Demographics Will Not Rescue Us

One day after this election is over I am going to write a piece about how Latino is a contrived ethnic category that artificially lumps white Cubans with Black Puerto Ricans and Indigenous Guatemalans and helps explains why Latinos support Trump at the second highest rate.

Tweet on November 3 from historian and journalist Nikole Hannah Jones

One of the most fundamental things we learn as children, and reinforce for the rest of our lives, is seeking similarities. From sorting our toys by shape and color, to the Linnaean taxonomy that underlies biology, to endless amounts of inept political guesswork, we rely on categories to help us make sense of a complex world.

It’s crucial to remember that all categories are the answers to particular questions. A piano, for instance, would be classified differently by your high-school music teacher (classroom equipment, like a whiteboard), your furniture mover (heavy and finicky, like a pool table), and your accountant (expensive, like a sports car). Same thing, placed in different boxes by people who hold a different interest in it.

In reviews of my book The Adjunct Underclass, I took criticism from several commentators who took umbrage with what they saw as a conflation of categories. Adjuncts, they said, were not the same as graduate students or post-doctoral researchers or the college’s IT worker who teaches an occasional software course. And in some ways, they absolutely are not. They fill different category systems in the university’s org chart; they have different jobs. And yet… if we ask the question “Who conducts a significant amount of the work of higher education with no offer of permanence and no protection of intellectual freedom?”, then we absolutely are warranted in a larger inclusion of people who properly answer that question.

We are in a desperate search today for the demographic key that will unlock our understanding of America. We believe that Red and Blue America can be explained by gender, by ethnicity, by age. By education, by religion, by urban and suburban and rural. By social media platforms, by relationship to the former Union and Confederacy. I read a fascinating piece yesterday that talked about the power of talk radio for lonely people who do dull work all day; is that our master demographic variable?

What questions will we ask to understand ourselves?

It’s important also to understand the difference between a category and a coalition. When we need to gain political power—whether in a workplace or a neighborhood or in a national election—we gather together people with whom we otherwise might not have too much in common.

When I first went to Muskegon Catholic Central high school in 9th grade, I walked into a cafeteria that already had most of its social sorting figured out. There were Sacred Heart tables and St. Francis de Sales tables, St. Michael the Archangel tables and St. Thomas the Apostle tables. Ten different parishes that sent their kids to a unified high school, parishes dividing our county geographically, and thus also dividing our county by family origin: the Irish Catholics, the Italian Catholics, and the Polish Catholics. All those kids had been clustered in their ten different K-8 parish schools, had their intramural rivalries. But when Friday night came along and the Crusaders took the field, those small internal differences were set aside in favor of mutual hatred of the Mona Shores Sailors, or the Muskegon Heights Tigers, an army of thousands of spectators wearing their green-and-gold allegiance alongside people they would never have encountered at work or in a restaurant.

We often don’t think of ourselves as an us until we need to be afraid of a them. And so a lot of social and political organization is based on fear, on knowing that we are small and must band together with others to become larger in the face of an oppression or an injustice.

The term Asian American was created in 1968 by Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee, and fostered in the universities of the San Francisco Bay Area, a region with a substantial Asian population. After centuries of exclusion and demonization, in the shadow of the recent history of internment, and in the heat of the immediate involvement in Vietnam, a diverse community became a coalition in common resistance to larger American policies. The term heartland, though it has a longer history, was politically employed in the 1970s by those who felt that their industrial and farming lives were at risk in a broader global and strategic economy. It’s another coalition, embracing a diverse underlying membership ranging from a Lubbock cotton worker to Betsy DeVos, people who certainly wouldn’t be members of the same country clubs.

Coalitions are based on perceived oppression or perceived threat. The Neo-Nazi chant of “You will not replace us!” is the howl of a coalition explicitly perceiving its cultural superiority as threatened. Our local State house election was won by a coalition of people who have little enough in common. We had the anti-abortion community, the pro-gun community, and the no-tax community all banding together in the face of some perceived communist overthrow of American values. Three thousand years of political history seems to be summed up in the ancient Sanskrit wisdom, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Who we fear seems to be a huge component of who we are.

Theory is based on classification; practice is based on specificity. One of my fictional characters, a relatively ruthless policy analyst, once sent an email to another character saying “Public policy 101: you can’t worry about every blade of grass if you want to get the lawn mowed.” But the gift that artists give us is the relentless focus on specificity, on the exact and unique detail that sets this moment apart from any other. The world of specificity, of love, of art, of care, has no room for that impulse to casually ignore the individual.

As much as anything, I’m tired of partisanship because it is incapable of love and attentiveness. We are by necessity reduced to one demographic cluster or another in order to get the lawn mowed. And so those who set the strategy find fear to be a fundamentally effective tool in coalition-building.

That’s why I’m so committed to a writerly practice of seeing the world as generous and open to possibility. I just don’t see any way forward from the coalitions of fear and oppression. It’s time for us to turn to what Carol Gilligan called an ethics of care, an ethics that privileges compassion above justice. It’s harder work, because it requires us to see individuals and their context rather than categories and their opposition. But the alternative, as we’ve seen, is monstrous.

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