The Uncommon Compassion of ‘Moonlight’

Moonlight—Barry Jenkins’s coming-of-age tale about gay black love—is personal.

The film was inspired by In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, a stage piece written—and shelved—a decade ago by playwright and MacArthur “genius” Tarell Alvin McCraney. Moonlight’s storyline divides the life of its main character, Chiron, into three parts: his childhood in the poor Liberty City projects of Miami, Florida; his teenage years balancing his mother’s crack addiction and his peers’ intensifying homophobia; and his early adulthood selling drugs in Atlanta, Georgia.

Audiences can draw a line from McCraney to Chiron in several clear-cut ways: mothers struggling with addiction; dope dealers doubling as father figures; and—given that McCraney, like Chiron, is gay—black queerness. But this narrative also speaks to other gay black men, like me, who can probably see at least a sliver of themselves in Chiron.

In light of the persistent whiteness of major Hollywood films, Moonlight’s incredible blackness and queerness feel almost overwhelmingly refreshing. More often than not, the only options available to black characters involve saving or suffering. Jenkins, however, pulls something about our lives into focus that many audiences don’t really care to understand: the dignity of black bodies, including gay black bodies.

At a time when black lives are silenced more than they’re seen, Chiron’s story carries a potent political urgency. Without moralizing about social misery or giving audiences a reductive takeaway, the film lifts up the fullness of black lives—even if the people living them are poor or dealing drugs or gay.

The film lifts up the fullness of black lives—even if the people living them are poor or dealing drugs or gay.

It is Moonlight’s sensitivity to black life that contributes to its expert handling of pain and healing. Its earliest scenes are set in the 1980s, when the war on drugs was at its most vicious. But the film blasts away myths about poverty, race, sexuality, and how they all intersect. Naomie Harris, for instance, who plays Chiron’s mother Paula, recently told NPR that she was initially skeptical of portraying a crack-addled black woman, due largely to the tropes that beleaguer people of color all too frequently. She found, however, that the movie treats addiction as “a way of coping with pain. We all have pain, but we might be dealing with it in ways that are more socially acceptable.” She continued: “To really play this part, I had to learn to love her and have compassion for her, by really realizing that actually she’s doing the very best that she can with the resources she has at that time.”

One of the film’s many strengths is its nuanced rendering of worlds that Hollywood typically reduces to stereotypes. Take a dinner conversation between a young Chiron, neighborhood drug lord Juan, and Juan’s girlfriend Teresa. After being teased at school, Chiron asks the pair—whom he often runs to in his moments of crisis—a blistering question, delivered simply and sadly: “What’s a faggot?” What unfolds is an ineffably moving meditation on identity. Juan explains that the term, a favorite of Chiron’s tormentors, is used to make gay people feel bad. He also assures the boy that there’s no hurry for him to figure out his feelings; he’ll know when he knows. It’s key that Juan—a drug dealer, a black man, the sort of person films usually flatten onscreen—is the one to nurture this self-knowledge. In marking human potential and staring down homophobia, Juan picks apart expectations of black masculinity.

Jenkins repeatedly loops back to this theme. In the film’s third chapter, we’re introduced to an adult Chiron. Heavily muscled and wearing massive gold fronts, he’s essentially become a cliché of machismo. But it doesn’t last for long, because Kevin—Chiron’s first love and first-love-lost—returns, shaking up pernicious and paper-thin notions of what black sexuality can look like. Or as writer Ta-Nehisi Coates said, the film gives “a softness that black boys are often not given credit for actually possessing.”

It is about empathizing with the concrete stories around us.

Because its characters are whole, complex, and deeply human, there have been delusions that Moonlight is somehow about everyone. But that erases the experiences of its marginalized characters and strips the film of its power. A film can be both great and not about everyone. Moonlight isn’t so much about conjuring up a mythic story about a common humanity as it is about empathizing with the concrete stories around us—or around some other people in some other city, living lives that aren’t like yours, but are as real as yours.

About halfway through the film, teen Chiron has a moment of physical intimacy with Kevin. Immediately afterward, Chiron shrinks back, apologizing. “What have you got to be sorry for?” Kevin asks him.

Moonlight points to a vision—for all the Chirons out there, in particular—where there’s nothing to be sorry for in living one’s own story. And Jenkins, with art and empathy, proves there’s nothing to be sorry for in showing those deeply personal stories.



Workers Don’t Need Trump to Give Them A Voice. They Need Unions.

As this election made clear, a lot of Americans are angry. They feel left behind by the economy, and isolated and unheard in our democracy.  Some of this frustration is understandable—wages have hardly budged in decades, inequality is near record levels, and money dominates our political system (and those who don’t have much of it are usually ignored by politicians).  That’s a recipe for frustration and alienation, and President-elect Donald Trump seized on it.

Trump promised economic security in part by scapegoating people of color and immigrants, and his supporters took the bait. Now we’re facing an administration that will make it exceedingly difficult to protect Americans’ basic rights—especially as its policy prescriptions “to rebuild the working class” prove hollow.

The long-term solution to current political and economic dissatisfaction is to give workers a productive way to advocate for themselves, not reassert race-based class structures. That means it’s time to rebuild unions.

Unions—more than any other organization—give people a real say in the economy and in politics. They help raise wages, reduce inequality, and boost economic mobility.  But even more importantly, unions help people feel their own agency. They provide workers—particularly those with less education and lower incomes—with the means and opportunity to stand up for themselves and participate more fully in our democracy. Union members are much more likely to vote, take political action, join other groups, and be more charitable.

Unions serve as an alternative source of power that workers control—not the government, and not the wealthy. That’s why they’re one of the first things that authoritarian leaders go after.

President-elect Trump has proclaimed that he “loves” so-called “right to work” measures, which weaken unions by cutting their funding and membership. Trump’s victory will likely embolden right-wing opponents of organized labor who see a chance to weaken unions nationwide, just as they recently did in Wisconsin and Michigan.  These reactionary measures will need to be fought with unified progressive support.

Typically, countries seeking to stay on a democratic path strengthen their labor movements. It was true in the aftermath of fascism and World War II in Germany and much of Europe, and more recently in South Africa in the aftermath of apartheid.

Countries seeking to stay on a democratic path strengthen their labor movements

But in the United States, the union membership rate is at its lowest point since 1935.  Polls show that a majority of workers would like to join a union, but our labor protections are so weak that it carries real risk.  For example, if an employer fires a worker for supporting a union (which is still illegal) they aren’t even required to pay fines. The only punishment employers face is back pay for the worker—and even that doesn’t include earnings from other jobs after the worker was fired. It’s such a mild repercussion that it’s a joke among business owners—they refer to it as the cost of their “hunting license.”

Even if the federal government moves against unions, cities and states can still act to strengthen worker power.  They could give workers a formal seat at the table in determining the minimum wage, or assign them a role in setting pay scales across an industry or region.  Cities and states could also actively encourage membership in worker organizations.  For example, jurisdictions could fund worker training that is provided by worker-led organizations, or create new benefits for gig economy workers that worker organizations help manage.  Since states control many elements of corporate law, they could even require corporations to put workers on their boards. That would ensure that they have some input on important decisions, such as whether to offshore a plant.

Now is the moment for progressives to get behind an agenda that rebuilds worker voice and power.  Unions do that in a way no other organization can.



The 2016 Election Exposed Deep-Seated Racism. Where Do We Go From Here?

This wasn’t an election. It was an exposure.

That was a common thread of the 2016 Facing Race conference in Atlanta, Georgia, where more than 2,000 activists, community organizers, and journalists from across the country gathered for two-and-a-half days to talk about racial justice. While many people are still scrambling to make sense of Donald Trump’s win over Hillary Clinton in last Tuesday’s presidential election, for the maligned and marginalized, it’s less tricky to pluck out the heart of the mystery.

“I was stunned that I was stunned,” civil rights scholar Michelle Alexander told the audience. Alexander pointed out how widely entrenched—and ignored—black suffering continues to be in the United States. She catapulted the issue to national attention in 2010 with her book The New Jim Crow, which focused on mass incarceration’s heavy toll on black families. But we see this systemic racism tightly woven into other issues too, including the school-to-prison pipeline, the legacy of redlining, and crumbling infrastructure in cities like Flint, Michigan.

Barack Obama’s presidency offered a glimmer of hope that the country was ready for a long-overdue reckoning with this pain. But last week’s election and its aftermath say the exact opposite: After having had a black man in the White House for seven-plus years, white Americans pulled rank. Or as CNN’s Van Jones put it, the election results were “a white-lash against a changing country.”

Exit polls are hardly perfect, but they can reveal important trends. For instance, more than half—58%—of white voters preferred Trump, while 88% of black voters cast their ballot for Clinton. And perhaps more interestingly, while 94% of black female voters supported Clinton, 53% of white female voters showed a preference for Trump. This isn’t to say that all white voters who decided to get behind Trump did so as a direct statement of racism. But, at the very least, Trump’s murky brew of misogyny and racism wasn’t a deal breaker for a broad range of white voters. That shines a light on a galling indifference to the misery and oppression of others.

So where do we go from here?

Alicia Garza, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, made it clear that group-specific siloes aren’t the answer. It’s tempting for groups already on the social and political fringes to retreat into enclaves to protect our own, but—especially at a time like this—we have to keep a close watch on the overlapping ways in which oppression operates. “We’re all being attacked, and our movement needs a broader front” in order to keep the needle of progress moving, Garza said. Because at the end of the day, whether you’re black or brown, “we’re all going down together.”

There was also a call for progressive white Americans to do more for, and to do better by, their non-white allies.

“I’m done with ally-ship. I’m done with people who allow themselves the distance of ally-ship,” said Roxane Gay, one of the keynote speakers and the bestselling author of Bad Feminist.

White allies ought to walk the walk.

“The people who are calling for healing and reconciliation are well meaning but dangerous, because they’re delusional. They know better. They don’t want to do better,” she added. Gay spoke specifically to what she sees as the performative ally-ship of white progressives. Beyond merely donning solidarity safety pins and parroting Martin Luther King, Jr.—a favorite of many a white progressive—white allies ought to walk the walk. Have those prickly conversations with other white people. Donate money to groups looking to extinguish racism. Stop focusing exclusively on whiteness when talking about post-election anxieties, when people of color are the ones who have been feeling the stab of these anxieties most.

And while white people need to “get their shit together,” Gay said, people of color should have an eye to “infiltrating” what are overwhelmingly white spaces. “We need to think about running for office. Run for city council. Become a member of Congress. Get inside, and suck it up.”

Indeed, Trump’s upset in the presidential race has cracked wide open just how persistent and pervasive American racism has always been. This is a point that many black Americans have been making in the wake of the election. Whenever the United States has seemed to bend toward a more racially inclusive brand of democracy—from Reconstruction to the Civil Rights Movement to the Obama era—what has often followed has been an equal and opposite push to reclaim a whiter status quo. We saw it in Jim Crow, and in Richard Nixon’s anti-civil rights administration in the 1970s, and we’re seeing it now. This is America, being America.

There’s a long fight ahead of us. And as Linda Sarsour, the Advocacy and Civic Engagement Coordinator for the National Network for Arab American Communities, drove home on the final day of the conference, it has to be all hands on deck. Our future may depend on it.

“All we have is each other. Ain’t nobody got time for part-time progressives,” she said. “Everyone has a role to play in the movement.”



Stop Blaming Low-Income Voters for Donald Trump’s Victory

The emotional and political repercussions of Donald Trump’s victory as president will take days, months, and years to process. But a pernicious myth has already settled in post-election: that Trump’s victory was fueled by the working class and poor.

The myth that lower-income and working-class voters supported Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was repeated so much this election season that it solidified into conventional wisdom. And it will continue to have dangerous implications for our politics unless confronted.

As exit polls and county data trickle in, it’s become clear that the picture was a little more complicated.

How Did Low-Income People Actually Vote?

Let’s start with the data.  According to exit polls, Hillary Clinton won by 12 points among voters making less than $30,000 a year—53% to Trump’s 41% —and by 9 points among people making between $30,000 and $49,999. Trump’s support was the inverse. He won every group making $50,000 or more—albeit by smaller margins.

This is consistent with analysis of exit polls from the primary, which found that the median household income of Trump voters—about $72,000—was significantly higher than the median household income of the country as a whole—about $56,000. It was also higher than that of the average Clinton and Sanders voters—about $61,000 each.

Even among white voters—who were more likely to support Trump than other groups—Trump did better among middle income white voters than low-income ones. And a closer look reveals that the swing towards Trump was a lot bigger based on education, rather than income.

So Who Voted for Trump?

Trump did perform a lot better than previous Republicans with low-income voters, who historically have supported Democratic candidates by large margins.  For example, Trump improved upon Mitt Romney’s margin with voters making under $30,000 a year by 16 points. But he still lost them—by 12 whole points.

The bulk of Trump’s support didn’t come from people who are most down on their luck. It came from people who are afraid they’re next. In August, research from Gallup economist Jonathan Rothwell found that, nationwide, Trump performed worse in towns that lost manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2007, and better in towns that gained them. According to Rothwell, Trump supporters “earn relatively high household incomes and are no less likely to be unemployed or exposed to competition through trade or immigration.”

So what did correspond with Trump support?

Racial resentment among white voters was particularly determinative. And according to another recent study by Ashley Jardina and Spencer Piston, Trump supporters are more likely to hold dehumanizing views of black people. A majority of Trump supporters—52%—see blacks as “less evolved” than whites (a concept thoroughly debunked by science). And 27% of Trump supporters say that African-Americans lack “self-restraint, like animals” compared to 8% of Trump opponents. This is consistent with a study by UCLA’s Michael Tesler, which found that, even during the primaries, voters with more resentment towards blacks and Muslims were more likely to vote for Trump.

What Does This Mean for Policy?

The day after the election, House Speaker Paul Ryan declared a mandate. “What Donald Trump just pulled off was an enormous political feat,” Ryan told a crowd in his hometown of Janesville, WI. “He just earned a mandate. And we now just have that unified Republican government.”

As usual, Ryan is wrong for several reasons. First and most obviously, Donald Trump lost the popular vote. One does not have to question the legitimacy of the electoral college to believe that a narrow delegate win and a popular vote loss does not grant President-elect Trump a political “mandate.”

It’s also important to remember that Trump performed particularly poorly among the very folks he—and the media—claim he represents. And, if Trump’s plan for his first 100 days in office is any indication, they are the people who are likely to bear the brunt of his policies. His tax plan (in addition to drilling a $9.5 trillion hole in the deficit) will mainly benefit the top tax brackets and corporations—exacerbating already record-high inequality. His education plan is designed to let wealthy parents pull their kids out of public schools—fueling educational inequality and segregation. And his repeal of the Affordable Care Act would take away health care from the 20 million who have gained it under the law. This would fall most acutely on low-income people and communities of color, who were least likely to have health care coverage before the law. Even his plan to renege on our climate commitments would directly harm low-income communities, who already suffer from poorer air quality, flood protections, and less access to transportation.

If Trump listened to low-income voters, he’d find that they are more likely to support ambitious policy interventions to alleviate poverty. A recent Morning Consult poll found that a majority of those making less than $50,000 a year would be willing to pay more for Medicare and Social Security. Similar majorities would be willing to fund more aid for women with infants or children, or nutritional programs.

Maybe President Trump—unlike candidate Trump—will listen to them.


First Person

Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Cast Your Ballot

One of the biggest lies about poverty in our country is this: We don’t know what to do to dramatically reduce it.

The truth is, there is no shortage of excellent plans, great scholars, and people living in poverty who can tell you exactly what we need to do—we just elect too many political leaders who don’t give a damn.

This Election Day, you have the power to move our nation towards doing right by people in poverty. Before you touch the screen, pull the lever, or fill out your ballot, here are some questions you might ask yourself to determine the hearts and minds of your candidates:

Does your candidate push stereotypes and myths about people living in poverty and anti-poverty policies, or does s/he stick to the facts?

Does s/he know that nearly 40% of us will spend at least one year in poverty during our working years?

Does your candidate conflate poverty and race, in a manner that stereotypes people of color as poor and urban?

Does s/he speak to the fact that the average food stamp benefit (SNAP) is just $1.41 per person, per meal; only 1 in 4 households that qualify for federal rental assistance actually receives it; and only 23 of every 100 families with children in poverty receives cash assistance (TANF)?

Does s/he fight to protect and strengthen the safety net, recognizing that poverty would be twice as high today—approaching 30%—without it?

Does your candidate accept a status quo that keeps people in poverty? Or do they embrace policies that work?

Does s/he want to raise the minimum wage so that it can lift a family of three out of poverty (just as it could in the late-1960s)?

Does your candidate take paid leave, but fail to fight for the 80% of low-wage workers who can’t take a single paid sick day to care for their families?

Does your candidate accept that most low-income parents can’t afford the child care they need to go to work? Or does s/he have a plan to make quality child care affordable for all families?

Does your candidate understand that people with low incomes often lack the transportation needed to get to good jobs? Does s/he have a plan to create affordable housing where jobs are located and reliable public transit so people can access opportunities?

Does your candidate understand that inequality is rooted in intentional policy choices throughout our nation’s history, and offer an agenda to correct that?

Does your candidate recognize that the average black family would now need 228 years to catch up with the wealth of today’s average white family? Does s/he consider this inequity when formulating key policies around the tax code, homeownership, college affordability, job creation, and more?

Does your candidate recognize the water crisis in Flint is not an isolated incident? And that across the country, the government is investing in and protecting affluent white communities, while exposing low-income communities of color to environmental and health hazards?

Does your candidate recognize mass incarceration as “the new Jim Crow,” which targets black men and communities of color? Does s/he have plans to end the school-to-prison pipeline, promote alternative sentencing and treatment, and ensure that people can successfully reenter society upon release?

Does your candidate speak to the fact that anti-LGBT laws drive economic insecurity for LGBT people, including higher rates of poverty?

Has your candidate ever said anything about addressing rural poverty across the country—from Appalachia to the Mississippi Delta, the Alabama Black Belt to the colonias of south Texas, and on Indian reservations? What will s/he do to help reduce rural poverty?

Does your candidate recognize the connection between immigration reform and poverty, and that a path to citizenship would significantly decrease economic exploitation like wage theft, and increase payroll tax revenues by an estimated $33 billion over five years?

Does your candidate accept that women earn only 80 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts, or does s/he make it a priority to close the gender pay gap?

Does your candidate have a real plan to help children in low-income families succeed?

Does your candidate accept that our public schools are separate and unequal, with many low-income students forced to share textbooks and work in decrepit classrooms while nearby affluent communities have state-of-the-art facilities? Does s/he have a vigorous plan to make sure our schools reflect that our nation values all children?

Does your candidate accept that many students are simply priced out of a college education, or does s/he have a plan to make college affordable for all?

Does your candidate talk about the fact that 1 in 6 children in America struggle with hunger, and have a detailed plan to address it?

There is nothing inevitable about poverty in America. This Election Day, send that message to all candidates with your vote.