The schoolhouse version of Black History Month has rightfully focused on elevating African-Americans who have made great achievements in American history: writers, inventors, and public officials. Giving kids a sense of the possible is an important part of inspiring young people to strive to be the best they can be.
However, a true understanding of Black History – in the broad systemic sense – cannot be told in isolation from White History. There are relations of power that make the two histories inseparable. There are systems that elevated White writers, inventors and public officials, while keeping Black writers, inventors and public officials-to-be down.
Lifting up and celebrating the African-American heroes who overcame those vast obstacles to achieve great success is healthy exercise, but if we are to create the just and equitable nation articulated by Dr. King and others, then we must simultaneously foster an honest understanding of the systemic side of racism and continued inequality. We all know the history of slavery, sharecropping, and Jim Crow. But the systems that created the inequality we see today are much more than that.
In December, President Obama gave what many considered one of the best economic speeches of his presidency. He spoke of rising inequality in compelling fashion. In doing so, he articulated the history that brought us here. The President spoke clearly about the role of government in building “ladders of opportunity” that helped create the middle class that thrived in the post-WWII decades.
In his speech, President Obama spoke of the land grant colleges, the eight-hour day, minimum wage laws and Social Security. He spoke of Medicare, Medicaid and the War on Poverty. While he made reference to the racism that held many back, the barriers were much more than Jim Crow. Many of the very policies Pres. Obama referenced were designed in ways to exclude people of color from the benefits.
The first minimum wage laws excluded domestic workers and agricultural workers who were overwhelmingly people of color. Social Security, in a similar fashion, excluded domestic and agricultural workers. The FHA loans that vastly expanded home ownership in the post-WWII era explicitly “redlined” neighborhoods where large numbers of African-Americans lived. As a result, these policies helped create a middle class, yes, but it was a White middle class.
The Civil Rights victories of the 1960s extended to people of color, in a legal sense at least, many of the same opportunities and rights that Whites had long been granted. However, it was not soon after this change took place that the rightward march of our political and economic landscape began. From mid-1970s onward, we saw tax cuts for the wealthy, defunding of education, erosion of the minimum wage, breakup of unions, and the shredding of the safety nets.
As the “ladders of opportunity” that built the White middle class a generation before were torn down, African-Americans were told they must “bootstrap” their way into the middle class. Some did. Most still struggle to get by. Even today, Blacks hold only 13 cents of net wealth to every dollar the White median family holds. Black unemployment is typically double that of Whites, and vast income disparities remain.
As the topic of inequality moves center stage in our political dialogue, let us take this opportunity to have a deeper conversation about the racial wealth divide and the policies that created it. In the 2014 State of the Dream report from United for a Fair Economy, we’ve included a series of interactive workshops to stimulate this very discussion. Armed with a deeper and more honest understanding of how we got here, we have a far greater chance of charting a course to a more just future.
Brian Miller is executive director of United for a Fair Economy. UFE challenges the concentration of wealth and power that corrupts democracy, deepens the racial divide and tears communities apart. To learn more, visit faireconomy.org or economiajusta.org.