Briahna Joy Gray On Race And Class

A tough but civil conversation.

  
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Briahna, a lawyer and political consultant who served as press secretary for Bernie Sanders, co-hosts the superb podcast Bad Faith. I start our enjoyable convo with a simple question: how can we best facilitate the flourishing of black America? I’m trying to reach out and engage more people I have disagreements with, to see where we might have common ground. I’m immensely grateful to Briahna for coming on.

You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player embedded above, or right below it you can click “Listen in podcast app” — which will connect you to the Dishcast feed. For two excerpts of my conversation with Briahna — on the extent to which culture plays a role in poverty, and on the causes behind the sky-high murder rates of young African-American men — head over to our YouTube page.

After listening to last week’s episode with Antonio García Martínez, a reader writes:

While I agree with you on most topics, I have never been able to grasp the logic of your position on immigration. In your conversation with Martínez, you explained that the core reason you support more limited immigration is for the purpose of maintaining the cultural status quo. For you, it doesn’t seem to ultimately be about economics or logistics or crime, just aesthetics.

My question is, why do you think that as an individual person you have any right to decide “what London culturally feels like,” or something similar? Why should your aesthetic preferences about cities have meaningful implications for public policy? And furthermore, what about those of us who enjoy having a few really culturally diverse cities in the world like London and New York? Do we get any say about it?

First off, it’s not aesthetics. I’m not even sure what you mean by that. It’s simply about not creating such massive and sudden demographic change that it threatens the cohesion and common identity of a nation-state. It’s about slowing migration, to encourage social stability and some measure of cultural continuity, not stopping it altogether. And of course I don’t decide. Voters do. And in such a situation, big multicultural cities are not threatened at all.

Next up, a perennial dissent:

I am sure you have heard this before, but I think that the experiences of African Americans cannot be compared to other immigrants. I believe you give short shrift to the ongoing experience and sensibilities of black people in the US. While it is true, as you pointed out in your conversation with Mr. Martínez, that slavery and discrimination were not created in the US, it held a special place, which I believe you minimize.

In my lifetime I have seen the tail end of Jim Crow, the redlining, the mistreatment of Black students in schools, the unwillingness of academic departments to come to grips with the longstanding double standards towards Black applicants and faculty. I was alive, although somewhat young, when Brown v. Board of Education was decided, and during the backlash, the creation of “private” white schools. The Civil Rights Movement occurred when I was an adult. Anti-miscegenation laws were ended when I was an adult as well. I was alive when the Voting Rights Act was passed, and when it was gutted recently because Chief Justice Roberts thinks that discrimination in access to voting no longer exists.

I could go on, but I think you get the point.  

We need to consider the experiences of Black people who have this as part of their memories, and of their parents’ and grandparents’ memories. The effect of the experiences of Jews in Nazi Germany on their children and grandchildren are taken seriously, more seriously than the effect of slavery and the brutal experiences that lasted well into the present on the minds and sensibilities of Blacks. 

Discrimination is not over. There is ample empirical evidence that Blacks are still not treated equally, even though less unequally than in the past. But it seems like there is a real desire for them to forget their parents’ and grandparents’ experiences and even their own, and act as if they do not matter.

I know you know all this, and I know you take it seriously, but I do think that the way you have discussed this history, and the ongoing effects of this history, has been dismissive. I do hope that you find merit in my argument and will examine how you have presented this in your past discussions.

I do see a great deal of merit in what you are saying. The African-American experience in this country is indeed unique in its historic enmeshment with evil. The question is how we respond to that inheritance. And I think the woke left’s insistence that history can never be overcome, that the US needs to be dismantled for liberation to arrive, and that African Americans are uniquely incapable of agency because of “white supremacy,” to be unhelpful, if not downright counter-productive. You can acknowledge deeply the victimhood, without being defined by it. This is not a new tension: it has engaged black America for centuries. I think the current emphasis is off — and that we need more empowerment, and less victimhood.

Another reader thinks all the debate over critical race theory is rarified and unnecessary:

I have enjoyed your writing for years, and though I’m not a full subscriber, I get your Dish emails. Your style is excellent, thoughts insightful, and I generally agree with your positions. What has disappointed me lately is your focus on CRT and gender issues.

I don’t disagree with your position on these issues, but I disagree with the amount of focus you are putting on them. If this were truly an existential threat to America, maybe it would be worth being the sole issue worth covering. But unlike you, I don’t see it as a menace, because I disagree with your evidence that it is taking over America and the Democratic party. It may be that Biden has swung left since being elected, and that he has either tacitly or actively begun promoting CRT and sex-doesn’t-exist policies. But remember that most voters didn’t know he would do that. He won the Democratic primary by a large margin.

Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, I like to point out to people, were two of the very few candidates who didn’t put their preferred pronouns on their social media profiles. People like Julian Castro, who complained that National Women’s Month was insufficiently celebratory of trans women, didn’t even register to voters. The woke crowd candidates got nowhere. Running on “white people are the problem” got zero votes in the Democratic primary.

Sanders, while far to the left on economic issues, and who came in second, is hardly the champion of this postmodernist thought. His campaigns have been built on the assumption that racial and gender issues hardly matter and that economic concerns unite people across all backgrounds — a strategy that was highly successful. Meanwhile, Uncle Joe ran on being a moderate, folksy, bipartisan, soul-of-America healer-in-chief. Whatever these politicians are doing now, the vast majority of Democratic voters had no interest in this postmodernist, CRT nonsense, and indicated as much with their votes.

You complain that the elites give too much credence to CRT and the like, yet you do the same thing. You are giving it so much air time. Why? Most people don’t care. I live in Oakland, CA. Almost everyone I know votes Democratic. And you know what? Not one has anyone ever brought up critical theory. We don’t sit around self-flagellating ourselves over our whiteness or straightness or what-have-you. I rarely even talk about this with my politics-obsessed friends who live in DC from when I used to live there. So how are you and I getting such different impressions?

The reason I think you perceive this as so prevalent is because of social media. You probably spend a lot of time on Twitter. And if you don’t, the other elites you hang out with or hear about or interact with, do. This has created such a warped perspective of the world. I am very confident that if you spent less time online, and more time talking to average people (people who pay attention to politics every four years and know more “The Bachelor” contestants than sitting senators), or even time talking to people who care about politics but don’t live in a certain political and media milieu, you’d find that this isn't as relevant as you think.

I’m sorry but the adoption of critical race theory by every major cultural and media institution, government at all levels, and corporate America, is a big deal even if many people are unaware of what’s going on. A generation of kids is being taught that liberal democracy is oppressive and must be dismantled, that the central meaning of their own country is persecution of the non-white, that white people are all vehicles of white supremacy, even when they are trying not to be, and so on. That’s a huge deal. Ideas matter.

From a reader on the ground, in the classroom:

I am a great fan of the Dish who, living in a bright-blue suburb of Boston, has found your columns very helpful over the past couple of years. It is very disorienting to observe so many of my friends shifting left without being aware of it, and feeling left out and isolated when my discomfort about the Successor Ideology is ridiculed. But lately, like you, I have felt that people are beginning to recalibrate their outrage, much to my relief. 

I am a social studies teacher who writes a bit on the side. Working in private schools has allowed me to see the impact of progressive orthodoxy on education up close. I find the results very concerning, but most of the reporting on this topic covers the most egregious examples of wokeness gone wild, rather than its more mundane but nonetheless far-reaching effects. I decided to write a piece for Areo about how US History curricula, which is one of the areas I know well, have changed in the past few years at private schools. As you will see, I don’t think the impacts of wokeness are all terrible, but I am very troubled. I hope you find the article worth your time and that it perhaps provides you with a bit more context about how woke ideas are influencing what students learn. 

This next reader should enjoy our new episode with socialist Briahna:

Longtime reader here — you actually posted my responses a couple times back in the days of the Dish (about Bart Ehrman and a film review I wrote of The Bling Ring). My partner and I are enjoying the new weekly format and the podcast. Thank you for continuing to challenge mainstream media and offer rigorous critiques of liberalism. 

My politics, especially on economics, have moved sharply to the left in recent years. I remain more moderate/conservative on cultural issues. If I lived in Europe I’d be a combination of Christian Democrat and Social Democrat. On this score, I am with you about CRT. I must echo some of your readers, though, in pointing out that it’s getting to the point where you are beating a dead horse. There are other stories going on, need I point out.

On that note, the socialist in me is continually frustrated by the lack of attention you pay to the economic inequality in the contemporary landscape. The crisis of late capitalism has produced staggering poverty, concentrations of wealth that threaten democracy, and suffering by the working class. Yet you remain preoccupied with immigration and CRT. And when the government decides for the first time in 40 years to give cash relief to the poor — for one year — you hyperventilate and call it a revolution. Please.

Nothing Biden has done has touched any of the fundamental structures of the economy in the Sanders or Warren model — no increase in wages, no taxes, no regulation (not to mention nationalization). I know it feels that way after two generations of neoliberal oligarchy. It amounts to deficit spending and a Keynesian approach we haven’t seen in decades. And on that score, it marks a welcome shift away from the scourge of Friedman, Hayek, and Schumpeter. 

But it’s not nearly on the level of the New Deal, and the New Deal itself was only reform, not revolution. Certainly it’s no semblance of social democracy in the mode of Western Europe. And it’s light years from the Civil War, the only real revolution the United States has ever had. There, you saw one of the wealthiest and most politically powerful societies on earth utterly destroyed by military conquest, the enslaved class of workers rising up to fight in the Union Army and Navy, and the largest source of wealth totally abrogated with Emancipation. That is a revolution. Yet even our Civil War doesn’t hold a candle to what happened in Haiti or Russia or many other places.

Don’t believe me? Just read people on the actual left, like Matt Karp at Jacobin. These folks want real revolution and they are not fooled by what Biden has done. So if the hard left isn’t happy, I think you should relax and not mislead your readers by crying that the sky is falling. Your masthead quotes Orwell about seeing what is right in front of your eyes, after all. In that spirit, choose your terms prudently.

In any case, I would appreciate it if you paid more attention to the economic crisis and explored proposals that can respond to the socialist option that appeals to so many of us now. I know some conservatives are offering this in terms of nationalist or populist measures. But I see a paucity of that conversation in your show and column. 

Socialist Cornel West is coming on the pod next week. If you have a question you would like him to answer, drop us an email: dish@andrewsullivan.com. This last reader has a question for me:

I started reading your wonderful Out On a Limb book. The first essay, “Here Comes the Groom,” reminded me of an interesting chat I had with my wife. I’ve always appreciated the narrative that the push for marriage equality was so successful so quickly because people like you reached out to your philosophical opponents in the liberal tradition of convincing through reasoned argument and open-minded discussion. You had a strong argument that resonated, so you convinced people, and thus society changed.

I proposed this to my wife, who advanced a different narrative for that success: the AIDS epidemic pushed gay people into the spotlight and made them sympathetic; that was the primary cause for an incredible advance in social acceptance of gays; and once gay people are just regular people, of course them getting married isn’t that big a deal. So it would have happened with or without the organized push for marriage equality. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that alternative narrative!

It was both! As I’ve often argued, marriage equality would not have happened without them cultural and moral impact of the AIDS epidemic. But equally, it was advanced by consistent argument and engagement and activism and public education.

If you have any of your own questions or comments about Out On a Limb, shoot us an email: dish@andrewsullivan.com. I also just discussed the book via Zoom with Philadelphia Citizen co-founder Larry Platt: