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kottke.org posts about Adam Serwer

The Next Reconstruction?

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 08, 2020

In The Atlantic, Adam Serwer writes about the parallels between the present moment and Reconstruction, the post-Civil War period where the biggest strides toward racial justice in America were taken. In response to the protests happening in American streets this summer, Trump pulled out Nixon’s “law and order” playbook but that move backfired on Trump, much like the way that Andrew Johnson’s push for the US government to remain white during the early years of Reconstruction did.

The shift that’s occurred this time around “wasn’t by happenstance,” Brittany Packnett Cunningham, an activist and a writer, told me, nor is it only the product of video evidence. “It has been the work of generations of Black activists, Black thinkers, and Black scholars that has gotten us here” — people like Angela Davis, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Michelle Alexander, and others. “Six years ago, people were not using the phrase systemic racism beyond activist circles and academic circles. And now we are in a place where it is readily on people’s lips, where folks from CEOs to grandmothers up the street are talking about it, reading about it, researching on it, listening to conversations about it.”

All of that preparation met the moment: George Floyd’s killing, the pandemic’s unmistakable toll on Black Americans, and Trump’s callous and cynical response to both.

Still, like Andrew Johnson, Trump bet his political fortunes on his assumption that the majority of white Americans shared his fears and beliefs about Black Americans. Like Johnson, Trump did not anticipate how his own behavior, and the behavior he enabled and encouraged, would discredit the cause he backed. He did not anticipate that the activists might succeed in convincing so many white Americans to see the protests as righteous and justified, that so many white Americans would understand police violence as an extension of his own cruelty, that the pandemic would open their eyes to deep-seated racial inequities.

“I think this country is at a turning point and has been for a little while. We went from celebrating the election of the first Black president in history to bemoaning a white nationalist in the White House,” Alicia Garza told me. “People are grappling with the fact that we’re not actually in a post-racial society.”

If the reaction to eight years of Obama was a white nationalist President, then maybe the reaction to that is, finally, the beginning of true racial justice and equality in America. But here is the big question:

In the past, the dream of remaking society has faltered when white Americans have realized what they would have to sacrifice to deliver freedom. The question now is whether this time is different.

And further:

Believing in racial equality in the abstract and supporting policies that would make it a reality are two different things. Most white Americans have long professed the former, and pointedly declined to do the latter. This paradox has shown up so many times in American history that social scientists have a name for it: the principle-implementation gap. This gap is what ultimately doomed the Reconstruction project.

A research paper on the principle-implementation gap puts it plainly:

White Americans accept equality as an ideal yet reject interventions designed to achieve that ideal.

Serwer goes on to say that the sticking point is often economic justice — versus the easier-to-swallow civic justice. Ok, just go read the whole thing before I quote it all. (via @michaelharriot, who called the piece “spectacular”)

“The Coronavirus Was an Emergency Until Trump Found Out Who Was Dying”

posted by Jason Kottke   May 11, 2020

There are a lot of different lenses you can use to look at how the United States and its government have confronted the Covid-19 pandemic. Race is a particularly useful one. As a reminder, here’s America’s current operating racial contract (from an Atlantic piece by Adam Serwer):

The implied terms of the racial contract are visible everywhere for those willing to see them. A 12-year-old with a toy gun is a dangerous threat who must be met with lethal force; armed militias drawing beads on federal agents are heroes of liberty. Struggling white farmers in Iowa taking billions in federal assistance are hardworking Americans down on their luck; struggling single parents in cities using food stamps are welfare queens. Black Americans struggling in the cocaine epidemic are a “bio-underclass” created by a pathological culture; white Americans struggling with opioid addiction are a national tragedy. Poor European immigrants who flocked to an America with virtually no immigration restrictions came “the right way”; poor Central American immigrants evading a baroque and unforgiving system are gang members and terrorists.

Serwer goes on to argue that the recently shifting American response to the pandemic, primarily in conservative circles, is due to an increasing awareness of which groups are bearing the brunt of the crisis: black and Latino Americans.

That more and more Americans were dying was less important than who was dying.

The disease is now “infecting people who cannot afford to miss work or telecommute-grocery store employees, delivery drivers and construction workers,” The Washington Post reported. Air travel has largely shut down, and many of the new clusters are in nursing homes, jails and prisons, and factories tied to essential industries. Containing the outbreak was no longer a question of social responsibility, but of personal responsibility. From the White House podium, Surgeon General Jerome Adams told “communities of color” that “we need you to step up and help stop the spread.”

This is a response that America is quite comfortable with because it fits with our racial contract, under which Jim Crow never actually ended. The US isn’t the only place this is happening btw. Early on, Singapore was praised for its response to the pandemic, but their reliance on and mistreatment of an underclass of migrant workers caused a secondary surge in cases.

Singapore is a small city-state with a population of just under 6 million inhabitants. On a per capita basis, it’s the second-richest country in Asia.

But its economy relies heavily on young men from Bangladesh, India and other countries who work jobs in construction and manufacturing. Singapore has no minimum wage for foreign or domestic employees. The foreign workers’ salaries can be as low as US$250 per month, but a typical salary is $500 to $600 a month.