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It is worth viewing the assault on Critical Race Theory through a slightly different lens.
If we look at what is known as “Western Civilization,” there have been three waves of social progress in recent history. The first wave was the assertion of basic human rights: People are citizens, not the property of lords and kings. The first markers for this wave were the French Revolution and our Declaration of Independence. (Note: for those already thinking, “But what about . . . “ be patient. I’ll get there.)
The second wave of progress was the establishment of basic economic rights: In a decent society, you don’t let people die in the street. The markers here were social insurance in Europe and the New Deal and Great Society laws in the United States.
In each of these two waves, large groups were excluded, most notably women, racial minorities, people with disabilities and LGBTQ people (I told you I’d get there.). Two examples: As a result of the Fifteenth Amendment, Black men had the (technical) right to vote, but white women did not until well into the 20th Century. And, those New Deal laws consciously excluded Black people, the price President Roosevelt paid for Southern Democratic support to secure passage. Specifically, Social Security excluded agricultural and domestic workers for purely racial reasons — kind of affirmative action for white people.
That brings us to the third wave of social progress, the one we are living in today: The inclusion of the groups that were excluded in the first two waves. Starting with the female suffragists, then the Civil Rights Movement, the Gay Rights Movement and the various movements on behalf of persons with disabilities.
Here is the crunch: Despite the obvious and egregious injustices in the worlds that existed – and exist today – none of these three waves of progress went in a straight line. Each produced a powerful reactionary movement to block and roll back change. We are now in the late stages of the reactionary movement that began with “white backlash” in the mid-1960s.
Reaction is now the most potent and destructive political force in our country, having woven together racial bigotry, plutocratic greed and corporate power, along with the transformation of the Republican Party into the White People’s National Party. All of it fueled by the media reach of the now openly fascistic Fox News and other far-right media.
The reactionary movement’s goals are not only to roll back this third wave and put these previously excluded groups “back in their place” as, at best, second class citizens, but also to advance the Bradley, Koch, Menard, Hendricks agenda, to roll back economic and social gains going back to the New Deal or earlier.
Almost a century ago, in explaining the destructive power of reactionary movements, the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead stated, “It is the first step in sociological wisdom to recognize that the major advances in civilization are processes which all but wreck the societies in which they occur.”
An exaggeration? Take a look around: extreme inequality, with a sliver of vast wealth along with vast numbers of impoverished, hungry and homeless people living in the most unequal advanced society on earth; a substantial portion of the white population that believes that they are the true victims of racism and support violence to remedy the perceived injustice; decaying physical, health and social infrastructure; and one of America’s two major political parties that is led by a sociopath, and, like Hezbollah, now has an armed wing of white extremist militias that have already tried to overthrow our elected government.
The consequences of our reactionary age have been profound for Milwaukee’s historically working-class neighborhoods. That is especially true when these consequences are linked to deindustrialization and the city’s long-standing racial attitudes, especially the widespread white belief that “the colored are treated good here.”
While Trumpism has poisoned the nation, it is important to note that Walkerism did much the same in Wisconsin, with racial animus and plutocratic wealth being the drivers. In their current downward spiral, for Wisconsin Republicans, cruelty is no longer a collateral effect of public policy, it is now the goal. For those living in 53206, it’s “The worse, the better. All bad things are proof that Black people have brought it all on themselves.” The comments section of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is a daily seminar on these themes.
The third age of reaction is in its terminal phase.
There is a core message here: Milwaukee’s salvation is going to have to come from within the city.
If these are realities, what can be done? For many people in Milwaukee, especially older ones (across racial groups), there is a belief that nothing can be done. They have succumbed to a self-fulfilling pessimism, and in the process, have given the forces of reaction a clear victory. At leadership levels, this pessimism often takes the self-reinforcing form of thinking small about big problems.
Here is a hopefully hopeful suggestion: Don’t start with problems. Start with trust building — a difficult but critical process — and a broadly shared vision of a better future, of peaceful and healthy communities. Have residents describe those healthy communities, and make the obstacles to achieving that brighter future the action agenda. And then have leaders (government, corporate and philanthropic/nonprofit) spell out how they will address and implement an action plan.
Finally, engage younger leaders, and don’t waste your time on aging pessimists and cynics, whatever their race, unless you are a Catholic adherent of Saint Jude, the patron saint of lost causes.
Frank Schneiger is the founder and president of Frank Schneiger and Associates., a planning and change management company serving the nonprofit and public service sectors.