Demographics defined Tuesday’s presidential election, and demographics have something to do with the impasse that will continue between the president and the Congress as they confront deep budgetary challenges. Some divisions are clear on the surface. Mitt Romney was almost entirely dependent on white votes while President Obama won with a majority of minority votes and the support of white voters, particularly women and young people in urban areas. But something even deeper is at play and understanding that may offer a path to less divisiveness.
Jack Turner, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Washington, believes that some of our ideals got tainted early in our country’s history and rescuing them would make us a better country. During fights over the budget and throughout the campaign, the idea of individualism kept coming up. The claim that “I did it myself” versus the idea that we all help each other.
We heard that some people are hardworking and deserving while others – the 47 per cent – aren’t. What should be a legitimate argument over government spending becomes a fight over the worthiness of different Americans. Turner recalled that in the aftermath of Obama’s first election four years ago a chorus of media and political voices chanted “no more excuses.” They said it was time for blacks and Latinos to stop complaining and take care of business for themselves.
That attitude ignores the challenges that many Americans still face, and it ignores the ways in which people who see themselves as independent benefit from government and from social advantages. That way of thinking is deeply rooted in the country’s history.
Turner argues in his new book, Awakening to Race: Individualism and Social Consciousness in America, (The University of Chicago Press) that individualism in a democracy doesn’t mean every man for himself. It means taking responsibility for yourself, but it also should mean every person taking inventory of himself and his role in hindering or helping to fulfil democracy’s promise.
Turner writes that the ideals of individualism and self-sufficiency are used as excuses for inaction, especially in the face of inequality. When our democracy was young, white men defined themselves as self-sufficient individualists. Dependency was for slaves. Those definitions became part of people’s sense of identity, a group identity, not really individual at all.
If white represented one thing, then black had to represent the opposite. That explained and justified undemocratic treatment of people who were not white, and some of that lingers still.
Turner told me he spent his early years in Fort Worth, Texas, and wondered about the lives of the black people who worked for his family and who, at the end of their day, would go home to black neighbourhoods. Why were their lives so different? Turner said his mother “urged me to see black people as having the same hopes and aspirations as I had,” and as deserving of a life as good as his.
“As a white man, I can apply to any job and not worry I might not be given fair consideration because of race,” he said, but there are numerous strong social-science studies that show that African American’s and Hispanics do have to worry about that. Turner writes, “By simply ignoring America’s racial organisation, upstanding white citizens can be on the winning end of job discrimination, school and housing segregation, and anti-black cultural symbolism while feeling perfectly innocent.”
Moving forward requires citizens across the political spectrum to make a decision not to be complicit in continuing inequality, he said.