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The Equity Hustle
Language just isn't enough
The woke v. anti-woke wars of the 2010s and 2020s are, at this point, a wearying topic, the tribes fully calcified, the career tracks launched into the sun. Each side wails grift at the other, the most tiring of insults, when literally anyone writing for money, myself included, can be accused of such a thing. The clash, it seems, has entered its First World War phase, the trenches dug, progress minimal on all fronts. The wokes peaked, quite spectacularly, in the summer of 2020, capitalizing on a violent police murder to engineer DEI initiatives in just about every elite, left-leaning institution in America while making both Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo absurdly rich. The woke coalition was fragile, a blend of earnest liberals who really thought they were fighting racism in American life, opportunists and corporate titans hoping—quite quickly—to cash in and cash out, and many white-collar professionals terrified of being canceled on Twitter. The anti-wokes, a mix of leftists who believed a politics devoid of a class analysis was a dangerous idea, run-of-the-mill Republicans, and various moderates and liberals skeptical of campus culture run amok, fought back, and most Americans eventually moved on. I’m perpetually skeptical of the overly woke, but this also isn’t the most important thing to me, and I won’t let my writing get swallowed by it. Too many talented novelists and essayists have bent to this binary, making it all they think and talk about.
I am using terms here, of course, both sides may dislike. This is more true of the wokes, who seemingly reject all categorizations, as Freddie DeBoer, with eloquence, has pointed out. “Social justice politics” works much better but, alas, none can agree on that label. Such is life. Where the anti-wokes have a point—too much of one, truthfully, in that they exhaust entire intellectual projects on the idea—is that some of this stuff has hardened in academia, government, and the media and isn’t going away anytime soon. The wokes won at the CIA, et cetera. And the reckoning from the George Floyd year has made its way to New York City, where in fact the police were not defunded but millions of people will soon vote on three ballot initiatives to address racial justice in the five boroughs. Without 2020, none of the measures would be on ballot, and they are a testament to the power and ultimate letdown of the biggest mass protest movement since the civil rights era. Policing in America changed marginally—the most direct outcome of the Floyd protests, in New York, was the repeal of 50-a—but language evolved rapidly, with the mainstreaming of concepts that, for many decades, existed at the academic fringe. Depending on your view, this is wonderful or deeply disconcerting, but it is worth reckoning with, not pretending it was always so. The November 2022 ballot, alone, is proof.
In New York City, voters can first decide if they want to add a new preamble to the city charter. The full text is here. There is, as has become fashionable in educated left-liberal circles, a land acknowledgment (“We recognize that New York city sits on the traditional territories of the original inhabitants, the Lenape, and we endeavor to honor their stewardship of the land…”) and a lengthy reckoning with “the grave injustices and atrocities that form part of our country’s history, including the forced labor of enslaved Africans.” A wide range of racial and ethnic groups subject to “discrimination, racial segregation, mass incarceration, and other forms of violence and systemic inequity” are enumerated, such as “Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern, and other People of Color, women, religious minorities, immigrants, people who are LGBTQ+, and people with disabilities.” One of the popular buzzwords of the era, systemic, is everywhere. “We also recognize that these systemic injustices are at the foundation of so many of society’s structures and institutions, and have caused profound physical, emotional, social, and psychological harm and trauma to individuals, families, and communities.” These injustices, the preamble continues, have “also resulted in widespread loss of economic opportunity and intergenerational wealth. The effects of these harms are deeply engrained, systemic, and continuing.”
There is nothing in the preamble that gives it the force of law. Rather, for its proponents, it is recognition that racial justice should be a core responsibility of government. The next initiative, though, attempts something more tangible. If approved, it would create a new city office of racial equity. There is no budget line stipulated, but it would be run out of City Hall. A series of biennial reports on racial equity from that office and each city agency would be required. In addition, a permanent commission on racial equity would offer unspecified input on city planning and policy. Supporters are most excited by this idea, though wary that the city won’t commit proper resources to it or truly compel city agencies to release data on racial equity, whatever that may look like. It would be, at the very minimum, the first time a specific office in New York was created to try to monitor and quantify racial justice.
The third measure would require the city to create a metric that could tabulate the true “cost-of-living” in the five boroughs. Rather than take into account public or private assistance, such as housing vouchers, the metric would consider “housing, child care, child and dependent expenses, food, transportation, healthcare, clothing, general hygiene products, cleaning products, household items, telephone service, and internet service.” According to the commission formed by Bill de Blasio, the prior mayor, such a cost-of-living metric “refocuses the conversation away from poverty, or the poorest of life’s conditions, towards an emphasis on dignity” and “could be utilized in advocacy, labor negotiations, and, where appropriate, setting new eligibility standards for programs and benefits.” Indeed, New York is an expensive place and attendant costs like childcare, food, and internet service can cripple the modest budgets of the working-class. This has long been a problem in a city where the social safety net can be generous enough for the poorest of the poor but excludes almost everyone else. Of all the initiatives, this is one that could, at least, offer the most needed corrective. It is the hardest one to argue against.
The preamble too, if belabored and fashionably self-flagellating, is difficult, at first blush, to oppose. Sure, it implicitly rejects the idea that America, for all its profound sins, is a rather successful multiracial republic, at least compared to nations in Europe and Asia that struggle to integrate their immigrant populations and impose points-based systems that would make the nativists here blush. But bad things did happen here and keep happening here! From a New York perspective, though, the preamable is somewhat ahistorical, since its fails to specifically name the groups that faced some of the most virulent discrimination in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The Italians and Irish, violently rejected by the WASP elite of the 1800s and 1900s, are nowhere to be found. Neither are the Jews, who are simply elided as “religious minorities,” as if there is no difference between the Lower East Side Jew and the Tibetan Buddhist of Jackson Heights. Ethnic and racial politics are endemic to New York, but this is the sort of preamble that pretends the politics that defined New York for much of the last century—the three I’s (Israel, Italy, and Ireland) in particular—did not exist at all. Just as galling, perhaps, is an official charter that uses a word popularized in cloistered academia (“Latinx”) to describe a diverse group of Spanish-speaking peoples with very different histories in this city. To speak Spanish in New York, for much of the twentieth century, meant you were from Puerto Rico. The Puerto Rican diaspora deserves more than to be lumped into such an odd grouping, especially since “Latinx” cannot be pronounced in the Spanish language and is not a word you will ever hear if you spend time in a Spanish-speaking New York neighborhood. Dominican and Mexican immigrants, with their own distinct heritages, shouldn’t be tossed under a single tent, either. Given how intentionally the new preamble was written, there are questions about the implicit hierarchy it is establishing. Is there a reason “Black” is listed first and “Asian” fourth and “Middle Eastern” sixth? Why are “people with disabilities” shuttled in just after “LGBTQ+”? This has always been the challenge of the new identity essentialism, the way it manages to pit artificially defined groups against one another, turning so much of life into shallow contests of privilege, or lack thereof.
Finally, what of this new mayoral office? Who’s going to work there? The current mayor, Eric Adams, has treated much of this city as his personal patronage mill. It is hard to imagine a good-faith effort established under such circumstances. At a time when the city is failing to fill key vacancies at just about every important agency, does it make sense to create another office that does, ultimately, less essential work? Harder, too, when a new mandate has such vague parameters, subject to ready abuse. What does equity data from a city agency actually look like? Will strict racial quotas be established for the city workforce? Or will nothing really happen at all? The ballot initiatives raise as many questions as they answer.
For the liberals and leftists who may support the ballot measures as a way to directly address racial discrimination, it must be asked whether this is a serious way to help the struggling people of New York. The working-class and poor, the Black and Latino and Asian taxpayers, are not going to see meaningful differences in their lives if a new preamble is added to the city charter. They can’t eat a preamble or pay rent with a preamble. An equity commission is not going to alter the capitalist underpinnings of housing and food access in this city, or any city. It will not stop evictions, get people housing lawyers, or raise the wage enough to pay for an apartment that will rent for $3,000 or $4,000 or $5,000 a month. It will not make Williamsburg or Alphabet City or Park Slope affordable again. It will not fix NYCHA, make CUNY tuition-free, or expand the rent-stabilization program. It is, in the end, an elite’s idea of reparations and redress: words over action, every time. And if action materializes, it will be the kind that only creates new layers of puttering bureaucracy. Attacking and altering the structures that create actual oppression—or even making government function, on a basic level, for the people who need it most—is a challenge no new commission or prolix preamble will ever solve.
Given the anodyne framing of all these measures, they are probably going to pass. If they do, expect handwringing from the anti-woke faction, which will see it as yet another victory for the ascendant woke set, something that must be countered at all costs. The measures, though, are more exhaust fumes of 2020 than anything else. A new preamble will be copy and pasted into the charter, an office of limited responsibilities will be created, and most New Yorkers won’t notice, either way. They’ll be fretting rent hikes, eviction notices, and the escalating grocery bill.
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