What Color is Your T-Shirt? Race, Class, Empire, and White Democrats in a Liberal Campus Town

Black Agenda Report, September 22, 2015

Join the Political Revolution”

American liberal and “progressive” Democrats often inhabit insular, white, and middle class worlds that dull their appreciation of the broader oppression systems of class, race, and empire that shape their privileged lives and those of less fortunate people, many of whom live in remarkably invisible proximity to them. Take the liberal, tree-lined Midwestern university town of Iowa City, seat of Johnson County, Iowa and home to the University of Iowa. Obama-Biden bumper stickers are still plastered across the backs of recent model Volvos, Audis, and Priuses here in the absurdly nicknames “People’s Republic of Johnson County.”

Many white liberals and progressives here are excited about two recent developments said by some of them to represent great victories for “the working class.” The first development is the recent passage by the Johnson County Board of Supervisors of a county-wide minimum wage scheduled to be set at $10 an hour in 2017. The second development is the supposedly surprising success of the nominal socialist Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Sanders seems likely to win Iowa City and Johnson County in the Iowa Democratic Party’s presidential Caucus next January and has pulled ahead of Hillary Clinton in recent polls in Iowa and New Hampshire. Walking past a recent high-priced Farmers’ Market in downtown Iowa City, I saw a number of smug white people strutting around in white t-shirts saying “Bernie 2016: Join the Political Revolution.”

A Pittance Already Granted

It would be interesting to see some of these white middle class campus town progressive Democrats (hereafter referred to as “WMCPs”) come out in their white Bernie t-shirts to the Procter&Gamble (P&G) plant located across Highway 6 from mostly Black apartment complexes (including the “Dolphin Square” development) and the mostly white and Latino working-class “Bon Air” Trailer Park out on the Southeast side of town. The WMCPs could arrive at shift change times to try to explain to that factory’s production workers why they should feel grateful and excited about these purportedly remarkable developments.

Clad in bright-red long-sleeved t-shirts and steel-tipped boots, most of these workers are immigrants. They are primarily African, mostly Sudanese and Congolese. There is also a good Mexican contingent along with some folks from the Caribbean and a smattering of whites.

Let’s start with the county wage ordinance. The WMCPs wouldn’t get very far boasting about that in the P&G parking lot. Part of the problem there would be that the red-shirted workers already make $10 an hour on the company’s first production shift (6am-2pm), $10.85 on the second shift (2-10 pm), and nearly $12 an hour on the third shift (10-pm-6am) on the P&G production lines. Many of the blue-collar (well, red-shirt) jobs in the plant pay more. And from my recent sample of the bottom end of the labor market in Iowa City, $10 an hour and up is already pretty well established around town. For what it’s worth, I recently saw a Help Wanted poster advertising $10 an hour outside a local fast food restaurant – a Panda Express.

Another and perhaps bigger problem would be the very elementary fact that (as I have shown in a previous essay) $10 an hour is a pittance compared to the real cost of living in and around Iowa City. The Economic Policy Institute’s carefully calculated minimally adequate “basic family budget” for just one parent and one kid in Iowa City is more than 240 % of what someone can make at $10 an hour with full time year round work.

It wouldn’t help that the region’s largest employer, the University of Iowa, will be exempt from the wage ordinance while local Johnson County towns will be free to opt out.

On top of all this, the biggest difficulty (beyond the often grim and alienating nature of the work they have to perform) for people at the bottom end of the Iowa City labor market isn’t so much the hourly rate as the struggle for regular and full-time work across the week, month, year – and even the day (it is not uncommon for workers who have arrived expecting eight hours of work or more on a given day to be sent home early because P&G managers have run out of product.)

The workers at P&G and in numerous other workplaces across Johnson County can be forgiven if they have failed to break into applause upon hearing about the recent wage ordinance.

Empire Man

What about the Bernie Sanders “revolution”? Here I’m afraid the WMCPs would make even less headway. Mention Sanders’ name to the region’s largely immigrant industrial workers and you will receive blank stares of ignorance and indifference. Many of the WMCPs might find that sad, but I think it is richly appropriate. Sanders has aligned himself with the U.S. and Western imperial and white-supremacist project that generates chaos and endless poverty and misery in Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America, compelling millions to seek jobs, security, and safety in the United States and Europe. He has long demonstrated support for the American military empire and (especially when the U.S. President is a Democrat) its wars, its giant budgetary appropriations (equivalent to 54% of all federal discretionary spending), its vast intelligence and surveillance apparatus – and for Israel’s ongoing war of terror against its Palestinian subjects and neighbors. As the World Socialist Website (WSW) has accurately observed, “Sanders is a longtime proven defender of US imperialism, not a half-hearted or inconsistent opponent.”

Sanders recently told ABC News that if elected president he will not end Barack Obama’s arch-criminal and mass-murderous drone program in the Middle East. He said he would maintain the targeted killing campaign but suggested he would adjust the program so that “drones don’t kill innocent people.” If they were bothering to listen, the owners and managers of the military-industrial complex that Sanders falsely claims to “fight” were pleased.

Also disturbing is Sanders’ call for the murderous, arch-reactionary, and jihad-fueling, Wahhabist dictatorship of Saudi Arabia to “get its hands dirty” and boost its military profile to “save the soul of Islam.” It’s rather bizarre for a self-proclaimed progressive and “democratic socialist” to call for more intervention by the brutally repressive Saudi monarchy. Six months of “relentless and seemingly indiscriminate bombing” by the Saudis have killed more than 4000 people, most of them civilians, in Yemen, helping (along with tears of U.S. drone attacks) create there a humanitarian calamity in one of the world’s poorest nations. “This is the world that a President Sanders promises” Yemen and other Arab nations, Ajamu Baraka notes: “continued war crimes from the sky with [U.S.] drone strikes and Saudi-led terror in support of the Western imperial project.”

It’s about race as well as class and empire. The primary targets and the victims of the American military Empire and its clients and allies Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey and the Islamic jihadists whose reach and power has been dramatically expanded by the U.S.-led global war of/on terror are nonwhite, predominantly Muslim people in the Middle East, Africa, and Southwest Asia.

Militarizing Africa

The workers at P&G, to be sure, are not Syrians or Yeminis – not yet anyway. But both Sudan and the Congo are countries in which the United States has instigated long wars, consistent with its broader program of destabilization across Africa. As Nick Turse shows in his latest book Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, the U.S. military has dramatically expanded its disruptive presence in Africa during this century, most especially under Obama. At least 8000 U.S. troops and mercenaries train, arm, and fight along with and against African militaries and rebel groups in practically every African nation, including Sudan and Congo. The Pentagon has constructed a far-flung network of bases, airports, water routes, intelligence outposts, and arms caches across the “dark continent.” Thanks to the Bush43 and particularly the Obama44 administration’s “militarization of Africa” – replete with airstrikes, commando raids, drone strikes, “black ops” missions, proxy wars, special ops, spying, joint war-making, troop training, and more – the United States is widely perceived by Africans as the leading threat to peace on Earth. And Sanders is all for the global war of terror policies that fuel that reasonable perception. The Sudanese and growing Congolese communities in eastern Iowa bear the marks of trauma resulting from the chaos that Uncle Sam has done so much to engender in their homelands.

All Kinds of People”

What about the U.S. providing a refuge for the victims of the U.S. and Western global imperial and neoliberal project in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere, including Latin America (where U.S. trade, “security,” and [“war on”] drug policy has long generated millions of migrants seeking work and freedom in the U.S.)? In an online interview this summer, Sanders was asked about his views on immigration by former Washington Post writer Ezra Klein. “You said being a democratic socialist means a more international view,” Klein said. “I think if you take global poverty that seriously, it leads you to conclusions that in the US are considered out of political bounds. Things like sharply raising the level of immigration we permit, even up to a level of open borders.” Sanders interrupted sharply to say, “Open borders? No, that’s a Koch brothers proposal….That’s a right-wing proposal, which says essentially there is no United States… It would make everybody in America poorer. You’re doing away with the concept of a nation state,” Sanders continued, “and I don’t think there’s any country in the world that believes in that…. Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour. That would be great for them… You think we should open the borders and bring in a lot of low-wage workers, or do you think maybe we should try to get jobs for those [American] kids?” Here again those nasty boys over at the WSW merit quotation:

“Sanders’ argument that open borders would ‘make everybody in America poorer’ takes for granted the enforced division between American and immigrant workers and the super-exploitation of the latter. It also implicitly accepts as permanent the continued monopolization of wealth in the US by a tiny financial aristocracy. The expropriation of this parasitic social layer would, in and of itself, provide substantial resources to raise the wages and living standards of all workers in the US, native-born and immigrant alike…By promoting economic nationalism and protectionism, Sanders implicitly argues in favor of American workers lining up behind ‘their’ bosses and government against workers of other countries. So much for his supposed hostility to the American ‘billionaire class!…While Democratic politicians, along with their agents in the trade union bureaucracy, have long utilized the supposed threat of foreign labor to whip up nationalist sentiment within the working class, Sanders takes this position to its logical conclusion, openly promoting the sanctity of the American nation state…The implications of this position are profoundly reactionary. Sanders’…suggestion that immigrants pose a threat to the American nation state recalls the type of arguments and slogans utilized in Germany during the Nazi period. These included the notion of ‘überfremdung’—the inundation of the Fatherland by foreign, non-Aryan elements.”

“The democratic right of workers to live and work wherever they choose is a basic principle of socialism. It is bound up with opposition to nationalism, which is the essential ideology of the bourgeoisie, and promotion of internationalism, i.e., the recognition of the fundamental identity of interests of all workers, regardless of nationality, race, ethnicity, religion or gender, and the struggle to unite workers across national borders against their common exploiters, the capitalists of all countries.”

Indeed. And beneath the nationalism in Sanders’ opposition to increased immigration lay an undeniable racial sub-text. When Sanders says that “open borders” would “bring in all kinds of people,” there should be no doubt that he is referring mainly to people of color from Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East – the “kinds of people” who are doing the lion’s share of the most difficult and low-paid work at the P&G plant in Iowa City (not so low-paid as to fall below the supposedly wonderful new minimum wage in Johnson County, however).

Bernie Sanders is No Jeremy Corbin

In this as in other ways, Sanders should not be over-identified with the newly elected leader of the British Labour Party, Jeremy Corbin. Just hours after his resounding victory, Corbyn strongly supported desperate Middle Eastern and African migrants at a pro-refugee rally in London. He had told his Labour backers that his “first action…as leader…would be to come to a demonstration in support of refugees, the right to asylum and the human needs of people all over the world.” He said he was “beyond appalled at the way so many media…describe desperate people in desperate situations as ‘the problem.’ They’re victims of war. They’re victims of environmental degradation. They’re victims of poverty. They’re victims of human rights abuses all over the world. We have a responsibility as one of many countries that signed the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Right to Asylum.” When questioned about the refugee crisis in Europe, by contrast, Sanders seemed to have a hard time acknowledging its existence, much less the multiple victimizations noted by Corbin.

Also unlike Sanders, Corbyn opposes the Western imperial and neoliberal policies that do so much to fuel forced and “voluntary” migration to the U.S. and Europe in the first place. So did Corbyn’s fellow social democrat Hugo Chavez, who the U.S. attempted in 2002 to remove from his position as the democratically elected president of Venezuela (with no known protest from Bernie Sanders). It is ironic that Sanders recently and dismissively referred to Chavez as “a dead communist dictator.” If not for Washington’s longstanding opposition to real and alleged communist leaders like Chavez, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Salvador Allende (murdered by the CIA and Chilean military on September 11, 1973), and Patrice Lumumba (the Congo’s first and anti-imperial prime minister after independence, murdered by the CIA in 1961) and the national independence and populist movements such leaders represent, Latin America and Africa would probably not provide floods of “all kinds of people” to compete with North Americans for jobs in the U.S capitalist job market – and to help deflect the population’s anger away from “the billionaire class” Sanders denounces on the campaign trail.

Hope in Harreld?

Last year I ran across two white junior high school students wearing bright red Che Guevara t-shirts at the Java House coffee shop in downtown Iowa City. They were waiting for two expensive iced coffee concoctions at the shop’s brew bar. “So,” I said, “are you guys communist revolutionaries?” The bigger of the two boys’ eyes lit up as he replied eagerly: “I wish!”

There is some radical hope for some of Iowa City’s white middle class liberals, perhaps. The Big Business-friendly and Republican-leaning University of Iowa Board of Regents has just crassly fast-track-installed Bruce Harreld, a former Boston Chicken and IBM “turnaround executive” as University of Iowa president. They did so over 97 percent faculty opposition. Layoffs and salary cuts seem likely for the local professoriat and other professional staff.

Maybe some of Harreld’s future refugees will be donning red t-shirts (maybe someday even Che-emblazened ones) on the production lines at P&G. It could prove very educational for them. It could also perhaps be helpful for the workers: people with some advanced foreign language background and training – Arabic, French, and Spanish above all – could provide some useful service towards building a movement to bring factory wages somewhat closer to the actual cost of living in and around Iowa City. And a movement for what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called near the end of his life “the real issue to be faced” beyond “superficial” matters: “the radical reconstruction of society itself.” The leftmost Sandernistas might want to tell their less radical Bernie 2016 cohorts that serious socialists have always sought a social, not merely a political revolution: a great popular uprising that leads to a radical transformation in underlying social relations and conditions, not just a shift in the names, color, or labels of political elites. “Brand Bernie,” Vivek Jain recently wrote me, “helps the ruling class banalize revolution.” That’s a little harsh, but there’s something to it. Call me crazy, but I’m counting on Bruce Harreld to spark some of the WMCPs to become less banal and more social and radical in their use of the term.

Paul Street is an author in Iowa City, IA. His publications include Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman&Littlefield, 2007) and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).


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By | 2015-10-31T15:33:00+00:00 October 31st, 2015|Articles|