The Left Coast loves its patchouli and kale, its drug culture, gender-neutral politics and environmentalism. Sadly, it doesn’t quite have as much regard for the poor or the dark-skinned. It is a very white-washed, consumerist form of liberalism.
I was first cognizant of such a phenomenon about ten years ago in the Bronx, talking to folks brought up in a Catholic school environment. They would wax on about Good Works and moral thinking while stepping over the homeless and ignoring the indigent on Grand Concourse; their neighbors. They had no plans for such folk, nor did they acknowledge them in any way. The problem, as I had surmised then, was that they had been explicitly removed, both physically and mentally, from such misery: The RC schools were a means specifically for their parents to save them from the dysfunction that existed in the public schools. I certainly don’t begrudge them that: Any self-respecting parent would want what is best for their children.
In this manner and others, however, they were set apart from the folks who were at risk – of gang induction, of drug addiction, of a general institutionalized disenfranchisement where no future was envisioned much less offered – despite occupying the same neighborhoods. That barrier set up for their protection became a hurdle for them for cross when it came time to understand the world. They didn’t suffer, so they became blind to suffering. Some learned. Some didn’t. The ones who did, I noted, had to largely because they were minorities and as such were forced to contend with the same intrinsic and institutional problems as everybody else. The ones who didn’t existed in an environment where that bubble never had to be burst. Either they were remarkably insular in their personal dealings, or they were of a demographic that would not be made to outwardly suffer: Their indoctrination complete, they were thus made free to interpret their vision of an egalitarian society with an equanimity that bordered on disinterest. It is an issue that they are privileged to view wholly in the abstract.
In doing so, they have collectively come to the conclusion that “the world exists exactly as I had personally experienced it.”
What would a society divided along these lines look like writ large? I know what it looks like on a smaller scale: A good example would be the divide between the Hasidic communities in Brooklyn and their neighbors. The Hasidim have banded together for mutual protection and welfare, but simply have not, will not and cannot extrapolate that understanding to those not of their group. To a similar extent the Catholic league does the same, which is how we have William Donohue framing mayor de Blasio’s unwillingness to countenance Catholic intolerance as intolerance of its own. Likewise, it can also describe how gay men in the Castro District could be racist: They were taught that their suffering was special, wholly unlike that of any other, and they never sought nor thought to dispel that notion.
That these militant minorities would oppress other minorities is itself a sad state of existence. But what if the majority acted the same way? Mind you, I’m not speaking of Republicans. They are so far divorced from greater society as to be self-caricatures. I’m talking about the Bay Area, after all. I speak of white liberals. If the Black Panthers of Oakland could be generally criticized as having been counter-productively (if not self-destructively) angry, then the white liberals of San Francisco and Berkeley are roundly and disturbingly complacent. It is not a sin of malice – as perhaps some of the previously mentioned examples can be interpreted – but one of willful, self-inflicted ignorance. It simply doesn’t cross their minds, for they don’t have to experience the same trials and hardships if they don’t want to.
To exist in Berkeley or San Francisco is to be surrounded by “safe” people: White, Asian, upwardly-mobile middle class intellectuals. As Christian Lander put it, it is an “‘ideal diversity,’ for its provision of exotic restaurants while simultaneously preserving property values.” It is to exist in a “safe” environment, where the politicians listen, the police protect rather than suppress, and the coffers are flush enough to fund desired projects. It’s a walled-off environment, where the wall is money, and within those walls self-professed liberals are free to work on their pet issues without fear of being interrupted by reality. What does a gluten intolerance mean to somebody who is, to put it euphemistically, “food insecure?” What does ergonomics mean to somebody who is, to use another euphemistic term, “underemployed?” Is that person following a “ascetic lifestyle” or can they simply not afford furniture?
Who invents these euphemisms? People for whom the issue isn’t real.
Non-intervention stems from non-confrontation, and while the lack of confrontation can come from the segregation of physical space – Berkeley is Black-adjacent, after all – it is most insidiously a segregation of the mind. It is the assumption that everybody follows the same middle class consumerist lifestyle and any deviation from such must be a conscious decision on the aberrant’s part. Counterculture is, by this mode of logic, a choice; an affectation, not a survival move. Those who have made such a choice are thus, in turn, presenting an affectation of liberalism, and expect the same from their neighbors. In such a framework, that homeless man is really just a hippie. Those day laborers pile up in tiny homes because they have such a close-knit family life. There is nothing wrong with being white and wearing dreadlocks and spouting rap lyrics because I suffer too. And thank god nobody’s around to tell me otherwise.
To speak to them, as I have in San Francisco, of their tribulations is to be made witness to a different personal reality. In it they are the free ones, and everybody else is caught up in repressive social constraints. The Black ghetto is a ghetto of the mind, they say; just look at all the successful immigrant populations. Poverty is a terrestrial concern, they say, and besides, it’s only temporary: Just save up until you catch the big break. The real struggles are their struggles. Please lend credence to my issue; we’ve already devoted enough time to yours. Never mind that the immigrants who most succeed were the urbane, middle classes of their home countries. Never mind that inter-generational class mobility is slower than ever.
If young Black men need to be less inwardly angry in order to be more constructive, young white men need to be more outwardly angry in order to be more constructive. Black anger stems from knowing exactly where the problem lies and living it every day. White complacency stems from not being personally affected, no matter one’s own politics. They must be confronted with it. Their noses must be ground in it. This is difficult, because they have created their entire environment to assiduously avoid just that, and they get mighty offended when it’s suggested that they’re not helping as they should. But so long as they can define for themselves what their neighbor’s issue really is, that problem will not be their problem, and their status as liberals and allies will be in name only.