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"There's No Racial Justice Without Economic Justice,"

by Peter Dreier March/April 1999 issue of Poverty & Race

President Clinton had hoped that one of his major legacies would be to foster a new climate of racial reconciliation, but the tepid report of the Advisory Board to his Initiative on Race offers no road map toward that lofty goal.

Waves of social and economic reform typically require three things: a widely-shared analysis of the problem, a policy program for change and a political vehicle for mobilizing a constituency.

The Advisory Board’s report offers very useful analysis of the nation’s racial history and current racial conditions, but the recommendations are all over the map, from urging Americans to be more tolerant, to asking the mass media to eliminate racial stereotypes, to changing our practices regarding such areas as early childhood learning, policing, job training and housing development.

It is well known that Presidential commissions and blue-ribbon task forces rarely have much impact unless there is a well-organized constituency prepared to mount a campaign to translate the body’s recommendations into public policy. The report exhorts Americans to change their ways, but makes no distinctions about who are the likely winners and losers (and thus who are the likely supporters and opponents) in the struggle for racial reconciliation.

The report’s scattershot approach is understandable, since so many aspects of American life are intertwined with race. But this makes it difficult to get a handle on what to do — what’s most important. Indeed, due in part to the lack of a clear focus, the news media barely paid attention to the report when it was released. (It was more interested in the controversies about the panel’s deliberations than its conclusions.) This, in turn, makes it difficult to build much political support for the report’s recommendations.

The report acknowledges the dramatic racial progress of the past three decades. Thanks to the civil rights revolution, we’ve witnessed the significant growth of the African-American and Latino middle class and a dramatic decline in the overt daily terror imposed on black Americans. Racial minorities are now visible in positions of leadership and influence. We’ve opened up colleges and the professions to blacks and Latinos. The number of minorities in Congress, as well as those at local and state levels of government, has grown significantly. A growing number of large predominantly white cities have elected black and Latino mayors. Douglas Wilder became the first black governor. Jesse Jackson ran for President. Colin Powell led the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Thirty years ago there were hardly any minorities on Fortune 500 corporate boards, as TV newscasters and daily newspaper editors, or as presidents and administrators of major colleges and hospitals. That is no longer the case. Although the glass ceiling persists, we have gone beyond symbolic tokenism.

Despite this progress, race remains a divisive issue in America. The poverty rate among black and Latino Americans is three times that of white America. Almost half of black children live in poverty. Our residential areas remain racially segregated. Almost two-thirds of blacks live in blocks that are 60% or more black, and 30% live in neighborhoods that are 90% or more black. At least two out of three white Americans live in essentially all-white neighborhoods. Even when blacks move to the suburbs, they are likely to live in segregated areas — and not because they prefer to. Blacks and Latinos still feel the sting of discrimination in the workplace, by banks and real estate brokers, and by the police and the criminal justice system.

Some analysts see these conflicting trends as a paradox. It is not. The essence of America’s troubled race relations can be summarized by the following observation: Corporate America has learned to live with affirmative action and laws against racial discrimination. Assimilating some people of color into the professional middle class, and even into the upper class, does not threaten the power and privilege of the corporate elite. But full employment and decent wages, universal health coverage and an adequate supply of affordable housing for all Americans challenges the foundation of the business elite’s power and profits.

Not surprisingly, the Advisory Board’s report fails to focus on the major obstacle to racial reconciliation: the nation’s widening disparities of wealth and income. Today, the top 1% have a larger share of the nation’s wealth than the bottom 90% of the population. The most affluent 20% have 84% of all wealth and 47% of total income.

We need to remind ourselves that economic justice is a precondition for racial justice. We need a broad policy agenda that will help unite Americans who are on the bottom three-quarters of the economic ladder around a common vision of the American Dream. These are the vast majority of Americans – white, black, brown, yellow and all shades in between – who are currently not benefiting from the nation’s recent economic upturn and who will certainly suffer even more during the next inevitable downturn of the business cycle. If there is one truism about race relations, it is that prejudice, bigotry and discrimination decline when everyone has basic economic security. While it is simplistic to argue that if you give people a decent and steady job, their hearts and minds will follow, it is certainly true that full employment at decent wages makes interracial co-operation much more likely. Otherwise, competition over a shrinking pie (or the crumbs from the economy’s table) will lead to resentments, bitterness and racial tensions. Studies show, for example, that the number of lynchings went up whenever the Southern cotton economy declined. More recently, economic hard times are correlated with increases in the murder rate, racial violence and hate crimes. The current rancor over affirmative action reflects this reality. (Consider that voters in Washington State last November approved a statewide referendum to raise the minimum wage while approving a ballot initiative to eliminate affirmative action.)

A Role for Organized Labor

Organized labor is the most important vehicle for challenging the widening gap between rich and poor, corporate layoffs, the dramatic increase in temporary and part-time work, major cutbacks in government social programs and the export of good jobs to anti-union states and low-wage countries. But most conspicuous in the Advisory Board report is the lack of any serious attention paid to the labor movement as a vehicle for building a majoritarian constituency for racial and economic justice.

The erosion of America’s labor movement is the chief reason for the declining wages and living standards and the nation’s widening economic disparities. Union membership has fallen to 16% of the workforce — the lowest since the Great Depression. (Omit government employees and unions represent only 11% of private sector workers.) Some of American labor’s decline is due to erosion of the nation’s manufacturing industry, where unions were strong, and the growth of service-sector employment, where unions so far have made few inroads. Another factor is our outdated labor laws, which give management an unfair advantage in all aspects of union activity; this policy bias has been compounded by the anti-union policies of the National Labor Relations Board (especially during the 12 years of the Reagan and Bush administrations), which routinely sided with management when overseeing union elections. Labor’s decline was also due to the union movement’s failure to put more resources in organizing new workers and new types of workplaces.

After decades of decline, the sleeping giant of American unionism seems to be waking up. A new generation of labor activists, including a growing number of African-American, Latino and Asian leaders, have been shaking up the labor movement, with a renewed strategy of organizing unorganized workers (especially minorities) and restoring the labor movement’s political clout. The new cohort of labor leaders at both the national and local levels intends to rekindle the “movement” spirit of activist unionism, in part by focusing on sectors now composed disproportionately of minorities, women and immigrants. During the past three years, overall union membership has inched upward for the first time in decades because of innovative organizing drives, such as the nationwide “Justice for Janitors” campaign. In at least a dozen cities, local unions, working in coalitions with community and clergy groups, have mobilized “living wage” campaigns to increase living standards of low-wage workers employed by firms with local government contracts.

Unions have a complex history with regard to race relations. On the one hand, they have often been one of the few institutions where workers of all races have both common interests and somewhat equal footing. Throughout this century, progressive unions have been at the forefront of addressing the “race question.” On the other hand, conservative elements within organized labor (primarily but not exclusively craft unions) often turned a blind eye to racism both within their own unions and on matters of politics and public policy.

Until the civil rights movement of the 1960s, black Americans did not gain their fair slice of the country’s economic gains. With organized labor as an ally, the civil rights crusade helped many black Americans move into the economic mainstream. They gained access to good-paying jobs – in factories, government and professional sectors – that previously had been off-limits.

In unionized firms, the wage gap between black and white workers narrowed significantly. Whites and blacks not only earn roughly the same wages, they both earn more than workers without union representation. Unions that have made the most headway in recent years have drawn on the tactics and themes of civil rights crusades and grassroots organizing campaigns. Union drives that emphasize dignity and justice, and that forge alliances with community and church groups, have been the most successful. Surveys consistently show that blacks and Latinos are more favorably inclined toward unions than whites in similar jobs. In fact, since 1980, workplaces with the highest percentage of minority workers are the most likely to win union elections.
Rebuilding the nation’s labor movement is not a panacea for racial division, but it is a necessary pre-condition. It is no accident that those advanced industrialized nations with narrower economic disparities, better health and child care policies, fewer children in poverty and higher rates of social mobility also have significantly higher levels of unionization.

A stronger labor movement, working with allies among community and clergy groups, women’s organizations, civil rights groups and others, is essential if the nation is to mobilize around an agenda of economic prosperity, economic justice and racial reconciliation.

The labor movement’s political agenda looks strikingly similar to the policy prescriptions of most progressive African-American and Latino leaders and organizations. It includes a new wave of job-creating public investment in the nation’s crumbling infrastructure; increasing the minimum wage to bring workers above the poverty level (and indexing it to inflation); protecting social programs like Medicare, food stamps and subsidized housing; universal national health insurance; restoration of progressive taxes; renewed funding for public education; expansion of job training programs; bringing our family policies (maternity\paternity leaves, vacation time, child care) up to the level of our Canadian and European counterparts; and stronger enforcement of workplace safety regulations and anti-discrimination laws like the Community Reinvestment Act.

In his last speech in Memphis shortly before his death 30 years ago, Rev. Martin Luther King., Jr. said that “as a people, we will get to the promised land.” With the end of the Cold War, and with our nation again prospering economically, we have an unprecedented opportunity to fulfill the American Dream for all. Achieving that goal as we enter the 21st century is akin to entering the promised land. But it will take bold action and political mobilization.

Peter Dreier directs the Public Policy Program at Occidental College.


Herewith the last two commentaries on the Sept. 1998 Report to the President of the Advisory Board to the President’s Initiative on Race. In the two most recent issues of P&R we printed the observations of S.M. Miller, Clarence Lusane, Bill Ong Hing, Jonathan Kozol, Frances Fox Piven, Carmen Joge/Charles Kamasaki, Lillian Wilmore, Frank Wu, Marcus Raskin, Sam Husseini and Ron Allen/Marge Anderson/Ray Halbritter. Those who missed these previous essays can get them from us with a SASE (77˘ postage). These same persons, plus 15 others, provided the original set of “Advice to the Advisory Board” essays that we printed over a year ago – these too are available from us with a SASE ($1.43 postage for this one). We have extra copies of the Advisory Board’s 136-page + Apps. report, “One America in the 21st Century: Forging a New Future” — as long as our supply lasts, we can send you this as well — SASE (large envelope, $1.58 postage).


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