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Push for Racial Justice Beyond Race Alone

Today, liberals and many on the left reflexively cast “African American” and “working class” as antagonistic rather than overlapping categories.

The policy agenda of presidential candidate and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is, in my view, the best racial justice agenda for 2020. (Photo: Adolph Reed Jr)

The policy agenda of presidential candidate and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is, in my view, the best racial justice agenda for 2020. (Photo: Adolph Reed Jr)

nswering that question, and rising to meet this challenge, requires examining what we mean by “racial justice.” Most people who consider themselves progressives no doubt have general ideas of what would constitute a racially just society. Yet two basic norms of racial justice have coexisted—sometimes converging, sometimes contending—since at least the 1930s. 

Political scientist Preston H. Smith II described these twenty years ago as the ideals of racial democracy, “the view that all racial groups should have proportionate access to and enjoyment of all social goods,” and social democracy, the principle that “all individuals regardless of class should have equal enjoyment of all essential social goods.”

Each is legitimate as an ideal of a just society, and, as Smith shows, for the middle third of the twentieth century, they were compatible and often mutually reinforcing. When movements against racial exclusion and discrimination and movements for egalitarian redistribution overlapped, when the same individuals and organizations were involved in each, there was no pressing need to parse potential divergences and areas of conflict between them.

The 1944 volume, What the Negro Wants, edited by Howard University historian Rayford Logan, is a good illustration of the broadly shared commonsense view that the two ideals of social justice were naturally compatible, if not symbiotic. Logan’s volume collected perspectives from black civic elites across the ideological spectrum, from radical to conservative, who opined on what they considered the most pressing issues and opportunities, problems and prospects for black Americans in the rapidly approaching postwar years.

This relatively new focus on a racial wealth gap treats racial inequality exclusively in a framework of wealth management.

Even the most conservative bootstrappers agreed in a matter-of-fact way that continued expansion of federal social wage policy and CIO-style industrial unionism were necessary conditions for the continued advance of black Americans’ pursuit of justice and equality, as well as progress in the struggle against discrimination and racial exclusion.

As Smith later showed in his 2012 book, Racial Democracy and the Black Metropolis: Housing Policy in Postwar Chicago, tensions between those two ideals could and did erupt into conflict in concrete instances throughout the postwar period. However, those eruptions were usually episodic and isolated, and as a result didn’t disrupt the prevailing understanding that these tensions were ephemeral moments in a singular progressive movement.

By the end of the 1960s, as a result of a combination of Cold War anti-leftism and the consolidation of victories won on racial-democratic terms, the social-democratic tendency in black politics became increasingly attenuated. As a new black political class became hegemonic over the 1970s and affected a modus vivendi within neoliberalizing Democratic liberalism, what once had seemed like an organic association of racial-democratic and social-democratic norms in black politics persisted only as an empty rhetorical gesture.

By the time of the Obama presidency, the racial-democratic ideal, typically expressed through objection to racial disparities, had effectively monopolized public discourse on the telos of black politics.

Today, liberals and many on the left reflexively cast “African American” and “working class” as antagonistic rather than overlapping categories. “Working class” has thus come to imply “white,” if not white racist.

From that perspective, the racial-democratic agenda of reducing, if not eliminating, racial disparities of all sorts, is the totality of the racial justice agenda. It is in this context that addressing the “racial wealth gap” has become a major item in the racial-democratic agenda.

The racial wealth gap refers to the median—the number at which as many individuals or households lie above as below—difference in net worth among different racial groups. Since the mid-1990s, researchers have examined both snapshots of median differences in group-level net wealth and trends over time. Much of this research compares differences in wealth in different parts of the country and at different income and education levels. Studies have generally found that at all levels of income and education, and in all regions of the United States, African Americans possess considerably less individual or household wealth than whites.

This relatively new focus on a racial wealth gap treats racial inequality exclusively in a framework of wealth management. That is, it separates economic inequality from jobs, wages, income, and overall performance of the economy, and accepts the neoliberal premise that personal wealth is the most important cushion against insecurity and the basis for opportunity.

That is a major shift from nearly a century of advocacy for racial justice that focused both on challenging discrimination and providing economic security for all Americans by means of a full-employment economy and the expanded provision of public goods.

As black legal scholar and civil rights activist Pauli Murray indicated in 1945: “[J]ob discrimination based upon racial or religious prejudice is subsidiary to the more pressing issue of full employment. When jobs are plentiful, all kinds of economic discrimination are minimized. When jobs are scarce, and the competition among workers for available openings is sharpened, it is relatively easy to divide employees into convenient groupings provided by the incident of race, color, or religion, and to aggravate the prejudice which leads to an exclusion of minority groups from job opportunities. The basic problem to be solved, therefore, is the problem of full employment.”  

That is why Murray joined the vast majority of African American and other advocates of racial equality in supporting the Full Employment Bill of 1945, which would have established the right to employment as federal law and required government action to ensure full employment. The bill would also have established a national health care system, expanded Social Security, and nationalized unemployment insurance.

Though passed by the Senate, the bill was defeated in the House of Representatives, in the first clear signal of the concerted rightwing attack gearing up against the expansion of social-democratic policy. A much watered-down alternative, the Employment Act, was passed the following year. 

Throughout the 1960s, the perspective that African Americans’ lives would be most effectively improved by civil rights enforcement in conjunction with social wage policies that benefited all working people was dominant among racial justice advocates. That’s why Murray joined Martin Luther King Jr. and all the major civil rights activists in endorsing the 1966 Freedom Budget for All Americans. Advanced by black labor leaders A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, it reasserted the social vision and political priorities expressed in the Full Employment Bill of 1945.

The Freedom Budget provided the explicit goal of reducing unemployment to no more than 3 per cent by 1968, with an ideal goal of no more than 2 percent. It also called for increasing the federal minimum wage to a level that would lift the working poor out of poverty; providing guaranteed income above the poverty level for those unable to work; guaranteed access to affordable, good-quality housing for all; and access to proper medical care for all. Finally, it called for educational opportunity for all “up to the limits of their abilities and ambitions, at costs within their means,” as well as the expansion of public sector funding to repair and improve physical infrastructure, maintain adequate environmental standards, and expand public transportation.

A social-democratic agenda of that sort would still be the one that would have the most significant positive impact for most black Americans.

Between 1968 and 2016, African Americans, largely as a result of the victories of the civil rights movement and anti-discrimination enforcement, made significant advances into occupations and job categories to which they had previously had very limited access. And yet African Americans’ income remains virtually unchanged as a percentage of whites’ income since 1968—57 percent in 1968, 56 percent in 2016. This is because the gains of African Americans in employment and wages have been offset by intensifying income inequality in the country as a whole.

One 2018 study found that the primary reason for the persistence of the overall racial income gap is the extreme concentration of income at the top during the past half-century. Lower-income and middle-income families, both black and white, lost income in relation to the richest Americans. And upper-strata black families have shown the greatest progress. Between 1967 and 2016, the greatest income increase among black families was for those earning between $100,000 and $200,000.

The number of households with incomes between $100,000 and $200,000 quadrupled between 1967 and 2016, from only 3 percent to 12 percent of all African American families. And it is this segment of the black population that has been least affected by income concentration at the top.

The number of households with incomes between $100,000 and $200,000 quadrupled between 1967 and 2016, from only 3 percent to 12 percent of all African American families.

As Murray, Rustin, Randolph, and others understood, because blacks are disproportionately represented among the ranks of the poor, working class, and economically precarious, policies directed toward buttressing the security and stability of poor and working-class people disproportionately benefit black Americans. What all this adds up to is that a broad social-democratic agenda would have greater effect on the quality of life of more black Americans than a race-specific one.

An agenda grounded on the racial-democratic ideal, by contrast, would not address the deeper dynamics that produce and intensify economic inequality in American capitalism. Realizing an ideal of racial democracy, especially under the conditions of intensifying overall economic inequality that have prevailed in this country for more than forty years, would likely leave more African Americans vulnerable to greater economic insecurity.

Therefore, the policy agenda of presidential candidate and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is, in my view, the best racial justice agenda for 2020. Beyond his banner policy of Medicare for All, Sanders’s Workplace Democracy Plan also achieves this end, making it easier to join a union, win union recognition, and pursue grievances and rights as workers.

Sanders’s plan would also foster a full employment economy with a $15 minimum hourly wage, as well as the elimination of student loan debt, free tuition at public institutions of postsecondary education, significant reduction in economic inequality, and an expanded Social Security program.

All of this is likely to benefit more African Americans directly than even the race-specific policies the Sanders campaign also supports. Moreover, because these policies will benefit African Americans as well as other working people, they give us the greatest possibility for winning the presidency and actually implementing these initiatives.

Adolph Reed Jr.

Adolph Reed Jr.

Adolph Reed Jr. is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania and an Organizer for Medicare for All-South Carolina.

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