Green (Not Black & White) is the Color of Inequality
Updated: Sep 14
Is the Road to Racial Inequality Best Traversed Through the Pursuit of Economic Justice?
Sunday Evening Editorial: By Joe Malburg
When A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the setting of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the focus was on social justice and equality of opportunity for Black Americans. King spoke passionately about the need for America to make amends for its racist past and embrace a future where it lives up to its self-styled ideals, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." Five years later, another March on Washington, the Poor People’s March took color out of the equation and instead sought to bring justice to all by eliminating traditional economic barriers to collective progress and personal success. By this time, King along with the movement had evolved. He knew that race was unquestionably an issue in America, and he also understood that for racial justice (buoyed by support from all types of Americans during the 1960’s) to be lasting, economic justice would have to come swiftly. With the chains of physical bondage long shed, it was economic bondage that primarily ensnared the generationally poor in America, regardless of race. Without the means to survive at one’s disposal, the opportunity to thrive is absent. And while America, better than any Nation thus far has provided a path to break those chains, not everyone is shown that path. For some it starts in their own backyard and they are on it from the moment they are upright, for others, the journey to the path can involve a lifetime of hard work and all the physical, mental, emotional and psychological consequences without ever tasting the fruits of their labor. Eternally and inextricably the economic and social histories of America are tied to race. America was built on slavery and servitude. Colonialism beget Mercantilism which beget Capitalism and the rest is history. The Age of Exploration, beginning in earnest in the fifteenth century for most of Western Europe, opened new doors to the world literally and metaphorically. Seeing the world's resources as something to be collected and controlled, colonization, for Western Europe, became part of the quest for empire in a way that would have been foreign to the Roman, Persian or Chinese empires that preceded them. Contemporary thinking at the time supposed that the world's wealth and resources were static and finite and that accumulating control of as many of those resources as possible was paramount to maximizing exportation and minimizing the need for imports. This evolved into Capitalism, which emphasizes competition and productivity and sees wealth as something that can be generated in perpetuity. Capitalism also shifted control of the means of production from the Nation-State to primarily private interests. For all their differences, Capitalism and Mercantilism share one common thread that links them with their ancestors in antiquity as well as the ancients, that is of course the requirement of labor for their system to function at even the most basic of levels. And while schools of economic thought evolved, one thing that remained constant for thousands of years was the near complete reliance on subjugation to control the cost of labor and maximize the profits for those at the top. Let’s be clear that slavery was always about “us” and “them”, we enslave “them” for the benefit of “us”. However until the age of exploration that distinction was primarily made on the basis of the conqueror subjecting the conquered. In western Europe and especially in the new colonies of America, there began in the 16th century a shift to race-based slavery and with it the birth of a culture and later a nation built on White Supremacy.
Today many Americans would like to consider the race problem solved or on the right track at an acceptable pace. This opinion is inaccurate but not without merit. Racial equality is not the problem today it was in the time leading up to the second Civil Rights Act of 1968. We aren’t talking about separate drinking fountains and segregated schools anymore. But the motives of those who stood to profit from slavery were never solely based on racism, but rather racism was a vehicle by which they were able to preserve their financial interests. The progress achieved since the antebellum has hampered the ability of those who wish to see us divided to use race as a tool. Racial equality has continued to drudge forward gradually in the time since King, but the disparity in wealth and income has exploded in the fifty-two years since his assassination. The deterioration of the strength of workers unions and the advancement of the rights of corporations at the expense of workers is the new weapon of choice for those who need to exploit labor to maximize personal profit.
Household incomes overall have increased, but most of that increase was achieved in the period from 1970 to 2000. In these three decades, the median income increased by 41%, at an annual average rate of 1.2%. From 2000 to 2019, the growth in household income slowed to an annual average rate of only 0.3%. In that time the growth that has existed has been disproportionately distributed to higher-income homes. The share of American adults who live in middle-income households has decreased from 61% in 1971 to 51% as of 2019. And as you continue to climb towards the top, the wealth and income gap growth in both totality and rate of expansion has exploded. Since 1978, CEO compensation has grown by 940%, and whereas the typical CEO made about 20 times as much as the average worker in the late 1960’s, today, that number has ballooned to nearly 300 times the rate of workers on average.
Where racism persists most perniciously is in terms of the overall wealth of black and white American families. Largely due to an advantage in inherited wealth, white families on average are ten times wealthier than Black families. Regardless of race, four out of five Americans were living paycheck to paycheck before the pandemic hit and now for many that paycheck has shrunk or gone away all together. This is the latest blow to an already staggering and beleaguered working class. As wages and income have stagnated for the shrinking middle class, the cost of living has skyrocketed. Since 1970, healthcare costs have increased by 200%, housing costs have doubled and the cost of education has gone through the roof. A four year degree now costs more than fifteen times what it did a couple generations ago. Both parties have stood idly by as they exchanged power and the trends continued. These growing financial burdens of education and skill development, as well as an increasingly stacked deck against entrepreneurship and small businesses has created a culture of eternal debt for many Americans coming of age in the last two decades. While one party decries racial injustice, they refuse to acknowledge economic injustice. And the other party, turning a blind eye to both, seeks to demean those who point out the systems flaws as “lazy”, “entitled” and “socialist”. King said that his quest for economic justice was, “very frankly, an alternative to rioting, because the riot is the language of the unheard.” King said that America has failed to hear “that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met.” Now America has resorted to protest. To violence in response at times and to rioting and looting, just as they were in the 1960’s have crept into this America. And while this injustice can not be approved of or supported or encouraged, it must be understood. To cast it as the simple greed and opportunistic ambition of a class of people you’d rather dehumanize than understand is both shortsighted and insufficient. To declare it the natural response to injustice is lazy and self-defeating. This is a cry in the dark. It requires an emphatic answer or it enables more violence and more destruction.
The time is now for solutions to problems that have been long ignored, but that our society refuses to indulge any longer. To look to the market to solve these problems on their own is a fool's errand. Decades have proven it so, waiting for change to come from the top is an exercise in futility. Instead, if change is going to come, and it needs to, it will be bottom up and the people will have to be the driving force. A multitude of solutions have been bandied about over the years and in the past decade or less, some have gained serious traction. Activists and politicians have put pressure on large corporations to increase wages and benefits for workers. The fight for a $15 federal minimum wage has the support of two-thirds of Americans. Universal Healthcare, after decades of discussion gained majority support in 2016. Universal Child Care has entered the mainstream debate and workers unions all across the country are taking action to strengthen themselves. But perhaps the most interesting and creative approaches to combat our growing economic inequality are the simplest of all. Just give people money. Universal Basic Income (UBI) and a new idea that New Jersey will be trying out in the coming years, Baby Bonds. UBI began to gain steam during the Democratic Presidential primary season when entrepreneur and political outsider Andrew Yang built his campaign around the concept of giving every adult citizen $1,000 a month to supplement their existing income, something he called “The Freedom Dividend”. The idea in its most basic sense is to provide Americans with some economic stability to allow them more freedom to find the right career path or to pursue innovation or artistic expression which has intrinsic value to society, Yang says. While critics have argued that “hand-outs” will stifle creativity and motivation, Yang argues it will have the opposite effect. Under his plan, there would be no double-dipping. If you are already receiving government assistance, that amount would be deducted from your dividend, thereby eliminating the incentive to stay on unemployment or other forms of welfare. Yang argues that UBI would increase the power of the workers, stimulate the economy and prevent highs and lows, promote entrepreneurship and innovation and even improve mental health and reduce domestic violence by eliminating many financially-motivated stress factors. Yang would pay for the program with a value-added tax of 10%. A value added tax is common globally and is a tax on the production of goods or services a business produces. As automation and a changing economy continues to eliminate the jobs that were once the backbone of our economy, it will take creative solutions to maintain and grow the standard of living we have all become accustomed to. Universal Basic Income may just be one of those creative solutions. Baby Bonds have largely been overlooked in the eighteen months since New Jersey Senator. Booker had proposed the new concept as part of his campaign for President and New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy has since incorporated the plan into his states budget for the new fiscal year, set to begin October 1st. An intriguing proposition, the concept is to give every new born child a $1,000-$3,000 nest egg to be invested on their behalf and to accumulate interest as the child grows up and eventually to be applied to college tuition, trade school, a down payment on a home or to start a small business. Details of the plan are still being worked out, such as whether or not families would be allowed to add to the initial investment and if it would be distributed in the form of a bond or a savings account deposit. Programs like this and the UBI might actually better serve to eliminate systemic racism by helping close the wealth gap and thereby eliminating some of the factors most associated with the cycle of poverty. The hardest thing to do in America is make money without money. Giving everyone the kind of stability that we all want for our loved ones could go a long way to bringing out the best in individuals and our society as whole.
In many ways, the goals that King left on the table have gone entirely ignored in the time since he was gunned down. At the 1968 Poor People's March, King and company fought for a minimum wage of $2 an hour, the equivalent to $14.89 today. Today, the fight for fifteen persists, classified as greedy by the same people who point to King as a figure worth celebrating while ignoring his intended legacy. King told the leaders of this country that Americans were “Tired of working full-time jobs for part-time income.”, today, even more Americans are resigned to such a fate. Nearly 43% of Americans working full-time jobs take in less than $15 an hour. Meaning that after taxes, they bring home less than $30,000 a year without the ability to supplement that income without working overtime hours for standard wages. Martin Luther King Jr. laid bare the reality of the resistance that he anticipated facing then and that we still face now. In fact it’s very easy to draw a direct line from his words to our reality today. When it comes to paying lip service, our Nation’s leaders are ready when the mood is right, when it comes to paying out of their own pocket, they will fight tooth and nail to avoid that fate as King outlined in a 1968 speech,
“It didn’t cost the Nation one penny to integrate lunch counters. It didn’t cost the Nation one penny to guarantee the right to vote. Now we are dealing with issues that can not be solved without the Nation spending billions of dollars and undergoing a radical redistribution of economic power.” King concluded the speech with a warning to the political establishment, “When we come to Washington, we are coming to get our check.”
Time after time when America has faced an economic crisis we’ve seen a Nation willing to bailout it’s largest corporations and financial institutions to the tune of trillions of dollars. The Covid-19 pandemic has further illuminated the hypocrisy inherent to our financial priorities. In late March, Congress passed the CARES act, a two trillion dollar stimulus bill that included around $800 Billion in payouts to individual citizens and small businesses. In May the United States treasury announced it would be borrowing three trillion dollars in three months to combat the pandemic and to date, not a penny has been invested further into the working class. When the Poor Peoples campaign marched on our Nations capital, the quest was economic justice as a way to bring together those who felt the every day affects of discrimination and classism that went beyond race. Dr. King himself had written five years prior, in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that,
“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."
If we are going to reverse the economic trends which have more and more Americans feeling a sense of anxiety, dread and even hopelessness, we need to do so together. We need to understand that a rising tide can lift all boats and that our individual lives are enhancing by helping those around us.