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The Price of Progressive Politics

The Price of Progressive Politics: The Welfare Rights Movement in an Era of Colorblind Racism

Rose Ernst
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 198
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  • Book Info
    The Price of Progressive Politics
    Book Description:

    Social justice activists in the United States face an increasingly difficult task: how do they fight policies based on damaging images of race, class and gender identities in an era of colorblind racism? Through the voices of women activists in the welfare rights movement across the United States, The Price of Progressive Politics exposes the contemporary reality of welfare rights politics, revealing how the language of colorblind racism undermines this multiracial movement. Rose Ernst argues that although many activists are well-meaning and truly committed, they nonetheless find themselves reproducing many of the same racial and gender biases that they are trying to fight against. Through forty-nine in-depth interviews with activists in eight organizations across the United States, Ernst presents an intersectional analysis of how these activists understand the complexities of race, class and gender and how such understandings have affected their approach to their grassroots work.The vibrant stories of these welfare rights activists from around the country reveal the volatile issues of race and class that underlie the deep complexities and contradictions of grassroots organizing, and the tensions which are often heightened by the language of color-blind racism. Engaging and accessible, The Price of Progressive Politics offers a refreshing examination of how those working for change grapple with shifting racial dynamics in the United States, arguing that organizations that fail to develop a consciousness that reflects the reality of multiple marginalized identities ultimately reproduce the societal dynamics they seek to change.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-2274-9
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    On a cold November morning, women huddled around a podium came together to speak. Two months after the levees broke and Congress was considering drastic cuts to the already shredded safety net, it was the time to be heard. The purpose of their gathering on the Capitol steps was to call media attention to the deteriorating state of the already tattered safety net. Yet their message alternated between the searing anger, betrayal, and despair of New Orleans and the stilted jargon of budget cuts. The Katrina speeches were not part of the planned script, yet they were the most urgent...

  5. 2 To Each Her Own: Race and Class in Gendered Coalitions
    (pp. 19-36)

    Each successive federal reauthorization of welfare “reform” has reiterated wage work as a central indicator of individual moral worth of the poor. The mantra of “work first” exemplifies the heart of this political consensus about welfare. Policymakers have not wrung their hands over the loss of parenting time for welfare parents in their drive to move these individuals into low-wage work. The value of motherhood of low-income women has been denigrated; children have been viewed merely as obstacles to obtaining employment, not as future citizens. The politics of race, gender, and class are deeply implicated in this discourse of personal...

  6. 3 Closing Rank: Power and Colorblindness
    (pp. 37-64)

    Race is the primary political cleavage in the welfare rights movement on three related levels. First, as discussed in chapter 1, welfare is a cross-cutting issue targeting three marginalized identities along the axes of race, class, and gender. On the level of macro- and micro-level political discourse about welfare, however, race is the driving force behind this “public identity” of the welfare queen.¹ Second, regardless of the local organizing context of particular organizations, this racialization of welfare on a national scale² demands that local organizing must be highly attentive to race. The racism embodied in and reproduced by the trope...

  7. 4 Pulling Rank: Gender and Class Colorblindness
    (pp. 65-90)

    The complex nature of marginalization in the United States demands a more extensive explanation of the relationship between colorblindness and axes of politically meaningful identities.¹ Welfare rights activists’ narratives bear out this complexity, particularly in the area of gender and class. Racial ideologies such as colorblindness cannot exist in an identity vacuum; that is, they must attend to the experiential differences in ordinary people’s daily lives. Colorblindness must be a flexible-enough discursive lens so that both an unemployed, White man in rural North Dakota and a White, female corporate executive in New York can share an ideological framework that explains...

  8. 5 Breaking Rank: Race and Class Consciousness
    (pp. 91-116)

    As colorblindness is the principal racial ideology of the United States, both dominant and subordinate racial groups must grapple with the contours of this discourse. Bonilla-Silva asserts that groups that challenge this racial status quo must structure their claimsagainstcolorblindness.¹ This acknowledgment, I argue, inadvertently legitimates an ideology itself. As the core characteristic of colorblindness is its invisibility, however, acknowledging its existence is, in itself, a challenge to the racial status quo. This type of struggle against colorblindness discourse is not limited to racially progressive actors. Indeed, White-supremacist racial ideologies based on biological or cultural superiority also call for...

  9. 6 Crossing Over: Rethinking Movement Organization
    (pp. 117-140)

    What do organizations in which both women of color and White women cross the divide between colorblindness to race and class consciousness look like? As a starting point, I compare two similar welfare rights organizations in Minnesota and Washington State, attending to geo-racial context, political landscape, organizational context and structure, political ideology, and internal racial dynamics. The Minnesota organization presents a unique model of an organization able to move beyond the colorblindness mind-set among White women explicated in chapters 3 and 4. Both organizational structure and racial composition of leadership are critical factors in the development of a collective race...

  10. 7 Critical Alliances: Intersecting National Coalitions
    (pp. 141-152)

    The synergy created by national coalitions offers movement-building opportunities unparalleled in the arena of local activism. This synergy is also fragile and ephemeral. It is particularly vulnerable to the reproduction of broader societal processes of marginalization described in all the preceding chapters. Chapters 3, 4, 5, and 6 explored how contemporary activists navigate the uncertain terrain of marginalization along the axes of race, gender, and class. This final chapter grapples with the implications of these discourses for the contemporary welfare rights struggle as a coherent social movement.¹ One central theme of this book has been the importance of intersectional identities...

  11. Appendix A: Interview Protocol
    (pp. 153-156)
  12. Appendix B: Characteristics of Activists
    (pp. 157-158)
  13. Appendix C: Organizations
    (pp. 159-160)
  14. Appendix D: NOW Newsletters
    (pp. 161-162)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 163-174)
  16. References
    (pp. 175-182)
  17. Index
    (pp. 183-188)
  18. About the Author
    (pp. 189-189)