Americans on the left, right, and center agree that America has too much inequality. They just can’t agree on what kind of inequality to complain about. Unable to agree on what the problem is, they cannot agree on the solution. Three different definitions of inequality are offered: economic inequality, cultural inequality, and inequality as demographic disparity.
Economic inequality is the focus of the remnants of the old socialist, social democratic, and labor left. Old-fashioned socialists propose to abolish the class system by abolishing class distinctions. Old-fashioned social democrats propose to ameliorate the class system by transforming basic needs—health care, education, housing, dependent care—from luxuries purchased out of after-tax wages into goods that are either publicly provided or subsidized by government. Old-fashioned labor liberals may support social democratic programs, but they are skeptical about the benign nature of government and would prefer to enhance the power of workers to use collective bargaining to raise their wages, minimizing their dependence on employers and government alike.
For their part, members of the new populist right tend to focus on inequality of cultural power in America. They correctly believe that every major institution in the United States, with the exception of directly elected officials—the judiciary, the civil service, the U.S. military, corporations, banks, corporate publishing, the corporate media, and the universities—has been captured by a semihereditary, college-educated overclass whose social views are well to the left of America’s working-class majority, white and nonwhite alike. The managerial-professional overclass, a numerical minority, uses any institution under its control to impose its class culture and class values on the rest of American society, whether by purging conservative, libertarian, and leftist faculty and students from universities, canceling books and programs that dissent from overclass orthodoxy, or conditioning bank lending to firms and industries on promotion of overclass-approved social goals.
This brings us to the view of inequality promoted by the center. By “the center” I do not mean the actual center of opinion in the U.S. population as a whole. Such a national “center” would be slightly to the left on economics and slightly to the right on social values. What is called “the center” in American politics is the political center of gravity of the college-educated overclass minority: fairly libertarian in areas like trade, immigration, and deregulation, while supportive of radical liberal causes like “gender fluidity” and race and gender quotas for all institutions.
In the new orthodoxy of overclass centrism, inequality is identified with disparities in the representation of racial and gender groups (but not religious or class groups) in different occupations and income layers. The goal is not to eliminate class distinctions, or even to reduce the economic distance between classes. Rather, the goal of what is misleadingly called “equity” is to ensure that the share of the U.S. population of each race and gender identified by the most recent U.S. Census is replicated in all fields and all organizations. Hispanic Americans make up around 17% of the U.S. population; therefore, 17% of all sports teams and yoga schools must be Hispanic. Women are slightly more than half of the U.S. population; therefore, they must be slightly more than half of all engineers, construction workers, barbershop quartets, and special operations commandos. If any group is underrepresented in any class, category, or institution in American society, then it is “underserved.”
The mistake made by woke theorists of “structural racism” is to confuse two completely different things: the perpetuation of family privilege by inertia, generation after generation—which can occur in the absence of conscious or unconscious racism—and present-day racial discrimination. If today’s “anti-racists” were serious about reducing major disparities among white and Black Americans left over from slavery and segregation, they would not waste their efforts on “diversity training” designed to change the attitudes of contemporary white Americans, who are more liberal with respect to race than ever before. They would focus instead on broad, race-neutral economic reforms.
This was the view of the greatest civil rights leaders of the mid-20th century. In 1967, the A. Philip Randolph Institute published A “Freedom Budget” for All Americans. Note the phrase “All Americans.” Implicitly rejecting the idea of reparations for American descendants of slaves, the proponents of the Freedom Budget—including Martin Luther King Jr., who wrote the foreword—argued for race-neutral job creation and benefits policies that, although they would disproportionately help the Black poor, would also help whites, who then as now made up a numerical majority of the poor in the United States. In the introduction, Randolph wrote:
These forces have not come together to demand help for the Negro. Rather, we meet on a common ground of determination that in this, the richest and most productive society ever known to man, the scourge of poverty can and must be abolished … The tragedy is that the working of our economy so often pit the white poor and the black poor against each other at the bottom of society.
King, Randolph, and Bayard Rustin—among other civil rights leaders of the ’60s who favored race-neutral job creation programs—would have been appalled by a new program backed by the Oakland, California, city council. The Oakland program uses private funds to give $500 a month to “Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) families … with low incomes and at least 1 child under 18, regardless of documentation status,” according to the funder, Oakland Resilient Families. Poor residents of Oakland defined as “non-Hispanic whites” would not be eligible for the universal basic income, but foreign nationals who sneaked into the United States or overstayed their visa and remain in violation of federal law would be rewarded with monthly payments even if they do not work.
The price of the Freedom Budget doomed it at the time, and its details were designed for the midcentury manufacturing economy. While programs must change with the times, in principle the old-fashioned labor left that inspired the Freedom Budget has always been right about how to address the lingering aftermath of American apartheid. They were correct that reducing the legacy of historic discrimination by reducing class differences in life outcomes and opportunities requires a race-neutral approach.
For example, different minimum wages for Black, Hispanic, white, Asian American, and Native American workers would be an administrative impossibility, even if it were not also a moral monstrosity. So would collective bargaining on the basis of race or gender, rather than occupation or industry. The poor, hungry descendants of Confederate planters deserve access to food stamps as much as the poor, hungry descendants of those the planters tyrannized—today they are all poor and hungry, and while the Nazis revived the barbaric concept of hereditary guilt, it is alien and repugnant to all liberal societies.
The mainstream liberal coalition of the civil rights era was right that race-neutral economic reform, not race-and-gender quotas, was and is the necessary sequel to desegregation in America. For its part, the new populist right is correct that power exercised through private corporations, private nonprofits, and private media institutions is still power. If an oppressive national oligarchy uses nongovernmental bureaucracies to impose its moral and political agenda on society without the need to pass laws, then it is perfectly legitimate for America’s multiracial majority, through its elected representatives, to use the only institution in which ordinary people are at least partly represented—elective government.
Even if elected officials fail in their battles with the oligarchy, they can provide voices for the voiceless. Thanks to a kind of parliamentary immunity, elected politicians in the United States are still allowed to raise questions about the dogmas of overclass orthodoxy, from gender fluidity to open borders to police abolition to race and gender quotas, which might get ordinary Americans fired from their jobs in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. The floors of Congress and the state legislatures may be the last zones of free speech and free thought in woke capitalism’s America.
It remains to be seen if the traditional labor left’s critique of economic inequality and the populist right’s critique of inequality of cultural power can be united in a new majoritarian alliance to defeat the divide-and-rule identity politics strategy of America’s pseudo-centrist oligarchy. Failure to do so means the entrenchment of both economic and cultural inequality under a national nomenklatura that is more profit-minded than its Soviet predecessor but no more tolerant of dissent or debate.
Michael Lind is a columnist at Tablet and a fellow at New America. His most recent book is The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite.