Greetings from Allrightnik Row

Just like all of you, I was elated last week when I heard that the Supreme Court had ruled against state bans on gay marriage. It was a long time coming. (Which is to say that arguments that civil rights movements should take time, progress slowly, and those that countenance patience are always bullshit.) And I’m also dismayed, although not entirely shocked at the resistance movements that appear to be newly fueled. It’s worth remembering that in many ways, 1954’s Brown v. Board decision represented the start of the contemporary anti-civil rights movement, not its death blow.

At the same time, I was happy to see some space given in mainstream press to arguments that I had heard from friends years ago: that marriage is the wrong cause. The joke, so it goes, is that gay men and women are demanding to be married so that they can be as miserable as straight people. That joke of course denies the legal benefits and social capital that are acquired through marriage. But it also points to the fact that marriage is alternatingly seen as a broken system; an irrelevant custom; a governmentalizing social norm; or a marker of bourgeois status. And some have argued that the marriage equality movement has taken resources away from those that might engage more material concerns, like employment discrimination.

I think my favorite response to the marriage decision came from the New York Timesbecause it highlighted what might be called “respectability politics.” With respectability politics, the minority or aggrieved party, in order to make progress towards equality, must change their demeanor or performance in order to appear more like a societal norm or ideal. Marriage, for gay people, is a way of showing how they are just like the rest of us, and in this case “us” is an ideal, a social construction in itself.

If marriage is your thing, go for it. But maybe take note of the cost. And I say this knowing nothing about what its like to be gay. But I have done a fair of share of studying about some other folks that came out on the other side of the turn towards respectability.

One hundred years ago, when Jews were some of the poorest and most maligned residents of urban America, they had a name for their kin that sought to pick up respectability politics: “allrighniks.” Not coincidentally, that name was also directed towards the crooks, gangsters, and unscrupulous capitalists that also left the ghetto by any means necessary. Allrightnik was not a term of endearment.

By the postwar period, allrightnik politics had taken center stage in the Jewish community. A newly renewed fear of anti-Semitism brought on by the Holocaust and the Cold War, coupled with the gaining of a foothold in the middle class (largely because Americans were so focused on keeping African Americans down they let the Jews slide in), led American Jewish leaders to distance themselves from any kind of social position that might be deemed unrespectable. A famous joke about these efforts has leaders exclaiming “We’re American — even more so!” In other words, just like us.

Respectability, of course, meant severing the ties between Jews and their socialist past. In New York City, where half of all Jews lived before the war, the paper of record for Yiddish speakers was a socialist one. Jews were responsible for one the greatest labor protests of all time, the march of garment workers against employers like the Triangle Factory. And Jews formed a greatly disproportionate number of the ranks of the Communist Party, which had adopted civil rights decades before any liberal political parties or organizations. After the allrightniks won out, such connections were rejected, frowned upon, and obscured in memory.[1]

So how does one take note of the cost? A while back I was discussing Miranda Joseph’s excellent Against the Romance of Community with a colleague in grad school, and she told me that in queer circles they have a concept: you imagine the person that faces the biggest structural challenges and prioritize how one might best help that person. Maybe you imagine a trans homeless person of color in a wheelchair. And once you do that, what policies, or reorientations of social systems, do you then fight for? Hopefully that’s where folks are headed next. But those are undoubtedly more difficult battles.


[1] See Cheryl Greenberg, Troubling the Waters; Michael Staub, Torn at the Roots; George Sanchez, “What’s Good for Boyle Heights is Good for the Jews.”

Ferguson’s Libertarian Problem

I’ve been thinking about the “national conversation” that the tragic killings of unarmed young men of color in Ferguson, New York, and elsewhere has spurred. Most recently, Ferguson is back in the news after the Department of Justice released the results of its investigation into the Ferguson Police Department. The pop culture analysis that I perform as a historian hinges largely upon the importance of making a distinction between the discourse of “civil liberties” and “civil rights.” And it seems like this problem — that of racism, economic inequality, and police brutality — is  ripe for this kind of analysis.

In short, here is the distinction between civil liberties and civil rights: civil liberties are protections from the state, civil rights are protections provided by the state. Civil liberties limit the state’s power, and civil rights afford the state power. The first two amendments to the US Constitution are great examples of civil liberties. They protect the state (by which I mean the federal government) from impinging on the so-called “natural rights” that liberalism, in the classical sense, presumes every individual to have.

It’s more difficult to find an example of civil rights in this country, because quite frankly, it’s full of civil libertarians. If the country had an Economic Bill of Rights, as was conceived by Franklin Roosevelt and floated by Truman in 1946 before the Democrats were trounced that year, that would be a civil right. If the country had nationalized medicine and guaranteed health care for every citizen, that would be a civil right. It could be argued that the right to vote is a civil right. While it allows individuals to act as such within a system designed to legitimize and reify classical liberal theory, it also requires positive actions on the part of the state.

Since last summer, the discussion around the problem of the police has seen the problem as a disease rather than a symptom. In this framing, the enemy of the people is the “police state.” This is a reflex that has roots on the left — it goes back to Marx’s concept of the super structure — but it is also profoundly conservative and libertarian, dating back to the myth of Jeffersonianism that imagines the country’s success as the product of self-sufficient, independent, land-owning farmers. And in an era of globalization, neoliberalism, and waning state power, it’s profoundly run out of utility. (Actually, progressive intellectuals and activists of a hundred years ago, from Dewey to Debs, thought as much.) To blame the problem solely on the police is to ignore all of the reasons that crime and violence inhabit geographic spaces that are rife with economic inequality. Reasons that have little to do with state power other than its absence.

Last week, the radio show On the Media pointed out that protests in Ferguson carried out by local community members have been about not only police brutality, but also the lack of jobs and the struggles of “day to day” life. These local activists, the show pointed out, aren’t on Twitter, and aren’t the subject of national attention. Instead, national attention has gone to the civil libertarians. The case is likewise here in Asheville, North Carolina, where a strong civil libertarian and individualistic current takes the place of any kind of real progressive political discourse. Protesters, mostly dreadlocked hippie dudes, take to downtown with signs decrying the “pigs,” illustrating an intellectual sophistication and vocabulary rivaling that which I had when I was in seventh grade.

Gandhi once said that the greatest violence is that of poverty. Such violence — that which conjures no flashy headlines — requires no police state. Its superstructure — if we are to call it that — is multifaceted and diffuse, situated not only, and not even primarily, with local, state, or federal governments. (Such institutions, as Foucault would say, are only where power is most intelligible.) And to solve it requires an emphasis on civil rights, and not civil liberties per se.

And in the midst of this contemporary media environment, in which images of the recent killings are juxtaposed with those of the 50th anniversary of the historic events in Selma, Alabama, it’s worth remembering that Martin Luther King, Jr. would have thought so too. The libertarianism of today would have confounded him, I think. In his 1967 Where Do We Go From Here, King called for the same thing that Roosevelt and Truman wanted: an Economic Bill of Rights, one that would provide the civil right of a guaranteed income and/or job.

To be sure, police violence and racism are abhorrent and calls to end it are just. But little real progress is made when the Justice Department, the White House, the Congress, the media, and the Left treat it as a disease rather than a symptom of the larger problem of structural racial and economic inequality.