Civil Rights Needs Economic Rights

Jewish American Historical Society/Flickr

By Jack Rothman

It’s the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and celebrations are under way. Mark Updegrove, director of the LBJ Library, has announced a national Civil Rights Summit “to show the seminal nature of the Civil Rights Act and its transformational nature.” 

But skeptics question what has been achieved. Professor Joseph Schwartz of DSA and Temple University notes 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 says 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.” It is clear that 50 years after this landmark legislation, the march for racial justice is far from over—as shown by the sharp debate on economic inequality and minimum wages.

Let us begin with a hard look at our economic deficiencies.  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, hardly more than that. Freedmen were restricted to sharecropping and tenant farming and given into forced toil in prisons and on chain gangs. In later years, low-wage workers were made available for building our infrastructure as railway tracklayers, 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 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.   

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. Six years later, 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—advisors 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 upholds 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, Tiger Woods in sports, and Congressman John Lewis (as well as President Barak Obama) in politics. Their successes only underscore the gap among African Americans.

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 to help 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.”  A new economics, he believes, while necessary, is insufficient. It has to be augmented by intensifying our actions to counter the embedded cultural and ideological props of white supremacy.  

The clash between American’s declared values of fairness and justice and the functioning of its contentious and uncaring economic system is a potent deterrent to racial progress. We are simply out of alignment as a nation. For the fight for racial equality is hopeless without an all-out fight for economic equality. The country stands in need of a new civil rights transformation—this time taking aim to upend the broader system of unfairness.

Jack Rothman is Professor Emeritus at the UCLA School of Public Affairs and a member of Los Angeles DSA.

This article was originally published in the Huffington Post:

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