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As Uprising Spreads Across US, Scholars Argue Economic Transformation and Solidarity Key to Achieving Racial Justice

"Our only hope for our collective liberation," writes Michelle Alexander, "is a politics of deep solidarity rooted in love."

Protesters march on Hiawatha Avenue while decrying the killing of George Floyd on May 26, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Four Minneapolis police officers have been fired after a video taken by a bystander was posted on social media showing Floyd's neck being pinned to the ground by an officer as he repeatedly said, "I can’t breathe." (Photo: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Protesters march on Hiawatha Avenue while decrying the killing of George Floyd on May 26, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Four Minneapolis police officers have been fired after a video taken by a bystander was posted on social media showing Floyd's neck being pinned to the ground by an officer as he repeatedly said, "I can't breathe." (Photo: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

In separate in-depth columns published Monday, two leading black female scholars argue that the while the United States stands on the edge of a precipice of either transformational change or tattered ruin, there is renewed hope for fundamental change—including both racial and economic justice—to be found in the nationwide uprisings sparked by last month's murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.

"We cannot achieve racial justice and create a secure and thriving democracy without also transforming our economic systems."
—Michelle Alexander

Civil rights attorney and legal scholar Michelle Alexander warns in a column for the New York Times titled "America, This Is Your Chance" that American "democracy hangs in the balance"—before adding: "This is not an overstatement."

Writing for The New Yorker, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, assistant professor of African American studies at Princeton University, referenced the two weeks of protests since Floyd's killing as a "rebellion" of "relentless fury and pace" whose "sheer scale has been surprising" even through the long historic lens of community protests and uprisings fueled by racial injustice, police brutality, and social neglect.

Taylor's piece is explicitly titled "How Do We Change America?" Both her and Alexander seek to address that outstanding and elusive question. For Taylor's part, it's clear the "quest to transform this country cannot be limited to challenging its brutal police." Alexander makes it central to her critique that while President Donald Trump has been "disastrous" as a leader during this crisis, "it would be a mistake to place the blame on him alone" for the nation's woes.

"In part," writes Alexander, "we find ourselves here for the same reasons a civil war tore our nation apart more than 100 years ago: Too many citizens prefer to cling to brutal and unjust systems than to give up political power, the perceived benefits of white supremacy and an exploitative economic system. If we do not learn the lessons of history and choose a radically different path forward, we may lose our last chance at creating a truly inclusive, egalitarian democracy."

Similarly, Taylor argues that for a nation whose history is steeped in white supremacy and pervasive economic inequality, very little of what's transpired recently—least of all the killing of an unarmed black man by a police officer—is anything new.

"We have the resources to remake the United States, but it will have to come at the expense of the plutocrats and the plunderers."
—Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

"It should be clear," she writes, "what the demands of young black people are: an end to racism, police abuse, and violence; and the right to be free of the economic coercion of poverty and inequality." But the very "refusal or inability of this society to engage" the question of how to meet those demands, Taylor continues, is a big part of why protesters now "swell the streets with clenched fists and expressive eyes" nationwide.

Securing the future that the protesters demand requires conquering "the logic that finances police and jails at the expense of public schools and hospitals," according to Taylor. "Police should not be armed with expensive artillery intended to maim and murder civilians while nurses tie garbage sacks around their bodies and reuse masks in a futile effort to keep the coronavirus at bay."

"We have the resources to remake the United States, but it will have to come at the expense of the plutocrats and the plunderers," she adds, "and therein lies the 300-year-old conundrum: America's professed values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, continually undone by the reality of debt, despair, and the human degradation of racism and inequality."

In a post on social media commenting on Alexander's piece, Taylor said the two of them were "in unexpected synchronicity" with their respective essays.

In her column, Taylor insists "we cannot insist on 'real change' in the United States by continuing to use the same methods, arguments, and failed political strategies that have brought us to this moment," while Alexander declares "we cannot achieve racial justice and create a secure and thriving democracy without also transforming our economic systems."

Alexander points to historical figures—from James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr., and WEB Du Bois to Albert Einstein, Helen Keller, and Paul Robeson—who have shared the belief that "we must move toward some form of socialism." She then turns to a more recent champion of social democratic reform: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who suspended his second campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in April.

"We all owe him and countless organizers a debt of gratitude for pushing universal healthcare, paid family leave, free college education, a $15 minimum wage and many other economic rights into the mainstream," Alexander says of Sanders' diverse movement. Citing Taylor, who endorsed Sanders, she writes that "the coronavirus crisis proved that Mr. Sanders was right all along—that healthcare and other economic rights should be considered part of our social contract, not special benefits for those who are lucky enough to be employed by companies that grant discretionary benefits."

"Nobody would have benefited more from Mr. Sanders' political revolution than black people," Alexander adds, "and yet the generational divide among black voters affected his campaign." As she explains:

Younger black people seem to understand that the neoliberal Democratic politics of the past will not take us where we need to go, and they supported Mr. Sanders by significant margins in polls. We must work to create an economic system that benefits us all, not just the wealthy. If our nation was not so deeply divided along racial lines—and if so many white people were not revolted by the idea of their tax dollars helping poor people of color obtain education, housing and social benefits—we would most likely have a social democracy like Norway or Canada. Achieving economic justice requires we work for racial justice, and vice versa. There is no way around it.

If we fail to take these obvious steps, our democracy will remain in peril even if Mr. Trump is defeated in November. Police killings, uprisings, and riots will remain a recurring feature of American life. The black-white economic divide is as wide today as it was more than 50 years ago. And the same divide-and-conquer tactics that were used to prevent multiracial alliances for economic justice in the 1800s and 1900s were employed yet again in 2016 with spectacular results, as white Americans fearful of losing political power because of profound demographic changes elected a former reality show billionaire to the presidency, a man who unleashed racist tirades against immigrants on the campaign trail and vowed to "make America great again" by taking us back to a time we supposedly left behind—perhaps the time of civil war. Unless we choose a radically different path now, our persistent racial divisions and oppressive political and economic systems may unravel our democracy sooner rather than later.

Alexander's piece won praise from Taylor and other Sanders supporters and former 2020 campaign staffers:

"Our only hope for our collective liberation is a politics of deep solidarity rooted in love," according to Alexander. "In recent days, we've seen what it looks like when people of all races, ethnicities, genders, and backgrounds rise up together, standing in solidarity for justice, protesting, marching and singing together, even as SWAT teams and tanks roll in."

"We've seen our faces in another American mirror—a reflection of the best of who we are and what we can become," she concludes. "These images may not have dominated the media coverage, but I've glimpsed in a foggy mirror scenes of a beautiful, courageous nation struggling to be born."

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