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"Commentary on the Kahlenberg-Marvit Article: Sheryll Cashin"

January/February 2013 issue of Poverty & Race

Professor of Law, Georgetown Law Center,

I will leave it to others more expert than me to comment on the substantive merits of the proposal to amend the Civil Rights Act put forth by Richard Kahlenberg and Moshe Marvit. I will say this: They are surely on to something important, perhaps transformative. I agree with them and Dr. King that there is a profound congruence between the goals of the labor movement and the demand for universal human dignity that animated the Civil Rights Movement. The forgotten march, The Poor People’s Campaign of 1968, which King envisioned but did not live to see to fruition, embodied this convergence. The Campaign would bring blacks, Chicanos, Native Americans and rural whites from invisible hamlets of poverty to occupy the National Mall in a tent city that lasted six weeks. As King imagined it, this multiracial coalition united by economic oppression would kick-start the second phase of the Movement. Mere civil rights, the ability to sit at any lunch counter, were irrelevant without economic means, and so he conceived of a civilly disobedient campaign to put pressure on national leaders to adopt an “economic bill of rights.”

The Campaign is forgotten largely because it was unsuccessful and ended badly, with a forced eviction by police. Sound familiar? It is ironic that Kahlenberg and Marvit seek to leverage the success of the Civil Rights Act in order to improve the political saliency of the labor movement. They acknowledge, as they must, that politics is currently set against their proposal, just as politics is currently set against common sense. What is missing from most progressive issue briefs is a strategic plan for altering the political landscape in order to make progressive policy choices possible. The real unfinished business of the Civil Rights Movement is completing the Beloved Community that King imagined. In 1956, when the Movement was in its infancy, King delivered a speech entitled, “Facing the Challenge of a New Age.” He expounded on the ultimate ends of the civil rights revolution that Rosa Parks had ignited a year before. The end of the Movement was not the rights of Negroes per se but reconciliation and the creation of the Beloved Community.

In pragmatic terms for progressives today, that means bringing more working-class whites into their multiracial tent. While pundits and armchair analysts lecture Republicans about demographics and its Latino problem, the GOP is able to adopt “right-to-work” laws in states like Michigan and Indiana in part because the party has become a cultural home for blue- collar workingmen. Without a multiracial majority that consistently gets to 55% in elections and policy battles, there is little chance of enacting sound policies that might promote collective bargaining, much less correct the underlying structures that create racial and economic inequality. In the case of anti-democratic measures like super-majority requirements to break a filibuster in the U.S., even more cross-racial political cohesion is required. We can begin to reconcile, to move past racial resentments, and create a politics of economic fairness by being quite intentional in our choice of policies and language. Our best hope for a saner politics is a language based upon common harms and the common weal. The best place to start in building multiracial, multi-class coalitions for the common good is with numerous faith-based coalitions that are already working in scores of communities, often in a bipartisan manner. Elsewhere, I have written about this wonderful, righteous work. (See Cashin, “Shall We Overcome? Transcending Race, Class and Ideology Through Interest Convergence,” 79 St. John’s L. Rev. 253-91 (2005)).

Throughout American history, economic elites used racial categories and racism to drive a wedge between working-class whites and people of color they might ally with. In the colonial era, indentured servitude gave way to white freedom and black slavery, so that white servants no longer had incentive to join blacks in revolt, as they did in Bacon’s Rebellion. In the late-19th Century, Jim Crow laws proliferated when a biracial farmers’ alliance threatened to change unfair financial policies imposed by elites. And the GOP devised a cynical, race-coded Southern strategy that broke up the multiracial alliance that made the New Deal possible. Given this history and its current manifestations, intentional efforts are sorely needed to begin to rebuild trust among “we the people” and to fully realize the Beloved Community.

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