"Woke" and American Urban Policy, Present and Past: Part One

"Woke" and American Urban Policy, Present and Past: Part One

No one expects political rhetoric to have precise meaning.  After all, political rhetoric is designed carefully to unify multiple segments of an electorate behind a single candidate at a specific time by using vague language that can mean different things to different groups of voters. 

For example, candidates pledge “fiscal responsibility” by assuring voters they will restrain “unnecessary expenditures."  Yet the definition of "unnecessary" varies widely over time.  Spending Federal tax dollars on medical care for the elderly was an unnecessary expense until Medicare was established in 1965.  It is no longer unnecessary. 

The vague term "unnecessary expenditures" can be used freely at different times by different candidates without the need to specify exactly which spending programs are unnecessary.  Everyone favors fiscal responsibility.  Voters fill in the ambiguity with their own specifics when they go to the polls.

"Woke" is one of the most commonly used terms in American political rhetoric over the last several years.  Contemporary users are mostly conservative members of the Republican party.  As one would expect, the exact meaning of the term differs according to the context in which it is used.  But it is universally used as a derogatory label.  Woke is a threat.  It is to be feared.

Nikki Haley, a Republican presidential candidate, former Governor of South Carolina and former U.N. Ambassador, declared at the 2023 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that woke is “a virus more dangerous than any pandemic, hands down.”  Fellow Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamay declared that he has “travelled the country calling out the woke-industrial-complex in America.”  House Speaker Kevin McCarthy warns against multiple threats from woke.  He asserts woke is a culture that is weakening America’s military readiness, it is breeding a new form of “woke capitalism,” and it is stripping parents of their rights to control what their children are taught in public school.  And Florida’s governor Ron Desantis has declared he will protect all citizens within his state from all forms of evil that woke could bring by ensuring that Florida will be “where woke goes to die.”  And he wants to extend that protection to all Americans by becoming President.

In this two-part essay, we aim to disambiguate the contemporary use of the term “woke” and then briefly consider its implications within the context of today's urban America.  Part Two of this essay will contrast today’s political demonization of woke with the longer-term use of this word.  Woke has a history.  And like other vague terms within American political rhetoric, its meaning has varied widely over time.

We start by identifying several current meanings within the contemporary use of woke.  The first contemporary meaning of woke is the most banal.  It refers broadly to progressive or liberal values and activism.  When a self-proclaimed “anti-woke” person labels someone or something as being “woke” in this usage, it contains little if any informative content beyond a vague, self-referential disclosure about the values and preferences of the person who uses the term.  At most it says something about the identity of the labeler such as “I am against governmental efforts to effectuate social reform, to reduce inequality, or to design and conduct large-scale social change for purposes of protecting and enhancing individual freedom because these activities will reduce my own freedom.” 

Woke also evokes a populist image of the user of the term as having the intestinal fortitude of a John Wayne-type of character in a Hollywood western movie.  A swaggering “tough guy” (or gal) who is fully righteous, though without intellectual openness or respect for diversity of race, gender, or sexuality.  Beyond this, the attributes it signifies are so vague as to make it largely devoid of discernible meaning based in observation or experience. 

The second contemporary usage is consistent with the definition in the Merriam Webster dictionary.  It says “woke” is slang for “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).”  This matter-of-fact definition is like the first in that it is also used pejoratively.  Yet, its meaning in terms of anything that exists and can be observed or experienced remains somewhat baffling because it is very difficult to conceive of how awareness of important facts and issues can be a bad thing, worthy of even the least bit of contempt. 

The third usage today is the most bombastic.[1]  According to this one, “woke” is a belief that “there are systemic injustices in American society and the need to address them.”  Although it is unclear what it could mean to be “anti-woke” in this sense, the most obvious possibilities include (a) denial that systematic injustices are found throughout American history, (b) rejection of the “self-evident” “truths” of political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people as articulated by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, or (c) the assertion that governmental institutions are not necessary to provide justice (perhaps because markets alone are sufficient?).  Let’s briefly consider these one at a time.

First, it would take no more than a careful reading of Jill Lepore’s magisterial, These Truths: A History of the United States (2018, Norton) to convince anyone with an open mind that it is factually mistaken to believe there are no systemic injustices in American history.  Evidence-based accounts of American history make it perfectly clear, beyond a reasonable doubt.  Systemic injustices have occurred repeatedly if not almost constantly throughout the past several hundred years.  Powerful people and common people in this country have often not lived up to the ideals captured by Jefferson’s “truths.”  (And that includes Jefferson!)  It would seem naïve to suppose that today is any different. 

Yet failure to uphold an ideal does not invalidate the ideal.  Lepore's history, and the vast majority of evidence-based, scholarly accounts of American history are filled with rich accounts of each generation's struggle to address systematic injustices in order to bring America's reality closer to its civic ideals.  Unfortunately, those who use the term in this third way are unlikely to read such a monumental treatise as Lepore’s, much less open-mindedly consider its implications for today’s circumstances.

In regards to the necessity of governmental institutions for the provision of justice, it has been widely recognized at least since Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776) that unfettered capitalism without strong governmental institutions would bring a range of anticipatable negative consequences.  It would for example distort the market's ability to establish prices that provide a fair return on land, labor, and capital. 

It would also stratify society and lead to failure to provide for the lower strata to acquire enough essential skills of reading, writing and arithmetic to make sound political judgments as citizens.  Governmental institutions are necessary to provide for defense, public goods (such as infrastructure), and — most notably in this context — justice. 

Thus, to be “anti-woke” in the sense of denying that governments are necessary to provide justice is to lack even the most basic understanding of the roles and responsibilities of governments in a free, capitalistic society.

Past this, the implications of the contemporary political uses of the term “woke” for urban America can be complicated and variated, depending upon a range of factors including the demographics of the city to which it is applied, its history and culture, and the political and economic climate. 

The anti-woke political rallying call seeks to give less focus to issues that are typically more concentrated in cities, such as police brutality, housing discrimination and income inequality.  Woke attention to reducing inequality, for example, would yield relatively greater focus upon urban areas, in which the mean U.S. intraurban Gini index, a measure of income inequality, is .4840, as compared to .4524 for rural areas, a statistically significant difference.[2]  Similarly, woke attention to problems of poverty would be drawn first to urban areas where poverty rates are significantly higher (16.0% average in urban areas as compared to 13.3% in rural areas).  The same holds true for “woke” concerns with racial issues: 53% of urban areas contain majority non-white populations as compared to only 10% of suburban areas and 11% of rural areas.[3]

“Anti-Wokeness” would create pressures to change urban political leadership towards individuals and parties who would give less priority to social justice and equity issues, and who pay less attention and devote fewer resources to policies related to urban education, housing and equitable public safety.

The impact of “wokeness” on contemporary urban America will depend upon how it interacts with other social and political forces, and how it is interpreted and acted upon by different communities.  When you get right down to it, the term appears to be mostly a faddish political symbol, suitable primarily for dramaturgy and the linguistic segmentation of the political world.  It does not contain any sort of consistent or meaningful reference to facts or empirical realities beyond vague reference to progressive or liberal values and activism.  Beyond this, its several meanings in the current political rhetoric range from banal, to baffling, to just plain ignorant of history or longstanding debate over the appropriate role of government in capitalistic society. 

To our mind, the current pejorative meanings of the term should have no place in any serious policy discussions or decisions about contemporary urban America.  Rather than further using “woke,” or any other vague political symbolism meant to frighten people, more rigorous empiricism together with enhanced use of deep, long logical chains of reasoning are far more likely to ensure that urban public policy decisions today are as effective is they can possibly be.

Ironically, as we will discuss in Part Two of this essay, the history of woke in regard to American urban policy is exactly the opposite of our critique of its contemporary usage.

Bill Bowen and Bob Gleeson

[1]           Such as the one given publicly by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ general counsel, Ryan Newman:https://www.fox13news.com/news/what-does-woke-mean-gov-desantis-officials-answer-during-andrew-warren-trial

[2]           https://www.census.gov/newsroom/blogs/random-samplings/2016/12/a_comparison_of_rura.html

[3]           https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2018/05/22/demographic-and-economic-trends-in-urban-suburban-and-rural-communities