The American left has roared back to life, and millennials are leading the way. “Socialism” was the most looked-up word on Merriam-Webster’s website in 2015, and a YouGov poll out last year found 43 percent of respondents under 30 had a favorable view of “socialism”, while just 32 percent of the same age bracket had a favorable view of capitalism.
These statistics are in sharp contrast with the views of many baby boomers who tend to be between 51-69 years old. It was the mid-twentieth century after all that saw a rapidly expanding middle class. A generation attended college thanks to the GI bill. GI Bill benefits then were generous enough to pay for virtually any college in the country, and veterans flooded all types of institutions. By 1947, half of all college students in America were veterans.
America gave the baby boomer generation every possible opportunity for success by investing in infrastructure, which created jobs. Research and development was strongly subsidized, which planted the seeds for future jobs and future businesses. The government also encouraged homeownership, and finally, the country undertook policies that would help the people who were worst-off in society: Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start. Collectively, these things helped create a society that was significantly more equal economically.
So where did it all go wrong? Around 1973, after almost three decades, the economic progress made started going the other way.
Following the turbulent sixties, baby boomer liberals, coming of age around Vietnam, prioritized civil, sexual, and other individual rights. Millennials however see this as inadequate. The idea of “equal rights” only means so much when one is increasingly suffering economically. Millennials’ experience with capitalism mostly involves the great recession. They never experienced the post-WWII economy their parents did.
The problems already forming since the seventies were exacerbated following the 2008 crisis. Young people, both in Richmond and abroad, aren’t experiencing the “American Dream” the way boomers were able to. Indeed, most are saddled with college debt, at a much higher degree than their parents.
In Virginia, between the years of 2001 and 2014, state funding per in-state student declined by 46 percent at four-year colleges, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. The report also revealed student debt rose by 56 percent in the same period. The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia reported that in 2014-15, the average debt for in-state VCU undergraduate students was $28,425, just slightly above the statewide average of $28,250. Things don’t look better elsewhere in the state either.
Currently in Richmond, the poorest fifth of the city’s households receives about 2.4 percent of Richmond’s aggregate income, according to a report from VCU on the city’s infamous income disparities. The richest fifth gets 57 percent. Just the top 5 percent of the city’s households get 29 percent of the aggregate income.
Put another way, For the bottom quintile of the city’s households, the median income was $7,386. For the top quintile, the median income was $176,566. (And the top 5 percent of Richmond’s households had a median income of $360,958.)
Millennials thus feel powerless, which is why groups like Occupy Wall Street, Democratic Socialists of America, and figures like Bernie Sanders have gained prominence among young people. Millennials feel validation, that they’re being heard.
In their view, the contemporary left’s goal, indeed their reason for existing, ought to be expanding the idea that political freedom has to include economic freedom in Virginia, after all, following decades of widening inequality, the Commonwealth’s richest households have dramatically bigger incomes than its poorest households.
Worse still, Richmond has one the highest levels of income inequality in the United States, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. VCU reported recently that the average annual household income for residents in Windsor Farms is about $185,000; in Gilpin, the figure is less than $10,000. The distance between these neighborhoods? A mere fifteen minute drive.
Due to these stark realities, Richmond and Hampton Roads has become home to a growing diverse left, along with a motivated activist network, working to address and solve these existential problems.
“Currently I’m primarily organizing with anti-pipeline activists in Richmond and around the state,” said Claire Tuitte, a local activist. “My goal is to back up the ecological concerns of rural Virginians that are facing land theft by Dominion followed by being forced to live next to an extremely dangerous fracked gas pipeline.”
Tuitte has been dedicated to fighting what she and many others rightly see as a threat to our communities.
“Companies like Dominion target historically marginalized, low-income and communities of color by locating polluting projects in an area where people are less likely to have the resources or time to resist,” said Tuitte.
Richmond’s millennial left isn’t shy about voicing its anger. Just like Dominion and the pipelines, the various “refugee bans” coming down from the Trump administration have been a central issue for the new left. Back in January, the group “Resist RVA” organized a rally against the refugee ban at the Compass. And this past June, the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals in downtown Richmond heard the Trump administration’s arguments defending the “travel ban.” One former Richmonder, now living in Hampton Roads, has taken action on the issue.
“I teach refugees English as a second language,” says Anastasia Carousel. “Through visiting many homes and seeing that another ‘charity’ was not acting as a real ally, l started to bring the families some basic needs. This eventually turned into me founding a local volunteer collective for aiding refugees and low-income families in Hampton Roads.”
Her collective furnishes living spaces, donates clothes and shoes, and has toy and necessity drops. “I have people that can provide legal aid if needed. Everything is given to the families, no money is taken from them.”
For Carousel, her work is her passion. “The most important part of volunteering, for me, is my relationships with the families. It’s not work. It’s a beautiful happiness I have walked into on accident,” she said. “I learn much more than I can ever return to them. I am friends with parents, I play with their children. I laugh with them, I am invited into their homes for dinner.”
“I go with them to appointments, I make sure the apartments are safe. I learn their culture, and appreciate it. I never make promises I can’t keep. I show up when I am going to. They are my family: I love them.”
While working with the collective, Carousel also found the time to help start a chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America in Virginia Beach. Richmond has a chapter too, along with several other local leftist groups, like Socialist Alternative (SA), Richmond Struggle (RS) and Antifa Seven Hills (ASH). The 2016 election may have been a catalyst, but the conditions for this resurgent left vastly predate Trump.
Millennials, who for the first time outnumber baby boomers as the majority of the electorate, have made clear they do not intend to tolerate the status quo.
As far as Claire Tuitte is concerned, that just makes sense.
“Millennials are more conscious because they have to be,” she said. “The earth is dying. Capitalism is dying. They are going to have battles that are hard to even conceive of in just a few decades. They know this. They read. The internet is second nature and free access to education was never not on the table for them. They know that the fight for them is for life or death. It’s for their futures.”
The new left doesn’t intend to just stand idly by. Indeed, the River City is helping to lead the way.