To Fight Racial Inequality We Need To Rethink Our Economy

| Educate!

Above Photo: KEYSTONE-FRANCE VIA GETTY IMAGES. A demonstration in the streets of Detroit in August 1967.

Consider these three facts. African-Americans in the U.S. are 6.4 times more likely than whites to be in jail. The black unemployment rate in the U.S. is consistently twice as high as white unemployment. An African-American person in the U.S. today can expect to die 3.5 years sooner than a white person.

These aren’t just numbers on a page, they are the outcome of policies and practices that create the systemic racial inequality pervading America today.

Last week, the Economic Policy Institute published a report, stating what many of us already know – that in the 50 years since the U.S. government took the decision to document segregation, poverty and racism in America, many of the problems identified half a century ago are still with us. Indeed, some have gotten worse.

In 1967, the U.S. had one of its most violent years ever. There were more than 160 urban rebellions recorded in the first nine months of the year alone. Cities from Alton, Illinois, to Ypsilanti, Michigan, were affected, and the larger disorders – in places like Detroit and Newark, New Jersey, – were some of the worst the nation had ever experienced.

In response, President Lyndon Johnson established a commission led by former Illinois Governor Otto Kerner to get to the roots of what happened and work out how to stop them from happening again. The resulting in the 1968 Kerner Commission Report concluded: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” It called for a sweeping set of reforms totaling some $80 billion.

These reforms were designed to make police more representative and more accountable to working class black communities, to integrate the news media to provide better reporting of ghetto conditions, and to provide over two million public and private sector jobs by creating a sweeping jobs program.

Although the Kerner report was released with much fanfare, it fell victim to politics and war. In the wake of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam and diminishing political support for liberal government in general, few if any of the report’s recommendations were implemented.

Soon after the report was released the nation elected Richard Nixon as president on a “law and order” campaign that was a thinly veiled attempt to use the urban disorders to stoke racial resentment.

Jump forward 50 years. We haven’t had anywhere near the number or type of disorders that brought the Kerner Commission into being – the 2015 Freddie Gray uprising in Baltimore, for example, was neither as violent nor as costly as the 1968 rebellion on the heels of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. – but it is clear the conditions are similar. While there have been improvements in some areas for black people, the gap between black and white for everything from housing access to economic opportunity is widening.

EDUARDO MUNOZ / REUTERS
People taking part in the Million People’s March Against Police Brutality, Racial Injustice and Economic Inequality in Newark, New Jersey, in July 2015.

What the report does not do is connect these problems to larger shifts in the economy. In the years since the Kerner Report was released, union membership has decreased significantly, public sector jobs have fallen – particularly since the 2008 crash – and the size of the manufacturing sector has decreased significantly. At the same time, the safety net in America has dwindled and remains the subject of constant attacks.

It also does not examine the degree to which black communities themselves have grown more separate and unequal. Even in the wake of the 2008 crash, which decimated black wealth, inequality within black communities is higher than it has ever been and is higher than it is within white communities. Focusing primarily on the racial gap can cause us to lose sight of the ways that black communities themselves are now increasingly bifurcated between haves and have nots.

Simply asking for piecemeal measures such as more funding for rebuilding infrastructure may drive movement in a positive direction, but it won’t address the fundamental, underlying problems.

What we need more than anything else is an entirely new way of thinking about our economy that prioritizes equality – not just along racial lines – as well as a way of garnering a larger slice of the wealth accumulated by the 1 percent and multinational corporations to provide a robust safety net.

  • So far, the only kind of thinking concerning economic reform has been by those running the economy on how they can manage not to entirely lose their advantage, like Roosevelt did during the times of the New Deal. In a competitive by design, monetary market economy, you can hardly expect anything else. The culture value shift that would lead to an economy of greater equality that is not under constant threat of being undermined by those wishing to “game” the competitive system in their own favor involves everyone working together towards improving the quality of life for everyone, pretty much diametrically opposed to the foundational ideas and values of “free” market competition, like private property, ownership and personal profit.

    “Money Think” is a deeply divisive and self destructive mindset for an increasingly interconnected global civilization. We should be finding ways to institutionalize the type of values that instead encourage cooperation, collaboration, respect for our shared environment and respect for the individual lives of all that share this beautiful and delicately balanced planetary ecosystem. Yet because we have all been so deeply and unconsciously culturally conditioned since birth, moving beyond money and markets seems to be immensely challenging to most people’s imaginations. We often find it difficult to share within our own households, let alone within our local communities and with more distant relative strangers that live in another country or half way around the world. When it comes to imagining a world without money, we fail utterly. We have a severe lack of imagination that may end by us not only decimating all life upon the Earth but may also lead to our own extinction while we self-inflict untold and absolutely unnecessary suffering along the way.

    You can’t ‘fix’ money, by giving money away, because money is the problem. It is like pouring gasoline on a fire. Using money creates divisive thinking. Money says that those who have lots of money deserve access to everything life has to offer and those with little or no money don’t deserve access to anything. Money is a Humans only game after all, no other sentient beings that share the Earth use Money. We could start the whole game over tomorrow if Humans decided to do so, give every man, woman and child on the planet an equal stack of Money and in no time at all inequality would be back big time. It is our attitudes and our values that need to change, not some monetary manipulation of the way we handle money.