In the 1950s “communist” was the slur of choice to attack those focused on equity, particularly for people of color.
Over half of Republicans agree that “fighting woke ideology in our schools and businesses” is more important than protecting Social Security and Medicare, finds a recent Wall Street Journalsurvey.
“Florida is where woke comes to die,” brags the state’s governor Ron DeSantis, “woke” is “basically a war on the truth.” Under the banner of anti-woke, he enacted sweeping limitations on what can be taught in public schools, a six-week abortion ban, and America’s cruelest anti-trans policies.
For DeSantis, the “woke” are “cultural Marxists” who are to blame for what’s broken in America.
We’ve endured a long history of labels that mislead, divide, and hinder us. So, let’s stop the name calling, listen to the actual agenda of those with whom we think we differ, and engage in real conversation.
Merriam-Webster defines “woke” first as being “aware of and actively attentive to important societal facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).” The term took off in 2014 after Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Missouri, and then came to be used in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Today, “woke” is a sweeping, ill-defined insult making it harder to find common ground essential to reforms benefiting most Americans, such as lifting the minimum wage.
For those who lived through the 1950s it rings painful bells. Back then, “communist” was the slur of choice to attack those focused on equity, particularly for people of color. The McCarthy-era witch hunt caused as many as 12,000 people to lose their jobs.
Growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, in the early ’50s my parents helped found the first Unitarian church and to integrate it. The FBI took notice. I’ll never forget an agent knocking on our door as part of the agency’s investigation of our church. The inquiry was scary enough to shrink our membership. It didn’t shut us down but did lead to several members being fired from their jobs.
As a kid, I thought that we were suspect in the eyes of the FBI because Unitarians were seen as atheists, and atheism was associated with communism. Only recently did I learn my storyline was wrong.
With access to church archives, I discovered a letter from someone in our congregation to J. Edgar Hoover complaining that a member of our church had been questioned by two FBI agents at his home. The letter stated that “Among other questions, this man was asked what he thought of racial equality for Negroes, would he marry a Negro, and whether or not he attended the Unitarian Church.” He added: “I think you will agree these questions are completely out of line.”
Hoover’s response? “No questions were asked by representatives of this Bureau such as are alleged in your letter.”
At about the same time I uncovered these documents, someone in my extended family shared with me his related experience with the FBI. During the Korean War, the army had called him to serve. But when the recruiter learned he was a member of the NAACP, my relative was told that he was no longer qualified because that affiliation meant he was likely a communist.
Today, “woke” as a put down is similarly worrying. The term is derived from African American Vernacular English, meaning to be “alert to racial prejudice and discrimination.” It could have become a rallying cry for a better America. Especially now, as the Supreme Court has rejected affirmative action, facing racism’s deep and painful harm becomes even more urgent.
We’ve endured a long history of labels that mislead, divide, and hinder us. So, let’s stop the name calling, listen to the actual agenda of those with whom we think we differ, and engage in real conversation. We might discover common ground on which we can all advance.
We would then be able to tackle the long-standing, anti-democratic economic and political rules that generate income inequality more extreme than in 109 countries—including all of the Western, industrial world—and wealth so tightly held that the top 1% control almost as much as the bottom 90%. Such unequal economic power harms us all, as it is linked to poorer health and education, greater violence, and other social ills. Its effects also infuse our political lives, twisting policies to further favor the few and undermining democracy itself.
Together we could in fact wake up to what truly harms us and thus become eager to join hands for the benefit of all.