Fifty-year-old Walter Scott had been having money problems. Years earlier he had worked in the construction industry, a job he acquired through the Father to Father Project, a group that provides support to low-income dads to help them keep up with child support payments, among other things. Later, he moved on to another job, but when he found himself out of work again, he began falling behind on his payments. Documents showed that he owed more than $18,000 when the Charleston Family Court issued a warrant for his arrest.
Scott was facing these circumstances when a police officer, Michael Slager, pulled him over for a broken brake light. Scott probably feared he would wind up in prison and fled. As Scott ran, Slager then shot him in the back, and a video by a passerby captured the incident in horrific detail.
Not only was Scott’s death emblematic of the decades-long problem of police shootings of unarmed people of color, but poverty in the black community also figured into the equation. At least 90 percent of participants in the Father to Father Project are African-American.
As a recent Time magazine cover story illustrates, the Black Lives Matter movement has successfully shaped the mainstream narrative of the reality of police violence against African-Americans. But most of the discussion of the fixes that are needed have focused primarily on police accountability such as civilian oversight and requiring officers to wear body cameras. Few analysts have made the crucial link between police brutality and economic injustice. Now, grassroots activists are not only pointing out that black lives matter, but by extension, black jobs matter, too.
Unemployment in the black community is much worse than in the general population, before and since the 2008 Great Recession. In fact, it has usually registered at double the rate among whites. In 2007, the unemployment rate hovered at about 9 percent among blacks and about 4.5 percent among whites. Those rates rose accordingly during the peak of the recession to 16 percent among blacks and 9 percent among whites. Among black youth the figure soared to a whopping 45 percent. Even though there has been some economic recovery, government statistics show that the official unemployment rate among African-Americans has hovered between 10 and 12 percent over the past year, twice the rate among white Americans.
In Los Angeles, the Black Worker Center (BWC), a project of the UCLA Labor Center, has been citing such statistics to make the case that tackling race-based economic injustice is crucial. Through its programs, the group has helped African-Americans in the L.A. area have access to better jobs. And importantly, BWC has been working closely with Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles (BLM-L.A.) to underscore the fact that police brutality and lack of employment opportunities are on the same spectrum of discrimination affecting African-Americans.
Melina Abdullah, professor and chair of Pan-African studies at California State University and lead organizer with BLM-L.A., explained in an interview on “Uprising” that, “when you reallocate money and you shift more of the money into social programs and education, and economic programs [like job training], it decreases the level of crime.” In turn, such investment decreases the need for police.
But even well-funded education and job-training programs wouldn’t necessarily address the rampant employment discrimination against African-Americans. Black college graduates are strikingly less likely than whites to get interview call-backs. The deck is stacked so deeply against them that one investigative report found that white felons are just as likely as African-American nonfelons to be hired. For black felons, there are almost no job prospects—one-quarter of all nonincarcerated African-American men have felony convictions, probably as a result of the heavy policing in black communities. This is just one more link between policing and poverty.
A significant proportion of arrests and convictions of African-Americans are drug-related. But we don’t see a heavy police presence and constant arrests in well-to-do white neighborhoods, even though whites are more likely to sell drugs than blacks, and more likely to use them. That is in part because white Americans have the political and economic power to fight back, to “lawyer up.” It is much more lucrative to target a community that has few resources to begin with.
Police actions can also actively make low-income African-Americans even poorer when working in conjunction with a discriminatory courts system. The U.S. Department of Justice’s report on Ferguson, Mo., confirmed what many of the city’s residents had been asserting: that aggressive policing and courts built on fining people who are arrested for minor traffic infractions have filled city coffers.
Poor African-Americans are seen as a cash-cow demographic, and it’s not just in Ferguson. A new report found that driver’s license suspensions essentially push the poor “deeper into poverty.” So when cops pull over black drivers disproportionately (as programs like New York’s stop-and-frisk policy have been found to encourage them to do), the fines that result can balloon if left unpaid. Courts then often turn to suspending the driver’s license, which in turn makes transportation to and from a job even harder. A vicious downward cycle of poverty can result from just one ticket or fine.
If we care about justice for African-Americans, we must address poverty alongside police violence. The tradition of fighting for economic equality alongside racial justice is a long and venerable one. In the last year of his life, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. planned what might be considered the original Occupy Wall Street movement, except in Washington, D.C.—a planned tent city to demand an end to poverty under the banner of the Poor People’s Campaign.
In the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles uprising, an ambitious revitalization program called Rebuild L.A.. The program promised to create thousands of new jobs in the black community with the understanding that the beating of Rodney King and the subsequent anger that manifested itself in the streets of South Central L.A. had just as much to do with the violent repercussions of poverty as with police beatings. Sadly, neither the Poor People’s Campaign nor programs like Rebuild L.A. succeeded in making positive systemic change.
But people are still fighting back today. Low-wage workers, who are disproportionately people of color, are leading the vibrant Fight for 15 national campaign demanding a minimum wage of $15 an hour and the right to unionize. Groups like the BWC are taking steps to “increase access to quality jobs ... and end inferior jobs in the Black Community,” as the Los Angeles Black Worker Center phrased it. Campaigns such as “Ban the Box” are working to end employment discrimination against former felons.
Even though the violence of poverty cannot be captured on our smartphones like a fatal shooting can, it is just as insidious a problem and just as deeply connected to police brutality. If we don’t take a more holistic view of injustice, the crisis will remain unsolved.