Thursday, November 6, 2008

INTERPRETING the ELECTION: The End of the Equality Era?

The end of the Bush Era is something to celebrate, as are the progressive possibilities opened up by Democratic control of both Congress and the White House. But it's not clear to me that we've reached the end of the Republican Era, or that Democratic control means progressive policy outcomes.

President-elect Obama explained his victory Tuesday night as a "defining moment," but given his temporizing, moderating, and triangulating discourse throughout the campaign it is fair to ask what, exactly, has been "defined"? If we look to simultaneous electoral blows to equality and social justice, we need to wonder who will win the war of mandates and how the Democrats will define their agenda.

In California marriage equality endured a fatal collision with an electorate intent on making heterosexual marital privilege a constitutional protection. Florida and Arizona also banned gay marriage. In Nebraska, the war against affirmative action scored another victory, and in Colorado a similar ban on affirmative action is on the brink of an electoral majority (at this writing). Voters in Arkansas, meanwhile, prohibited unmarried couples from adopting or serving as foster parents.

President-elect Obama spoke little about equality issues on the campaign trail. In fact, he won admiration from the white commentariat for not discussing race and for not discussing poverty. The commentariat didn't notice (or didn't care) that he barely mentioned gender issues, other than the relatively safe issue of "equal pay for equal work," and few took issue when he justified his bigoted same-sex marriage policy position on religious grounds. So it should be no surprise, really, that voters in California and elsewhere embraced exclusionary measures aimed to enforce inequality even as they cast their ballots for the first Black president.

If the commentariat (and many Democrats) have their way, Obama's silence on equality issues will mark the end of the Equality Era. By "equality era" I don't mean that equality actually has been achieved. But grassroots struggles for equality -- of rights, opportunities, resources, recognition, respect -- as well as policy steps toward equality have been at the core of progressive politics for several decades.

The revival of the Clinton-era mantra of "helping the middle class" (read: White, genderless, not-poor) and the rise of its cousin, the new mantra of "post-racial politics," further disfranchises the economically, socially, and politically disfranchised by stigmatizing the politics of democratization as divisive and anti-majoritarian.

For example, in their naked exhuberance about "post-racial" (read: post-equality) America, numerous journalists and analysts on MSNBC on the morning of election day declared that an Obama victory would mean that "we have overcome," that "the era of racial recrimination is over," that there can be "no more blaming White America," and that "the left can't trash-talk America anymore." For many, the defining moment that was this election means that the social movements of the 1960s, along with their 21st century heirs, can be put out to pasture (along with the entire Baby Boom generation, if Tom Brokaw's analysis is correct).

While the "middle class agenda" does leave many progressives uncertain about the direction the Obama Administration will take, for some progressives race and gender are fringe issues that distort movement toward economic justice. Progressives who think this way imagine that universalistic economic guarantees will lift all boats, as if the intersecting inequalities of race, gender and class don't create separate inequalities that can only be cured by directly addressing race and gender as distinct, linked experiences of subordination and marginalizaton. There's no such thing as an economic policy that's good for all workers, for example, if elements of that policy do not correct wage discrimination against women and minorities, provide paid family and maternity leave, or target innovations to end the racialized distribution of poverty.

What a bitter irony, if the election of the first person of color to the presidency also dissipates equality imperatives and de-legitimizes equality politics. There is great danger that we are already on a course toward treating race, gender, sexuality, and poverty as irresponsible "wedge" issues promoted by irresponsible advocates from a bygone era. I hope "change" means we can change this course.

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