America’s original sin stems from the inherent racism that is sewn into every aspect of our history, politics, economy, and culture. While the structure of racial American capitalism has changed since the founding of our nation, two things have remained the same. The thirst for profits and the exploitation of African-Americans have persisted throughout. From abolitionists to anti-lynching activists to civil rights crusaders and finally, Black Lives Matter protesters, our history is full of leaders who challenged the status quo. They fought to challenge the class and race obstacles to equality and full citizenship. While we have made significant strides as a nation, the legacy of racial bigotry and discrimination remain a central part of America’s unfinished business. To create a just society, we have to progress past “color-blind” politics and address, head–on, the unconscious biases shaping how our institutions perpetuate racial injustice.
Both economic inequality and racial injustice are driving the public debate today. We see a growing consensus of a broken economic system. That means middle and working-class families are working harder, but enjoying less economic security. At the same time, the super-wealthy have amassed an ever–growing share of power and capital. Along with this economic injustice, we also have a growing awareness of the 350–year racial divide. Both of these inequalities have driven our political discussions.
However, for years we have thought of these problems separately. Leaders on the left and the right have pitted solutions to these injustices against one another. Finally, policymakers are starting to recognize that these injustices are intertwined and cannot be solved individually. Our system of racial capitalism is built on a bedrock of racial rules. People of color have shouldered the greatest burden of this broken economy. These racial rules need to be acknowledged and rewritten in order to achieve economic security and racial justice.
Today’s push for progress is a stark contrast to the Trump administration’s brand of racialized and white identity politics. Trump’s nativist calls to return to the days of exclusion and isolation continue a centuries-long legacy. For centuries, US politicians have used racism as a tool to divide voters along racial lines and based on class. These policies have devastated not only communities of color, but also hurt white communities as well. But the Trump presidency has not “brought racism back” to America. Instead, it has brought racism out of the shadows of “race-neutral politics” and now placed it in plain sight.
Before outlining a policy agenda to address the many forms of racism, we must distinguish between the commonsense understanding of individual racism and structural racism. Over the last 50 years, the economic frameworks have failed our society. It has focused on developing “human capital” teaching us that if you fail to succeed, then it is your own individual failure. The solution to that failure is more education, more training, more work, and more ambition. When that fails then you deserve to be punished by the state. We push for investments into higher education but have failed to develop mechanisms supporting students and families who cannot afford the cost. The result is pushing millions of families further and further into debt in hope of achieving their only ticket to economic success. These formalized rules of success then intersect with the informal rules of racially influenced norms and behaviors. These racial rules fuel and perpetuate racism in many different forms. So, to gain a deeper understanding of these racialized rules we must start to acknowledge our nation’s long history of devaluing blackness and fostering black inequality in virtually every segment of American life. We begin this deeper understanding by looking at the first Reconstruction following the Civil War.
The First Reconstruction
The first Reconstruction is generally regarded to have started with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and ended with the end of federal authority in the South. This was an era of far-reaching ambition, with its attempts to reverse the social and economic effects of enslavement on newly freed African-Americans. This era was marked by newly freed slaves seeing expanded social and political power and opened educational opportunities previously prohibited. The major legal achievements of Reconstruction are the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution. These amendments abolished slavery except for criminal punishment, guaranteed the right to equal protection under the law, and prohibited racially discriminatory voting laws. Due in part to all of these new amendments and laws, federal powers were extended while states’ rights were curbed. This was important because states’ rights is the guise that southerners used to reassert white supremacy. Reconstruction policies led to equally distributed public school funding and the highest level of black representation in Congress in United States history.
Unfortunately, just like every other instance of great progress in our country, it is short–lived. The notion of black people being on equal footing as white people was met with extreme violence. Many Southern whites attempted to preserve their social and economic domination through many forms of racial terror. This included convict leasing, lynchings, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. By 1890, both Democrats and Republicans had given up any hope of the promise of racial equality. This selling out allowed southern states, and a few northern states, to enact Jim Crow laws by relegating African Americans to separate but extremely unequal schools, jobs, and neighborhoods. Jim Crow laws also allowed states to find loopholes in the 15th amendment to wipe out voting rights of African-Americans by instituting poll taxes, literacy tests, and other restrictive measures. In 1896 the US Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that state segregation laws were constitutional under the “separate but equal” doctrine. This legalized caste system emerged making any kind of race-mixing, whether in schools, workplaces, or anywhere else, illegal. This system of exploitation allowed white elites to divide white and black workers and farmers from joining together to fight for better working rights. In W.E.B. Dubois’ 1935, Black Reconstruction in America, he addressed the question of why poor and working-class whites failed to join black citizens to challenge the white elite. He argues that it resulted from a psychic benefit of racial status. The white laborers, while still receiving a low wage, were compensated in part by a psychological wage. This psychological wage for white workers would shape American politics throughout the centuries leading up to today. Essentially, Dubois argued that while working-class whites were still paid a low wage, they still could be happy knowing they were above African-Americans. At the same time, the Supreme Court opened the floodgates of exclusionary policies allowing Southern states to systematically overturn many of the gains made during Reconstruction, setting the stage for a second Reconstruction less than 100 years after the first.
The Civil Rights Movement: A Second Reconstruction
The second major Reconstruction in our nation’s history began during World War II and ended in the 1970s. With the world descending into war in 1941, civil rights organizers scored their biggest victory since the first Reconstruction when FDR issued an executive order banning racial discrimination in defense plants. FDR only took this action after the famous civil rights and socialist organizer, A. Philip Randolph, threatened to organize a massive protest march on Washington. Black American veterans hoped that their contributions towards defeating Nazi Germany would mean better treatment as first-class citizens back at home. Unfortunately, Jim Crow still prevailed in the South, and most black citizens were confined to the lowest paying jobs and housing conditions.
By the 1950s, the US entered the most recent era of inclusion: the Civil Rights Era. This era was able to make such an impact because of the legal strategies created by the NAACP legal defense fund. They saw that political reforms were stalling so they fought to win reforms in the legal arena. This was led by the 1954 Supreme Court ruling of Brown v. Board of Education that made segregation in schools illegal. Another subsequent Supreme Court ruling was 1967’s Loving v. Virginia. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that interracial marriages were legal and the crazy concept that skin color does not define love became law.
These series of legal victories were only one half of the overall strategy of the Civil Rights Era. The other half came from a dramatic rise in grassroots organizing by thousands of ordinary people taking extraordinary collective action. Beginning in 1955 with the Montgomery bus boycott, to the Freedom Riders and all of the various organizations in between, they all faced physical and economic threats by standing together in the face of racial oppression.
Overall, these legal changes helped usher in three lasting consequences. The first was a decreased social acceptability of explicit discrimination and racial tolerance. The second was the ending of formal legal segregation in public accommodations. The third was the move from protests to politics. For example, nearly 59% of African Americans voted in 1964, and that number jumped to 72% outside of the South. Although black Americans remained underrepresented as governors and members of congress, the number of black Americans that held local office rose dramatically. In 1950, only two African Americans served in the House of Representatives. By 2019, there were 55 black members, which is about the same percentage of African-Americans nationwide. And finally by 2008, we elected Barack Obama as our first African-American President.
All of these victories formed the backbone of civil rights era accomplishments and helped shape the legal norms regarding politics today. Of course, these gains are far from complete. Each time a major gain was made, a politics of resentment and retrenchment tapped into the racial and economic anxieties emerged. The gains of the Civil Rights movement saw a resurgence of racial violence and lynchings by the KKK. Civil Rights gains were also met with Nixon’s War on Drugs and return to “Law and Order” in the late 1960s. The Presidency of Barack Obama was met with the racialized and nativist movement of the Alt-Right and now President Trump’s policies. These recycled exclusionary policies are meant to preserve white power and privilege at the expense of people of color. But we must not accept inequality as inevitable. Because of the labor and sacrifice of those who came before, we are once again at a time period where we can radically rewrite the rules of racialized and gendered capitalism with a 3rd Reconstruction.
Toward a Third Reconstruction
We need a 3rd Reconstruction to finally ensure that African Americans and other people of color will be able to enjoy and depend on the same rights, economic opportunities, and quality public resources as any other American. It is our moral duty to radically alter the system. We must remove the barriers that people of color face, such as higher interest rates on business loans and higher incarceration rates. This would unleash economic potential that would be important not only for them and their families but for all Americans and the broader economy as well. A truly effective agenda taking on racial inequality and tackling the structures shaping unequal outcomes must be broad and shaped by a clear set of four guiding principles.
Four Guiding Principles of a Truly Bold Progressive Agenda
1)We must reckon with our shared history
Our nation has not fully reckoned with its racial history. We have to acknowledge the truth of our often horrific and undemocratic history of racial separation along with celebrating the times we have made progress. Any great policy must start with an acknowledgment of the reasons for the unequal starting place.
2) We must tackle race and other identity inequities affirmatively
Race–neutral policies are often not race–neutral in intent and have race–neutral outcomes. From the 1990s, welfare reform to mandatory minimum sentencing, race–neutral or color-blind policies have led to racially unequal outcomes. We must call out the race, class, and gender injustices that helped shape these policies, illustrate the extraordinary harm they have done to black families, and design new rules that will prevent them from being replicated in the future. One path forward would be through targeted universalism. This is where a certain policy benefits all, but is crafted to address the needs of the least privileged. An example would be a wealth-building policy like baby bonds, guaranteed income, and policies that curb environmental destruction.
3) We must move towards an economy whose success is measured in security and stability for all people, instead of only focusing on growth and investment
The shift in economic focus only dealing with the highest profits has led to disinvestment from public provisioning and safety-net policies. Instead of focusing on ensuring the well-being of all our citizens, we have only focused on allowing corporations to extract as much power and wealth as possible. This shift will increase economic security and quality of life for all Americans, including especially people of color and low and middle-income Americans of all races who have not benefited from trickle–down economics.
4) We must reclaim political power
It is critical that people in power represent the full diversity of the United States. Black disenfranchisement and political exclusion throughout the majority of US history has resulted in a power imbalance in who gets to write the rules. We must rewrite the electoral rules to ensure the inclusion of marginalized communities who have been on the losing end of economic and racial rules written by a small but powerful elite.
A Bold Progressive Agenda Must Address Eight Domains
These four principles should guide a policy framework that is ambitious and structural. Rewriting racially exclusionary rules will require a bold progressive agenda that comprehensively addresses each of the following eight domains in order to significantly address racial disparities in our economy and society.
Much like the massive disenfranchisement of African Americans following Reconstruction, the voting rights of black Americans and other communities of color continue to be targeted due to areas of vulnerability. The current rules of our democracy result in the lowest rates of participation among wealthy democracies. Rewriting the rules of our democracy is a critical first step to create a more just economy. We have expanded the enfranchisement of voters by amending the Constitution half a dozen times throughout our history. It is time to do it again. New rules must aim to guarantee the right to vote for all, implement a fully national system of voter registration, prohibit voting restrictions in all forms, and move toward a system of proportional representation that would guarantee fuller representation at all tables of power. For example, if political party “A” gets 30% of the vote, then they would be allotted 30% of the seats in the House of Representatives. This system forces different parties and platforms to form coalitions to pass legislation.
2) Criminal Justice
The radical scope and impact of the US penal system is not an accident of history, but rather a direct result of increasingly high incarceration policies implemented over the last 40 years. The rules and policies regarding criminal justice and mass incarceration have deep roots in slavery and the Jim Crow era. These laws have resulted in the permanent social and economic exclusion of black Americans, their families, and their communities. A progressive economic agenda must acknowledge the link between our criminal justice system and economic inequality. To do so would involve reducing investments in policing that has resulted in the war on drugs, eliminating cash bail, and other economic penalties that criminalize racialized poverty. It must also confront the injustices of for-profit prisons, propose ways to decriminalize drugs and provide treatment for individuals suffering from substance abuse. The funds spent on the war on drugs can be diverted towards rebuilding communities ravaged by these policies for decades.
In recent decades major shifts in the structure of the economy have taken a toll on the US worker, but they have had a unique impact on black workers. The US economy today is plagued by persistent racial and wage gaps, continued discrimination in hiring, low and stagnant wages, and jobs that offer fewer and fewer benefits. Progressive efforts to rewrite the rules of labor must combat the legacy of black Americans’ exclusion from the labor market with bold investments in jobs. This should include a deep public jobs program in fields such as infrastructure, ensuring a federal jobs guarantee similar to the FDR New Deal program.
A progressive agenda must not only tackle wages and work but also wealth. Wealth itself may be one of the main mechanisms for perpetuating racial economic inequality because it works to ensure that your parents’ socioeconomic status will be yours and that your kids will not be able to rise out of it either. Wealth matters, in that it takes wealth to build wealth. So to be able to invest in homes, education, new businesses, and future generations, you must have wealth. To effectively address racial wealth inequalities will require expanded asset building opportunities for those who have historically been locked out. An example of this asset building opportunity would be baby bonds. A baby bond provides every American at birth with a wealth grant to be accessed at the age of 18. Almost like a trust fund. Once a child turns 18, they can cash out that bond to either pay for their college, put a down payment on a house, or use it in any other way to stimulate the economy.
5) Corporate/Market Power
Creating a just and inclusive economy depends on drastically reforming the current system that allows corporations to extract power from the people. Over the last 40 years, policymakers have slashed regulations, reformed the tax code, and allowed more corporations to consolidate and reduce competition. This has allowed corporations to control workers’ wages, control the prices of goods, and led to the loss of manufacturing jobs. By simply passing more effective corporate taxation, we could make our economy, society, and democracy more equitable and inclusive for all.
6) Worker Power
All democracies have a strong labor movement. Simply put, we cannot have a strong democracy without a strong labor movement. Without a strong labor movement, we cannot have a strong middle class. Approximately one in 10 workers are unionized today, compared to one in three workers only 50 years ago. The decline in unions has led to increasing rates of economic inequality. The decline in unions and workers’ rights have not only affected former union members but have negatively affected all workers.
7) Public Investments
Over the last 40 years, our policies have led to the weakening of public programs that have long been the bedrock of economic security for millions of low-income families. Just like the FDR New Deal era programs, we must reimagine the role of government and remind one another that bold government solutions are American ideals that we should embrace. We must consider what is required for all families not only to achieve a basic floor of well-being but to flourish and live in dignity as well. This will require proposals for broad and significant public investments in housing, infrastructure, healthcare, education, and social insurance programs benefiting all workers. These proposals must account for the ways that communities of color have historically been prevented from benefiting from such programs.
8) Constitutional Legal Change
We must recognize that as long as our reading of the Constitution is biased against race–conscious policies, we will be prevented from making structural change that affirmatively tackles the exclusions that have been a part of our country from its founding.
So as you can see, enduring racial inequalities and the durability of racism as a driver and feature of our economic system demands that progressives recommit to reimagine and rebuild our policies for true inclusion and racial justice. Rewriting our political-economic rules in a color–blind way is not enough. This era demands an economic narrative and agenda addressing the obstacles and opportunities facing not only black Americans, but all people of color, women, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, and beyond. This agenda must acknowledge the ways in which politicians have strategically used racism to ratchet up the fear and resentment in white communities. For too long, progressives have talked about the symptoms of inequality without naming the rules driving it – namely the people who wrote the rules or the processes by which they were made. They have not connected the dots between the racial economic agenda that funnels wealth away from the people and into the pockets of the few at the top, and the racial social agenda that advocates continued oppression of people of color. These two agendas are two sides of the same coin. The challenge for progressives will be to hold on to the truth that the racial rules of the last 140 years have not worked for Americans, neither black nor white. Racial and economic justice is not a zero-sum game. A Third Reconstruction that achieves equity for black Americans would benefit all Americans. In order to succeed, we must tackle the hidden rules of race and racism head-on.
Excerpts from Chapter 3: “Toward a Third Reconstruction” from We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism- American Style by Kate Aronoff, Peter Dreier, and Michael Kazin