The Economic Justice We Should Be Voting For

Isaiah J. Poole

Polls are open Tuesday in four cities that are listed among the 10 “worst cities for black Americans” and two of “America’s most segregated cities,” according to reports published last year by 24/7 Wall St.

The four worst cities for black people are all in Illinois. The list includes fourth-worst Chicago, as one might expect, where the median income of African-American households is half that of white households and where the African-American unemployment rate was estimated at 18.5 percent (compared to 7 percent Chicago-wide and about 5 percent nationally.) But it also includes Rockford, second worst in the nation, where the African-American unemployment rate was nearly 29 percent and where for each dollar a white household earned, a black household only earned 44 cents. (The other two cities are Peoria and Kankakee.)

The most segregated cities that will be voting in primaries Tuesday are both in Ohio: fifth-ranked Cincinnati and number-one-ranked Cleveland. “Of the roughly 100 zip codes in the [Cleveland] area, 63 are predominantly white and are home to nearly 70 percent of Cleveland’s white population,” according to the 24/7 Wall St. report. “The metro area’s black population is similarly segregated, with 30.9 percent concentrated in just six zip codes.”

Cleveland’s white residents last year experienced an unemployment rate of 5.4 percent and fewer than one in 10 lived in poverty. The black residents experienced an unemployment rate of more than 20 percent and about one in three lived in poverty.

These are the front lines of our ongoing crisis of racial and economic injustice. All five states with Tuesday primaries – Florida, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina and Ohio – have experienced more than their share of the consequences of failed conservative and corporatist policies: trade deals that sent jobs overseas, tax policies that concentrated wealth at the top and choked off investments that would boost poor and middle-class people, actions that suppressed wages and deprived working people of their bargaining power. But they also offer vivid examples of America’s far-from-finished task of repairing the damage done by this nation’s shameful history of racism.

A central question in the presidential debate for African Americans is what should we demand in exchange for our vote, and who can be trusted to make their most wholehearted effort to meet those demands. So far, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has gotten the most endorsements from the black political and economic elite, and the majority of rank-and-file black voters have followed their lead. But Bernie Sanders has worked to make a strong argument that his call for a political revolution that can usher in far bolder economic and structural changes than what Clinton is proposing is the better path to address the continuing effects of racism in America.

Clinton and her African-American surrogates respond that Sanders does not have a track record that matches Bill and Hillary Clinton’s longstanding advocacy, including Bill Clinton’s success as president in the late 1990s in stoking an economic growth robust enough to begin to narrow the historic two-to-one disparity in unemployment nationally between black and white workers. They also echo Clinton’s claim that it’s “wrong” for Sanders to make promises that he can’t keep. As hip-hop and business mogul Russell Simmons recently posted on Twitter, Sanders is “overstating what he can deliver to underserved communities.”

But is the key issue for African Americans that Sanders is promising more than he can deliver, or is it that we as African Americans are not demanding enough?

Consider that in the seventh year of the administration of the first African-American president, African American unemployment remains on average double that of whites – and far worse than that in many parts of the country. Wealth inequality by race continues to be even more stark: The median net worth for white households – $141,000 in 2013 – is 13 times that of the median net worth of black households. Plus, major studies in the coming months are expected to document a stark racial pay gap as well. Findings that today’s black workers earn less than white workers doing the same job would undercut arguments that workplace racial discrimination is a historical artifact that does not require current, reparative actions.

Steve Phillips, the California lawyer and political activist who recently authored the book “Brown Is the New White,” argues that disparities like the racial wealth gap don’t simply fix themselves. If the collective wealth of black Americans were invested in ways that earned double the rate of the investment return of white American wealth, Phillips writes, black Americans would still be far behind a quarter-century later. Contrary to what conservatives would argue, the nation can’t simply declare an end to active engagement in overt racist practices, walk away and expect those affected by institutional racism to make themselves whole.

If we truly confronted the answer to the question, “What is justice” for a people whose labor was forcibly stolen and continues to be unequally compensated, whose humanity was and too often continues to be brutalized, and who have yet to collectively experience any “great America” that they would want to see made “again,” our political discourse around issues of economic justice would be far different. Freed slaves were promised 40 acres and a mule after the end of the Civil War to compensate for their enslavement; that promise was broken. Tracy Loeffelholz Dunn and Jeff Neumann wrote in Yes! magazine that if we used Martin Luther King Jr.’s rough estimate of the dollar value of what the “40 acres and a mule” would represent in compensation for slavery and the century of institutional racism that followed, the African American community today would be owed $6.4 trillion.

If something like that sounds outrageous, Phillips writes, “then by comparison, other policy proposals to correct injustice – making massive investments in public education, enacting comprehensive immigration reform, establishing universal voter registration, ending mass incarceration, adopting ‘Polluter Pays’ taxes nationwide and imposing a wealth tax on the richest 1 percent – should seem modest by comparison.”

So should designing the investments that we must make in our country to make up for decades of neglect and shortsightedness – in our transportation systems, public schools and facilities, our energy and information networks – so that the jobs and revitalization that result flow most quickly and most copiously to communities that have been the victims of economic injustice and that have for whatever reason been left behind in today’s economy. That is related to what should be a cornerstone of any economic justice agenda: full employment as national policy, with the federal government serving as the employer of last resort when the private sector is unable or unwilling to hire all people who want to work.

Hillary Clinton deserves credit for acknowledging what she calls “hard truths about race and justice in America” and the need for the federal government to actively undo the damage. Her platform reflects her longtime engagement with people or color and low-income people, and her detailed knowledge of government programs and the politics that constrains them.

But here’s what Bernie Sanders gets right: Repairing the damage done to African Americans and other people of color by physical, political, legal, economic and environmental violence will require a redrawing of the boundaries of the politically possible. It has never been sufficient to ask what a political and economic system that perpetuated this violence is willing to give up of its ill-gotten gains. The correct question is what must the next president of the United States do to lead the nation in bringing a level of justice and equality that has too long been denied. The bold policies that will actually heal the wounds of our racial history, rather than just partially bandage over them, will also work to unrig the rules that have held down the white working class and stoked their anger at an economic and political system that has disenfranchised them.

Every presidential election year, there is a debate within the African-American community over whether Democrats take the black vote for granted. The debate usually ends on election day with the overwhelming share of black votes going to the Democratic candidate, if for no other reason than the Republican alternative represents an agenda of benign neglect at best and one steeped in white racial resentment at worst. That party dynamic, if anything, is worse this year as the Republican party moves ever more rightward and makes itself the incubator of a new wave of racial hate. Still, before another vote is cast for a Democratic nominee, we all still must ask: “What does justice demand?”

Call it the Frederick Douglass standard, in recognition of the abolitionist’s reminder that “power concedes nothing without a demand.” But he went further: “Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them.”

Hence we are in 2016 having primary elections in cities that economically and racially might as well be in the pre-1960s. Enough is enough: The ritual of quietly submitting to the boundaries of the political establishment should be long over. It’s time to not merely vote for a candidate but for the kind of transformation that once and for all repairs the damage of our racist past and makes America whole.

Get updates in your inbox