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Juneteenth should remind America what it owes black citizens

As Americans protest, the holiday marks the end of slavery and beckons the country to close the racial wealth gap.

The Poor People’s Campaign calling for economic justice for the poor, in Washington, DC, 1968.
Archive Photos/Getty Images

This Juneteenth, a rallying cry has taken hold as uprisings around the world take place. “Defund the police” has become the signature demand of those marching for racial justice, and is about more than just taking money from the city budget lines devoted to law enforcement. It is about investing in low-income black communities in a real and substantive way.

Responding to congressional Democrats’ announcement on police reform legislation, activist and scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor tweeted that next, “we want the package that deals with the racial economy that pins Black people to the bottom of the US hierarchy. We must destroy the economic conditions that predispose Black people to violent, racist policing.”

Those marching have certainly captured the public imagination. Nearly every company has taken it upon themselves to issue a statement condemning racism, put up black squares on Instagram, and invest in anti-racist trainings for their employees. Many companies, including Vox Media, Vox’s parent company, have made Juneteenth a company holiday. Meanwhile, the reformers are looking for ways to rein in the violent behavior of police.

Some of these changes will make a difference, others are merely symbolic, but none of them truly address the demands to invest — heavily — in righting the economic wrongs that have plagued America since its inception.

This isn’t the first time America has wrestled with whether to address this problem. The country has failed time and again to put real money into its racial inequalities, from failed reparations after the Civil War to Martin Luther King Jr.’s unfinished business of economic investment to the resurgent popularity of reparations in recent years. Now, as America again debates how far to go when addressing the raw pain exposed by George Floyd’s death, it will have to come at a cost.

After all, chokehold bans are free — closing the racial wealth gap is not.

Congress had an opportunity to address economic pain in civil rights era legislation. It failed.

Near the end of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. grew disheartened with reluctance to adopt comprehensive financial measures to remedy years of racial discrimination, slavery, and Jim Crow. King’s activism accomplished a lot, but he wasn’t merely content with desegregation, citizenship, and voting rights. He and many civil rights leaders pushed for policies that would enable black people to participate as full equals in the American economy. King deplored how when black people searched for a “realization of equality, they found that many of their white allies had quietly disappeared.”

“The practical cost of change for the nation up to this point has been cheap. The limited reforms have been obtained at bargain rates. There are no expenses, and no taxes are required, for Negroes to share lunch counters, libraries, parks, hotels and other facilities with whites,” he wrote in 1967’s Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?

“The real cost lies ahead,” King continued. “The stiffening of white resistance is a recognition of that fact. The discount education given Negroes will, in the future, have to be purchased at full price if quality education is to be realized. Jobs are harder and costlier to create than voting rolls. The eradication, of slums housing millions, is complex far beyond integrating buses and lunch counters.”

King planned a movement to accomplish this, with the Poor People’s Campaign, which he envisioned as “a new kind of Selma or Birmingham to dramatize the economic plight of the Negro, and compel the government to act.” Acting in this sense meant funding “an economic Bill of Rights” that would address issues around housing, income, and employment. Yet King was killed before the campaign could be carried out, and his prophetic pessimism about American resistance toward enacting economic policy addressing racism proved prudent.

The campaign failed. The legislation never saw meaningful action. The broader aims of creating economic solutions fell by the wayside — just as the “jobs” portion of the 1963 March on Washington was disregarded, just as the sweeping reforms of the Freedom Budget were ignored, just as the calls for reparations since Reconstruction were ridiculed.

Contrary to the “racial progress narrative” that most Americans receive, fully half of the civil rights movement’s objective — ending racial economic inequality — was left unaddressed.

As CUNY political scientist Frances Fox Piven co-wrote, summarizing the incomplete work of the civil rights movement, “the black struggle was waged for two main goals. One was to secure formal political rights in the South, especially the right to the franchise; the other was to secure economic advances. In retrospect, it is clear that the main victory was the extension of political rights to Southern blacks.”

America is just beginning to think about this idea again

Just a year ago, for the first time, Congress considered a bill to compose a commission to study reparations proposals for slavery and to weigh a national apology for the ensuing problems the institution caused. The idea has been repopularized thanks to the work of activists, writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the Democratic primary, when Sen. Elizabeth Warren and others said it was time for the country to consider the idea.

During that historic congressional hearing, Republicans scoffed at reparations the way a customer might sneer after being charged twice for the same meal. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell rebuffed the idea. “I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago when none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea,” he told reporters. “We’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We’ve elected an African American president.” Most Americans agreed — 68 percent, according to the 2019 AP-NORC Center poll.

This popular opposition flows, in part, from the premise that no significant debt exists to be paid. In our political imagination, the United States lives as a racially egalitarian country. However, Americans underestimate the black-white racial wealth gap’s vastness by 80 percent, according to a 2019 Yale study.

Underestimates of the black–white wealth gap from 1963 to 2016. Each of the small colored dots represents one respondent’s estimate. The large black dots represent mean respondent estimates of black wealth when white wealth is set to $100. The diamonds represent the actual median black wealth when white wealth is set to $100, calculated using federal data from the Survey of Consumer Finances.
Michael W. Kraus/Ivuoma N. Onyeador/Natalie M. Daumeyer/Julian M. Rucker/Jennifer A. Richeson. Perspectives on Psychological Science 14, No. 6 (November 2019): 899–921.

“The American racial-progress narrative leads people to make overly optimistic estimates regarding the state of racial economic equality in the nation,” the authors write, explaining that “Americans of all races and economic circumstances falsely believe that there has been substantial progress in closing racial economic gaps over the past 50 years or so.”

In other words, citizens think that since the civil rights era, the United States successfully redressed the economic ills created by American slavery and Jim Crow. It did not. As Harvard sociologist Lawrence D. Bobo writes:

Although monumental accomplishments, the Brown decision, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 primarily secured the basic citizenship rights of African Americans. The successes of the civil rights movement...did not eradicate sharp black-white differences in social and economic status; and they did not undo nationwide patterns of racial residential segregation. That is, the enormous and far-reaching gains of the civil rights movement did not eliminate stark patterns of racial domination and inequality that existed above, beyond, and irrespective of the specific dictates of the distinctly Southern Jim Crow system.

Today, protests continue to roil nationwide, demanding investment to close these gaping racial chasms because, as a country, America has never made a full-fledged effort to address these disparities in the first place.

Incubated in American slavery and apartheid, inequality flourished in the free market

Inequalities established during centuries of discrimination were allowed to settle and fester into American life. This leads to what Harvard’s Bobo calls our modern age of “laissez-faire racism” — a type of racial inequality predicated “on the market and informal racial bias to recreate, and in some instances sharply worsen, structured racial inequality.”

Vox’s Netflix, Explained series describes how this process continues to churn in markets, allowing racism’s past effects to justify more racism. Today, employers remain hesitant to set up shops in black neighborhoods but make Juneteenth a company holiday. Healthy restaurants avoid entering neighborhoods because the incomes are too low. Home values only start to rise in gentrifying neighborhoods when enough white people move in. All this is tied to a legacy of redlining and divestment stretching decades back. And it’s getting worse, as the racial wealth gap continues to expand over time. According to a 2019 analysis by the Institute for Policy Studies, “between 1983 and 2016, the median Black family saw their wealth drop by more than half after inflation, compared to a 33% increase for the median White household.”

Tragically, most people strain to remember how we got here. In America, the civil rights movement is hardly taught in schools, and when it is, it is projected as the triumphant narrative where citizenship is won. Economic equality is either assumed or forgotten.

Yet as James Baldwin writes, the impact of American racism is not subject to our recollections. “It is not a question of memory,” he writes. “Oedipus did not remember the thongs that bound his feet; nevertheless marks they left testified to that doom toward which his feet were leading him. The man does not remember the hand that struck him, the darkness that frightened him, as a child; nevertheless, the hand and the darkness remain with him, indivisible from himself forever, part of the passion that drives him wherever he thinks to take flight.”

Juneteenth is an occasion to remember what we have forgotten. It is a time to remember not just how far African Americans have come in the United States since slavery, but how much, particularly on economic policy, they are still owed.

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