When Minneapolis erupted in flames following the modern-day lynching of George Floyd, both local officials and protesters were quick to blame outside agitators and infiltrators for looting and destruction of property. Determined to lift the cry for racial justice above scenes of a city on fire, millions of people mobilized to march and hold peaceful vigils in cities and small towns around the world. But now that the flames have subsided, we should consider again their source. The fires that were blamed on a few bad actors can be traced to decades of bad policy that collided with a public health crisis, an economic depression, and a lynching caught on tape. Our only hope of putting them out for good is uniting across lines of race, creed, and political ideology to reconstruct democracy in America.
In an interview published after his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed, “A Negro who has finished high school often watches his white classmates go out into the job market and earn $100 a week, while he, because he is black, is expected to work for $40 a week.” Because of the blatant inequality that a black man faced in 1968, King explained, “there is a tremendous hostility and resentment that only a difference in race keeps him out of an adequate job.”
More than half a century later, racial inequalities in America persist—and by some measures have worsened. In a recent analysis conducted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, economists concluded that “no progress has been made in reducing income and wealth inequalities between black and white households over the past 70 years.” Looking at the broader picture of inequality, they also noted that “close to half of all American households have less wealth today in real terms than the median household had in 1970.”
Closely tied to wealth inequality in America is the racial disparity in access to health care. Health insurance in America is largely tied to employment—a crisis even before the pandemic. Covid-19-related unemployment especially slashed jobs for low-wage workers. Those fortunate to have health care coverage lost it. And among those who remain employed, black and Latino people often have low-wage jobs that do not come with insurance or benefits. Despite Obamacare, which is still threatened, nearly twice as many African Americans as whites remained uninsured in 2017—11 percent versus 6 percent.
While African Americans know from experience that we must often work twice as hard to do half as well as our white neighbors, we also know that our communities have long been over-policed and disproportionately prosecuted. From the “vagrancy laws” that led to convict leasing after Reconstruction to the new Jim Crow of 21st century policing and mass incarceration, American justice has criminalized the very people left behind by American inequality. The burden of a racist criminal justice system weighs on our communities, reinforcing economic disparity through the collateral consequences of criminal convictions, and impacting health through increased stress.
Long before the current recession, Covid-19, and a lynching caught on tape, black people in American had felt the pressure of economic inequality, health disparities, and a racist criminal justice system. When we heard George Floyd cry, “I can’t breath,” while Derek Chauvin choked the life out of him, we heard a desperation that is all too familiar.
Many have cited King’s call for peaceful demonstrations, but in that same interview, when he named the intersecting injustices of racial injustice, King also named the source of the flames that threaten to consume us. “This situation is social dynamite,” he said.
Whatever sparks lit the dynamite then, as now, generations of public policy created it. Only a conscientious effort to address inequality by reconstructing our common life will prevent the flames from erupting again.
Social justice and real progress are the only absolute guarantees of riot prevention. We know what is required to address inequality, and we already have the resources to do it. The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival has outlined an agenda that would guarantee every American living wages and guaranteed income, universal access to health care, and communities safe from militarized policing and the prosecutorial practices of mass incarceration. If we roll back the Trump administration’s tax cuts, ensure that the wealthy in this country pay their fair share, and take hundreds of billions of dollars from the bloated Defense Department budget, we could pay for all of these things now. We do not lack the policies or the resources, but rather the political will to dismantle the social dynamite that threatens us all.
This is why on June 20, 2020, hundreds of national advocacy groups and grassroots social justice organizations are uniting for a mass digital Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington. From every corner of this nation, the people who have been most directly impacted by systemic racism and poverty will tell their own stories and outline the agenda that can reconstruct American democracy. In the midst of a crucial election year, as legitimate protest against racial injustice continues, we are coming together to demand that everyone who wants to represent us in public life say clearly whether they are committed to dismantling the social dynamite that threatens to destroy us all.