We Need a Conversation About Economics Before We Address Race


“We must have a conversation on race!” How many times have we heard it from the pundits, the media, politicians every time something happens elevating racial tensions in the country. The latest has been the shooting death of an black teen in Ferguson, Missouri and resulting protests.

“We need a conversation on race!” No, we don’t! The United States does not have a racial problem – the US has an economic problem and race is just one collateral condition dangling off of it. Slavery wasn’t a “racial” issue but an economic one! To look at race only is looking at a tree while ignoring the forest. Attempting to remedy one failing tree in a unhealthy forest and expect the problem to go away just won’t happen.

By addressing only race the “conversation” soon falls apart on issues of culture and perceptions — perceptions no one will agree on. “ Why are so many young minority men in prison? Do you think the cops just wait around to arrest them?” “White privilege” is a popular perception among African-Americans and their liberal white allies. Do “they” believe because of their color society just hands everything to white people? Granted scores of studies show employers, landlords, taxi drivers will discriminate against African-Americans much of the time. Except — comes the rejoinder — when unqualified minorities are hired under affirmative-action programs. I have heard both arguments in my own personal and professional experiences. “White privilege” and “Affirmative Action equals incompetence” and are the same interpretation from different inclinations — both non-starters.

These perceptual experiences come up and “the conversation” shuts down. Since I am basically European-American I would not presume to interpret from an African-American view point but I know as soon as the term “White privilege” comes up I shut down. My reaction? “I worked damned hard for what I have accomplished and I earned what I have ... I come out of a working-class family and nobody gave me nothin’!” No doubt a similar reaction works in reverse for African-Americans on the other side of “the conversation.”

Now I know the world is more complicated than that but the questions that need solving are complex. But wait, I just wrote something above holding the kernel of truth and solution to our so-called race problem – I wrote, “I come out of a working-class family.” Work! A job! Something half of minorities in this country do not have and may — through no fault of their own — never have. And therein is the core of the race problem.

No job – no home – little family security – never be able to pay for higher education or technical training – what kind of neighborhood do you grow up in – see what I mean? After your name, what is it people ask you? What do you do? It is how you are defined in this country. No job – no dignity – no respect – you are nothing! All you have to do is look at the unemployment statistics and what populations of Americans are hit the worst and you have the answer to “the race problem” and many more. Doesn’t matter what the problem is in this country it can be tracked economically. All negatives are tied to economics and it is getting worse.

Make sure any American who wants work has work and many social problems would go away. Crime, discrimination, drugs, booze, divorce, bad schools – mental health would improve generally. I have never met an unemployed person who did not want to work. I have met lots of them who could not find work.

Work means dignity, respect and equality. My minority friends (some of them for many years) are my friends because we are similar in income, education, interests, family and we respect one another. Most are veterans like me. The military is a “job” that is a great equalizer. And what makes our equality connection happen? Our race does not matter. It is jobs – employment – work – the economic ability to live and work in the same places. We send our kids to the same schools and have the same community involvements.

Yes, there needs to be a conversation on race but it has to be linked to the unacceptable unemployment rates affecting the African-American population. And it is a conversation that needs to be directed to all unemployed Americans, regardless of race. Sadly our government is not committed to putting people to work. Legislation just getting rid of tax breaks given to corporations who ship US jobs overseas would fund a huge job training programs. On average, every American pays the obscenely profitable oil companies over $500 in taxes for corporate welfare every year. All we have now is “Band-Aid” job training structured to bamboozle the voters. We need meaningful and significant programs – infra-structure investments would create millions of jobs. Most important would be a national commitment to full employment. Nothing is more fundamental to the future of our country.

Without a total commitment to putting Americans to work there will be no racial justice nor a conversation on race. The oligarchs have the working class just where they want them – fighting each other over a limited amount of work. They are only concerned about who is going to do it for the cheapest price and that the surplus army of the unemployed in maintained. They don’t care beyond that! And certainly don’t care about race.

Any conversation on race has to move beyond a single issue to a conversation on American culture, economy and community.

Bill Johnston is a retired staff organizer of the United Food and Commercial Workers. He is a member of the National Writers Union (Pacific Northwest Chapter). Email wfjohnstonehs@wamail.net.

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2014


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