Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Economic Justice: The Missing Piece in Achieving Racial Justice

by Sylvester Brown, Jr.
Originally published in "Check it Out" by the St. Louis Public Library's Blog



On September 9th, the Central Library hosted a panel discussion on “Racial Justice in a Post-Ferguson World.” This essay was written in an anticipation of that event

Aug. 31, 2015 

I’m looking forward to what my fellow panelists will say, but I welcome the opportunity to discuss a topic that’s been heavy on my mind. You see, my biggest fear is that remedies to racial injustice in 2015 won’t be much different than those offered more than 50 years ago. We will probably discuss ideas already out there, such as municipalities that target poor blacks for monetary gain, police training and accountability, jobs for adults and black youth, and creating more charter schools. However, I feel that very few of these reform efforts by, no doubt, well-meaning people will address what I deem the real remedy to injustice: economic empowerment.
Centuries of societal and institutionalized racism were the targets of change back in the day. However, the onus for “justice” was placed on the shoulders of white people, some who actually benefited economically. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 allowed blacks access to restaurants, theaters, sports arenas, and hotels. But that also meant whites had new, untapped revenue streams. Public housing programs were a huge boon for white construction workers. Government entitlement programs, by sheer numbers alone, helped more poor whites than poor blacks. Additionally, it provided more customers every month for white-owned grocers.
Due to the inane belief that black kids would learn better if they only attended schools with white kids, forced busing was enacted across the country. Underfunded public schools suffered as taxpayer dollars were diverted to white, mostly suburban schools. Lastly, according to the United States Labor Department, white women (ergo white families) have been the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action programs.
Let’s be clear, as I’m not talking about reparations for past racial atrocities. That idea was declared dead-on-arrival decades ago. Many liberals and conservatives alike have a particular section of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech memorized. Reaching a form of racial utopia together is more palatable than actually giving black people money to help themselves. King spoke to this attitude in 1963: “Whenever the issue of compensatory treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree; but he should ask nothing more.”
How do we bring about “racial justice in a post-Ferguson world?” I’m looking forward to the upcoming panel discussion. Personally, I want to elaborate on my staunch belief that there will be no “racial justice” in the region until we first discuss unique and collaborative ways to empower black folk-young and older-to rise above historic economic injustice.
I contend that asking more, demanding “economic justice,” is the major force to empower black people. This too is based on the words of Dr. King. In a 1965 Playboy magazine interview with legendary writer, Alex Haley, King talked about a $50 billion government employment program that would help some “20,000,000 Negroes” and other poor Americans. Since most blacks live in metropolitan areas, King theorized that a massive, dignified effort to help black people rebuild disadvantaged areas of the country would lead to “a spectacular decline in school dropouts, family breakups, crime rates, illegitimacy, swollen relief rolls, rioting, and other social evils.”
It’s important to note that King said his idea would ensure “Negroes” would stay and rebuild their own neighborhoods. In 50-year retrospective, we now understand that passage of landmark Civil Rights legislation actually led to blacks abandoning their neighborhoods. Whether they were shoved out due to redevelopment or left willingly seeking opportunities in virgin territories, “white flight” of residents and business-owners guaranteed that unwelcomed blacks would be locked in pockets of poverty throughout the St. Louis region.
As political and civic leaders talk of reform in a post-Ferguson world, they are also seeking billions in taxpayer money to build a new football stadium, help an already rich developer renovate North St. Louis, and entice more big businesses into the region. These aren’t necessarily bad ideas, but it’s a pretty sure bet that whites will once again gain economically, and the trickle down effects of their booty won’t empower poor blacks in the region.
Sylvester Brown, Jr. is a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and current director of the Sweet Potato Project, a St. Louis initiative that teaches entrepreneurial skills to urban youth.

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