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"The Politics of Equality,"

by Jerome Scott & Walda Katz-Fishman November/December 1999 issue of Poverty & Race

Race and racial discrimination institutionalized within the structures and practices of American society since their beginning are surely not declining in significance as we enter the new millennium. On the other hand, social class — or the growing gap between rich and poor — is clearly increasing within all racial groups in the United States at a time when there is a vast abundance of goods and services to satisfy the basic human needs of people throughout the world.

We find persuasive the case made by Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown that race remains a reality and that the comprehensive integration of blacks into American society is an illusion. Our difference lies in the lessons we draw from American social history, and our vision and strategy for the future.

The enduring reality of race coupled with the deepening polarization of wealth and poverty suggests that the civil rights reforms of the 1950s-70s did not transform the fundamental economic and political structures of American society. The economic expansion of the post-World War II period was the context for the limited integration of blacks (along with other peoples of color and women) into the American class system. But blacks were always at the lower end of their respective classes and remain, as a whole, disproportionately at the bottom of the class structure.

In today’s high-tech global economy computers and automation are eliminating millions of good jobs and replacing millions of remaining jobs with contingent work (contract and part-time jobs, and jobs with few or no benefits). Americans of all races compete in a global labor force with over a billion un/underemployed workers. In the United States more and more whites, along with their sisters and brothers of color, are excluded from good jobs and swell the ranks of the poor and near poor.

The reactionary policies of neo-liberalism have come home with the 1996 law eliminating welfare “as we knew it”; reversal of the civil rights gains of the reform era; the mushrooming prison-industrial complex; anti- immigrant legislation; and attacks on job security, public education and public housing, health care and the environment.

All of this makes possible a new politics of equality that challenges the hierarchies of capitalist domination comprehensively and that has at its core the black radical tradition for our times. Such a politics challenges not only racism (and sexism), but the system of global capitalism in which they are embedded and which makes the condition of poverty for the many a condition for the creation of wealth for the few.

We in Project South are optimistic about such a bottom-up political movement growing and succeeding. In the Southeast U.S. we are part of a movement for racial and economic justice that is gaining strength daily and that is connected to struggles throughout the country, hemisphere and world. The global economic human rights movement led by poor people and their allies (e.g., the March of the Americas spearheaded by the Kensington Welfare Rights Union in October 1999, the anti-WTO movement planned for Seattle in November-December 1999) is on the move. This multiracial and multinational movement for structural equality is destined to fundamentally transform global corporate hegemony and to end its patterns of racial — and class and gender — inequality.

Jerome Scott is Director of Project South: Institute for the Elimination of Poverty & Genocide (9 Gammon Ave., Atlanta, GA 30315. projectsouth@igc.org
 
Walda Katz-Fishman is Board Chair of Project South and Professor of Sociology at Howard University.
 
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