Yesterday was Martin Luther King day. That actually led me to think some more about the Occupy Movement and their slogan, the 99%.
Movements for economic justice have repeatedly had their backs broken over the race issue. In the 19th century, the surging Populist Movement tried to ignore race and bring poor whites and blacks together. But it was destroyed in the South over race. We limped into the 20th century without major reforms although the Progressive Movement that brought Woodrow Wilson to the White House enacted pieces of the Populist creed and the Roosevelt Administration enacted more.
But the Roosevelt Administration also steered clear of race in ways that would have an enormous impact on America. It cut blacks out of the major improvements for labor – Social Security, hours and wages legislation and unemployment insurance – by excluding from coverage the types of work that most blacks did, namely farm and domestic labor. Those programs helped to start white workers on the path toward saving. As many scholars have shown, it marked the beginnings of the shift of wealth to labor, white labor.
The GI Bill at the end of World War II began to give some blacks the leg up they needed, but the federal government’s role in blocking blacks from moving to the suburbs as whites were doing isolated a large part of the black community from jobs. And the redlining of black city neighborhoods meant there would be systematic disinvestment where they lived and a much more serious racial problem for the rest of us to deal with on top of pre-existing racism.
The civil rights movement of the 40s, 50s and 60s had its back broken, in turn, by battles between blacks and whites and arguments about what “we” are doing for “them.” In the wake of that battle, for which succeeding Republican Administrations used affirmative action as their wedge issue to break the black-white coalition that had passed civil rights laws, the alliance for economic justice began to fail. Reagan announced that a new class of economists much more favorable to the wealthy, the so-called monetarists were now in fashion. George H. W. Bush famously called that “voodoo economics” and he was right, as the current depression is making clear to many more people. And with the monetarists, all the things that our government had been doing to improve the economy and mitigate the damage of recession to working people were now passé and they deflected the attention of the working classes and so-called blue-collar Americans from economic justice to a variety of social issues.
Not everyone of course sees social issues as a euphemism for black-white conflict. But enough do. The Tea Party is strongest in the states of the old Confederacy and many of the advocates are plain enough in their claims and their backgrounds. Whether you have seen social issues as a neutral way to target any benefits for blacks or not, it has functioned as a major distraction from the growing economic disparity in this country.
That was Martin Luther King’s great insight – that we are all in this together. That ultimately we had to fight for economic justice for everybody. It has always been the case that the great majority of the poor are white. Though you’d never know it from the bombast. And it has always been the case that ignoring the poor threatens the rest of us by lowering the wage floor and pulling all our salaries down. And so it is also the Occupy Movement’s great insight – we are almost all in the 99%, and we are all affected by social and economic justice for all. Vive the 99%.
— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Midday Magazine, January 17, 2012.