We need to move beyond the binary thinking of ‘us and them’ politics
|By Jay Caspian Kang
New York Times — September 1, 2022
|I am sad to announce that this will be the last edition of this newsletter. This decision was mine, and it was a difficult one to make because I’ve enjoyed the interactions I’ve had with you, my readers. Your emails and messages have made this, without question, the most enjoyable and satisfying writing gig of my career.|
|This project was always supposed to be free-flowing and open to my own interpretation. Such freedoms are rare in journalism, and while I was both excited and flattered by the opportunity to spill the contents of my brain on Mondays and Thursdays, I will admit that it took me a while to figure out what I wanted to actually say in this space. I am, by nature, a deeply ambivalent person about most things, and did not carry an agenda with me into the job.|
|But over the past year, as I’ve written about homelessness, education policy, nursing homes, and even dabbled a bit in the culture wars, a central argument began to emerge.|
|It goes something like this:|
|Almost all of today’s politics, whether the actual policies enacted by local, state and federal government or the intensely polarized culture wars, come out of four events. The first three — the 2008 financial crash, the 2016 election of Donald Trump and the near-decade-long Black Lives Matter movement, which culminated in the mass George Floyd protests in 2020 — shouldn’t be particularly controversial or novel.
But the fourth — the 1965 Immigration Act — being a bit older and obscure, does not get discussed all that much outside of xenophobic right-wing media figures like Tucker Carlson, who called it “the worst attack on our democracy in 160 years.” Carlson’s fixation on this moment is not unwarranted: The multiethnic country we live in today would not be possible without the 1965 Immigration Act, which opened up the country to millions of people from all over the world, including my parents, who moved to the United States in the late 1970s.
|The base narrative of American politics — especially as told by progressive lawmakers and the media machine that supports them — has not really acknowledged the profound demographic change in the country. The American public still doesn’t know all that much about the millions of immigrants that have come into the country since 1965, nor do they fully appreciate how the inroads made by these populations have come in a short period of time, not just in terms of economic mobility but also in terms of geography.|
|Over the past year, I wrote a series of pieces about the suburbs and how the image of white, segregated schools was no longer the norm. My interest in these places, whether it’s a suburb where an influx of upper-middle-class Asian Americans were disrupting the norms of academic excellence or Sweet Home, a school district in the suburbs of Buffalo where working-class immigrant and refugee families have presented both opportunities and challenges for educators who were used to teaching mostly white students, came from my sense that much of America, including the media, was missing a rather profound shift in the country.|
|People across the nation now live in increasingly multiethnic communities, and their conceptions of race no longer conform to basic racial binary politics in which one side (the Republicans) upholds white supremacy and the other side (Democrats) fights for all us little guys. The continuing relevance of the 1965 Immigration Act, then, doesn’t just come from the actual changes it created in the country but also because it is still, in effect, new and unexplored. We need to figure out how to talk more realistically about a multiethnic country in which “communities of color” have very different politics from one another.|
|This gap between how race and inequality get discussed on the big political and media stages and the reality in places like Sweet Home only widened during the Trump era. For the most part, this was understandable. Given the immensity of the alarm over Trump’s plans, it’s difficult to really fault anyone for not fine-tuning all their understanding of the country. But the persistence of a binary type of thinking when it comes to politics, race and inequality has made it increasingly difficult to process everything else that takes place in the country.|
|I’ve tried to focus this newsletter on those liminal spaces where the greater American narrative does not quite make sense. Much of this focus has been on the Asian American immigrant population, but I believe much of the analysis holds for Latino and Black immigrants as well.
One area of inquiry into this mismatch between a binary way of thinking and the actual American population was education, where an increasing focus on equity has not only fallen out of line with families of all backgrounds but also triggered a nascent backlash movement, not just among the anti-critical race theory crusaders but also among Asian American populations in cities like New York and San Francisco.
|It’s certainly worth arguing that these shifts are small and largely inconsequential, given that immigrants tend to live in big cities in solidly blue states, but what I see going forward is that as immigrant populations spread out to the suburbs and beyond, they will become less reliably Democrat for the very simple fact that their neighbors and communities will not be in blue strongholds. Given the razor-thin margins between Democrat and Republican rule in America, it is imperative that Democrats start to understand immigrant communities and begin to tailor a message of communal prosperity to them.
The current zero-sum logic of equity, which goes as far as to label working-class Asian students as “white-adjacent” and comes up with fantastical reasons to link their academic success with white supremacy, must be changed, not only for electoral reasons but also because it simply does not make sense for the vast majority of families.
The question isn’t so much whether progressives have overreached — radical measures are not bad by definition — but rather if the current slate of progressive reforms in education, and to a smaller extent policing, are actually good, progressive solutions and worth the fight, backlash be damned.
|So what is a good radical idea?|
|Over the past year, I’ve also written on a few occasions about my belief in community colleges and the integral part they could play in creating a truly equitable education system.
Much — not all — of the equity talk in American education suffers from a lack of imagination. The goal, for the most part, seems to be to keep all the hierarchies within the system and simply make the end result perfectly match the racial demographics of the country.
This, I believe, is a catastrophic and ultimately impoverished way to think about education. Instead of worrying about the number of minority kids in elite colleges, someone truly committed to class equality should argue that these schools, which cater overwhelmingly to the wealthiest families in the world, should be stripped of the power they have over the education system through sizable hikes in endowment taxes that will hurt their coffers and provide funds that can be redistributed to public institutions.
Pressuring state schools to take on more community college transfers would do more for racial and economic equity than any affirmative action program, and would cut down considerably on the cost of higher education. That such initiatives receive a fraction of the attention as tiny fluctuations in student demographics at elite schools shows just how addicted we all are to exclusivity and how resistant we are to actual change.
|How effectively do the totems of the left actually address a rapidly changing and increasingly economically precarious population? And how does the binary way we think about race limit the opportunities for true coalitional politics?
Jay Caspian Kang is an American writer, editor, television journalist and podcast host. Born in Korea, he was raised in academic communities in Massachusetts & North Carolina, and now lives in Berkeley CA. He is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine and the opinion section of The New York Times. Previously he was an editor of Grantland, then of the science and technology blog Elements at The New Yorker. He was also an Emmy-nominated correspondent on Vice News Tonight and cohosts the podcast Time to Say Goodbye. His debut novel The Dead Do Not Improvewas released by the Hogarth/Random House in the summer of 2012. In 2021, he published The Loneliest Americans, a memoir and reported work examining Asian American identity.