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Broaching the Subjects of Race and Class

bernie3To talk about race somehow feels dangerous, especially for someone as white as me. Someone who grew up in rural eastern Montana where race was an abstraction. Someone who has largely participated in white dominated institutions from the mainline protestant church to yes the political organizations I’ve participated in.  A recent swipe at the Naderite Public Interest Research Group by Tim Wise reminded me of this.

But is it really dangerous? No, I don’t worry about physical harm. The same cannot be said for many African Americans who have reason to fear violence and even death at the hands of law enforcement. What is the fear then? I suppose it is saying the wrong thing. To African Americans? No. Like most whites, the overwhelming circle of folks I know are white. Not all. But enough to make this a discussion among other white liberals.

So if I worry about saying something wrong it is to fellow white liberals who like me are wrestling with this question. Is it the blind leading the blind? Or is it the necessary work that needs to be done? Instead of demanding African Americans explain racism, which is not a situation many wish to be put in. So I’ll venture forward relying on Luther’s maxim to sin boldly, trust in grace, and hopefully learn from the exercise.

My understanding of racism is taken from Adolph Reed Jr who writes “black people and other similarly stigmatized populations (being) clustered on the bad side of the distribution of costs and benefits.” That could be systematic racism, the way the economy and society distributes benefits and costs, privileges, access, goods largely along the race line, which happens to mirror the class line rather closely.

Then there is personal racism or prejudice, what goes on in the heart which is hard to measure. But studies have indicated that this issue is more significant than many Americans realize. The two kinds of racism can feed into each other. If the likelihood of a job is shaped by someone’s prejudice, that carries economic cost.

Still the distinction is useful. Because the overlap is not the same as being identical. This is why an African American expressing personal prejudice against white folks or Latinos is not a racist in the first sense. They can’t be. They don’t have the means to leverage the structural dynamics of society to benefit themselves over and against the other group. Whites have that power. Everybody can hate. Not everybody has the same power.

So maybe we should have two terms? Except as I noted, both flow into each other, so how easy is to make that kind of separation? But I want to focus on structural racism. It can be understood as America’s original sin, not because it’s the first sin. But because it is the one by which almost any issue under the sun is going to be affected by it.

Some examples:

2-1 African Americans and Latinos are more likely to be in poverty.

From education funding, resources, advancement, test scores, literacy, African Americans and Latinos are disadvantaged.

The wealth gap. The average white family has 16 times more wealth, assets than a black family. This becomes an inter generational issue.

Housing segregation re-enforces education segregation. Poor schools are found in poor neighborhoods. 48% of African Americans have lived in such neighborhoods. Among whites it is 7%.

Economic opportunity and jobs are connected to the neighborhoods you live in. Think of every racial eruption from Baltimore to Ferguson. These were areas of concentrated poverty, unemployment, lack of mobility, and accompanying violence.

The majority of service sector workers? The one striking for better wages? Over half of them are African American and Latinos. Only 20% are white.

And the wage gap among races? 2-1 for Latino women. For African Americans they make 3/4’s of what a white person does for comparable work.

2/3 of all manufacturing jobs lost in the last 30 years? Those were African American workers. NAFTA, the loss of the auto industry in Michigan, the deindustrialization of America overwhelmingly affected African Americans.

And the public sector. African Americans serve 1 in 5 government jobs from postal workers to school teachers. Every effort to go after public jobs, their wages, their unions, benefits, or their existence disproportionately affects African Americans.

And then there’s this:

“The Medicaid expansion would provide millions of uninsured Americans. Almost 60 percent of uninsured black Americans, 51 percent of uninsured Hispanics, and 53 percent of uninsured people of color in general have incomes below the Medicaid expansion threshold, according to KFF.

In the states that haven’t expanded Medicaid, “[f]our in ten uninsured Blacks with incomes low enough to qualify for the Medicaid expansion fall into the [cpverage] gap, compared to 24% of uninsured Hispanics and 29% of uninsured Whites,” wrote the researchers. “These continued coverage gaps will likely lead to widening racial and ethnic as well as geographic disparities in coverage and access.”

When Bernie Sanders faced #BlackLivesMatter protestors in Seattle he was going to speak on Social Security and Medicare. By the way, the efforts to raise the retirement age on Social Security overwhelming affects African Americans who do not live as long. It literally robs all or a majority of their retirement savings in one fell swoop.

I raise these statistics because I have run into a rising sentiment that says you can cut off race from class issues. Or there are specifically racial justice issues which are wholly different from all the issues I just raised. And because of this, if Bernie talks about social security, income inequality, access to education, lifting wages, the importance of union jobs, dealing with unemployment he is failing to address racism.

I don’t see how that is possible? That doesn’t mean criminal justice reform, police reform, and the issues of racism should not be specifically named. And Bernie Sanders has pivoted as pressure has mounted to name issues with specificity. As they must. But to hear my fellow white liberal friends, that is the issue of race. The other ones are not.

From Adolph Reed Jr

“It reflects the social position of those positioned to benefit from the view that the market is a just, effective, or even acceptable system for rewarding talent and virtue and punishing their opposites and that, therefore, removal of “artificial” impediments to its functioning like race and gender will make it even more efficient and just.

Even the anti-racist line that we must fight both economic inequality and racial inequality, which seems always in practice to give priority to “fighting racism” (often theorized as a necessary precondition for doing anything else), looks like another version of the evasive “we’ll come back for you” (after we do all the business-friendly stuff) politics that the Democrats have so successfully employed to avoid addressing economic injustice.”

Bill Clinton’s signed welfare reform, expanded police powers, passed NAFTA, deregulated the banking industry which led us to the financial crash. But he gave us a “national conversation on race”! I think we have his presidency, as a warning of what happens when class issues are set aside and replaced by symbolism. The result is African Americans and Latinos are worse off. If racism is the way the distribution of goods, resources fall along racial lines, how could it be any other way?

Our society applauds South Carolina for removing the confederate flag even as Medicaid expansion is not on the agenda. It becomes clear that symbolism removed from real material benefit is going to be increasingly hollow. We love symbolism and the fights over the flag have been intense. If only Medicaid could generate that kind of emotion.

So in all the emotional turmoil that debates on racism elicit, I hope what is never lost is the simple question; who benefits, to who will the gains go? Any public policy can be measured that way. Notice where minorities end up when that question is asked and do something about it. We’d be better off on both issues if we did.

Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma

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