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Black Lives Matter Movement

African American Economic Equality

Black Lives Matter is new on the American scene, but it mirrors the efforts of other groups historically to advance the interests of African Americans. Like BLM, those organizations forced into public awareness aspects of black oppression that were being disregarded—organizations like the Freedom Riders, the Black Panthers, Malcolm X’s Nation of Islam, and the Garvey Movement.

While the Freedom Fighters in the 60s took on undemocratic public accommodations practices, BLM currently exposes the extent of police violence against black men across the nation. The organization sprung up after the murders of Trayvon Martin in Florida and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. A host of other police abuses followed and BLM has been in the forefront demanding prosecutions and a stop to these horrific incidents. While focusing on the extralegal execution of African American males, BLM also makes clear its opposition to injustice foisted on women, gays and the disabled.

Their group identity outlook has sometimes resulted in conflict with the Bernie Sanders movement, which has stressed class differences and the devastation caused to marginal groups by “obscene” economic inequality. The differences in approach are essentially about emphasis, since each group incorporates substantial elements of the other’s goals into its framework. The fight for social justice will require both economic equality and the elimination of cultural and ideological expressions of white supremacy.

Economic inequality is at the heart of racism and, therefore, other aspects of white supremacy will not fade until economic disparity among groups is reduced or eliminated.

My own take is close to the Sanders’ perspective. Economic inequality is at the heart of racism and, therefore, other aspects of white supremacy will not fade until economic disparity among groups is reduced or eliminated. Economic status is a bedrock factor in defining relationships among people, including prejudice, discrimination, and subjugation. In this era of identity politics, class issues generally are not well understood. Therefore, I will spell out the class position and then return to the link with BLM and its approach.

We recently had a 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, with a raft of festivities celebrating racial progress. Mark Updegrove, director of the LBJ Library, enthused about a national Civil Rights Summit showing “the seminal nature of the Civil Rights Act and its transformational nature.” But there wasn’t a shortage of skeptics questioning what has been accomplished. Professor Joseph Schwartz of Temple University (who is a Democratic Socialists of America Vice President) noted that due to the decline of our cities and rising African American unemployment, “economic apartheid” has caused average black families to currently own one-tenth the assets of their white counterparts. Nation columnist Gary Younge said that once core civil rights were won we had a hard time making further progress because racism is embedded “within the broader context of economic and social inequities.”

Let us take a hard look at our economic discrepancies. It stands to reason that any economic system emphasizing maximum profit accumulation — labeled “greed” by that early Wolf of Wall Street, Gordon Gekko — as its fundamental philosophical value will generate wide income disparities that contradict our proclaimed creed of human equality. For CEOs and business owners, it’s prudent to keep wages low. That practice, they believe, maximizes profits and allows expansion while, at the same time, enriching entrepreneurs and glorifying those who succeed at this game. It also creates a stratum of diminished people at the bottom.

African Americans historically have been channeled into providing cheap labor — during slavery, involuntarily, and in the years closely following, through compulsion and noxious legal means. Freedmen were restricted to sharecropping and tenant farming and given into forced toil in prisons and chain gangs. In later years, low wage work was made available for building our infrastructure as railway track layers, ditch diggers, and sandhogs, as well as for keeping the machinery of daily life running as kitchen workers, janitors, and hotel help. This system of economic subjugation and class layering is sanitized under the banner of “free enterprise.” Well-meaning homeowners also benefit from this layering arrangement through meager payments to house cleaners, maids, child caretakers, and home health aides.

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Blacks and other people of color disproportionately — even after recent civil rights advances — continue to serve as underpaid workers and are assigned to the ranks of the unemployed: last hired and first fired. Marx posited that capitalism requires a reservoir of unemployed who can be at hand when depression times climb to boom times (and most mainstream economists agree that unemployment is normal and necessary in our system).

Racism is a ready tool in this. Having an “inferior” — read differently pigmented — unemployed and low wage work force has clear advantages for owners but also produces a ground-level benchmark that, like a sinkhole, draws the wages of all other working people downward.

Minimum wage laws try to plug that hole, but many family wage earners who work full-time at minimum wage jobs are still bringing in a poverty level income. This is unjust and unconscionable.

When Barack Obama was elected the first African American president, liberal pundits pronounced a post-racial America. Now it is clear that some magic wand has not waved these problems away. For too long we have overlooked the fact that Obama is enmeshed in the same machinery that produces these economic travails for African Americans struggling to make ends meet. President Obama, the Democratic Party, and the entire political class are tied to the banking and industrial elites who manage the economy and mold our national policies through lobbying, campaign funding, and other means. Obama’s top economic appointments have been a Who’s Who of Wall Street — advisers like Larry Summers, Timothy Geithner, Gary Gensler, Jack Lew, Mary Jo White.

Under Obama, the unemployment rate of blacks and their income levels relative to those of whites have worsened. It should be no surprise that economic conditions for blacks have not forged ahead, given that the heavy hand of the system that Obama has upheld is tuned to turn out small groups of overwhelmingly white big-time winners and huge masses of disproportionately black and brown losers. There are exceptions to this rule, with stars and high monetary achievers in the black community — Oprah in entertainment, Robert L. Johnson of BET in business, Michael Jordan in sports, and Congressman John Lewis (as well as President Obama) in politics. Their success only underscores the gap within the African American community.

In the period leading up to his death, Martin Luther King Jr. confronted economic inequality problems directly, calling for transformation geared to black advancement and taking risky actions himself, such as helping to organize sanitation workers in Memphis. Cornel West, possibly our leading contemporary black intellectual, wrote that, “a democratic socialist society is the best hope for alleviating and minimizing racism.” (West is a DSA Honorary Chair).

For West, a new economics, while necessary, is insufficient. It has to be augmented by actions to counter the embedded cultural and philosophical props of white supremacy. Here’s where the efforts of BLM and kindred organizations come into play. They round out and amplify the fight for economic advancement. The BLM website calls for approaches reflecting empathy, loving engagement, collective value, and being unapologetically black. They affirm queer and transgender rights in their action program. All of this is consistent with West’s cultural alteration outlook.

To my mind, the contradiction between American’s declared values of fairness and justice and the functioning of its contentious and uncaring economic system is the fundamental deterrent to racial progress. We are simply out of alignment in the way our economy functions. That said, leftwing advocates for radical economic change will aid their cause by including action against non-economic aspects of white supremacy. BLM and its allied organizations will best serve their purposes by solidly incorporating the fight for economic justice into their overall struggle for racial justice.

Maximum Wage

Jack Rothman

Adapted from Jack Rothman, “Civil Rights Need Economic Rights,” Huffington Post, August 17, 2014.