An Economic Program for #BlackLivesMatter

We are in the midst of a movement to upend white supremacy. Thousands of people across the country, acting in response to the unpunished killings of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, Michael Brown and so many more unarmed black people who have lost their lives to police or vigilante violence, have taken to the streets to proclaim that "black lives matter." While this is a powerful proclamation all its own, it can now be strengthened by a vision of what it will take to make those lives matter in America.

In 1966, along with A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and other organizers and scholars, Martin Luther King Jr. released the now all-but-forgotten Freedom Budget for All Americans, which included full employment, universal healthcare and good housing for all. "The Freedom Budget is essential if the Negro people are to make further progress," he wrote. "It is essential if we are to maintain social peace. It is a political necessity." Dr. King came to espouse this view toward the end of his life, acknowledging that civil and voting rights were a critical but merely partial victory in the struggle for complete equality.

King's vision, needless to say, was never realized. This is why we propose that, in addition to calls for police reform, it is vital for the defeat of the racist system that the #BlackLivesMatter movement advance an economic program. We cannot undo racism in America without confronting our country's history of economically exploiting black Americans. Demands from Ferguson Action and other groups include full employment, and this foundational item is one that can and should be fleshed out, as we hope to do here.

Before laying out our proposals, we should clarify why, historically, eliminating racism requires an economic program. America's story is one of economic exploitation driving the creation and maintenance of racism over time. The inception of our country's economic system condemned black people to an underclass for a practical rather than bigoted reason: the exploitation of African labor. Imported Africans were prevented by customs and language barriers from entering into contracts, and unlike the indigenous population, their lack of familiarity with the terrain prevented them from running away from their slavers. To morally justify an economy dependent on oppression, in a nation newly founded on the rights of men to freedom, it was necessary to socially construct a biological fiction called race, one that deemed some people subhuman, mere property. "During the revolutionary era," Karen E. and Barbara J. Fields write in their book Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life, "people who favored slavery and people who opposed it collaborated in identifying the racial incapacity of Afro-Americans as the explanation for enslavement." White citizens, making their fortunes and proving their social standing through the ownership of African persons, codified the idea of race into law. Those of African origin would come to form the lowest class of American life, while people of Western European origin were free to extract labor and wealth from their bodies. Material inequality, in other words, preceded the racist rationale.

This didn't change with Emancipation. The convict-leasing system, the lynching of black business owners, and the razing of economically independent black towns by White Citizens' Councils and the Ku Klux Klan made it impossible for the former slaves to flourish. After Reconstruction, the ideology of race that erected Jim Crow society was crucial for maintaining class divisions among whites. As the Fieldses write, "One group of white people outranked the other precisely because it was in a position to oppress and exploit black people." Thus, through the daily experience of this dynamic, "the creed of white supremacy" was bolstered, in the words of the historian C. Vann Woodward, "in the bosom of a white man working for a black man's wages."

As a result, black Americans continued to experience racist violence, both physical and economic, and no corrective policy prescriptions were forthcoming. In his book The Condemnation of Blackness, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, notes that the progressive movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries advocated increased government resources for poor immigrant groups, while continuing to attribute black poverty to the alleged cultural and moral deficiencies of African-Americans. This legacy haunts us today in every new injunction that ending racism depends on young black people wearing belts. And it lives in the widespread rejection of the obvious fact that drug abuse, violence and educational failure don't breed poverty; poverty breeds them. The large-scale relegation of black Americans to poverty is the essential "race" problem.

In the postwar boom, as Ta-Nehisi Coates details in "The Case for Reparations," his article for The Atlantic, black people were largely locked out of homeownership, the largest driver of the wealth gap in modern America, and further housing discrimination meant that black people were also not allowed to attend the schools offering the highest-quality education — another factor in gaining well-paid jobs. The "New Jim Crow" of mass incarceration via the "war on drugs" has replaced vagrancy laws and convict leasing, but with similar results: robbing large numbers of black people of economic opportunities while also denying them access to federal programs aimed at alleviating poverty. A person with a felony record is denied access to food stamps, welfare and public housing. And with no wealth to speak of in a country where political participation is predicated on dollars and cents, black Americans continue to lack political representation; the repercussions include an absence of choice in who is speaking for them in Congress and in which mayor or police chief has jurisdiction over their neighborhood. Inadequate economic security is literally a life-and-death matter for black Americans.

It is vital for the defeat of racism that the #BlackLivesMatter movement shut down the economic engines propelling the continuous reinforcement of white supremacy. Only through the redress of black America's economic grievances (the pronounced disparities in terms of income, wealth, and community resources like housing, healthcare and education) can we begin building a just society.

1. True Full Employment

Nothing would do more to transform the current political economy than what is at the core of the Freedom Budget and mentioned in the Ferguson Action demands: a policy of full employment.

What we mean by that phrase — an "involuntary unemployment rate" of 0 percent — differs from what mainstream economists mean, even those who nominally support it. By "full employment," they usually mean nearly full employment. During the most recent period of "full employment" (the also dubiously named "Clinton economic boom"), the unemployment rate never dipped below 3.8 percent. However powerful the boom, millions of people in certain corners of the economy were relegated to a permanent state of bust. The people deepest in those corners, the least employed people in the United States, are teenage black high-school dropouts from poor families, on whom is currently imposed the conscience-rattling unemployment rate of 95 percent.

It is clear that we require more than the conventional policies for boosting job growth if we are to meet the demand for full employment. Luckily, there are two policies up to the task: a federally funded job guarantee and a universal basic income that is unattached to employment. By offering employment as a guaranteed right, the federal government could direct capital to the communities where it is most desperately needed, while employing those communities themselves to do the work needed to improve their own quality of life: cleaning and replacing those oft-decried broken windows, filling potholes, caring for the children of working parents and for the elderly, clearing slum housing and replacing it with decent housing. By paying a basic living wage and normal benefits for a federal employee, the program would effectively set a minimum wage and standard of treatment for private-sector employment. In boom times, when there is danger of inflation, the program and its budget would automatically shrink, and during downturns, when inflation is extremely unlikely, it would grow to fill the gap.

This program could and should be paired with a universal basic income, which Dr. King called "the simplest…and most effective" approach to eliminating poverty, citing three essential virtues of the program. First, poor people, their consumption directly subsidized, will no longer want for basic comforts. Second, the political position of the marginalized would grow stronger: "Negroes," King wrote, "will have a greater effect on discrimination when they have the additional weapon of cash to use in their struggle." Finally, King highlighted the "host of positive psychological changes" that universal material security would yield: "The dignity of the individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his life are in his own hands…. Personal conflicts between husband, wife and children will diminish when the unjust measurement of human worth on a scale of dollars is eliminated." This psychological relaxation is the direct negation of the anxiety and terror that persistently accompany black American life.

    • Mychal Denzel Smith
    • Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute and blogger for As a freelance writer, social commentator, and mental health advocate, his work has been seen online in outlets such as the Atlantic, Salon, Al Jazeera English, Gawker, the Guardian, Huffington Post, the Root, the Grio, and GOOD.<...

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