Equality, social movements, and assimilationism

I’m in the midst of rereading Chris Hayes’ excellent book Twilight of the Elites (review still forthcoming—promise) and wanted to highlight this pregnant passage:

“The areas in which the left has made the most significant progress—gay rights, inclusion of women in higher education, the end of de jure racial discrimination—are the battles it has fought or is fighting in favor of making the meritocracy more meritocratic. The areas in which it has suffered its worst defeats—collective action to provide universal public goods, mitigating rising income inequality—are those that fall outside meritocracy’s purview. The same goes for conservatives. Those who rail against unions and for reduced taxes on hedge fund bonuses have the logic of meritocracy on their side, yet those who want to keep gay men and women from serving openly in the military do not.”

This is a really perceptive point. Put another way, the struggles which have been successful have been assimilationist, rather than transformative, in nature. Civil rights activists vanquished Jim Crow, but couldn’t occasion economic democracy. Racial minorities may appear in corporate commercials with greater frequency, but they’re still disproportionately poor, powerless, and disenfranchised. In the same vein, it’s telling that when Hayes speaks of “gay rights,” he’s alluding to the acceptance of gays into mainstream America. This is the degree to which more radical demands, groups, and tactics in the queer community have been subordinated in favor of the inclusionary fight for, most prominently, marriage equality. Under this strategy, class fissures need not be remedied, and the interests of  the middle and upper class win out. (Taking this logic to the extreme, mainstream groups like the Human Rights Campaign have constructed an alarmingly expansive ally umbrella, and expediently thrown transgender people under the bus.)

One can envision a society, I think, in which racism, sexism, and homophobia have all been quashed, yet profound economic and political inequities fester. Witness the hypertrophied growth in income inequality over the past 30 years, alongside increasing (if insufficient) acceptance of gays, lesbians, and racial and ethnic minorities. The two can coexist quite comfortably if the raison d’etre of activism is inclusion; the new cosmopolitan elite that Hayes so adeptly skewers isn’t averse to the assimilationist agenda.

I write this all, of course, as a straight, cis white male. It would be preposterous and offensive for me to pooh-pooh the enormous accomplishments of the gay rights and civil rights movements. But it’s certainly sobering to an egalitarian like me, who wants to see more tectonic shifts toward equality and democracy, to look at the wins/ losses column.

There’s much work to be done.

Shawn Gude

Shawn Gude is a writer, graduate student, activist, and assistant editor at Jacobin. His intellectual influences include Chantal Mouffe, Michael Harrington, and Ella Baker. Contact him at shawn.gude@gmail.com or on Twitter @shawngude.


  1. A very interesting point.

    I would point out (though I don’t think you’d deny it) that there’s still a ways to go even on the assimilationist issues, too. There are plenty of tran* people who could benefit from the assimilationist reforms. But that hardly stopped the HRC (among others) from, as you say, throwing them under the bus the moment it was convenient to do so.

  2. I concur.

    This is a very tricky and complicated issue and I think issues of assimilation are very hard.

    I am a third-generation Jewish-American. My maternal grandfather only got into Columbia because his last name began with B and this allowed him to avoid the quota cut-off. I have had people say anti-Semitic things to me but have never felt direct discrimination because of my Judaism. Jews have certainly assimilated more into mainstream society but there are a lot of traces of old-school anti-Semitism left. Goldman Sachs used to be known as a Jewish banking firm because the other Wall Street firms would not hire Jews. The same is true for Lehman Brothers before their collapse. When it comes to the big corporate law firms, the Jewish ones were formed because the old white-shoe firms like Cadwalder Wickersham and Taft.

    These distinctions are largely relics of the past. There are plenty of Jewish associates and partners at the big white-shoe Wall Street firms and this would cause their founders to spin in their graves probably.

    However, I still wonder if when it comes to social justice and equality, we focus too much on a corporate and upper-middle class angle.

    When I started at law school, a professor mentioned a group called “Building a better law profession”. The group was dedicated to making the law more diverse and equal. However, they had or still have a very narrow focus. They were only concerned about making the top law schools and top law firms (read: Corporate multi-national ones) more diverse.

    This seems strange to me and that it does a neat trick of being for equality and advancement but also elitism at the same time. Why is corporate transactional or defense law considered the brass ring?* Why only concentrate at the top 10-50 law schools? Why not care about diversity at the Tier II or III schools? Etc.

    *Admission of bias: My heart is with the plaintiff’s bar. Like my dad, I am too ornery to fit into the culture of big corporate law firms.

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