Disdain for “wokeism,” once expressed mainly by far-right conservatives, has spread broadly into mainstream Republicanism (whatever that term now connotes). Republican state officials and legislators in Indiana and elsewhere now routinely apply this term as a slur against proponents of more liberal social policies. More specifically, “woke” appears to be scornfully intended to describe an attitude of hypersensitivity to purported wrongful actions or policies that might cause harm to or suffering by the more disadvantaged persons in our society.
As an example, last September, Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita criticized certain “big businesses” as “woke” because (paraphrasing) they’re “collaborating with their leftist allies to subvert the will of the people” by urging state pension funds managers to decline to invest in the stocks or bonds of companies that cause adverse environmental impacts, such as fossil fuel companies, or that benefit from oppressive human rights policies.
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Rokita claimed that using such investment criteria was contrary to state law and was not reasonably calculated to maximize investment return. But it must be discomfiting to Rokita that draft legislation introduced in the 2023 Indiana legislature to prohibit state pension fund managers from considering “woke” concerns in their investment decisions would, according to a fiscal analysis by the state Legislative Services Agency, cost the state $6.7 billion in lost investment revenue over the next decade.
Another example involves Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, who promoted the “Stop WOKE Act”, later adopted as state law. This law substantially limits the discussion of racism and white privilege in public schools and workplace training to prevent students or trainees from being led to feel guilty or responsible for the wrongful acts of earlier generations of their race or sex. DeSantis supporters explained that the law helps employers and parents defend against critical race theory and its “discriminatory” claims of systemic racism.
But, why? Why is there such an impetus among partisans of the right to scorn concern and compassion for the less fortunate? Let’s peer behind the curtain.
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Attacking ‘woke’ is a tale as old as time
The attacks on “wokeism” appear, rather clearly, to be politically motivated by Republican politicians to broaden the appeal of overtures previously made by former President Donald Trump to nativistic and racist members of the far right through his incessant attacks on “illegal” immigration (which mostly involves racial minorities). Trump – an astute observer of the undercurrents of dissatisfaction among various factions of American society – apparently recognized such discontent among two vastly different groups that he could use to advantage.
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On one hand, there was the longstanding resentment of the very wealthy (a class from which Trump emerged) over high marginal tax rates to fund governmental assistance to the lower economic classes that originated with President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies.
On the other hand, there was angst among white Americans of lower income strata over government assistance programs (even though they also benefit from such programs) deriving from their mistaken assumption that such assistance involves a “zero sum” game, meaning that every dollar given to someone of a minority race under such programs was thought to be taking a dollar away from the “more deserving” white claimants.
So attacks on wokeism, stripped to their essence, can be understood as manipulative ploys to gain voter allegiance by appealing to our baser emotions such as greed, fear and distrust of people of other “tribes.” How is such a disingenuous, mean-spirited, divisive grab for political power effectively opposed?
Partly by exposing it for what it is. Partly by making it clear that everyone, including the very wealthy, do better when everyone in our society has a fair opportunity to succeed.
But the attitudes behind such attacks are as old as the hills. As illustrated by a recent political cartoon by John Darkow, it is quite likely that Christ and his ministry would have been criticized as “too woke.”
Given that wokeism, as used by the political right, scornfully refers to efforts to assist socially and/or economically disadvantaged persons in our midst, I would consider it an honor to be called “woke.”
Larry Kane is a retired environmental attorney residing in the Indianapolis area. This column first appeared in The Indianapolis Star.