Right-wingers like former Fox television host Bill O’Reilly are fond of saying that whites do not have a monopoly on racism. Some black people hate whites, so they are racist too. Whites must stop being racist, but so must blacks. The implication of this way of thinking is that racism evens out in the end. It is seen as an individual defect, common to us all.
The problem with this manner of perceiving racism is that it ignores the larger social structures in which individual attitudes are shaped. In Inequality and Power: The Economics of Class, economist Eric Schutz suggests that as we make individual decisions, we, at the same time, make “social choices.” These structure the larger society, which, in turn, conditions our individual decisions. Our political system is a case in point. U.S. prosperity was founded on slavery, which was the dominant mode of production in the southern states and tightly integrated into northern capitalism. The slave trade, the production of important commodities, especially cotton, the textile industry, shipping, construction, the manufacture of agricultural implements, banking, finance, and many other economic activities were intimately tied to, indeed dependent on, slavery.1
The slave economy was supported by a constellation of laws and enforced by violence that maintained the entire oppressive system. Who enacted these laws? That is, were the “social choices” that allowed, defended, and maintained slavery made by everyone equally or were the choices of some weighted more heavily than those of others? It would take someone more obtuse than even O’Reilly to argue that in 1789 there was political equality in the United States. Slaves had no political power, and even among those who were not slaves, women could not vote and, in many states, whites had to own property to cast a ballot. Black people in the north were nominally free but subject to extreme race and class discrimination. In short, politics was dominated by white, male property owners who shaped the government decisively to serve their interests, including by maintaining and reproducing the institution of slavery. By the time slavery ended, inequalities of income and wealth had developed to the point that this white, male, and wealthy power was thoroughly entrenched and difficult to unseat. What this elite wrought was equally hard to change. Slavery ended, but the institutional setting in which it flourished did not.
Consider the conditions of black America at the end of the Civil War and especially after the end of Reconstruction in 1876. Enslaved people were freed but given no property, not even small plots of land so that they could feed their families. Without wealth or income, they had to fend for themselves. Federal soldiers protected them to a degree, but when the troops left, they fell victim once again to their white masters, who regained control of southern state governments and passed the Jim Crow laws that created a system of apartheid that dominated the south for nearly one hundred years. These states gave full sanction to white vigilantism, which stood ready to murder black people who refused to succumb to white rule. Black people were being lynched by white mobs well into the 1960s. Through new laws that criminalized everyday activities, the white rulers of the south filled the prisons with black people and then contracted them out to white business owners, creating what a PBS documentary called “slavery by another name.”2
If a group of people begin life with little income and no wealth, they are not likely to fare well economically. Modern research on economic mobility teaches us that it is not nearly as great in the land of opportunity as most people think. What matters most is how well-off your parents are, mainly how much wealth they have. The children of poor parents are a lot less likely to end up rich than those whose parents are rich. Perhaps as much as 60 percent of the parents’ income advantage is passed along to their children.3 This means that a person’s great-great-grandparents’ wealth confers an advantage upon them today. By the same token, the poverty of your great-great-grandparents will haunt you now. Compound this intergenerational income and wealth effect with the impact of slavery and the “social choices” that whites made, nearly all of which created a society in which former slaves and their descendants were marginalized and barely considered human. Here is how I put it in something I once wrote:
Imagine my own great-great-grandfather and suppose he had been a black slave in Mississippi. He would have been denied education, had his family destroyed, been worked nearly to death, suffered severe privation during the Civil War, and been considered less than human. Then in 1865 he would have been “freed,” to fend for himself and whatever family he had. No job, no land, no schools, no nothing. For twelve short years, he might have had some protection provided by the federal government against the murderous rage of white Southerners. But in 1877 even that ended, and afterward he would have been confronted with the full force of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan. What chance would his children have had? How likely would they have been to catch up with their white overlords? Isn’t zero the most likely probability? His grandchildren might have migrated north, but again with no wealth and not much schooling. His great-grandchildren would have lived through the Great Depression. How much property would they have been likely to accumulate? Finally, through the heroic struggle of my ancestors and my own generation, I would have seen the victories of the civil rights movement, the desegregation of the schools, the end of lynchings, and the opening up of a few decent jobs. I might have been an auto worker in Detroit for a dozen years, but then in the 1970s everything would have come crashing down again.4
Let’s return to the argument that both black and white people are, to one degree or another, racist. If this is so, then, other things equal, the respective racisms should more or less cancel out, and no particular social outcomes would be expected to occur as a consequence of racism. That is, race would not enter into the social choices Schutz writes about.
Can we put this notion of black racism and white racism canceling out to the test? Let’s look at data that describe certain important economic and social outcomes: income, wealth, wages, jobs, poverty, unemployment, housing, life expectancy, pregnancy-related mortality, infant mortality, and imprisonment:
- Income: In 1947, the median black family income was 51.1 percent of the white family income. In 2017, it was 59.1 percent. After the heroic struggles of the civil rights movement and the enactment of numerous civil rights laws, this seems a small gain, and the 2017 ratio is lower than that of 1969, when it was 61.3 percent.5
- Wealth: In 2016, the median net worth (all assets, including homes, minus all debts) of black households (not necessarily a family) was $12,920, 9 percent of that of whites, for whom it was $143,600.6
- Wages and jobs: Black workers earn less than their white counterparts; black men, for example, earn less than three-quarters the wages of white men. The black-white earnings disparity is present at every level of schooling. Part of this is because black people, no matter their level of schooling, are overrepresented in jobs with relatively low wages and underrepresented in higher-paying jobs. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2019, of all those employed in management, professional, and related occupations, the highest-paying major occupation group, 79 percent were white, compared to the 9.6 percent of black workers.
Another part of the reason for the relatively low wages of black people is that they earn less money within the same occupations. A summary of data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that, “in 2010, median usual weekly earnings of white people ($1,273) working full time in management, professional, and related occupations (the highest paying major occupation group) were well above the earnings of…Black men ($957) in the same occupation group.” The numbers were $932 for white women and $812 for black women.
Racial wage discrepancies exist in every occupational category. If, instead of specific occupations, we look just at low-wage work, we find similar racial disparities. Of all jobs held by whites in the United States in 2013, 22.5 percent paid a wage that, for full-time, year-round work, would put a family of four below the poverty level of income. But for jobs held by black workers, this figure was 35.7 percent.7 We were unable to find more recent data for jobs and poverty income using a family of four for the poverty threshold. However, if we use a threshold based on actual family size, we still get a rate much higher for black than for white job holders.8
- Poverty: In 2018, the poverty rate for whites was 8.1 percent; for black people it was 20.8 percent. The percentage of black people living at less than one-half of the poverty level was 9.4 percent; for non-Hispanic whites it was 3.9 percent. For black children younger than 18 years old, the incidence of poverty was 32.0 percent; the rate for white children was 11.0 percent.9
- Unemployment: The official unemployment rate almost always has been about twice as high for black people as for white people. By January 2020, these rates were 6.0 percent and 3.1 percent respectively. In June 2014, the underemployment rate (which includes involuntary part-time workers and all those marginally attached to the labor force) was 9.8 percent for whites and 18.6 percent for black people.10
- Housing: Homes are the most important form of wealth for most households. In 2019, black and white homeownership rates were 44.0 and 73.7 percent respectively. In addition, the current skyrocketing in housing prices has disproportionately hurt black homeowners. Housing segregation also plays a significant role and is “somewhat unique to African Americans…for several reasons: the legacy of segregated neighborhoods created during the era of Reconstruction and Jim Crow; enduring racial preferences among whites who choose to live near other white people; and significant Latino and Asian immigration after fair housing laws were in place.” Poor black people have been left behind, stuck in almost totally segregated areas, without jobs as manufacturing left town and unable to follow jobs to the suburbs. According to a 2018 report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, black renters are less likely than white renters to move and those who do are less likely than white renters to move to a different neighborhood. Black renters are also more likely to have both longer and failed searches for housing than white renters, and they are more likely to end up in more disadvantaged neighborhoods than their white counterparts.11
- Life expectancy, pregnancy-related mortality, and infant mortality: There is no reason to expect that, other things equal, one group of people in a country should exhibit different life expectancies and infant mortality rates than another. In 2017, black people could expect to live almost four years less than whites. According to a study published in 2019, the pregnancy-related mortality ratio of black women (42.8) was over three times higher than that of white women (13.0). Infant mortality rates are more than double for black than for white children.12
- Prisons and the criminal justice system: Here the racial divide is startling. By the end of 2016, 2,121,600 persons were incarcerated in the United States and 4,537,100 adults were on probation or parole. According to data from February 2020, black people make up 37.5 percent of federal inmates—nearly triple the black share of the U.S. population (12.7 percent). Lawyer, writer, and civil rights activist Michelle Alexander calls what has happened to black people in this regard mass incarceration, which functions much like Jim Crow: a “tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs, and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status [of black Americans].” At every step in the criminal justice system—arrest, arraignment, legal representation, plea bargaining, jury selection, verdict, sentencing, chance for parole, prospects after imprisonment—black people fare worse than whites.13
All of these things would lead us to reject the hypothesis that white and black racism offset one another. What is more, we would get the same results even if we conducted more sophisticated tests of this hypothesis. For example, black wages are lower than those for whites if we factor out schooling, age, occupation, industry, experience, region, and whatever else we think influences wages. That is, if we look at two groups of workers equal in all respects (same schooling, experience, and so on), the black group will have a lower average wage than the white group. The same result would hold for whatever variable we considered—prison sentences, unemployment, life expectancies, and all the others mentioned above.
We are left with an inescapable conclusion. Being black, in and of itself, is a grave economic and social disadvantage, while being white confers considerable advantage. That this is true today, 155 years after the end of the Civil War, after three constitutional amendments, the great civil rights movement, a large number of civil rights laws, and lord knows how many college courses and sensitivity training sessions is testament to the power and tenacity of racist social structures.
What might be done about black-white inequality? Some have argued that race-conscious remedies, such as affirmative action, are bound to be divisive and should be abandoned in favor of class-based relief. Some people I know objected strongly when a friend of mine suggested that anyone serious about racial disparities should campaign for the abolition of our prison system. While these persons knew that prisons are a key component of our discriminatory social structures, they argued that “abolish the prison system” would be an unpopular plank in a radical movement’s platform. It would likely alienate whites and quite a few black people from our cause. Better to fight for something like full employment through a public jobs program. This would have a wide appeal, and while it is race neutral, it would have a greater impact on black workers since they have much higher unemployment rates. A similar logic can be applied to national health insurance or low-cost public housing. The idea is to fight for things that unite the working class.
This perspective, which I argue later in this piece is insufficient to combat the long trajectory of racism, has a long history. After the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at which Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream Speech,” key organizers of the civil rights movement began to plan how the movement might move beyond political freedom to economic rights. People like A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and King understood that without ending poverty, achieving full employment, guaranteeing incomes, winning higher wages, and providing good schools, national health care, and decent housing, the right to vote would not have much meaning. They also saw that these things would not happen without tremendous struggle that challenged not only the federal government but the basic structure of a capitalist economy. Their sensibility was democratic and socialist; it envisioned a society both egalitarian and controlled by the people themselves.
To provide the participants in this second civil rights movement with a document they could use to expand and provide a factual basis for the movement, a Freedom Budget—entitled A Freedom Budget for All Americans: Budgeting Our Resources, 1966–1975 to Achieve Freedom from Want—was developed, showing both the need for radical economic changes as well as their economic feasibility.14 The Freedom Budget contains a section on the economic plight of black people in the United States. It notes that the civil rights movement was led by black people fighting for an end to U.S. apartheid and for political equality with whites. But while they would be the primary beneficiaries of the destruction of Jim Crow, they would also, by making the nation more democratic and its people more equal, improve the quality of life for everyone. Similarly, the Freedom Budget, while aimed at all poor people—black, white, brown, Native, Asian—would benefit black people most. They had the highest unemployment rates, the greatest incidence of poverty, the most substandard housing, the lowest incomes, the poorest health, the least access to social services, the lowest levels of education.
However, while those who wrote and promoted the Freedom Budget sought unity between white and black people, they also believed that, as with the struggle to end Jim Crow, black Americans would lead the battle for economic rights and in the process make the nation more democratic and equal, improving the quality of life for everyone. They would make the country live up to its professed but seldom-realized ideals. As the Freedom Budget put it, “the Negro’s greatest role on both of these fronts is not as a beneficiary, but rather as a galvanizing force. Out of his unique suffering, he has gone a long way toward awakening the American conscience with respect to civil rights and liberties. The debt which the whole nation owes him will be increased many times, as he helps to win the battle against unemployment and poverty and deprivation.”15
While the Freedom Budget never gained much political traction, black people saw improvements in their lives in the aftermath of the civil rights movement, notably a sharp decline in poverty. They won access to both better job opportunities and political offices. We now see many black people on television news shows and in mainstream entertainment. Black CEOs, generals, and presidential advisors no longer surprise us. We even had a black president. Yet, despite undeniable progress, seemingly intractable racial disparities continue to exist. In the fifty years since the Freedom Budget was written, the United States has failed miserably to end poverty and deprivation. The black America that made the civil rights movement and developed the Freedom Budget still suffers deplorable economic conditions.
It would be easy enough to construct a modern version of the Freedom Budget. In fact, historian Paul Le Blanc and I did so in our book A Freedom Budget for All Americans: Recapturing the Promise of the Civil Rights Movement in the Struggle for Economic Justice Today.16 In it, we espouse several general principles that must underlie such a budget:
- Liberty and justice for all: equal rights and equal opportunities, with no exceptions.
- Deepening democracy: political, social, and economic.
- A commitment to future generations.
- Comprehensive solutions: a rejection of tokenism and fragmented remedies.
- Harmony with global neighbors.
Then, we laid out concrete objectives consistent with the principles:
- Full employment.
- Adequate income for all who are employed.
- A guaranteed minimum adequacy level of income for those who cannot or should not work.
- Adequate and safe housing for all.
- Health care for all.
- Educational opportunity for all.
- Secure and expanded transportation infrastructure.
- Secure and expanded Social Security.
- Food security for all.
- A sustainable environment.
- Cultural freedom and enrichment for all (arts, parks, sports, recreation).
- Reduction in the inequality of income and wealth, to ensure the realization of these objectives.
Both the principles and the objectives reflect the point of view of working-class unity that many on the left take today. However, this strategy of supposedly unifying the working class by purely economic means did not seem quite right to Paul and me then, and it seems even less so to me now. If it is true that the social choices made since the beginning of the United States have created racist social structures, and if these have yet to be eradicated, it makes sense to have as part of a radical program a direct confrontation with these structures. If we had a full employment jobs program, how would it eliminate the gap between black and white wages, unless at the same time it was aimed disproportionately at black workers? If we do not aim to guarantee that black people become leaders in our movements, then how will a full employment program or national health care or public housing be implemented so that they do not disproportionately benefit whites, who, after all, hold most leadership positions in movements, both radical and not. Even if we were to make every element of the criminal justice system nondiscriminatory, how could we make sure that the enormous number of black people enmeshed in this system now will be able to extricate themselves from it and become full and equal citizens, unless we have race-specific programs to help them?
Given the extent and depth of white privilege, racial issues have to be addressed and attacked head on. There is no easy way out. The working class will never be unified unless we once and for all confront the institutional racism that surrounds us. Unity requires restitution for past and present damages. Nothing less will do. In our book, Paul and I make integral to our new Freedom Budget some additional suggestions, which call into question “class-only” politics. They reflect an understanding that racial attitudes are once again hardening, and from an already fairly unenlightened base, and the optimism felt by those who wanted a racially equal society has long ago vanished.
Political traction for a new Freedom Budget will require organization around community provision efforts and political agitation demanding that the federal government begin to act in the interests of the people. With respect to the first collective service programs, these can build cooperative entities inside the shell of capitalism and generate feelings of power, solidarity, and self-confidence among participants. For example, the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park erected a small-scale society that provided food, sanitation, and housing to participants while debating and implementing a form of democratic self-government. Remarkably, it did this in the face of severe police repression. In terms of the second kind of organization, political agitation, there are hundreds of examples, from the labor movement to antiwar struggles. Even Occupy Wall Street, which was accused of not having a political agenda, made many demands, including an end to police surveillance and brutality. History suggests, in fact, that collective service provision and political activism go hand in hand.
There is every reason to believe that black America can and must once again spearhead the fight for a new Freedom Budget. As the data above tell us, black people are still the least of Americans. They have the most to gain from the achievement of the budget’s goals, and their participation in and leadership of the drive to implement it would once again force the nation to confront the chasm between ideology and reality. And as past collective service programs and political movements make clear, black America has a history replete with concrete achievements. Without collective efforts based on the solidarity of necessity, enslaved black people could not have survived, much less created a culture that changed the world. This solidarity lasted through the long nightmare of Jim Crow and it forged the remarkable civil rights movement. Along with the demonstrations, marches, and confrontations with police, the civil rights movement saw collective service provision in practice. In the 1960s, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Mississippi Freedom Summer Project combined community service programs and political action efforts. The voter registration drives were political confrontations with a vicious white state government, aimed not only at winning the right to vote in Mississippi but also at pressuring the federal government to enact voting rights legislation. These voting drives were combined with Freedom Schools, in which students were taught traditional subjects like reading and mathematics, as well as black history and constitutional rights. Among black liberation efforts embracing a more nationalist path for struggle, the same kind of dynamic emerged. The Black Panther Party established “survival programs,” such as the Free Breakfast for Children Program and a large number of free services such as “clothing distribution, classes on politics and economics, free medical clinics, lessons on self-defense and first aid, transportation to upstate prisons for family members of inmates, an emergency-response ambulance program, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and testing for sickle-cell disease.” The Nation of Islam ran schools and day care services, operated a food distribution network, and established farms. Both groups in their Ten Point Programs also demanded that the federal government guarantee full employment, access to land, decent housing, good education, an end to police brutality in black communities, and an end to the unjust criminal justice system. Especially with the Black Panthers, community service program activities were combined with active political struggles.17
Today, a large number of black organizations have been formed to combat police brutality and murder, the mass incarceration of black people, widespread poverty, and continued segregation and discrimination.18 We must support these in whatever ways we can, but especially by being willing to honor black leadership. Black communities today have ready-made allies to help them win support for not just a new Freedom Budget, but for a radical transformation of U.S. society. They could be joined by a growing population of oppressed minorities—American Indians, immigrants, refugees—to form a massive coalition leading all poor and deprived persons, as well as the rest of the working class, in building a society that guarantees lives free from want to all. Our political and economic elites caution patience and say that tremendous progress has been made in making opportunities available to everyone. This is simply not true. Most of our economic growth has been siphoned off by the very rich, while the lives of the majority of people become more insecure and less hopeful every day. We need immediate, radical change and we must demand it right now, with black people in the lead.
- ↩ Several recently published books show conclusively that slave production of cotton force-fed the rapid industrialization and commercialization of U.S. capitalism. Slave labor, under what Edward Baptist calls the whipping machine, was enormously productive, much more so than wage labor, made so by brutality so extreme that, even in an age where violence has become almost routine, still has the power to shock. See Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic, 2014); Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014).
- ↩ Slavery by Another Name, directed by Samuel Pollard (PBS, 2012), available at https://pbs.org.
- ↩ Lawrence Mishel et al., “Mobility,” chap. 3 in The State of Working America, 12th ed. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012).
- ↩ Michael D. Yates, Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate: An Economist’s Travelogue (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2007).
- ↩ “Figure 1. Real Median Household Income by Race and Hispanic Origin: 1967 to 2017,” Current Population Survey, 1968 to 2018 Annual Social and Economic Supplements, U.S. Census Bureau.
- ↩ “Wealth and Asset Ownership for Households, by Type of Asset and Selected Characteristics: 2016,” U.S. Census Bureau, 2016.
- ↩ “Usual Weekly Earnings of Wage and Salary Workers: Fourth Quarter 2019,” News Release, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, January 17, 2020; “ Employed Persons by Detailed Occupation, Sex, Race, and Hispanic or Latino Ethnicity,” Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, January 22, 2020; “Earnings and Employment by Occupation, Race, Ethnicity, and Sex, 2010,” Economics Daily, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, September 14, 2011.
- ↩ See David Cooper, “Workers of Color Are Far More Likely to Be Paid Poverty-Level Wages Than White Workers,” Economic Policy Institute, June 21, 2018.
- ↩ Jessica Semega, Melissa Kollar, John Creamer, and Abinash Mohanty, “Table B-1. People in Poverty by Selected Characteristics: 2017 and 2018,” “Table B-3. People with Income Below Specific Ratios of Their Poverty Thresholds by Selected Characteristics: 2018,” Income and Poverty in the United States: 2018, Report #P60-266, U.S. Census Bureau, September 2019; “Children in Poverty by Race and Ethnicity in the United States,” Kids Count Data Center, 2018.
- ↩ “The Employment Situation—January 2020,” News Release, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, February 7, 2020; “Underemployment Rate, by Race and Ethnicity, 2000–2014,” State of Working America, August 27, 2014.
- ↩ “Quarterly Residential Vacancies and Homeownership, Fourth Quarter 2019,” U.S. Census Bureau, January 30, 2020; Aaron Williams and Armand Emamdjomeh, “America Is More Diverse Than Ever—but Still Segregated,” Washington Post, May 10, 2018; Maria Krysan, Kyle Crowder, Milly M. Scott, and Carl Hedman, Racial and Ethnic Differences in Housing Search: Final Report (Washington DC: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2018).
- ↩ Elizabeth Arias and Jiaquan Xu, “United States Life Tables, 2017,” National Vital Statistics Reports 68, no. 7 (2019); Emily E. Petersen et al., “Vital Signs: Pregnancy-Related Deaths, United States, 2011–2015, and Strategies for Prevention, 13 States, 2013–2017,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, May 10, 2019; Danielle M. Ely and Anne K. Driscoll, “Infant Mortality in the United States, 2017,” National Vital Statistics Reports 68, no. 10 (2019).
- ↩ “United States of America,” World Prison Brief, accessed March 4, 2020; Danielle Kaeble, “Probation and Parole in the United States, 2016,” U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, April 26, 2018; “Inmate Race,” Federal Bureau of Prisons, accessed March 4, 2020; Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2012); Michael E. Tigar, “Lawyers, Jails, and the Law’s Fake Bargains,” Monthly Review 53, no. 3 (July–August 2001); “Criminal Justice Fact Sheet,” NAACP, accessed March 4, 2020.
- ↩ A Freedom Budget for All Americans: Budgeting Our Resources, 1966–1975 to Achieve Freedom from Want (New York: A. Philip Randolph Institute, 1966).
- ↩ A Freedom Budget for All Americans.
- ↩ Paul Le Blanc and Michael D. Yates, A Freedom Budget for All Americans: Recapturing the Promise of the Civil Rights Movement in the Struggle for Economic Justice Today (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2013).
- ↩ Bruce Watson, Freedom Summer: The Savage Season of 1964 That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy (New York: Penguin, 2010). On the programs of the Black Panther Party, see Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr., Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013). On the Nation of Islam’s substantial economic plan based on collective service provision, see Elijah Muhammad, “A Sound Economic Plan I,” Final Call, October 18, 2013.
- ↩ See Danielle Allen and Cathy Cohen, “The New Civil Rights Movement Doesn’t Need an MLK,” Washington Post, April 10, 2015; Robin D. G. Kelley, “Why We Won’t Wait,” Counterpunch, November 25, 2014.