George Floyd, racial justice, and economic justice

By Robert Wright, Jun 28 2020

Last week the New York Times ran a piece depicting Bernie Sanders as woefully out of step with the current political moment by virtue of his tendency to see the world through the prism of economic class, not ethnic identity. Calls from the Black Lives Matter movement “to address systemic racism and police brutality,” said the Times, are resonating in a way that “Mr. Sanders’s message of economic equality did not.”

It’s true that we’re hearing very little about that favorite Sanders theme of raising taxes on high-income people and using the money to help low-income people. By and large, the George Floyd story is being seen as a story about racial injustice and not about economic injustice.

I think that’s a mistake, in two senses. 

First, it’s a tactical mistake for the left. This is a moment full of activist energy, and it’s opened up new political space; there’s a chance to push for radically increased government spending on, for example, education, housing, and health care for low-income people. Such spending disproportionately helps black people, and to pass it up because it’s technically about class, not race, would be wasteful to say the least.

Second, it’s a conceptual mistake. Racial justice and economic justice are deeply connected, as has been noted by a number of people, including Martin Luther King, Jr. (“What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?”) If we’re going to launch a serious attack on racism, it needs to include a serious attack on economic inequality.

Or, to put it another way: If we want to help as many as possible of the George Floyds of the world, we need to see the story of George Floyd in wide angle. It’s not just the story of a black man dying at the hands of a brutally indifferent white cop. It’s the story of a black man whose circumstances of birth, like those of many black men, made it likely from the get-go that he’d have antagonistic encounters with police, and that these encounters would lead to various kinds of bad outcomes, ranging from jail to death. 

Floyd was born in a poor Houston neighborhood featuring crime and drugs and bad schools. He was a good athlete and went to a Florida college on scholarship, but after two years he returned to Texas, and there he traveled a path familiar to people in his neighborhood. Like 29 percent of the black males born in the U.S., he wound up in prison.

Disentangling issues of racial and economic injustice is hard. Floyd twice went to prison for possessing less than a gram of cocaine, and he was once sentenced to ten months for selling ten dollars worth of drugs. There’s no doubt that a white suburbanite is much less likely to do time for such things, but is that because police don’t stop people for driving while white or because affluent suburbanites, whatever their race, can afford good lawyers?

No doubt both. So when we look at the downstream consequences of Floyd’s first imprisonment—like the fact that it’s harder to get a good job when you’ve been convicted of a felony, and that if you don’t have a good job you’re more likely to commit another crime—we’re dealing with the consequences of both racial and economic injustice.

And when we look upstream—look at Floyd’s childhood—the two kinds of injustice are again hard to untangle. Floyd’s mother was by all accounts devoted (he had a tattoo of her nickname), and if she’d had enough money she might have moved to a more auspicious neighborhood, with better public schools, or sent her son to a private school. But she was a single mom working at a hamburger stand while taking college classes at night. No doubt Floyd encountered consequential racism while young, but no doubt this economic deprivation also took a toll. If he’d been a black kid born into a more affluent household, his chances of winding up in the criminal justice system would have been lower.

To put a finer point on it: On any given day, a black man between the ages of 27 and 32 is more than twice as likely to be in jail if he was born into a household in the bottom tenth of the income distribution for African-Americans than if he was born into a household with the median income for African-Americans. And that median income—for the entire household—is only $42,000.

In any event, Floyd’s path led to five stints in prison. He tried repeatedly, with some success, to get off drugs, but there were relapses. And the coronavirus pandemic was doubly bad news for him. He was infected with the disease, and the restaurant where he worked as a bouncer closed its doors as part of the lockdown. On the day when he famously bought cigarettes with a $20 bill that a store clerk deemed counterfeit, he was jobless and, according to the coroner, had traces of opioids and amphetamines in his system.

The disadvantages facing people born into poor neighborhoods like the one Floyd was born into are many and complex, and I’m not qualified to prescribe the multidimensional government spending the problem calls for. But to mention a few obvious policy possibilities:

(1) Improve public schools in low-income areas and provide lots of financial aid for low-income students who want to attend college or vocational school. A 2010 study found that black men who don’t finish high school are ten times as likely to have been in jail by their early 30s as black men who have finished college and three times as likely as black men who have finished high school but not college.

(2) Expand the number of low-income people eligible for free health care and improve the health care low-income people get, including robust treatment for substance abuse and other mental health problems.

(3) Create a government jobs program that, ideally, would have the side effect of improving the quality of life in low-income communities by, say, upgrading and maintaining public spaces or expanding recreational programs.   

I could go on—but only after doing more research. Again, this is a complicated problem, and it’s worth not just massive government expenditure but creatively and carefully designed expenditure—a kind of Apollo project of social policy. 

The Black Lives Matter protests are impressive in their energy and diversity, but when it comes to policy advocacy, they haven’t been a model of clarity and tactical savvy. “Defunding the police,” advocates say, doesn’t mean what lots of people naturally take it to mean—depriving the police of all funding. (Then why do they call it… never mind.) Rather, it means taking some police services—handling domestic disputes or the homeless, say—and moving them to other agencies, along with commensurate parts of the police budget; or maybe using a chunk of the police budget to fund some new community service.

OK, but even leaving aside what a counterproductive label “defund the police” is (polls show that blacks and whites alike react negatively to it), the underlying idea is in a certain sense too modest. It sends the message, however unintended, that new community initiatives are limited by the amount of money that can be pried away from police departments. I say think bigger!

There sometimes is bigger talk in Black Lives Matter circles—in particular about reparations. But reparations, however strong the moral case for them, will almost certainly never happen—and if they did happen, they’d probably be divisive, perhaps even making the eventual arrival of another ethno-nationalist president more likely.

This suboptimal policy agenda—consisting of things that are too ambitious, not ambitious enough, and/or self-destructively labeled—seems to be rooted in the unspoken premise that almost everything about the George Floyd tragedy is attributable either to racist policing or racism more broadly. Certainly policing needs reform, and certainly racism looms large. Even the economic disadvantage Floyd was born into is largely a product of racism. Still, if you don’t address economic disadvantage directly, as a problem in its own right, you’re leaving a lot of policy tools unused, and you’re leaving a lot of money on the table. As a practical political matter, we can direct way more resources toward victims of racism by deploying class-based policies than by relying on race-based policies alone.

Two days ago New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie wrote a piece asserting that economic equality has long been an aspiration of the Black Lives Matter movement. He’s right—as you can see if you do a little digging on the website of Movement for Black Lives, an umbrella group encompassing BLM. But the fact that he had to remind us of this more than a month after George Floyd died is testament to how little airtime the issue of economic justice has gotten lately.

Bouie’s column cited a bygone labor slogan: “Black and White: Unite and Fight.” Exactly! Class-based policies, though by definition not about race per se, can in principle erode racism. The kinds of policies I’m advocating would naturally appeal to low-income whites, which means they’d give low-income whites and low-income blacks common political cause. 

I’m not saying this would magically heal America’s racial divide. But it’s well-established that bigotry tends to grow when one group sees itself as having a zero-sum relationship with another group, and that the perception of a non-zero-sum relationship—like common policy goals, jointly pursued—can have the opposite effect.

There are black activists and politicians who are talking in non-zero-sum terms, even if cable news producers and opinion editors, for whatever reason, have spent the last month ignoring most of them. Jamal Bowman, the black former middle school principal who (pending the counting of mailed ballots) seems to have beaten incumbent Eliot Engel in a New York congressional primary, did a particularly nice riff on economic equality recently. 

For three and a half years we’ve had a president who has worked to undermine the sense of interracial common cause that Bowman conveyed in that riff. Trump has tried to convince low-income whites that the Democratic party is in the thrall of identity politics and is therefore their enemy, along with its constituents. The George Floyd moment has the potential to produce powerful evidence to the contrary.

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