The End of the Rainbow

The poverty of racial politics and the future of liberalism

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In the conclusion of Goethe’s epic Faust, the great magician who has made a pact with the devil hears the clinking of shovels. Faust, who is blind, believes he is listening to the sound of workers on a project he is promoting to reclaim land from the sea for the benefit of mankind. In fact, the shovels are in the hands of demons, who are digging Faust’s own grave.

American liberalism faces a similar irony. For the past generation, the left has been identified with the strategy of what Jesse Jackson calls the Rainbow Coalition. Where the old left assigned the vanguard role in history to factory workers, the New Left assigns it to people of color. The assumption has been that policies such as affirmative action and racial redistricting would unite blacks, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans politically. Sympathetic whites would be permitted to join the coalition, but white concerns about reverse discrimination would be dismissed as racist. In time, many on the left assumed, “rainbow liberalism” would triumph purely as a result of demographic trends, as California, Texas, New York, and eventually the whole country acquired nonwhite majorities.

The strategy of rainbow liberalism has rested on two assumptions. The first is that conservatism would not appeal to nonwhite Americans. The second is that the very policies that promote the rainbow strategy — affirmative action and high immigration — would not produce tensions among the multiracial rainbow’s constituent bands. If these assumptions are wrong, then rainbow liberalism is digging its own grave.

They are, and it is.

Already mainstream leaders in the GOP are rejecting white nativism. Some are even supporting affirmative action and immigration in the hope of appealing to socially or economically conservative blacks, Hispanics, or Asian-Americans. At the same time, affirmative action in higher education divides blacks and Hispanics from Asian-Americans, while high levels of immigration hurt black workers in some parts of the country. The rise of a multicultural right, though it may doom rainbow liberalism, provides an opening for a new liberalism that stresses social equality and national integration.

Does Right Equal White?

In the past generation, conservatives have offered two incompatible responses to rainbow liberalism. One is a conservative-populist nativism, or white nationalism, whose spokesmen are Patrick Buchanan and Peter Brimelow. Reminiscent of the white supremacist populism of the Old South, this new nativism holds that nonwhite immigration is a racial and cultural threat to the country’s diminishing white Euro-American “core.” When combined with eugenics theory, as in the work of Charles Murray, this kind of white nationalism becomes even more sinister. For strategic reasons, liberals might hope that the nativist version prevails among conservatives. Already, nativist agitation (particularly in California) has arrested the drift of Hispanics toward the GOP and pushed many back into the Democratic Party. White racism is the perfect mortar for uniting the colors of the rainbow.

But the other conservative answer to the rainbow strategy has not been so conveniently stupid. Most mainstream Republicans have reacted to Buchananism with horror and have rejected white national populism. Contrary to the propaganda of the left, the members of the dominant business-class wing of the GOP are not more racist on average than elite white liberals. During his tenure as executive director of the Christian Coalition, Ralph Reed worked to reach out to conservative black, Hispanic, and Asian-American Christians. And Republicans count more prominent leaders who are partners in interracial marriages — Jeb Bush, Phil Gramm, Clarence Thomas — than do the Democrats. This is not tokenism.

Even if it were consistently bigoted, the conservative white elite, unlike the white working class, would not compete with nonwhites for jobs or feel culturally threatened by blacks or Latin American or Asian immigrants. Indeed, members of the white professional elite may feel they have more in common with successful Asian-Americans, and perhaps affluent Hispanics and blacks as well, than with working-class whites. The country club Republicans, while they are sometimes both, are more classist than racist. They rail against “class war” while finding kind things to say about high immigration (which is good for business) and even affirmative action (which makes corporate America look more diverse to a diverse public).

The present danger liberals face is less a “fascist right” in America — our neo-Nazis hate the military and the police, and they have trouble taking over a ranch, much less a country — than a “Creole right” oligarchy that does not care what color your skin is, as long as you are wealthy. As the Latin American saying has it, “Money whitens.” (For most white Americans, O.J. Simpson was just a rich celebrity.)

A “rainbow right” is possible, perhaps even likely. Black voters remain committed to the Democratic Party, despite Republican proselytizing. But Asian and Hispanic allegiances are in play. A majority of Asian-Americans voted for Bush in 1992. They could play a role in the Republican Party comparable to that of academically and economically successful Jews in the Democratic Party. In the 1992 elections, Hispanics gave the Democrats only about 60 percent of the vote. If close to half of American Hispanics sided against Democrats then, it is quite possible that a majority will follow white ethnic voters into the GOP in the future as they move up the socioeconomic scale. A moderately conservative white-Asian-Hispanic coalition, based in the growing South and West, could be a formidable opponent for the liberal white-Protestant-Jewish-black coalition, concentrated in the demographically declining Northeast.

This racially mixed conservative coalition might be reinforced by the large number of working-class whites who have been leaving states with high immigration, such as California, for the interior and the Rocky Mountain states. Such whites, who might have competed for jobs with Hispanic immigrants back in their home states, might become their political allies once they have moved to more or less lily-white states where white-Hispanic tensions are insignificant. What would hold this multiracial conservative coalition together? The answer is: (a) conservative social values (shared by many whites, East Asian immigrants, and Hispanics); (b) redistribution (the coalition’s partisans in Congress would tax the Northeast and subsidize Republican defense contractors and agribusiness in the South and West); (c) a live-and-let-live states’ rights compromise (for example, different affirmative action policies for the white-majority states and the nonwhite-majority states); and, last but not least, (d) a common hostility to the black urban poor, everybody’s favorite scapegoat.

Racialism Breaks Up the Rainbow

The assumption that right equals white, then, is no longer realistic. Equally flawed is the other premise of the rainbow liberal strategy — the belief that programs such as high immigration and affirmative action will unite rather than divide blacks, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans.

The high number of blacks who supported Proposition 187, California’s anti-immigration referendum, should have sent a signal to liberal strategists. The tensions between blacks and Hispanic and Asian immigrants are deep. According to a recent Roper Poll, non-Hispanic blacks favor deep cuts in immigration by a ratio of 11-to-1 (even Hispanic Americans favored such cuts by 7-to-1). The continued immigration of poor workers (many of whom make up a significant percentage of the nearly 1 million legal immigrants we now have a year) may keep wages down and make union organizing more difficult. Three Harvard economists, George Borjas, Richard Freeman, and Lawrence Katz, have estimated that immigrant competition accounts for 44 to 60 percent of the drop in relative earnings high school dropouts suffered between 1979 and 1995. From the perspective of employers, of course, wages can never be too low. Little wonder, then, that the pro-immigration wing of the Republican Party, bolstered by the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page, has beaten back the immigration restrictions favored by the nativist wing of the GOP.

Affirmative action, like immigration, divides rather than unites the rainbow. Ensuring the proportional representation of blacks and Hispanics in universities means discriminating against academically gifted Asian-Americans. The evolution of nonwhite-majority states such as California and Texas may not have the optimistic result rainbow liberals expect. As the percentage of whites diminishes, blacks and Hispanics and Asians will likely turn on one another, with representatives of each category demanding a “fair share” of political offices, jobs, and opportunities for higher education. Strict proportional representation, however, means overall racial numbers won’t be a floor, but a cap. Blacks, who tend to be overrepresented in civil service jobs, would have no more than 12.5 percent of the positions in, say, the post office. Black representation in government jobs and politics would become directly threatened by the rainbow liberals’ own policies. Indeed, in absolute numbers most of the beneficiaries of affirmative action (if it is not abolished) will soon be white women and immigrants from Latin America — not the black Americans for whom the program was intended in the first place. (By 1993, 74.9 percent of legal immigrants were eligible for affirmative action on the basis of race.)

Of course, in recent years the right has lost few chances to hammer a wedge between the bands of the rainbow, contrasting “hardworking” immigrants with the native black and white poor.

The Left’s Accidental Suicide

If a multicultural right threatens to kill rainbow liberalism, the left unwittingly may be acting as its own Dr. Kevorkian. We are so used to the routinized debate between the multicultural left and the unicultural right that we can hardly imagine a contest for the future of America between a multicultural right and a class-based, nationalist left. Throughout history, however, it has generally been the left that has favored more inclusive identities — class, nation, humanity — over the parochialisms of race, region, religion, and ethnicity. In the early 20th century, it should be recalled, the idea of the melting pot was progressive, if not radical. It has been conservatives and reactionaries who defended the parochial and the particular. Today, of course, it is the left that tends to insist on the permanence and inviolability of racial categories (misdescribed as “cultures”) and to be hostile to the idea of a melting pot.

Liberals long before now should have seen that in many cases economics creates a community of interest between blacks and whites against immigration. The reason low-income whites have no prominent role in the left-liberal rainbow has to do with the evolution of the Democratic Party in the 1960s and the 1970s. During and after the civil rights revolution, black Americans found many allies among affluent whites (who did not compete with urban blacks for jobs and housing) and many of their political opponents among working-class whites (who often saw blacks as rivals). In taking over the Democratic Party, however, the civil rights coalition drove enough white Southerners and working-class Northern Catholics into the GOP to permit the Republicans to dominate first the presidency and now Congress.

Yet the New Deal coalition might have been kept intact while promoting the goals of the civil rights revolution. A white ethnic/white populist/black alliance against the bicoastal white overclass would not have been any more bizarre than the alliance of black Americans with wealthy white feminists against working-class white Catholics. A majority of liberal thinkers and activists, however, opted for rainbow liberalism. Instead of treating blacks as “ethnics” and “immigrants” who were owed an informal share in the spoils system, the liberal leadership has treated immigrant ethnic groups from Latin America and Asia, and even white women (whom it regards as members of a quasi-minority group), as “races,” defined against a white power structure.

One Nation, Under Elvis

What is now needed is an alternative American liberalism, or liberal populism, that rejects the rainbow strategy in order to concentrate on the interests of working Americans from all backgrounds. Call it “one-nation liberalism.” This would draw the lines differently. For example, affirmative action would be replaced by programs based on the horizontal line between classes, rather than the vertical lines between races.

One-nation liberals would not take it for granted that black Americans belong with immigrants from Latin America and Asia in a coalition opposed to native white Americans. The two largest groups of Americans living below the poverty level, in absolute numbers, are low-income whites and blacks. If immigration policy is considered as it should be — a form of labor policy — then the “liberal” approach ought to be to minimize the immigration of low-wage workers who might compete with the American working poor (including naturalized immigrants). A pro-labor immigration policy would not be xenophobic or racist; its logic would disfavor low-income white immigrants from postcommunist Europe.

If race is strategy, so is culture. To unite working-class and poor whites with working-class and poor blacks (at the expense, if necessary, of high levels of low-wage immigrants), a one-nation liberal coalition needs to be reinforced by a common identity. Such a superordinate community shared by whites and blacks, along with Americans of other backgrounds, cannot be defined by race (given the legacy of America’s bipolar caste system); it might, just might, be provided by culture — the disproportionately black vernacular culture shared by American whites and blacks alike. That common national culture is Judeo-Christian, not Black Muslim; its holidays are Thanksgiving and Christmas and the Fourth of July, not Yul or Kwanza; its common institutions include sports and the military; its mythic homeland is not Europe or Africa, but North America; and it can find symbols in vernacular-culture heroes like Elvis Presley, the mixed-race, white/Cherokee prole who sang like a black man.

Many thinkers and artists on the left envisioned such an eclectic vernacular culture after the 1930s, when they rejected both European high culture and commercial kitsch in favor of the folk-influenced high art epitomized by Woody Guthrie, Aaron Copland, Jacob Lawrence, and Martha Graham. Today, Bruce Springsteen is one of the rare artists who recognizes the political as well as the artistic promise of this venerable and rich tradition.

Does one-nation liberalism slight the cultures of immigrants who arrived a week ago? Don’t they represent the destiny of American culture? What about that fabled symbol of our supposed cosmopolitan future, the sushi burrito?

The radical transformation of American culture by the influx of new immigrants is unlikely. Historians have long recognized that later immigrant groups tend to assimilate to the founding cultures in an area. Americans of German and Irish descent today outnumber Americans of English and African descent. Nevertheless, the German and Irish elements of the common culture are minuscule by comparison. The same may occur with today’s Asian and Latin American immigrants (though Mexican culture, because of Mexico’s proximity, may prove more enduring and influential). Within a generation, outside of the most homogeneous ethnic enclaves, these immigrants — even the Mexican-Americans — will only speak English, and with the loss of their native languages will go all but a few nonpolitical foreign traditions.

Among other things, this means that if conservatives appeal to Mexican- Americans by waving the U.S. flag and invoking Abraham Lincoln, while the left waves the red, white, and green and invokes Quetzalcoatl and Father Hidalgo, the right is likely to win. The left too often forgets that voluntary immigrants have come here — whether from Germany, Ireland, Mexico, or China — because they want to become Americans, to join a huge, diffuse nationality that, though far from cosmopolitan, is much more inclusive than most nations in the world. Liberals who generally favor personal choice have no business condemning, as “inauthentic,” immigrants who choose to adopt America’s mongrel culture as their own.

Some veterans of the left, having retreated from the political battlefield to campuses and editorial offices, may find all of this incomprehensible. A transracial populist liberalism, uniting non-elite whites and blacks, and encouraging the assimilation of immigrants to America’s historic mulatto culture? Please — we’d rather wax rhapsodic about the dissolution of the nation-state thanks to the Internet, and ponder the significance of that sushi burrito.

It is easy to stick with the old rainbow strategy and hope that in time nonwhite majorities will bring about the repeatedly deferred revolution, just as it is easy to continue to treat inherited racial categories and alliances as facts of nature, rather than as constructs serving time-bound (and perhaps obsolete) strategies. Easy, but disastrous — for the rejection of strategy is itself a strategy for defeat.

Michael Lind is the author of The Next American Nation (Free Press, 1995) and Up From Conservatism (Free Press, 1996).


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