Identity Rights at the Expense of “Raising All Boats”?

Some political scientists and historians blame the focus on individual and group’s rights in the 1960s for the downfall or watering-down of modern FDR-style liberalism. Some argue that each group went more and more their own way—Latino rights or Chicano rights or gay rights or Black rights, etc—which dispersed their overall power. The second group sees the whole movement towards civil rights as a move away from a battle for economic reform, the better choice of the two. Both, it seems to me, have it wrong.

The first group essentially argues that by being too radical, demanding too much equality as it were, they undermined their own power to get things done. On this issue, I’m fairly undecided. There is strength in numbers. Over the years, budding socialist parties and movements in the US have realized this and, to varying degrees of earnestness, adopted inclusive, unifying rhetoric (a stand united approach attacking class exploitation as well as sexism, racism, etc.). This brand of socialism seems to be exemplified by the socialist books coming out of Haymarket Press such as Sherry Wolf’s Sexuality and Socialism with the agenda of convincing a reader that fighting homophobia and fighting for socialism go hand in hand. But, I was left unconvinced since I always get the feeling (with texts of this kind) that the factors of sexuality, race, and gender take a back seat to class-based analysis or change. This leads me to discuss the second group.

An example of this idea is embodied by Alan Brinkley, historian of the US of the early 20th century. An implicit claim lies in his book, The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War, which argues that “individual” rights advocated for in the 1960s and 1970s can be blamed for ending of the economic, “larger” rights pursued by the New Deal era reformers.

This gets at the crux of the issue for both groups: I’ve YET (I’m still looking you see) to find proof that New Deal reforms would raise boats equally (or even equitably) for women and people of color (which is to say nothing of the homosexual community or others) without the successes of the various paths of the Civil Rights Movements or the Women’s Movements. But, “A rising sea raises all boats,” is the classic counter, but A) it’s weird that socialists (or individuals of the Left generally) should ever be making this argument because B) that sea is economic and has never risen evenly. One group might rise very high while others will gain only a little elevation. This is to say, without the Civil Rights Movement, the continuation of New Deal reforms may have only raised white boats.

This is only to say that some scholars criticize the wrong group (if you are to emphasize one over another as they do). If anything, even if we are to assume that economic victories of the left would help out more people economically, we should keep in mind Du Bois’ famous ideas that racism ultimately hurts whites as it does non-whites (I by no means mean to imply that it did in comparable ways).

Each argument discussed above amounts to blaming not the oppressive group who refused to address racism and sexism and homophobia in earlier reform, but the oppressed who had to place their own civil rights on the backburner in favor of reforms that many of them didn’t (and wouldn’t had if it had not been for the movements of the 60s and 70s) get the chance to profit from. (I also portray it as being largely singular in dimension because that’s so often how those arguments go—modernists and structuralists rarely like admitting multiple causalities; I think they think it makes them appear muddled.)

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