Cornel West – Democrats delivered one thing in the past 100 days: disappointment

The time has come to bid farewell to a moribund party that lacks imagination, courage and gusto

Nancy Pelosi
‘The 2016 election – which Democrats lost more than Republicans won – was the straw that broke the camel’s back.’ Photograph: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The distinctive feature of these bleak times is the lack of institutional capacity on the left – the absence of a political party that swings free of Wall Street and speaks to the dire circumstances of poor and working people. As the first 100 days of the plutocratic and militaristic Trump administration draw to a close, one truth has been crystal clear: the Democratic party lacks the vision, discipline and leadership to guide progressives in these turbulent times.

The neoliberal vision of the Democratic party has run its course. The corporate wing has made it clear that the populist wing has little power or place in its future. The discipline of the party is strong on self-preservation and weak on embracing new voices. And party leaders too often revel in self-righteousness and self-pity rather than self-criticism and self-enhancement. The time has come to bid farewell to a moribund party that lacks imagination, courage and gusto.

The 2016 election – which Democrats lost more than Republicans won – was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The unfair treatment of Bernie Sanders was but the peak of the iceberg. In the face of a cardboard Republican candidate equipped with pseudo-populist rhetoric and ugly xenophobic plans, the Democratic party put forward a Wall Street-connected and openly militaristic candidate with little charisma.

The crucial issues of a $15 minimum wage and saying no to fracking, no to TPP, no to Israeli occupation and yes to single-payer healthcare were pushed aside by the corporate wing and the populist wing was told to quit whining or take responsibility for the improbable loss.

The monumental collapse of the Democratic party – on the federal, state and local levels – has not yielded any serious soul-wrestling or substantive visionary shifts among its leadership. Only the ubiquitous and virtuous Bernie remains true to the idea of fundamental transformation of the party – and even he admits that seeking first-class seats on the Titanic is self-deceptive and self-destructive.

We progressives need new leadership and institutional capacity that provides strong resistance to Trump’s vicious policies, concrete alternatives that matter to ordinary citizens and credible visions that go beyond Wall Street priorities and militaristic policies. And appealing to young people is a good testing ground.

Even as we forge a united front against Trump’s neofascist efforts, we must admit the Democratic party has failed us and we have to move on. Where? To what? When brother Nick Brana, a former Bernie campaign staffer, told me about the emerging progressive populist or social democratic party – the People’s party – that builds on the ruins of a dying Democratic party and creates new constituencies in this moment of transition and liquidation, I said count me in.

And if a class-conscious multi-racial party attuned to anti-sexist, anti-homophobic and anti-militaristic issues and grounded in ecological commitments can reconfigure our citizenship, maybe our decaying democracy has a chance. And if brother Bernie Sanders decides to join us – with many others, including sister Jill Stein and activists from Black Lives Matter and brown immigrant groups and Standing Rock freedom fighters and betrayed working people – we may build something for the near future after Trump implodes.

Why Trumpian Conspiracy Theories and Anti-Semitism Are Intimately Connected


Our modern political climate has helped bolster the oldest conspiracy theory of all.

Photo Credit: (Richard Semik) / Shutterstock

Earlier this month, white nationalists found cause to rejoice. The culprit behind many of the bomb threats plaguing JCCs and Jewish schools around the country — a young American-Israeli man living in Ashkelon, in the south of Israel — was arrested. The teenager, apparently utilizing sophisticated identity-masking methods, was responsible for a yet-unknown but apparently large proportion of the bomb threats terrorizing toddlers, schoolchildren, and Jews at prayer, according to Israeli police.

For white nationalists like David Duke, the suspect’s religion was proof of a theory they had championed: that Jews, in a coordinated plot, had created the attacks to “get sympathy to push their ethnic agenda.” A popular meme, “Hey rabbi…watcha doin’?,” resurfaced: It depicts a hook-nosed Jewish stereotype spray-painting a swastika onto the wall of a synagogue. Reactions to the unlikely arrest further proved the durability, in a conspiratorial age, of the oldest conspiracy theory of all: anti-Semitism.

Defenders of Donald Trump viewed the arrest as a vindication of the president, whose few months in office have coincided with a striking rise in hate crimes. In a press briefing last week, Sean Spicer used the JCC bomb threat arrest to dismiss a question about an unrelated offense, urging the public not to “jump to conclusions” about the perpetrators of hate crimes — and stating that “the president was right.”

When asked in February about the steadily climbing number of anti-Semitic incidents during his time in office, including the bomb threats, President Trump had reportedly suggested that the Jewish community at large was behind the incidents.

“Sometimes it’s the reverse, to make people — or to make others — look bad,” Trump said, according to Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who was present at a meeting between Trump and state attorneys general.

It was this insinuation that Spicer claimed the arrest of a 19-year-old in Ashkelon had vindicated. But in his conversation with the attorneys general, Trump did not cite evidence from a months-long joint investigation between the F.B.I. and Israeli authorities that led to Ashkelon’s arrest. Nor would it be right to draw conclusions about the political motivations of a single, warped individual whose lawyer has stated that a brain tumor may have contributed to his alarming behavior. Moreover, most of the 330 incidents of anti-Semitic hate crime ProPublica has documented since January have been impossible to conduct remotely, such as the swastikas daubed on sidewalks and synagogues. The NYPD cites a 94% increase in anti-Semitic hate crime compared to this time last year; meanwhile, several high-profile incidents of cemetery vandalism — resulting in the toppling of hundreds of Jewish gravestones in Philadelphia and St. Louis — as yet have no confirmed culprits.

What is certain, however, is that Trump’s answer on anti-Semitism — positing, without citing evidence, a political plot — encapsulates his tendency to think conspiratorially. It’s a tendency he’s shown for years, before and throughout his presidential campaign and ascent to power, from birtherism to phantom wiretaps. But it manifests most clearly in the way he clings to falsehood, no matter how many times he is presented with fact. Trump has been a guest on InfoWars, Alex Jones’ notorious conspiracy-peddling radio show; he prefers the expostulations of 9/11 truther and ousted Fox News contributor Andrew Napolitano to those of his own Department of Justice. In the President’s mind, Ted Cruz’s dad helped kill JFK, Barack Obama literally founded ISIS, and the Jews, as a whole, are threatening their own kindergartens. (The tenacity of these beliefs was put on astonishing display in a recent interview with Time magazine.)

The mainstreaming of conspiratorial thinking and the rise in overt hostility towards Jews are intimately connected. As Alana Newhouse put it in Tablet Magazine, anti-Semitism is not a social prejudice against Jews. It has very little to do, Newhouse writes, with any individual’s distaste for perceived Jewish traits, or even antipathy towards specific Jews. Anti-Semitism in its classic sense is the belief that there is a malevolent entity behind the curtain, pulling the strings, and that that entity is a Jew.

“Racism is a prejudice, but it’s not rooted in conspiracy theory, as anti-Semitism is,” Deborah Lipstadt, a prominent scholar of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, told me in an interview last September. Anti-Semitism is present, too, in nearly every conspiracy-theory community; Lipstadt noted, for example, the outsize presence of the Mossad in “alternate” theories of 9/11. Even people from deeply marginal movements, like those who embrace Flat Earth Theory — the belief, as the name suggests, that the earth is really flat and NASA is a sinister fraud — frequently blame the Jews for their role in the “cover-up” of earth’s flatness. As one poster on the Flat Earth Society message board put it, space missions are “all lies…as you’d expect from a media/government/academia totally controlled by jews[sic].”

Trump’s campaign — and presidency — have played repeatedly into the hands of anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists. One infamous tweet juxtaposed Hillary Clinton, a Jewish star, and piles of cash. And a late-stage campaign ad depicted American Jews like Janet Yellen and George Soros as a narrator solemnly intoned about “trillions of dollars” in the hands of “global special interests.” Behind the anti-Semitic dog whistles lurked a braying pack of alt-right hounds who did not hesitate to savage Jewish critics and their supporters alike.

The notion that some malevolence lurks in Jewish singularity, that a refusal to assimilate is a cover for darker impulses, is an ancient one. In the Medieval era, Jews were said to have poisoned wells, to bake the blood of Christian children into matzahs. With the advent of industrialization, theories of Jewish malevolence grew broader and darker: 19th-century nationalists depicted Jews as inherently disloyal to their countries, their purported loyalty to the nebulous entity of “world Jewry” supplanting their loyalty to their own homelands. In the last century, Nazi cartoons depicted the Jew as an octopus encircling the globe, slimy tentacles smothering every continent. A 1940 Nazi film sought to cast this characterization as a timeless truth: It was called “The Eternal Jew.”

Last year, the term “fake news” came into prominence to describe a rash of false accounts, of dubious and possibly Russian origin, promulgated in the lead-up to the Presidential election. Since then, the term has boomeranged against its makers — and is frequently to be heard from a President openly hostile to the media. For Jews, however, the original “fake news” (also, incidentally, of Russian origin), dates back more than a century, to the 1903 publication of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the principal modern text of anti-Semitic conspiracy — and an object lesson in how difficult it is to debunk appealing falsehoods.

Top: Cover page from “Protocols of the Elders of Zion’. Bottom: poster from ‘The Eternal Jew.’ (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The Protocols purported to be a record of a meeting between Jewish leaders, and was initially presented as the minutes of the first World Zionist Congress in Basel, in 1897. The text listed arenas of the modern world over which Jews sought to establish control — from banks to the press to modern states themselves, and their wars; the Elders’ plan would culminate in a totalistic Jewish domination of the world. After its original appearance in the Russian newspaper Znamya in 1903, it was translated into German and widely disseminated in 1920; it was presented to American audiences as The International Jew the same yearWhat is remarkable — and sadly illustrative — about the text was that its debunking was nearly simultaneous with its promulgation. In 1920 the Protocols were revealed to be a clumsy fake, largely plagiarized from a 19th-century French work of political satire, Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu. The Times of London ran a 1921 exposé; in 1924, a German-language debunking was published by journalist Benjamin Segel.

And yet Hitler used it extensively in his campaign to illustrate Jewish malevolence; so, too, did Henry Ford and Father Charles Coughlin, in the United States. Forty-three years after the New York Herald first published its takedown of the Protocols, “The History of a Lie,” the Senate Judiciary Committee felt compelled to publish its own report, calling the work “A Fabricated ‘Historic’ Document” in 1964. But the work continues to be published all over the world, and is readily available online, to astound first-time readers who may feel as if the curtain is finally being lifted — the dark plot undergirding their unhappiness at last unveiled. The continual success of the Protocols is a stark illustration of the swift spread of alluring untruths, and the ways in which debunking fake news cannot curb its continual appeal.

Fake news — like conspiracy theories — can be immune to fact-based reproach. They resonate with devotees precisely because they contradict the consensus view of reality with which they are unhappy, and purport to vanquish defenders of the status quo.

Anti-Semitism is non-partisan. It exists both on the right and on the left (though leftist anti-Semites often sub in “Zionists” for “Jews”) lurking on the fringes, wherever counter-narratives to established truth are offered to eager listeners. (I am not conflating anti-Zionism, or harsh criticism of the Israeli government, with anti-Semitism; rather, I refer to those on the far left who are eager to explain how Zionists rig elections worldwide, and how global capitalism is shaped by Jewish greed and Rothschild gold.) In times that feel profoundly unstable, and in which the nature of reality is drawn into question by the executive branch of the American government itself, alternative explanations, with their sinister Soroses, are more appealing than ever.

For American Jews, many of whom have felt profound comfort and inclusion in the past half-century — and who have, in turn, shaped American culture in profound ways — the events of the past few months have been deeply unsettling. Warning knells sounded throughout a conspiracy-laced campaign, as Jewish journalists covering Trump faced unprecedented volumes of anti-Semitic abuse. But the two-fronted attack on preschools and cemeteries, children and the dead, coupled with swastika graffiti cropping up on street corners and synagogues, have left a sense of profound unease in their wake. (“Are Jews White?” asked a December headline in the Atlantic, a potent summation of these fears.)

A popular European story in the 15th century told the tale of the “Wandering Jew,” an immortal Jerusalem shoemaker cursed to wander from place to place for eternity. The term became a metonym for the Jewish people themselves— illustrative of both their immortality and the impermanence of their residence in any one country. While this was — and continues to be — cast as a malevolent Jewish trait, the central irony is that that impermanence is caused by the rise of prejudice against a minority that has retained its separateness, and its traditions, for millennia. The postwar embrace of Jews in America felt giddy, complete, perhaps eternal. And yet thousands of Jews facing hate crimes across the country have been driven to question that permanence this year.

In an era in which reality itself is in dispute, can America’s Jews dodge the rise of the most enduring conspiracy theory of all?

Why Aren’t Bernie Sanders-Style Democrats Getting More Support from the Party Leaders in Washington?

In Kansas, the Democrats barely lifted a finger to help James Thompson, a progressive who came painfully close to winning. That’s a losing strategy.

Photo Credit: Screenshot / YouTube

Since losing the presidency to a Cheeto-hued reality TV host, the Democratic party’s leadership has made it clear that it would rather keep losing than entertain even the slightest whiff of New Deal style social democracy.

The Bernie Sanders wing might bring grassroots energy and – if the polls are to be believed – popular ideas, but their redistributive policies pose too much of a threat to the party’s big donors to ever be allowed on the agenda.

Even a symbolic victory cedes too much to those youthful, unwashed hordes who believe healthcare and education are human rights and not extravagant luxuries, as we saw when the Democratic establishment recruited Tom Perez to defeat the electorate-backed progressive Keith Ellison for DNC chair.

The Democrats demonstrated this once more this week when, in a special election triggered by Trump’s tapping of Mike Pompeo for CIA director, a Berniecrat named James Thompson came painfully close to winning a Kansas Congressional seat that had been red for over two decades, and his party didn’t even try to help him.

If Thompson’s picture is not on the Wikipedia page for “left-wing populism,” it really should be. Following a difficult upbringing during which he was homeless for a time, he joined the Army and attended college on the GI bill. He went on to graduate from Wichita State University and Washburn University before going into practice as a civil rights lawyer. He owns guns and looks natural in a trucker hat.

In a Reddit AMA, Thompson said he was “inspired to run by Bernie” and talked about “progressive values” like universal healthcare, education, and a $15/hour minimum wage. He also spoke in favor of taxing and legalizing marijuana, regulating Wall Street and overturning Citizens United. It’s no surprise he received the endorsement of Our Revolution, the progressive political action organization spun out of Sanders’ candidacy.

After beating an establishment Democrat in the primary, Thompson promised to take on Trump and the Republicans, as well as the state’s unpopular Republican governor Sam Brownback and Kansas-headquartered oligarchs the Koch brothers.

In one campaign ad, Thompson shoots an AR-15 rifle at a target before delivering a broad, class-based appeal: “People of all colors, all races, all religions, they want the basic same thing … they want to be able to provide for their family, provide a good education for their kids. We’ve got to get back to this country being about the working class family.”

While his candidacy initially seemed like a long shot in a district that had re-elected Pompeo just last year with 60.7% of the vote, in the weeks before the election, the race grew unexpectedly close.

This led to a sudden infusion of cash from the National Republican Congressional Committee to Thompson’s opponent Ron Estes, who in the end raised $459,000, $130,000 of it from the NRCC. He also received massive donations from representatives of big business and help from such national figures as Paul Ryan, Mike Pence, Ted Cruz, and the president himself, who tweeted about the race.

Estes spent much of his money on TV attack ads, like the one that claimed Thompson supports using tax dollars to fund late term abortions, as well as abortions performed because parents don’t like the gender of their baby.

Given our current political climate, you’d think the Democrats would have jumped at the chance to take back a Congressional seat and demonstrate opposition to Trump, but you’d be wrong. While Thompson managed to raise $292,000 without his party’s help, 95% of which came from individuals, neither the DNC, DCCC, nor even the Kansas Democratic Party would help him grow that total in any substantial way. His campaign requested $20,000 from the state Democratic Party and was denied.

They later relented and gave him $3,000. (According to the FEC, the Party had about $145,000 on hand.) The national Democratic Party gave him nothing until the day before the election, when it graced him with some live calls and robo-calls. He lost by seven percentage points.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Perez confirmed the DNC would not be giving Thompson a dime. “We can make progress in Kansas,” he said. “There are thousands of elections every year, though. Can we invest in all of them? That would require a major increase in funds.” Fact check: the DNC has a fund just for Congressional elections, of which there are just ten this year.

Contrast this with what Perez said just a few months earlier when he promised “a 50-state strategy” complete with “rural outreach and organizers in every zip code.” In a post-victory interview with NPR, he specifically name checked Kansas as a place Democrats could win. Why the sudden about face?

In defending their decision, party mouthpieces have taken the absurd line that giving Thompson money would have actually hurt his chances of winning, because then everyone would have known he’s a Democrat, and Kansans hate Democrats. (Let’s take a moment to appreciate these are the same people who keep saying the party doesn’t need a new direction.)

“You do not get to the single digits in a district like this if you’re a nationalized Democrat,” DCCC communications director Meredith Kelly told The Huffington Post. “End of story. That’s just the way it is. There are just certain races where it is not helpful to be attached to the national D.C. Democrats.” End of story, idiot.

Nobody must have told Kelly that Thompson was already attached to the “national DC Democrats” by virtue of being in their party, a fact Estes was happy to exploit in an attack ad that showed him waist deep in a literal swamp he hoped to drain.

“The liberals are trying to steal this election by supporting a Bernie Sanders backed lawyer, because they know he will vote how Nancy Pelosi tells him to,” he claimed. Seems Thompson got all the bad parts of being a Democrat this time around, and none of the good ones.

One person the party does not think will be hurt by their help is Jon Ossoff, who is running in a similarly red, but much wealthier, district in Georgia. To date, the DNC has raised some $8.3m for him and has committed to sending nine field staffers to organize on-the-ground efforts.

Although he is young, he’s an acolyte of the Democratic establishment, having worked for Representatives John Lewis and Hank Johnson, and he endorsed Hillary Clinton in the primary. He went to Georgetown followed by the London School of Economics and speaks fluent French. He has the support of several Hollywood celebrities.

Democrats think Ossoff is just the guy to bring his affluent suburban district back into the fold. (Clearly, losing a national election was not enough to reverse course on that most doomed of 2016 strategies: trading blue collar whites for wealthy, suburban ones.)

Georgia Democratic Party spokesman Michael Smith said this is the state organization’s chance to “deliver the White House its first electoral defeat.” Liberal bloggers are wetting their pants over this “weather vane” of early Trump backlash. It’s like Thompson’s campaign never even happened.

By refusing to fund the campaigns of anyone but centrist, establishment shills, the Democratic Party aims to make the Berniecrats’ lack of political viability a self-fulfilling prophecy: starve their campaigns of resources so they can’t win, then point to said losses as examples of why they can’t win.

If that means a few more red seats in Congress, so be it. The more they do this, though, the less of Bernie’s “political revolution” will be absorbed by the Democratic Party and the more will go shooting off into third parties and direct action.

Feel free to keep eating your own, Democrats. At this rate, we’ll have a socialist party in no time.

*The original version of this article referred to Joe Pompeo. It has since been changed to Mike Pompeo.



Obama lives it up in the lap of luxury

By Niles Niemuth
18 April 2017

Photographs published over the weekend show former US President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama in the lap of luxury, frolicking in Tahiti on holiday with rock musician Bruce Springsteen, Hollywood star Tom Hanks and media tycoon Oprah Winfrey on the Rising Sun, a super-yacht owned by billionaire entertainment magnate David Geffen.

The response from the entertainment press to the brief glimpse into the Obama’s lavish getaway was unabashedly glowing: “American Royalty Gathered in the South Pacific” gushed Vanity Fair, “Barack and Michelle Obama Are Hanging Out With Oprah, Tom Hanks, and Bruce Springsteen on a Yacht,” squealed New York Magazine.

Geffen’s superyacht The Rising Sun in 2006

All of those among the aristocratic coterie who gathered around Obama on the world’s sixth largest motor yacht are either multi-millionaires or billionaires. Oprah has an estimated net worth of $3.1 billion; Hanks has a net worth of $350 million; Springsteen, with a net worth of $345 million, had an income of $60.5 million in 2016.

Geffen, an early backer of then Senator Obama’s campaign for the presidency in 2007, is among the richest people in the world, with an estimated net worth of $6.5 billion, placing him in the highest echelons of the top 0.01 percent.

The former president has spent much of the first three months since he left office in January hobnobbing with the elite of the elite. In February the Obamas traveled with an entourage of 100 secret service agents and aides to British billionaire Richard Branson’s private Caribbean island.

While the Obamas’ combined net worth, estimated at a measly $24 million, pales in comparison to their travel companions, the 44th president and his wife have wasted no time in cashing in on his eight years in the White House, which saw a stock market boom and record corporate profits, making the already fabulously wealthy even richer.

A $65 million deal announced in February for two books from the couple is only an initial down payment for services rendered. It is expected that they could earn nearly $300 million off of book deals, speeches and pensions.

This is not the end of the former president’s earning potential. He will have help from his wealthy friends in his efforts to become one of the wealthiest ex-presidents in American history. Billionaire director Steven Spielberg has been working with Obama to develop a “narrative” for his life post-presidency.

Those overseeing the construction and operation of the Obama presidential library and foundation have set a fundraising floor of $800 million for the center, which will be built on Chicago’s Southside.

In the waning days of his presidency, Obama openly fantasized about the possibility of joining the highly profitable world of professional sports and taking part ownership of a professional basketball team, something well within the realm of possibility given his wealth and connections. If he decides to go this route, Obama would join other celebrity NBA team owners like Michael Jordan and Mark Cuban, both billionaires. One should not be surprised to someday see an Obama-branded Nike high-top shoe.

While there never was a golden age—many presidents, including George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR and JFK were quite wealthy—things have come a long way. Thomas Jefferson had to sell his personal library to pay off his creditors. Visitors could walk up to the door of Harry S. Truman’s home in Independence, Missouri and share tea with the former president and his wife, Bess.

Today, the former president vacations at exclusive $3,000-a-night Tahitian resorts and travels the world on the yachts and private jets of billionaires. The Obamas are paying $22,000 a month to rent a “quasi-mansion” in the exclusive Kalorama neighborhood of Washington, DC. They will share a neighborhood with billionaire President Donald Trump’s multi-millionaire daughter and son-in-law and chief advisers, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, as well as billionaire Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

While always a bastion of corruption, there is a new and distinctive odor emanating from the White House and the halls of Congress. Extreme wealth is not only the outcome of holding public office, it has in fact become the rule for holding office; most Congressmen are now millionaires.

Those who hold office, and the corporate executives at whose pleasure they serve, live in a separate world from the vast majority of Americans. They have access to the best medical care the world has to offer; can skip humiliating security screenings at the airport and fly first class or in private jets without fear of being dragged off the plane; eat the best food; and drive or get driven in the most expensive cars.

The presidency and a spot in the administration are seen as tickets to even greater wealth. Filled with billionaires and multi-millionaires from the outset, the Trump administration has taken this process to its logical conclusion. Trump and his associates no doubt see their time in the White House as a shrewd business maneuver and expect to follow in the footsteps of the Obamas.


On the Freedom Highway with Rhiannon Giddens

By Hiram Lee
15 April 2017

There are few singers today as powerful as Rhiannon Giddens, and fewer still with so commanding a stage presence. Born February 21, 1977 in Greensboro, North Carolina, Giddens first made a name for herself as a member of the folk revival group Carolina Chocolate Drops. In addition to her singing, Giddens is an accomplished violinist and banjoist.

Giddens’ 2015 solo album Tomorrow is My Turn was among the best of that year and featured a striking version of the traditional folk song “Waterboy,” often associated with the late folksinger Odetta (1930-2008). Her latest album, Freedom Highway, will almost certainly be counted among the best of this year.

Giddens wrote nine of Freedom Highway’s 12 songs. In these, she reveals a deep feeling for her fellow human beings, as well as a seriousness about history. Moreover, there is nothing, not one note, on this album that feels self-involved or trivial. That, alone, is something remarkable given the current state of both popular and “indie” or “alternative” music.

Rhiannon Giddens [Photo credit: Appalachian Encounters]

Accompanying Giddens’ originals are strong versions of “The Angels Laid Him Away,” by blues singer Mississippi John Hurt, and two songs associated with the Civil Rights movement: “Freedom Highway” by the Staples Singers, and “Birmingham Sunday” by Richard Fariña. The latter concerns the 1963 bombing by the Ku Klux Klan of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama which left four little girls dead.

Perhaps the most haunting of the many haunting songs on Freedom Highway is “At the Purchaser’s Option.” It was inspired by Giddens’ discovery of an advertisement from the 1830s announcing the sale of a young female slave. The ad mentions, in passing, that the woman has a nine-month-old child who is also available “at the purchaser’s option.” Giddens’ puts herself in the woman’s shoes and sings movingly of her suffering: “Day by day I work the line/Every minute overtime/Fingers nimble, fingers quick/My fingers bleed to make you rich”

Returning to modern day, “Better Get It Right The First Time,” sees Giddens turn her attention to police killings of innocent youth. She sings: “Young man was a good man/Did you stand your ground/Young man was a good man/Is that why they took you down/Young man was a good man/Or did you run that day/Young man was a good man/Baby, they shot you anyway”

Called a “Black Lives Matter” anthem in many reviews, the song doesn’t actually emphasize race. While many of Freedom Highway ’s songs do concern the history of what is commonly called the “African-American experience,” the poison of racialism does not make itself felt here. There is something far more humane and universal at work. Class, in a somewhat limited way, is also a part of many of the songs. This history, at any rate, is not the sole property of any one “race” and certainly not of the pro-capitalist Black Lives Matter movement.

The instrumentation and arrangements employed by Giddens throughout seamlessly blend a wide variety of influences. On many songs, the grooves of R&B meld with the growling, muted trumpets of 1920s jazz, while old-time Appalachian banjos thump out their always-mournful melodies.

Giddens’ banjo playing has none of the biting twang commonly associated with the instrument today. It has a thick, full sound. She uses slides to great effect in her phrasing. It’s perfect for the flirtatious “Hey Bébé” which resides somewhere between jazz, folk and blues music.

Freedom Highway and Tomorrow is My Turn before it are a step forward for Giddens. They are superior to her work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, however interesting that effort was at times.

Folk music is easy to do wrong. A dull, pedagogical tone creeps into the work of many revivalists. The importance of certain songs is explained and then they are performed in such a way that one never feels this importance in the music itself. They become museum pieces. This is often combined with a silly sentimentality for the “simple lives” of “pure” folk. Period dress and exaggerated “folk” accents are adopted and exploited. It feels like acting, and bad acting at that.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops were by no means the worst offenders in this regard, but neither were they entirely immune to it. Giddens appears to have broken free of many of these limitations. She retains her folk roots while singing and performing in a way that feels very much alive and relevant, both traditional and modern.

Unlike many folk revivalists (and occasionally her bandmates) Giddens does not pretend to be less sophisticated than she is. And why should she?

A Call for a Populist Left


This Country Is Up for Grabs:

The only thing that will beat Trump is a genuinely left populist movement.

Waterkeeper Alliance and the Catawba, Cape Fear, Yadkin, French Broad, and Waccamaw Riverkeepers banded together to expose coal ash pollution and file citizen suits against Duke
Photo Credit: Waterkeeper Alliance


It’s November 10, 2016, two days after Election Day. On Fulton Street in Bed-Stuy, it feels like someone or something has died, and the silence is so heavy that even the thick, solid brownstones seem to be sagging under its weight. The eyes I meet on the street are haggard, as if they’ve been up all night fighting some new and violent truth, and I feel just as bowled over by this truth as anyone else. It surprises me that my lack of faith in this country, its systems and its flag have not insulated me more — that my cynicism has not done a better job of protecting me from this heartbreak.

I wonder how this day is being experienced by those on whom this nation’s brutalities have always laid more heavily — those who, perhaps, have always known America better than I do. It’s not that I thought this place was what it claimed to be, but I did think we were at a different stage in its history. It feels like waking up late at night on the subway home, realizing you’ve been on the wrong train all along. I wonder whether the trajectory of America has been abruptly altered, or merely revealed. And today it occurs to me that King’s arc of the moral universe is indeed long, but perhaps it doesn’t bend toward justice at all, but just bends. I feel a sharp pang of helplessness, and my body calls up a recollection of another time I felt this way, some years ago, when I first began to retreat.


It’s 2004, and I’m a senior in high school. Bush is president. The U.S. has recently paid for a coup to overthrow a democratically elected government in Haiti. Before that, Afghanistan and Iraq, the Patriot Act and Extraordinary Rendition. On and on it goes, like some horrifying roller coaster you can’t get off. And the flags. The flags are everywhere now, laying claim to every crack and crevice of public life: Street corners and cranes and front doors and windows. They have even made their way inside my own home, screaming out through the television screen.

All of this transforms me. I find a pair of quirky, radical high school history teachers who take me under their wings, read Noam Chomsky and Malcolm X and Emma Goldman, and ultimately, I join the movement — specifically the anti-war movement. We march in the streets, shout at the top of our lungs, piss off our parents, and curse out our leaders. We are fierce, courageous and earnest, but honestly, most of the time it feels like the war is a gigantic, lumbering elephant and we are mosquitoes, barely even cracking skin. We have some of the biggest demonstrations in world history, and hundreds of thousands of people die anyway. It’s hard to describe the collective shame and helplessness that this kind of failure elicits in us, but I feel it in my body every day ,  in hardened eyes, slumped shoulders, an armored chest.

This country is doomed, we think. These people are too far-gone, we say. They call us anti-American, and in our defiance, we agree; we say that they can have their f**king America. Even the word itself erases an entire continent to our south. We don’t need it. If America is Bush, the war machine, austerity, the prison system, bombs at abortion clinics and mosques, Guantanamo, and Halliburton, then we don’t want anything to do with it anyway. If America is genocide and slavery and empire, then it was never ours to begin with. Besides, we have visions of freedom that span beyond these borders.

This sort of rejection seems like the only reasonable thing to do, the only way to make sense of history and the present; perhaps, even, it is the only way to survive this kind of loss. But for me, it is also the beginning of a long retreat.

I stop paying attention to electoral politics, stop thinking of the state as an avenue for any sort of change, stop even wanting to intervene in it, much less reform it. I stop thinking about scale as a relevant factor in our organizing, stop talking politics with people who aren’t in the movement, stop even reading the news. I join a left that seems, every day, to drift further and further away from trying to build political power, away from attempting to win over the public, away from working class people, and deeper into a bubble of its own. We have our own organizations, our own publications, our own trainings, our own spaces, and no need for anyone else. We find belonging in lack of belonging, and it protects us.

We do good work, learn important lessons, and have big dreams. But in the end, so many of those dreams remain our little secret, tucked safely away, out of sight to the rest of the world; and really, the rest of the world is out of sight to us too.


It’s the morning of February 3, 2017. I’m at my desk at home in Brooklyn, sunlight creeping through the blinds on the window to my left. I’m hovering between work emails and Facebook, following the rabbit hole of the Bodega Strike, in which thousands of bodega owners and workers from across New York City, — most of them Yemeni and Muslim ,  have gone on strike and gathered at Brooklyn’s Borough Hall to protest the immigration ban. The images show a jarring sea of brown people waving American flags. I watch the videos, and the deafening chants of “USA! USA!” vibrate through my speakers.

The flags blind me. An old reflex jumps from my body, transporting me back to 2004, when this country suffocated me with its flags, and I snap my laptop shut. I am struck by the competing emotions surging through me — admiration, humility, inspiration, repulsion, confusion, shame.

How can these people, of all people, find ownership, belonging, and even love in a place like this? Maybe they don’t get it, I think. Maybe they wave the flag for safety from those who speak most loudly in its name, act most violently on its behalf; perhaps this is what they think they have to do survive. Or maybe they really do love this place, even through the heartbreak. Or maybe they want to love it, and their flag-waving is not a celebration of the vision of the founding fathers but a calling into existence of a dream not yet born. Maybe it’s just better than the homes they left behind.

Or maybe they are being strategic. Maybe they know, better even than most of the organized left, that this titanic crisis in which we find ourselves today is also perhaps the grandest opportunity we will see in generations. Maybe they can see that this country is up for grabs.


The system is unstable. A self-proclaimed socialist almost won the Democratic Party nomination, and a right wing populist insurgency has entered into government, effectively displacing the Republican establishment and delivering a devastating blow to the status quo of the Democratic Party as well. Some 40% of the voting population wants this president impeached, and Bernie Sanders is literally the most popular politician in the country. There is an opposition to Trump organically rising up beyond both the Democrats and the organized left alike — in the streets, the courts, even the White House itself. What’s more, the right wing offensive underway will likely create even further instability — more deportations, more black and brown people locked up, more debt, more unemployment, more pipelines on indigenous land, more policies that hurt women and queer and trans folks, more impacts of climate change, more surveillance, more war.

We can expect more crisis. But where there is crisis, there is also opportunity, and our opponents know this. As Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine teaches us, crisis is part of their playbook.

For Trump, a deepening crisis is an opportunity to continue barreling forward as planned; after all, crisis has always been part of his narrative. He will blame it on his political enemies and those communities already under attack, and use it to expand his agenda. The rest of the Republican Party, the defense industry, and much of the business class, will likely go along with it, unless and until they think the ship is actually sinking. The white nationalists and other far right wingers coming out of the woodwork in droves will use it as an opportunity to keep pulling the whole political map in their direction; they now have a man in the White House to help them do it.

For establishment Democrats — as well as for Republicans who defect if and when the instability deepens enough to effectively incapacitate the administration — the crisis will provide the opportunity to name Trump as the problem, while preserving business-as-usual. If we get rid of him, they’ll tell us, everything can go back to normal. Normal will be ushered in by corporate Democrats and “moderate” Republicans, protecting many of the same interests, featuring a reversal of only the most egregious elements of Trump’s policies, and keeping in tact the rest — much of which was already enshrined by the administrations that came before this one.

But as Alicia GarzaJonathan Matthew SmuckerGeorge LakeyKeeanga-Yahmatta Taylor, and many other leaders and mentors are telling us, this crisis is an opportunity for the left too. It’s an opportunity to grow and become popular, an opportunity to build visionary organizations and multi-issue movements that go on the offensive. It is an opportunity both to take the streets, and also take over real levers of power. It is our chance to reject both Trump’s white economic nationalism and the corporate Democrats’ multicultural neoliberalism — to bring to life a new kind of politic that combines racial, gender, and economic justice to unite the majority of the population against the elite. It is a chance to build a mass movement that has equity and solidarity at its core, that takes leadership from those impacted by the systems we’re fighting, that works for all of us. It is a golden opportunity to finally translate our proven ability to shift the national discourse into a concrete capacity to actually achieve our own purpose — to move from having influence to having real power.

This crisis is, in the end, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the left to lead. The big question, then, is whether we will be willing to do so.


All of this possibility flies through my mind as I think about the bodega strikers. I open my laptop again, take a deep breath and stare my ambivalence straight in the face.

I think back on that grand rejection I was part of as a younger activist — remember how honest it felt, remember the history lessons that informed it. I wonder how I can possibly hope to belong to a place like this, how I can identify with a dream that has caused so much pain to so many people. I know, also, that to be a popular movement, we will have to make a bold claim that this place belongs to us instead of them, and I wonder if it’s really possible for me claim this place belongs to me, when everything I know here stands on land stolen from people who were murdered for its theft, where everything I touch was built with labor extracted from people brought there in chains, where so much of it is made of wealth taken from around the world at gunpoint.

It occurs to me that it is a huge risk to identify with this place and its mythology, to be popular, to enter into struggle over the whole of this country, knowing that so many of the examples of populism before us watered down their politics to accommodate the ruling class, sold out their grand visions of tomorrow for partial gains of today, abandoned those most oppressed at the finish line. It feels dangerous to grow — to welcome into our movements the many people who are becoming politicized in these times — knowing that the greater pains and burdens of entering into the delicate and never-ending experiment of solidarity will fall on those already most impacted by the system. It strikes me, too, that it’s frightening to have the kind of hope a struggle like this demands. After all, where there is hope, there is also often heartbreak.

But I know, just as well, that our past failures are not inevitable. We can embrace the malleability of this place called America, contest our enemy’s hegemony over its dreams, care about this country and this land and these people, while telling the truth about its brutal history and present, honoring the people who lived here before us, and seeing nationhood not as a barrier to internationalism, but a stepping stone towards it. We can join with the growing majority of people standing in opposition to Trump, while still going on the offensive against all of his enablers — the Republican Party whose agenda he is carrying forth, the huge corporate interests he has since installed into government, and also the Democratic Party establishment whose marriage to Wall Street helped create the conditions for this upheaval in the first place.

We can be popular, and big, and speak in a language that the public understands, while bringing a critique of capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy into the mainstream, while holding up a vision for the world we can have if we fight for it, while saying words like single payer healthcare and universal basic income, even reparations and socialism. We can grow our movements dramatically, invest deeply in the transformation of the millions of people looking for a political home in this moment, and build deeply across race, class, gender, and sexuality, while still demanding more from each other, while practicing solidarity and accountability with the wisdom to know that we will fail and try again and fail better if we keep trying.

We can enter powerfully into electoral politics, build grassroots political power, take over every potential vehicle for change available to us, while still insisting that movements are what really drive social change, that nothing can replace the hard organizing it takes to bring people together to liberate themselves, that meaningful change demands powerful and uncompromising civil disobedience that removes our consent from the institutions that cause harm. And as Rebecca Solnit often often reminds us, we can be courageous enough to have hope, and we can do it while still leaving room for the inevitable heartbreaks we will experience on the way.

I still don’t know exactly what it will mean to reclaim AmericaI’m not going to hang an American flag from my window or praise our so-called founding fathers; I’m not convinced that we need to ground every thing we say in the constitution, and have no intention of standing up for the national anthem until Colin Kaepernick does. But maybe it’s simpler than all that. Maybe the important thing to recognize is that, at the heart of it all, we are being called into a massive struggle over belonging — of who gets to have it and who doesn’t.

Arundhati Roy writes, “To call someone anti-American, indeed, to be anti-American, is not just racist, it’s a failure of the imagination.” And as I think back now on my past retreat from America, I know that no matter how justified, no matter how grounded it was in principle and history, there was also a secret, scared underbelly there — the very fear of imagination Roy highlights. I can still find traces today of what I felt then: A helpless anger, an arrogance covering up shame, a lack of confidence to step outside the comfort of my leftist bubble, a deep and paralyzing fear produced by my smallness in the shadow of a towering enemy. Now, years later, I know to call this tendency the politics of powerlessness, and it suddenly hits me that instead of fighting over this place and its future, I let my enemy have it.

In the end, only a genuinely liberatory popular movement can defeat Trump and the right-wing populist tidal wave he rode in on. Only a truly left populist movement can ensure that this regime not only falls, but also takes the entire Republican Party and the establishment Democrats along with it. Only a movement like that will be powerful enough to actually reorganize this society, so that it meets both the very real material needs and the soaring potentials of the people in it. In order for the left to provide the leadership that is required in this moment, we will have to learn to say this country’s name out loud — say that it belongs to us, in all the complicated ways that the many giants before us have said it, from Langston Hughes and James Baldwin, to Fannie Lou Hamer and Howard Zinn, from Ann Braden and Dr. King, to James and Grace Lee Boggs. Ultimately, we will have to do a better job imagining; we will have to tell a story about America that gives meaning and home and a sense of belonging to the millions of people who are ready to fight for the bigger, better, bolder dreams that are waiting for us at the tips of our fingers.


America — both its past and its future — is a story that can be written a thousand different ways, and our opponent knows this. That is why the fascists and would-be dictators, the wealthy oligarchs and Wall Street politicians alike, always claim to speak for the whole — for that great, big AmericaThey wrap themselves up in the flag, project a vision for the future of this entire country, and call up people’s greatest fears and deepest dreams. The country they describe is not for most of us. But they say they will make it great — or great again — and that promise floats up into the air and captures imaginations, encapsulates real pains and longings, speaks into existence that grand possibility for which people are willing to do the most beautiful and heinous things alike.

To cede the simple truth of this nation’s possibility to our enemy is a massive shirking of responsibility. It relegates us to the margins of political life, which, in turn, dooms the people we love, the planet we live on, and the values we cherish. It is a failure to show up to the field of battle, which doesn’t mean the war doesn’t take place, only that we’ve surrendered before it has even begun.

Yes, America is the Trail of Tears and chattel slavery, the Ludlow Massacre and Jim Crow, Hiroshima and bloody interventions around the world. But it is also slave rebellions and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, the Flint sit-down strike and the occupation at Wounded Knee, the Stonewall Riot and the uprising at Attica. It is Occupy and the Movement for Black Lives, the immigrant justice movement and the uprising at Standing Rock, the Bernie wave and the climate movement. America is working class, and indigenous, and Muslim, and queer. It is undocumented, and black, and Sikh, and trans. It is the 99%, and women and immigrants. It is all of us.

Perhaps we are not the America they planned for, but we are, as much as anything else, the America that could be. And in the end, that is the choice before us: We will either build a fierce, honest, vibrant, populist left, take responsibility for this country, call our America into existence, and lead, or we will lose — not just this America and our loved ones in it, but all the Americas that might have been, and the people we might have become.

Yotam Marom is an organizer, writer, facilitator, director of the Wildfire Project, and a founding member of IfNotNow.

How Did America’s Wealth Inequality Reach This Level of Toxic?

We are just beginning to understand one further dimension of toxic inequality: a devastating emotional and physiological phenomenon we might call “toxic inequality syndrome.”

Photo Credit: nuvolanevicata / Shutterstock

The following is an adapted excerpt from the new book Toxic Inequality: How America’s Wealth Gap Destroys Mobility, Deepens the Racial Divide, and Threatens Our Future by Thomas M. Shapiro. Copyright © 2017. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.:

In recent years, as living standards for many families have declined and productivity, income, and wealth gains have flowed to the very top, a new conversation about inequality has emerged in the United States. The Occupy Wall Street movement, which began in the fall of 2011, splashed inequality across the front pages and provided space for discussions about historically high income and wealth disparities and their causes. The movement pitted the wealthiest and most powerful 1 percent against 99 percent of Americans. Thomas Piketty’s best-selling 2014 book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, brought attention to a different kind of inequality with a focus on capital. Yet many popular and academic accounts of inequality, spurred by media coverage and the emerging national discourse, continued to focus on income disparities, economic class, and the mega-rich. A pre-occupation with income led to an insufficient understanding of the new inequality that left wealth out of the picture. President Barack Obama provided perhaps the crowning moment in this new public attention to economic inequality when he proclaimed in a December 2014 speech that inequality “is the defining challenge of our time.” But the president’s speech referenced income inequality eleven times and wealth inequality once. Leaving wealth out of the conversation is a crucial mistake, giving fodder to those who would make personal poverty the result of personal failings.

Wealth inequality in the United States is uncommonly high. The wealthiest 1 percent owned 42 percent of all wealth in 2012 and took in 18 percent of all income. Each year the Allianz Group, the world’s largest financial service company, calculates each country’s Gini coefficient—a measure of inequality in which zero indicates perfect equality and one hundred perfect inequality, or one person owning all the wealth. In 2015, the United States had the highest wealth inequality among industrialized nations, with a score of 80.56. Allianz dubbed the USA the “Unequal States of America.”

Wealth concentration has followed a U-shaped pattern over the last hundred years. It was high in the beginning of the twentieth century, with wealth inequality reaching its previous peak during the Depression, in 1929. It fell from 1929 to 1978 and has continuously increased since then. By 2012, the share of wealth owned by the top 0.1 percent was three times higher than in the late 1970s, growing from 7 percent in 1979 to 22 percent in 2012. The bottom 90 percent’s wealth share has steadily declined since the mid-1980s.

The rise of wealth inequality is almost entirely due to the increase in the top 0.1 percent’s wealth share. The steady decline in the bottom 90 percent’s wealth share has struck middle-class families in particular. Half the population has less than $500 in savings.

Wealth is not just a matter of money. Wealth is also about power, status, opportunity, identity, and self-image. Wealth confers transformative advantages, while lack of it brings tremendous disadvantages. A family’s income reflects educational and occupational achievements, but wealth is needed to solidify these achievements to build a solid foundation of economic security. Wealth is a fundamental pillar of economic security, and without it, hard-won gains are easily lost.

The explanations for economic inequality are many. One prominent line holds that individual values and characteristics either promote or hinder achievement and prosperity. Inequality, in this view, results from poor people’s laziness and lack of work ethic, the decline of traditional marriage, an influx of unskilled, uneducated immigrants, and dependence on welfare. Our interviews contradict such arguments—the people we spoke with, rich and poor, had broadly similar values and aspirations—and reveal instead the importance of policy and institutional factors. Other theories focus on such factors as market forces in a globalizing economy, technological change, policies, and politics.

To take a different tack, we must understand wealth and income inequality together with racial inequality. Despite recent attention to racial disparities in policing, mass deportation, persistent residential segregation, attacks on voting rights, and other manifestations of racial injustice, the conversation about widening economic inequality largely leaves out race, as if that gap’s causes, its harshest consequences, and its potential solutions are race neutral. Whether they focus on the widening gulf between the very top and various segments further down the distribution ladder, on the fortunes of the bottom 40 percent, on the dwindling of the middle class, or simply on the growing share garnered by the best-off, traditional accounts emphasize class and economics as the central (and sometimes only) explanation. As a result, much of our national discourse about inequality sees disparities as universals that impact all groups in the same ways, and many of the policy ideas proposed to address it fail to recognize the racially disparate distributional impact of universal-sounding solutions. Recent movements such as the Color of Change, the Dreamers, and Black Lives Matter are vigorously trying to recenter the inequality conversation to include race, ethnicity, and immigration. I have been inspired and heartened by the new public conversation about inequality. At the same time, I am frustrated that once again it looks like attention to class is trumping a reckoning with race.

For it is crucial to understand that the trends toward greater income and wealth inequality are converging with a widening racial wealth gap. The typical African American family today has less than a dime of wealth for every dollar of wealth owned by a typical white family. The civil rights movement and the landmark legislation of the 1960s helped to open educational and professional opportunities and to produce an African American middle class. But despite these hard-won advances, as a study following the same set of families for twenty-nine years shows, the gap between white and black family wealth has widened at an alarming pace, increasing nearly threefold over the past generation (see Figure 1.1). Looking at a representative sample of Americans in 2013, the median net wealth of white families was $142,000, compared to $11,000 for African American families and $13,700 for Hispanic families. This racial wealth gap means that even black families with incomes comparable to those of white families have much less wealth to use to cushion unemployment or a personal crisis, to apply as a down payment on a home, to secure a place for their families in a strong, resource-rich neighborhood, to send their children to private schools, to start a business, or to plan for retirement.

In short, the basic pillars of economic security—wealth and income—are today distributed vastly inequitably along racial and ethnic lines. African Americans’ historical disadvantage has become baked into the American economy. African Americans are effectively stymied from generating and retaining wealth of their own not simply by continuing racial discrimination but also by senseless policies that protect existing wealth—wealth that often originated at times of even more intense racial discrimination, if not specifically from racial plunder. Race and wealth have intertwined throughout our nation’s history. Too often missing in today’s dialogue about inequality is this binding race and wealth linkage. Failure to tackle the nexus of race and wealth will lead, at best, to only small ameliorations at the worst edges of inequality.

Figure 1.1  Median Net Wealth by Race, 1984–2013

The phrase “toxic inequality” describes a powerful and unprecedented convergence: historic and rising levels of wealth and income inequality in an era of stalled mobility, intersecting with a widening racial wealth gap, all against the backdrop of changing racial and ethnic demographics.

I call this kind of inequality toxic because, over time and generations, it builds upon itself. Wealth and race map together to consolidate historic injustices, which now weave through neighborhoods and housing markets, educational institutions, and labor markets, creating an increasingly divided opportunity structure. So long as we have entrenched wealth inequality intertwined with racial inequality, we cannot even begin to bend the arc toward equity.

Toxic inequality is also noxious in that it makes these challenges harder to tackle. High levels of material inequality are inherently destabilizing, heightening social tensions. Janet Yellen, chair of the board of governors of the Federal Reserve System, has warned that economic inequality “can shape [and] determine the ability of different groups to participate equally in a democracy and have grave effects on social stability over time.” Thomas Piketty argues that extremely high levels of wealth inequality are “incompatible with the meritocratic values and principles of social justice fundamental to modern democratic societies” and warns that a drift toward oligarchy is a real danger. The new inequality is especially politically poisonous because most people of all races feel stuck in place, finding it harder to believe that hard work, sacrifice, and innovation are going to pay off and lead to a better life. People are apt to look for someone to blame, and America’s changing demographics encourage racial division, resentment of other groups, and prejudice. These forces have complicated economic policymaking throughout our history, but they are especially dangerous today, given the urgent need to address the particular economic disadvantages facing people of color.

We are just beginning to understand one further dimension of toxic inequality: a phenomenon we might call “toxic inequality syndrome.” Are there emotional and even physiological consequences for families and individuals exposed to repeated, persistent economic trauma, frustrated ambitions, and cumulative downward spirals? We know that there is a strong relationship between adversity and social outcomes throughout the life course, with greater frequency of adverse events leading to worse outcomes. One adverse event increases the likelihood of a cascade of other stressful and traumatic events. Research has documented the negative impact of a wide variety of stress-inducing events, including community violence, accidents, life-threatening illnesses, loss of economic status, and incidences of racism. We also know that financial resources shield families from economic and social trauma, lessen the impact of some trauma, enable more rapid recovery, and reduce the risk of subsequent adverse events. Yet many of the families we spoke to experienced multiple forms of adversity—foreclosure, violence, unsafe neighborhoods, incarceration, disability, sudden or chronic family illness, family breakup, unemployment or loss of wages, declining living standards—without adequate wealth resources and without the sorts of family, institutional, community, or policy support that can also foster family resiliency.

America’s response to toxic inequality will set our future course for generations. The current magnitude of inequality robs the nation of human potential and promise, sapping aspirations and distorting futures. Earned achievements have become uncoupled from financial rewards and personal well-being. Frustrated ambitions and stalled social mobility foment racial anxieties. Without bold changes, we will keep heading toward greater inequality and become even more polarized along class and racial lines. The tiny segments of the population that are doing well will continue to do so, and the vast majority will try even harder just to stay in place. The rich and powerful will continue to write rules that protect and expand their vast advantages at the expense of those struggling to keep pace, especially younger adults and families and communities of color. As differences magnify, those groups facing the brunt of inequality, stalled mobility, and lost status will more critically interrogate the legitimacy of governmental and economic systems. Such an interrogation of deep structures is necessary and productive as long as it uncovers drivers of inequality. However, an explanation that does nothing more than pander to racial, ethnic, and class fears will short-circuit solutions. To avoid this bleak future and bend current trends in the direction of shared prosperity, we must transform the deep structures that foster inequality. Policy solutions must be bold, transformative, and at a scale sufficient to reach the families and communities most affected by toxic inequality.

Adapted excerpt from TOXIC INEQUALITY: How America’s Wealth Gap Destroys Mobility, Deepens the Racial Divide, and Threatens Our Future by Thomas M. Shapiro. Copyright © 2017. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Thomas M. Shapiro is the Pokross Professor of Law and Social Policy at the Heller School, Brandeis University, where he directs the Institute on Assets and Social Policy. He is the author of four books, including The Hidden Cost of Being African American and, with Melvin Oliver, Black Wealth/White Wealth. His most recent book is Toxic Inequality: How America’s Wealth Gap Destroys Mobility, Deepens the Racial Divide, and Threatens Our Future.