and returned to an earlier field of interest, diplomacy, by becoming the U.S. ambassador to Finland. Clinton’s efforts at reform – for example, to pass national health insurance – were attacked on all fronts by Republicans and corporate interests.
As ambassador, I had to explain to my host nation why Newt Gingrich and the Republican Party decided to shut down the federal government. I also learned that the Conference on Alternative State and Local Policy had lost its modest funding and had folded. After Vice President Gore lost a narrow race to George W. Bush in 2000, 9/11 and the War on Terror seemed to suck the reform energy out of the American political system, while the country’s embrace of globalization drained economic resources from many local communities. Dysfunction and stagnation, coupled with wealth accumulation for the few, seemed to be the new American model. Rampant homelessness and racial strife became the default urban policy.
Funded by right-wing billionaires and corporate political funds, the Republican Party won control of many state legislatures, enacting a wave of conservative legislation which has targeted the teaching of American’s history of slavery, limited women’s access to abortion and increased voter suppression measures. Trump’s presidency exacerbated societal divisions over race and immigration. He encouraged antidemocratic behaviour, culminating in a refusal to recognize defeat at the polls and the mob attack on the Capitol on January 6.
The election of a decent Democratic moderate, Joe Biden, has not brought the country together. Deep partisan divisions remain, stoked by the Republican Party at all levels. Most troubling has been the ongoing attack on public health measures to protect Americans against COVID-19. Fights have broken out at local school board meetings over vaccination mandates and Critical Race Theory. Funded by the Republican right, an unsuccessful effort was made to recall California’s Governor Gavin Newsom over his response to the pandemic. Republicans in Congress are opposing President Biden’s economic legislation as well as his efforts to pass police reform and voting rights bills.
National news coverage highlights these partisan divisions; it certainly doesn’t feel like the rebirth of civic virtue that the Fallows document and celebrate in the Our Towns project.
To share in at least some of the Fallows’ faith in their fellow Americans requires an understanding that the Republican Party is fighting a rearguard action – what historian Sean Wilentz calls “The Tyranny of the Minority.”¹ They use the decentralized governing structure of the country to oppose reform in southern and midwestern states and the undemocratic structure of the Senate to block progressive change at the national level – but they don’t represent the majority of citizens.
The highly charged partisan atmosphere of American politics will not change overnight, but even in the middle of a storm there are rays of light and the inklings of a clearer tomorrow. That’s why I admire the work done by Jim and Deb Fallows – revealing and supporting paths to better, more prosperous and more democratic American communities once the virus of Republican extremism dies out.
Photo: The author and his wife, Sue Toigo, with Michelle Obama.
In the Winter/Spring 2021 issue of Inroads, I ended the first part of this article with these words: “Obama’s election and two terms in office were hailed by many as the coming of a postracial America, but this was never true. Deep-seated, persistent racism did not disappear with his coming, something Donald Trump instinctively understood.” I sat down to start to write this second part on a more upbeat note.
On January 5, my wife Sue Toigo and I stayed up late to follow the returns from the two runoff races in Georgia that would determine control of the United States Senate. When all the returns were in, we could hardly believe that the two Democratic candidates, a Black pastor and a 34-year-old Jewish filmmaker, had prevailed in a southern state. The changing demographics of Georgia and the years of grassroots organizing led by former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams brought a narrow victory, aided by President Trump’s attacks on Georgia’s election officials for certifying Biden and Harris as the winners of the state’s electoral votes.
The previous summer we had watched Rev. Raphael Warnock preside over the funeral of Congressman John Lewis at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King had preached. During Warnock’s campaign for the Senate, Republicans attacked him as a dangerous Black radical. His campaign responded with humour, airing TV spots of Warnock with a lovable beagle named Alex – if the man likes dogs, how scary can he be? Warnock became the first Black person elected to the Senate from Georgia.
On January 20, a brisk, sunny day with a few snow flurries, Joseph Biden’s lifelong dream was realized when he was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States, and Senator Kamala Harris of California became the first woman and first woman of colour to become Vice President. A 22-year-old Black poet from Los Angeles, Amanda Gorman, read the Inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb,” bringing tears to our eyes. Dressed in a bright, canary yellow coat she recited an evocative call to reform and redemption. She had gone to school in Santa Monica at New Roads, a progressive private high school where the international programs director is a former student of mine. Her mother, a single parent, teaches middle school in Watts.
President Biden explicitly mentioned systemic racism in his inaugural speech, pledging to defeat “white supremacy.” A woman of colour was Vice President. A Black man had been elected to the Senate from Georgia. After Trump’s four years in office, signs of hope for a more perfect union were evident.
Black athletes take a stand
Athletes play an oversize role in American life as role models and heroes on the playing field and as endorsers of consumer products, but rarely as political activists.
During the Clinton-Trump presidential race in the fall of 2016, my wife Sue, who established a foundation that supports minorities working in finance, hosted a lunch meeting in our back garden which included former National Basketball Association star Grant Hill. We knew Grant because his father Calvin, a former star player in the National Football League, had been at Yale with me. His mother Janet was a classmate of Hillary Clinton’s at Wellesley College.
Before lunch began, I asked Grant whether LeBron James might be supporting Hillary. Grant was cautious. “Most athletes aren’t political,” he said, citing Michael Jordan’s famous quip that Republicans buy sports shoes as well as Democrats. Then he took out his phone and sent a text to James’s right-hand man. A reply came immediately: “Of course, LeBron supports her.” I went inside and called the Clinton campaign. A week later, LeBron publicly endorsed Hillary and appeared at a campaign event in his home state of Ohio. A handful of former athletes like Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul Jabbar had spoken in favour of Clinton, but only a few active players other than LeBron took a stand in the campaign.
That same fall, the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, Colin Kaepernick, took a knee during the playing of the national anthem to protest racism, igniting a firestorm of condemnation. Candidate Trump attacked him and, once in office, continued to call for his firing and the firing of any NFL player who joined him. Few did. Most NFL team owners were unsympathetic and Kaepernick became a pariah. After he left the 49ers, no team would sign him. Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham famously told LeBron James “to shut up and dribble.” When the Golden State Warriors won the NBA championship, Trump disinvited the team from the White House because star player Steph Curry and team coach Steve Kerr had publicly criticized him.
Trump’s refusal to condemn the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville led other athletes to speak out, but it was the murder of George Floyd that revived the Black Lives Matter movement, leading thousands of professional Black athletes to take a knee during the national anthem, wear jerseys saying Black Lives Matter and pressure team owners to provide resources to fight racism and promote equality. Suddenly, antiracist activism by Black athletes was the rule, not the exception. During the 2020 Senate race in Georgia, members of the Atlanta Dream of the Women’s National Basketball Association publicly supported Warnock although the Republican candidate, Kelly Loeffler, was the team’s co-owner.
In the 2020 presidential race, LeBron didn’t simply endorse Biden and Harris – he established and funded an organization to register voters in Black neighbourhoods across the country. NBA and NFL players pressed team owners to make their sports stadiums available as super voting sites. On opening day, the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons knelt during the national anthem and made the late Congressman John Lewis the honorary team captain. The team’s social justice committee, made up of Black and White players, promoted voter registration and voter turnout. Black race car driver Bubba Wallace called for the Confederate flag to be banned at racing events – and NASCAR adopted the ban. In baseball, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, son of a Black father and a Japanese mother, spoke out against racist attacks on Asian-Americans fostered by Trump’s rhetoric about the Kung Flu and the China Virus.
Nor was it only professional athletes who stood up for racial justice. Black college women’s basketball star Naz Hillmon and her University of Michigan teammates wore “Wolverines Against Racism” on their uniforms and participated in voter registration drives. Michigan’s men’s basketball team sported BLM patches, and many other teams in the NCAA March Madness playoffs had “equality” stitched on their jerseys.
Because the NFL, NBA and NCAA continued playing during the pandemic, millions of viewers have seen antiracist messages delivered on stadium floors, on jerseys and in ads sponsored by the league owners. There will be no going back to the days of the apolitical Black athlete who stays quiet in the face of racial injustice and inequality.
Real progress toward diversity
Joe Biden has said that the riot by White Power groups in Charlottesville and President Trump’s equivocal response convinced him to run again for President. When his campaign seemed stalled, he was endorsed by influential Black Congressman James Clyburn of South Carolina and rescued by Black Democratic voters in that state’s primary. He selected a woman of colour to be his running mate. He made a Black politician, former South Carolina Democratic Party chair Jaime Harrison, head of the Democratic National Committee.
Biden’s cabinet is the most diverse in American history. He appointed a Black former Army general, Lloyd Austin, to head the Department of Defense; a Black Foreign Service officer, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, as Ambassador to the UN; a Black economist from Princeton, Cecilia Rouse, to head the Council of Economic Advisers; a Black former top environmental official in North Carolina, Michael Regan, to lead the Environmental Protection Agency; and Black Congresswoman Marcia Fudge to head the Housing and Urban Development Department. He appointed a Latino, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, to serve as Secretary of Health and Human Services; a Jewish Latino of Cuban origin, Alejandro Mayorkas, to head the Department of Homeland Security; a Latina, Isabel Guzman, to run the Small Business Administration; an Asian-American lawyer, Katherine Tai, as U.S. Trade Representative; the first woman, Janet Yellen, as Secretary of the Treasury; the first woman, Avril Haines, as Director of National Intelligence; the first openly gay cabinet member, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, as Transportation Secretary; and the first Native American, Deb Haaland, as Secretary of the Interior.
More than half of Biden’s subcabinet posts are filled by people of colour. More than half of his cabinet and subcabinet posts have gone to women. Biden’s initial judicial nominations include three Black women, the first Muslim district judge, the first Asian American to serve as judge for the District of Columbia Circuit and the first woman of colour as a federal judge in Maryland.
The Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to diversity is not just party politics. Biden and Harris understand that in a multiracial immigrant nation diversity is strength, not weakness. For over 30 years, the foundation that my wife established has worked with men and women of colour to support getting an MBA and providing leadership support as they pursue careers in finance and business. More than 1,700 Toigo Fellows have passed through the program, whose goal is to diversify who decides how capital is invested.
Diversifying who holds economic and political power is not simply a matter of equity and justice. Including the underrepresented leads to better decisions for society and a more productive use of human capital. Hidden Figures, the 2016 Hollywood film about three Black women mathematicians at NASA who helped successfully launch John Glenn into space, is an example. A recent McKinsey & Company study found that racial inequality in the film and TV business costs Hollywood over $10 billion a year. Numerous academic studies show that diversity is an economic and social multiplier.
I’ve experienced firsthand the benefits of diversity at Occidental College. My colleagues in the Department of Diplomacy and World Affairs include a South African woman of colour, a Vietnamese-American woman whose family left Vietnam on a boat the day that Saigon fell, a Cambodian-American man whose mother escaped Pol Pot’s murderous regime, a Colombian-American who studied Arabic in Damascus and became an expert on human rights in the Middle East and an immigrant from Kyrgyzstan who is a leading authority on global corruption.
The new President of Occidental College is a Black scholar from Stanford, Harry Elam, an expert on Black dramatist August Wilson; his wife Michele is a leading authority on American Black writer James Baldwin. President Elam’s aunt, Harriet Elam-Thomas, is a career Foreign Service officer and former U.S. Ambassador to Senegal.
Elizabeth Alexander, a friend of the Elams, is the new head of the Mellon Foundation, the largest humanities philanthropy in the United States, providing grants that promote social justice including a $250 million Monuments Project to assist cities and states in rethinking the way communities honour public figures. The American Academy of Arts and Letters recently announced a host of Black writers and artists as new members including author Ta-Nehisi Coates and composer Wynton Marsalis.
In taking its distance from Trump, the business world has made some progress at diversifying. At Walgreens, Roz Brewer became the first Black woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company. In response to the BLM demonstrations, more than 60 firms appointed their first diversity officers. Of the top 100 U.S. corporations, 85 now have chief diversity officers, though still only half of the S&P 500 companies have such positions.
The newly elected 117th Congress is the most diverse in American history, an almost 100 per cent increase in representation of racial and ethnic minorities over the past 10 congresses.
But still a long way to go
In Congress, however, there is only one Black chief of staff in the Senate and only four Latinos. Only two communications directors in the Senate are Black.
Rank-and-file police officers continue to be Whiter than the communities they serve. Of more than 450 police departments with at least 100 officers reporting data between 2007 and 2016, over two thirds became Whiter relative to their communities. A few big-city departments like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Dallas narrowed the gap, but they were the exception. Racial incidents involving shooting of unarmed Black men during routine traffic stops, as well as the pepper spraying of a Black soldier in uniform, continue to rile the nation.
While over 40 per cent of the U.S. military is minority, of the 41 most senior commanders only two are Black. Only 2 per cent of partners of U.S. law firms and under 5 per cent of all attorneys are Black. Just 3 per cent of the U.S. Foreign Service is Black. Of 417 economists at the Federal Reserve in D.C., only two are Black. In 1998, McDonald’s had 377 Black-owned franchisees; now there are 186. While corporations have increased hiring of Black employees, they too often fail to support their rise within the company to salaried jobs and management positions.
A new McKinsey study concludes that the headway companies are making in advancing Black employees, while well intentioned, is so slow that at current hiring and promotion rates it would take nearly a century for every level of corporate America to reflect the Black share of the population. “It’s not just about hiring 10 extra people from an historically Black college,” says Lareina Yee, head of diversity and inclusion at McKinsey, “It’s also about creating a culture that if you recruit them that they want to stay.”
Equity and the pandemic
Biden and Harris have come to power at one of the most fraught moments in U.S. history. The issue of race permeates multiple crises in health, the economy, law enforcement and the environment.
“We’ve created a separate and unequal hospital system and a separate and unequal funding system for low-income communities,” says Dr. Elaine Batchlor, head of the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital in Los Angeles. “And now with COVID, we’re seeing the disproportionate impact.”
The pandemic has unequally affected Americans. Front-line workers – bus drivers, nurses, grocery clerks and others – are overwhelmingly people of colour and they have suffered from the coronavirus in greater numbers. The hodgepodge nature of the American health system and Trump’s politicization of public health measures like mask wearing resulted in more than 500,000 deaths, many of them avoidable.
Neighbourhoods in Los Angeles County have not suffered equally from the pandemic. The rate of new cases from October through January was 1 in 5 residents in Pacoima, Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles, all communities of colour, while in the mainly White west-side neighbourhoods of Brentwood and Santa Monica only 1 in 23 residents had been infected. To mitigate the pandemic’s inequities, Biden has taken forceful steps, sending more than 1,000 active-duty military troops to five federal vaccination centres run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. One of these super sites is at Cal State Los Angeles, a branch of the state university located adjacent to Black and Brown communities east of downtown LA. In rural areas, California’s Latino members of Congress have pushed for an aggressive vaccination program for the state’s farmworkers.
A priority for the Biden presidency is to vaccinate a diverse nation unequally hit by the coronavirus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black Americans are nearly three times more likely to die from the coronavirus. The inequities of the health system and scepticism about the vaccine in many poor communities mean that there must be extra effort to get the vaccine into the arms of Black and Brown Americans.
Shipments of the vaccines to pharmacies and community clinics located in poorer communities of colour hard hit by the virus have been stepped up. Vice President Harris received her second dose on camera at the National Institutes of Health as part of an effort to convince Black Americans to get vaccinated. Black clergy have stepped up, getting publicly vaccinated, hosting town hall meetings with Dr. Anthony Fauci and speaking about the virus in church. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti has pioneered the use of mobile vaccination clinics and door-to-door vaccination teams.
A worker-centric economy
During the 2020 presidential race – along with my longtime co-author Martin Carnoy, a Stanford economist, and University of California Berkeley economist Michael Reich, an expert on the minimum wage – I organized a letter of support for the Biden-Harris economic program Build Back Better, garnering over 250 signatures from leading economists. We recognized that in addition to an explicit commitment to racial equality and to combating climate change, the Biden program embraced a strategy of industrial policy and infrastructure investment that would create well-paid jobs – a progressive approach that can appeal to White workers in West Virginia or the midwest as well as to workers of colour. Investments in a sustainable economy, a Green New Deal, can create good jobs in the United States – for example, by converting all U.S. postal service vehicles to electric.
Biden endorsed a federal minimum wage of $15 an hour and an increase in paid family leave and daycare. The broad appeal of such measures was underlined by the November vote in Florida, where 60 per cent approved a state minimum wage of $15. Approximately 40 million workers in the United States earned less than $15 an hour in 2019. Black and Hispanic women are more than twice as likely as White men to be stuck in low-paying labour – and their share of low-paying jobs has increased.
Biden is the most pro-union president since FDR. He is making pro-union appointments to the National Labor Relations Board. His administration has announced a worker-centric trade policy. Janet Yellen, the first Secretary of the Treasury to decry inequality, announced a $9 billion Emergency Capital Investment program to provide funds to community lending institutions doing business in minority communities and in poor rural areas.
Green and blue justice
Numerous studies have found that race is the best predictor of proximity to hazardous waste sites. Three of five Black and Latino Americans live in polluted communities. Black Americans today are one and a half times more likely to breathe polluted air and drink unsafe water than the overall population. Studies also show that Black and Brown urban communities are warmer in the summer and have fewer parks and shady areas than White neighbourhoods.
Biden is the first U.S. president to commit to making environmental justice a focus of federal action. He has promised that 40 per cent of the benefits of the $2 trillion he wants to spend on climate change will go to neighbourhoods that have suffered most from pollution. In an Executive Order in his first month in office, Biden promised to protect more land, create a new civilian conservation corps, deliver help to declining coal-producing states and direct almost half of spending to disadvantaged communities, mainly of colour, for investments in clean energy and energy efficiency, green transit, affordable and sustainable housing, workforce training and the reduction of legacy pollution. The Office of Management and Budget will be required to publish a public accounting of economic justice projects.
Between 2015 and 2020, police in the United States shot and killed more than 5,000 people. A disproportionate number were people of colour, killed up to three times as often as Whites. The graphic death of George Floyd in May at the hands of the Minneapolis police and the subsequent massive nationwide demonstrations organized by Black Lives Matter brought policing to the forefront of American politics. While American public opinion strongly favours maintaining police funding, support has grown for reforming police practices.
Several reform-minded district attorneys were elected across the country in 2018 and 2020, including new Black prosecutors in Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana and Alabama. In February, Illinois became the second state after New York to eliminate cash bail, which disproportionately affects Black and Latino defendants. A sweeping legal reform bill was signed by Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker. In March, California Governor Gavin Newson appointed Rob Bonta, a Filipino-American legislator and strong advocate of criminal justice reform, as the state’s new Attorney General, replacing Xavier Becerra who joined the Biden cabinet.
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, sponsored by LA Congresswoman Karen Bass, passed the House on March 4. The legislation, which reforms policing practices – banning chokeholds – and sets national standards for law enforcement accountability, has met Republican opposition in the Senate on the claim that the Democrats want to “defund the police.” The conviction of former policeman Derek Chauvin on April 20 for the murder of George Floyd by a racially diverse jury might provide impetus for the passage of the bill, pressuring recalcitrant Republican senators to support it, or at least a compromise version.
Reforming legal practices won’t happen overnight, however. In California, new DAs in San Francisco and Los Angeles are facing pushback from police unions, traditional prosecutors and judges. In 2020, bills reforming police practices failed to pass the state legislature, despite the high-profile killings of Floyd and other Black Americans. Police reform bills failed in Minnesota and Georgia as well.
The Big Tent
As a child in public school, every morning I would stand with my classmates facing the American flag, put my hand over my heart and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, with its conclusion “One nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” Making good on this pledge has meant political struggle for every generation.
President Biden and the Democratic Party, along with allies and activists in cities and states, are pressing forward with a Big Tent strategy of embracing diversity around a sustainable equity and justice agenda for the country. They face a Republican Party that wouldn’t impeach former President Donald Trump for inciting insurrection and still embraces his politics, while continuing to try to suppress voter turnout, resist economic reform and regulation, deny the science of climate change and oppose Obamacare.
Pursuing a strategy of voter suppression, Republican legislators in more than 40 states have introduced hundreds of bills to restrict voting (under 3 per cent of Republican state legislators are non-White). On March 4 the House passed H.R. 1 – a revised version of the For the People Act which is designed to counter Republican voter suppression by establishing national voting standards including weakening restrictive state voter ID laws, requiring automatic voter registration, expanding early voting and restoring voting rights to felons after they serve their sentences.
In his first presidential press conference, Biden labelled Republican efforts to restrict voting rights “un-American.” Leading Black executives including Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier, former American Express CEO Kenneth Chennault and Starbucks chair Melody Hobson published an open letter calling on business to oppose restrictive voting laws. On April 2, baseball commissioner Rob Manfred announced that this summer’s All-Star game would be moved from Atlanta in response to the passage of a restrictive voting law by the Republican-controlled Georgia state legislature. Texas-based companies American Airlines and Dell Technologies are publicly opposing similar measures in their state legislature.
The obstacle to passage of the For the People Act is a 50-50 Senate. Under current Senate rules, 60 votes are required to end debate and call for a vote on almost all legislation – the so-called filibuster, a legacy of systemic racism which southern senators used for decades to stall civil rights legislation and to prevent abolition of the Electoral College. Currently, at least two moderate Democratic senators are opposed to ending the filibuster rule. One solution would be to exempt voting rights legislation from the filibuster rule, as is now done for judicial and executive branch appointees. Another would be to make the District of Columbia a state. H.R. 51 would give D.C. residents two senators and one House member rather than the current nonvoting House delegate. However, it’s unlikely to pass the current Senate, and if it did, Republicans would challenge it before the conservative-majority Supreme Court.
In 2022, the Democrats face the challenge of midterm elections, when the party in power traditionally loses seats. The margin of error is small; it will depend not only on the success of Biden’s ambitious programs of recovery from the coronavirus and rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, but also on getting credit for them. Passage of Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID relief package in March was a major achievement which was effectively publicized with a series of nationwide events, winning 70 per cent support in the polls. Still, not a single Republican voted for the bill.1 The plan is aimed at helping those hardest hit by the pandemic. Deputy Treasury Secretary Adewale Adeyemo will oversee a racial equity review in the disbursal of funds.
The House also passed two immigration reform bills creating a path to citizenship for some immigrants, but the bills face united Republican opposition in the Senate and open Biden and the Democrats to attacks from Trump and the Republican Party on nativist issues which resonate with White working-class voters and with some Latinos and Asians. Genuine immigration reform is going to require a sea change in the Republican Party.
Biden will make enacting his $2.3 trillion infrastructure program of jobs and economic investment a vital piece of his midterm strategy, fighting for passage in Congress and taking the issue to the voters. His American Jobs Plan is to be financed by raising corporate taxes slashed by Trump and imposing a global minimum tax on multinational corporations. It includes public investment in racial equity, including an expansion of broadband internet service to underserved urban and rural communities and an environmental cleanup program in Black and Brown communities. In April, a ruling by the nonpartisan Senate parliamentarian raised the possibility that most of the jobs agenda could be passed by a simple majority.
Whatever the fate of the plan, the Democratic Party will have to mount a nationwide get-out-the-vote effort to counter Republican cries of socialism and efforts at voter suppression. This is an opportunity that must not be missed.
Biden’s Big Tent initiative, underpinned by progressive economics and voter mobilization, can bring substantial progress. His strong antiracist stands can change minds and the law. It will not be easy, but with a right-wing Republican adversary waiting in the wings, the soul of the nation is truly at stake.
Growing up in the United States after World War II, one could not escape the effects of systemic racism – no matter how liberal and well-intentioned a White person might be.
I’m a Baby Boomer, born in 1946 in Los Angeles, California. My parents met and married during World War II while my father was serving in the U.S. Army. Soon after I was born, we moved to Culver City, a separate political jurisdiction on the west side of the Los Angeles area. Using a GI loan, with $500 down they could afford to buy a lot and build a modest single-family home for $10,000. Neither of my parents came from a wealthy family, but both had graduated from college.
With a population of almost 20,000, Culver City was a town of working- and middle-class families. Founded by developer Harry Culver in 1913, it was one of many separate cities that grew up adjacent to or surrounded by the city of Los Angeles – Santa Monica on the coast and Beverly Hills along Wilshire Boulevard being other examples. Culver marketed the town as a “small White city” with lots restricted to people of European descent. A number of techniques, some legal and others not, allowed Culver City and other cities in California to prevent Black families from purchasing or renting homes. Among them was a restrictive covenant in the property deed which stated “that said premises shall not, nor shall any part thereof, ever be conveyed, transferred, leased or demised to any person other than of the White or Caucasian race.” Although the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited the enforcement of racially restrictive covenants in Shelley v. Kraemer in 1948, they continued to be included in deeds into the 1970s; other mechanisms including zoning laws and banking practices have kept Black families out of White neighbourhoods to this day.
On my block, our neighbours included a German immigrant family in which the father was a gardener, a Mexican-American family in which the father repaired pinball machines and a native Hawaiian family in which the father was a principal at the junior high school. Next door to us was a White-Filipino couple in which the husband drove a delivery truck for the Helms Bakery, a major employer in town, and across the street lived a policeman’s family and a unionized machinist who worked at Hughes Aircraft. A few blocks away stood MGM, one of the leading film studios of the golden era of Hollywood, as well as RKO studios and other film-related companies.
There was only one Black family living in Culver City during my youth. The Culver City police force helped to enforce the Whites-only social norm by making it clear to Blacks working in the city or passing through that they were expected to depart by sunset. Real estate brokers would not show houses or rental properties to Black families.
If asked, most residents would have said that Blacks chose to live together – that it was de facto segregation based on free choice and social practice, not de jure segregation supported by government compounded by racial bias. This was a myth. As historian Richard Rothstein has written, “Racial segregation in housing was not merely a project of southerners in the former slaveholding Confederacy. It was a nationwide project of the federal government in the twentieth century, designed and implemented by its most liberal leaders … Scores of racially explicit laws, regulations, and government practices combined to create a nationwide system of urban ghettos, surrounded by white suburbs.”1 Segregation in housing which resulted in segregation in schooling and in jobs was the policy of government in all regions of the country. It was systemic – and has had ruinous consequences to this day.
The son of the only Black family in Culver City was a year ahead of me in school. He had a rock band which played at school dances. He was popular but none of us knew his parents or how they had managed to find a home in the city. I later heard an unconfirmed story that a White teacher rented a home for them in his name.
The only Black person whom I knew well growing up was Mamie Rice, an elderly woman who came to live with us in the early 1950s after my younger twin brother and sister were born. My parents were both working journalists and needed help with child care. They had known Mamie through family friends on the east coast. Mamie shared a room with my sister, and my brother moved in with me. In addition to watching the twins, Mamie cooked our meals and ruled the kitchen. I felt that she was a member of the family, but she wouldn’t eat with us at the dining room table, saying it would make her uncomfortable.
Because Jackie Robinson had integrated major league baseball as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers, that was Mamie’s team. On weekends and summer evenings, we would watch the Dodgers together on a TV in her room. I shared her interest in other Black Dodger players like catcher Roy Campanella and star pitcher Don Newcombe. When the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958, I was overjoyed.
While I watched Black athletes play baseball or football (the Los Angeles Rams had been one of the first NFL teams to hire Black players), I had no Black teammates on my sports teams. My Little League baseball team included Latino players – our coach one year was Latino – and the sons of European immigrants. At Culver City High School where I played varsity basketball, there were no Black players on the team since the only Black student in school played in a band. As best I can recall, there was not a single Black basketball player in the Pioneer League, which included high school teams from Beverly Hills and a number of White working-class cities along the Southern California coast. Once a season, we would play a non-league game against a team from a Black-majority city like Compton and lose badly.
Most of our teachers at Culver City High were decent White liberals. One English teacher introduced us to Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain’s great antislavery novel, reading it aloud in class. It became one of my favourite books. Friends and I went to a small theatre in Hollywood to see A Raisin in the Sun by Black playwright Lorraine Hansberry, about the life of a Black family in Chicago’s segregated South Side.
As working journalists for national publications, my parents weren’t political activists, but it was clear that they were liberals and voted Democratic. We watched the 1960 Democratic convention in Los Angeles nominate John F. Kennedy. During the campaign, urged by aides, Kennedy placed a call to Coretta King while her husband Martin Luther King was in jail for leading a protest march. Jackie Robinson had initially supported Vice President Richard Nixon in the 1960 race: having personally experienced racism in the solid Democratic south he had, like many other Black Americans, supported the Republican Party as the party of Lincoln. He asked Nixon to call Mrs. King and speak out about Dr. King’s jailing; when Nixon refused his request, Robinson switched his allegiance to JFK.
As president, pressured by the growing civil rights movement, Kennedy appealed for Black voter support, promising to bring in a voting rights bill. This represented a historic change in the Democratic Party’s stance – even Franklin D. Roosevelt had largely excluded Blacks from most New Deal programs in the 1930s because he needed southern Democrats’ votes to govern. After Kennedy’s assassination and Lyndon B. Johnson’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964, LBJ’s fulfilment of the pledge with the 1965 Voting Rights Act would lead the Republican Party to shift its strategy toward the south.
As a family, we watched the 1963 civil rights march on Washington at which Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech and the moving funeral of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney who were abducted and murdered in Mississippi in the summer of 1964.
It was, however, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis that initially fuelled my own activism. During the height of the crisis we gathered in the quad at our high school, refusing to attend class. (Male students tried to persuade the girls that the end of the world was at hand, so they should experience sex before it was too late.) We skipped school to watch the opening of the classic antiwar film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. In my final year of high school, I decided to apply to a special program for advanced students at UCLA which taught Russian. I wanted to become a diplomat who could make peace with Russia and prevent a nuclear holocaust.
Yale: A strange diversity
My grades and athletic accomplishments at Culver High led to acceptance at several elite schools. I chose Yale because of its system of residential colleges modelled after Oxford and Cambridge. Yale was changing in the 1960s. Our class that came to New Haven in the fall of 1964 was the first to have as many graduates of public schools as of private eastern prep schools. It also had a record number of Californians – a fact which my classmate George W. Bush praised as a sign of diversity. However, there were only 14 Black students in the class out of a thousand male students (Yale did not admit women). At least a third of the Black students were African or Caribbean, sons of diplomats or elite parents.
I was assigned to Calhoun College, built in 1933 and named after Yale graduate John C. Calhoun, an early-19th-century vice president, secretary of state and senator who had owned slaves while a student at Yale. The naming of the college was part of the revival of the myth that support for the Confederacy had been a noble cause and that the Civil War was about states’ rights, not slavery. Many of the statues, buildings and military bases named after Confederate generals and politicians that have drawn protests by the Black Lives Matter movement were erected in the 1920s and 1930s. The 1939 Hollywood blockbuster Gone with the Wind spread this myth of the past into popular culture.
C. Vann Woodward, a Southern-born historian at Yale, gave a set of lectures at the University of Virginia in 1954 which he published under the title The Strange Career of Jim Crow.2 He documented how Blacks and Whites had begun to work together in the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, but political compromises at the federal level returned power to the southern planter class. Starting in the 1880s a series of so-called Jim Crow laws were passed across the south, segregating the races – denying voting rights, allowing lynching of Blacks to go unpunished and creating the harsh reality of separate and unequal.
It was the Jim Crow form of racial apartheid that the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King would struggle against in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1965, Woodward saw televised images of civil rights marchers being beaten by state troopers as they headed out of Selma, Alabama, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, aiming to reach the State Capitol in Montgomery. He flew to Montgomery to meet the marchers when they finally arrived at the Capitol, and was surprised to hear Martin Luther King, in his memorable speech, explain the origins of Jim Crow by citing his work. King called The Strange Career of Jim Crow “the historical bible of the civil rights movement.”
In response to Jim Crow, millions of Blacks would leave the south in what historians call the Great Migration, chronicled in Isabel Wilkerson’s Pulitzer Prize–winning book The Warmth of Other Suns.3
I hated the fact that my college was named after a slaveowner and a traitor to the Union, but I’m sure that it did not rankle me the way it did Black students. Two of my classmates, leaders of the Black Student Alliance at Yale (BSAY), recalled their feelings in an essay for our 25th reunion class book:
But even today, we still gag at the memory of our shock , anger, and then outrage, when summoned in 1965 to the Calhoun College Lounge, at discovering Confederate battle flags, proudly mounted above the fireplace, and accompanied by two very large bull whips – crossing each other, we assumed in honor of their many uses. To some this may seem a harmless reminder of Calhoun’s era. But to the descendants of former slaves, whips resembled instruments employed in the 1960s by the KKK to terrorize and intimidate Blacks demanding equality. Symbols send many messages. And for those of us committed to movements for social justice, the display in Calhoun College formed a brutal symbolic reminder of a time at Yale when people like ourselves were unwelcome as anything other than servants.
While Calhoun’s name was not removed from the residential college until 2017, the BSAY did win incremental victories. Because of its efforts, Yale became the first college to establish a degree-granting Black Studies program. By 1968, the number of Black students at Yale had increased to 100.
I focused my freshman studies on intensive Russian. In the summer of 1965, I went on a study trip to the Soviet Union organized by the University of Michigan and funded by the Defense Education Act – a Cold War effort to develop Russian expertise. I remember standing outside in Moscow looking up at the electronic news bulletin that ran across the side of the Izvestia newspaper building and seeing a word that appeared to be Vatts. It took me a few moments to realize that the word was Watts, a Black neighbourhood in south central Los Angeles which had erupted in an urban rebellion following a routine traffic stop of a Black driver. The confrontation with police and National Guard lasted six days with 34 deaths, thousands of injuries and the destruction of over a thousand buildings. It was a wakeup call that the economic and geographic consequences of systemic racism had gone unattended for generations, and adopting a voting rights bill was not enough.
In the immediate years following Watts there would be urban uprisings in Chicago, Detroit, Newark and more than a hundred other cities, all resulting in deaths primarily of poor Blacks and causing economic destruction of Black neighbourhoods. In 1968, the President’s Commission on Civil Disorders, appointed by LBJ, would conclude that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.” The commission’s recommendations for desegregation programs and major investment in inner cities would be ignored.
In the summer of 1966, after my second year at Yale, I worked as a researcher in Washington, D.C., for investigative journalist Jack Anderson, assisting with a book he was co-authoring with his partner Drew Pearson called The Case Against Congress. One of my assignments was to draft the section on South Carolina Congressman John McMillan, chair of the House District Committee which oversaw most aspects of life for the residents of the District of Columbia. The head of the House District Committee of the Congress was, in effect, the mayor of the capital, the nation’s first Black-majority city.
After reviewing the clip file in Anderson’s office, I rented a car to drive to McMillan’s district for interviews. Crossing from Virginia into North Carolina, I was startled to see a large billboard alongside the highway proclaiming “Welcome to North Carolina – the Heart of Klan Country.” It was my first trip to the Deep South. Mullins, South Carolina, was a pleasant town dependent on tobacco farming. People to whom I spoke were friendly and polite until I asked directions for an address on the “wrong side of the tracks” belonging to Congressman McMillan’s Black driver. As I crossed the tracks, the streets quickly went from paved to unpaved and the housing stock from sturdy homes with watered lawns to wood shanties on dusty lots.
Although the District of Columbia eventually got an elected municipal government, a nonvoting member of Congress and three electoral votes (the same as the least populated state), Congress can still overturn D.C. laws and expenditures. Republicans oppose statehood for D.C. because it would result in the addition of two Black members to the Senate. Earlier this year, Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas made a speech opposing statehood for D.C., comparing its residents unfavourably with the people of Wyoming who, while fewer in number, are more deserving than residents of the District. He called Wyoming “a well-rounded working-class state,” but neglected to mention that it is almost entirely White.
Race played a role in the Cold War. The Russians used America’s racial segregation as propaganda in their effort to win hearts and minds in newly independent countries in Africa and Asia. The U.S. State Department responded by sending Black jazz musicians to play in Eastern Europe and Africa. Indeed, challenging this narrative on race was one reason Kennedy and Johnson had become reluctant champions of civil rights.
The head of my residential college, a pastor and professor of religion, had moved to Stanford, where my sister was enrolled, to become chaplain of the university. In 1967, Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s only daughter Peggy, a Stanford undergraduate, asked him to conduct her wedding to a Black employee of NASA named Guy Smith. Rusk told the chaplain that he could not give away his daughter to a Black man because of the feelings of his Georgia relatives. The chaplain called my father who printed the story in his column in Parade, a Sunday magazine with a readership in the millions. Rusk called the publisher to complain, trying to get my father fired. This was just a few months after the Supreme Court had overturned Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law, making interracial marriage legal nationwide.
In the fall of 1967, my final year at Yale, California Governor Ronald Reagan came to campus as a visiting fellow, invited by conservative faculty. As a student leader and member of the senior honour society, I was invited to a discussion over lunch with Reagan at which a Black student friend asked him why he had refused to support the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He replied that it was a matter of states’ rights – a trope that he would later use when he ran for president. During his campus stay, Reagan mentioned more than once that, as a young sportscaster, he had supported Jackie Robinson’s right to play baseball, and that the Black actor Sammy Davis Jr. was a personal friend. It was my first taste of how Republican politicians put a smiling face on systemic racism.
Another glaring example of racism was the Vietnam War. Framed as part of the Cold War, the war effort relied on working-class Americans, particularly poor Blacks and Latinos, and the Vietnamese were dehumanized as “commie gooks.” World heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali famously made the connection explicit when he announced that he would refuse to be drafted to fight, saying, ”I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” Why should he go to Asia to fight against a people who had done him no harm while people in his own country had been lynching Black Americans? (This theme is explored in Spike Lee’s recent film Da Bloods).
Opposing the Vietnam War was the focal point of my political activism in college. I organized teach-ins, signed letters against the war with other student leaders, and met with Yale graduates in the Johnson Administration to explain our opposition. I was thrilled when Martin Luther King began publicly to criticize the war – a stance which lost him the support of some Democratic allies and angered President Johnson. King made the same connection as Ali had made: it was time for justice at home, not war abroad. On April 4, 1968, King was assassinated, and again the nation’s cities erupted in protest and violence. In August, I attended the Democratic Convention in Chicago and watched as the Poor People’s March down Michigan Avenue led by civil rights leaders was set upon by Mayor Richard Daley’s police – the same police who attacked antiwar protestors in Grant Park with tear gas and clubs in front of the TV cameras.
The Republican nominee for President, Richard Nixon, focused on the urban demonstrations and the violence in Chicago in running a campaign based on law and order. Former (and future) Alabama Governor George Wallace ran an openly racist third-party campaign, winning five southern states. Seeing Wallace’s success with the law and order theme, Nixon adopted a strategy to win over White voters in the south to the Republican ticket, which became the Republican playbook. The party of Lincoln would become the party of White people, united by a fear of Blacks and other minorities.
Politics of race and class
After graduating in 1968, I worked as a journalist in Washington and Boston, then returned home to California where I briefly worked in state government during Jerry Brown’s first term as governor in the mid-1970s. Brown supported United Farm Workers leader César Chávez, passing a bill to legalize farm worker organizing, but he had little understanding of the state’s Black communities. In one cabinet meeting that I attended to discuss uses for a surplus military base, Brown suggested flippantly that we could open a multiracial summer camp for young men “where the White kids would teach the Blacks how to read and the Black kids would teach the Whites how to fight.”
I finished a degree in public policy and began teaching at Occidental College, an elite private liberal arts college in Los Angeles. At Occidental, I was lucky to work with the college’s president, John Slaughter, the first Black director of the National Science Foundation. Slaughter brought to the college a commitment to equity and excellence, arguing that recruiting a more diverse student body and faculty did not mean sacrificing academic standards. In addition to initiating a new program in public policy, I hosted visiting speakers and organized conferences, including a program on Race and Class in America.
As part of the series, Black sociologist William Julius Wilson gave a presentation on his path-breaking research on the effects of deindustrialization on the poor Black community of Chicago, arguing that class as well as race had to be considered in understanding the position of minorities in the United States. Journalist Anthony Lukas discussed the turmoil over school busing in Boston in a presentation based on his Pulitzer Prize–winning book Common Ground.4 Because of a misguided Supreme Court decision, court-ordered busing to desegregate schools – a result of segregated housing – pitted inner-city Black families against working-class White families. Lukas’s compelling narrative described the tragic ways that this situation played out in one American city. “Forced busing” provided the Republican Party with a political lever to win over White working-class votes outside the south. Black Harvard law professor Derrick Bell spoke about the civil rights movement since 1954 and the legal and social obstacles to attaining racial justice. Bell used storytelling – fictional chronicles rather than dry legal analysis – to examine why progress seemed stalled and how things might improve.
I have always been a liberal Democrat in political outlook. I did not think that the Black nationalism of the Black Panther Party or the Black separatism of the Nation of Islam would bring progress in race relations. I advocated a nonreformist reform approach to politics like FDR’s New Deal or that of the social democratic parties in Nordic countries – but with the inclusion of Americans of colour as partners in political coalition-building to win elections and enact change. I co-authored books on these ideas with economist Martin Carnoy5 and wrote numerous articles for journals and newspapers. I also tried to put my beliefs into practice through political involvement, first at the local and then at the national level.
In the1980s, living in the Ocean Park section of Santa Monica, a coastal city of 90,000 surrounded by the city of Los Angeles, I helped to build a political coalition which won majority control. In a city composed mainly of renters, a basic issue is housing. We formed Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR) as a coalition of the local Democratic Club, housing and minority activists, trade unionists and environmental activists. In addition to enacting one of California’s first rent regulation laws, which included setting up an elected rent control board, we campaigned on a program of community-based policing – a model in which police are seen as guardians of citizens’ safety, not as armed warriors.
In winning the support of the police for our program, we were part of a reform movement which saw former police lieutenant Tom Bradley elected the first Black mayor of Los Angeles in 1973, supported by a coalition of White liberal, Jewish and minority voters. We worked closely with Bradley’s staff and built a strong relationship with Black Congresswoman Maxine Waters who represented the Watts district. Reagan jokingly referred to the Santa Monica government as Communist, but some of his supporters took the ironic expression “People’s Republic of Santa Monica” literally.
Growing up in Santa Monica, my eldest son had a few Black friends. One, who played on his Little League team, became a major league baseball player. Another was shot in a drug deal that went bad and was paralyzed from the waist down for life. I came to understand that problems of race and class can be addressed in one city, but they cannot be solved by local action alone.
Along with friends from the civil rights, antiwar, women’s liberation, gay rights and environmental movements, I became part of an effort to promote a national strategy of multiracial reform-based political coalitions operating as part of the Democratic Party at the state and national level. With the support of the United Auto Workers and other unions, we formed the Progressive Alliance to unite local and state political groups. We also established a national clearinghouse to host conferences where progressive local and state politicians – like Bernie Sanders, the Mayor of Burlington, Vermont; Paul Soglin, the Mayor of Madison, Wisconsin; Ken Cockerel, a Black city councillor from Detroit; Harold Washington, the first Black Mayor of Chicago; Jim Hightower, the progressive agricultural commissioner of Texas; Byron Dorgan, the populist state tax commissioner of North Dakota; and Bill Clinton, Attorney General of Arkansas – would discuss reform policies and politics.
In 1988, I served as an adviser to Senator Gary Hart before his campaign ended when the press caught him in an extramarital affair, and the Democrats chose Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts to run against Vice President George Bush. The Republicans played the race card, airing an emotionally powerful ad featuring Willie Horton, a convicted criminal released from prison on furlough who committed a brutal kidnapping and murder. It was this racially infused strategy that won the GOP five of six national elections between 1968 and 1988 by undermining the class basis of the Roosevelt Democratic coalition.
In 1992, I was a senior adviser to Bill Clinton’s campaign for president. I had known Clinton since university days and admired his skills as a liberal politician who could get elected in Arkansas by supporting educational and economic reforms. I helped to write the campaign’s program and gave it the title Putting People First. Clinton chose as his running mate a fellow southern liberal, Tennessee Senator Al Gore. The campaign focus was “the economy, stupid,” as consultant James Carville put it. Clinton set out a program of economic reforms, including universal health care, that would appeal across class and racial lines.
In March 1991 police in Los Angeles had been caught on camera badly beating a Black man named Rodney King during an arrest. The police went on trial for use of excessive force. In April 1992, when a jury in the suburbs of Ventura County – nine White jurors, one Latino, one biracial and one Asian-American – voted to acquit them of all charges, LA’s Black community erupted in protest. Police responded and violence broke out across the city, resulting in 50 people killed, 2,000 injured, 6,000 arrested, and over a thousand buildings destroyed. Clinton was campaigning in New York, where a primary was to take place. I advised him to fly to LA immediately, which he did, meeting with Black leaders and local politicians, attending church gatherings and calling for an end to racial division.
As a southern politician Clinton had experience with the politics of race, and he wasn’t going to let the Republicans play the race-baiting card as they had with Dukakis. During the campaign, Clinton publicly criticized Black rap singer Sister Souljah for her anti-White lyrics. Jesse Jackson defended her, but Clinton held firm. Clinton also announced that as president he would “end welfare as we know it.” While this undermined the GOP strategy going back to Ronald Reagan of using welfare as a cudgel against Democrats, it also, to the disappointment of many of us, continued the scapegoating of welfare recipients.
Black former civil rights activist Vernon Jordan cochaired the Clinton transition team and became known as Clinton’s “First Friend.” Black author Maya Angelou delivered the Inaugural poem. Novelist Toni Morrison later pronounced Clinton, “white skin notwithstanding,” the “first black president” because he was comfortable with Black people. In the face of united Republican opposition in Congress, Clinton managed to a pass a budget that raised taxes on the wealthy and created the Earned Income Tax Credit which provided funds to low-wage working Americans. Clinton also tried to increase voter participation – a problem in poor and minority neighbourhoods – by passing Voter Motor legislation that allowed state departments of motor vehicles to register citizens when they got a driver’s licence. Republican refusal of all compromise and distorted media attacks derailed Clinton’s plans for universal health care.
When Newt Gingrich’s Republicans took over Congress in the 1994 midterm elections, Clinton tacked to the right on crime and welfare, trying to shield himself and the party from the Republicans’ racially slanted attacks. In August 1994, Clinton signed a massive $30 billion crime bill. The “get tough on crime” approach, supported by liberal Democrats including members of the House Black caucus, would lead to mass incarceration, mainly of Black men – what lawyer Michelle Alexander calls the New Jim Crow. In August 1996, Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, drafted by Republican Congressman John Kasich – known as the “welfare to work” bill. Three top officials of the Department of Health and Human Services including former civil rights activist Peter Edelman resigned to protest Clinton’s signing of the law, which condemned millions of women and children to poverty.
Because I had been singled out for attacks by the Wall Street Journal and other conservative media, I was kept out of Clinton’s economic team and was not given responsibility for carrying out the urban policy program I had prepared for the campaign. Instead, my interest in Russia and diplomacy led to my being named U.S. Ambassador to Finland. Helsinki, I learned, is the place where for many decades Cold War diplomacy with the USSR was conducted.
As Ambassador, I greeted and met Black entertainers when they came to perform. I received personal advice for President Clinton from the king of soul, James Brown, before his concert. I met with blues legend B.B. King, who told me that he’d never been invited to the White House. I let Clinton’s staff know and the next year King was honoured at the Kennedy Center. I presented an award to Tina Turner when she appeared for a sold-out concert at Helsinki’s Olympic stadium.
My hardest task regarding race was to explain to the Finnish media the LA jury’s decision in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. I had met O.J. when he lived in West Los Angeles. A former football star, he was lionized as the Black man every White family would like to have next door. We would frequently see O.J. and his kids at the local market. My eldest son went to preschool with his son and once was invited to play basketball at O.J.’s home. When O.J. Simpson was acquitted by a jury of the murder of his White wife and her male friend, it was difficult for Finns to understand how jurors had voted. I explained that, for Black members of the jury, the testimony of the police was not considered trustworthy, especially that of the lead police detective who had a history of racist behaviour. Decades of police harassment and brutality against the Black population of LA could not but affect the views of most Black jurors.
Obama to Trump
I was a foreign policy adviser to Vice President Al Gore who won the popular vote against George W. Bush, my Yale classmate, but lost the 2000 election when Bush prevailed in the southern state of Florida by 537 votes. From 1888 to 1968, not a single Black person had been elected to the Florida legislature. The state constitution banned felons from voting for life, a measure that disenfranchised one of every five Black adults. This was part of the Republicans’ strategy of voter suppression as they found ways to prevent eligible voters from going to the polls. It is highly likely that Bush won the presidency by depriving many Black citizens of the franchise.
After Gore’s defeat, I returned to Occidental College, accepting a chair in diplomacy and teaching courses on Terrorism, American Foreign Policy and Diplomacy. Some years earlier Barry Obama, as he was known growing up, had come to Occidental from Hawaii. His Kenyan father and his White mother from Kansas had met as students at the University of Hawai’i. After Occidental, he went to Columbia University and Harvard Law School and, after serving in the Illinois legislature, was elected to the U.S. Senate. During the 2008 campaign and afterward, a “birthers” movement, in which Donald Trump became the most prominent figure, falsely claimed that Obama was not born in America. In the context of economic insecurity caused by the financial meltdown of that year, Obama ran as a candidate of unity and hope, not as a Black politician, although the colour of his skin could have been more of a factor had the Republican nominee, Senator John McCain, not been a decent man who refused to run a race-baiting campaign.
As president, Obama took decisive action to revive the American economy, saving the auto industry in the process, but he mainly governed from the centre. His major accomplishment was the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which expanded health coverage to millions of Americans. He recognized issues of racial discrimination and appointed Eric Holder as the nation’s first Black Attorney General. His head of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, was a Black lawyer. He appointed Susan Rice as Ambassador to the United Nations and later as his National Security Advisor. However, he tried to steer clear of embracing issues that would become central to the Black Lives Matter movement. On policing and discrimination, he appointed a commission – often a political excuse for inaction – which produced standards for community policing, but he did not make it a priority.
In June 2015, during the eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pickney, a South Carolina state senator who was one of nine Black Americans killed in a Charleston church by a 21-year-old White supremacist, Obama walked to the pulpit and sang the hymn “Amazing Grace.” It was one of the most powerful moments of his presidency. Obama’s administration asked localities receiving federal funds to identify patterns of racial discrimination and take meaningful action to provide desegregated housing options. President Trump would rescind the measure.
Obama’s election and two terms in office were hailed by many as the coming of a postracial America, but this was never true. Deep-seated, persistent racism did not disappear with his coming, something Donald Trump instinctively understood. In the second part of this article in Inroads next spring, I will look at how Trump played the race card, with attention to its effects during his presidency and the legacy it has left us.