Why Fixing Potholes Is Key to This Mayor’s Radical Political Agenda

Why Fixing Potholes Is Key to This Mayor’s Radical Political Agenda

Why Fixing Potholes Is Key to This Mayor’s Radical Political Agenda

A conversation with Chokwe Antar Lumumba about poverty, race, and building a “dignity economy.”


When people think of hotbeds of political creativity and cutting-edge progressive policy ideas, Mississippi is not often the place that comes to mind. But last week, 16 women in public housing in Jackson, Mississippi, each received a check for $1,000—the first of 12 monthly payments they’ll receive through a guaranteed-income pilot project called the Magnolia Mothers Trust. The project is a direct refutation of America’s punitive approach to welfare policy and the racialized narratives that created and sustain it.

Jackson is also home to Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, who, following his election in June 2017, famously promised to take on oppression in ways that will make Jackson “the most radical city on the planet.” In a city that is more than 80 percent African-American, with a poverty rate near 30 percent as well as a shrunken tax base and limited state support, Lumumba has his work cut out for him.

Last week I was in the city to meet the participants in the pilot project, and to speak with the mayor. We discussed his views on guaranteed income, poverty, race, and his assessment of his job a year and a half into his first term. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Greg Kaufmann: In discussing the new guaranteed income pilot in Jackson, you recently told Essence magazine that “poverty is the worst form of violence” and “we cannot afford to recycle the same economies of humiliation.” Can you talk a little bit about these two ideas?

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba: Poverty being the worst form of violence is ultimately the place that Martin Luther King Jr. came to when he saw that a lot of his efforts towards addressing social issues were limited in that we weren’t talking about how people share goods, resources, and power. If you can’t really get to that place, then ultimately [solutions are going to come up short]. On issues of race, for example, it’s more than a question of color—it’s a question of ideas. What are the worst ideas and what are the best ideas? And one of the worst ideas is that you can be exploitative of anyone. The result is that we have mothers, for example, who can’t accommodate their and their children’s basic needs, and this leads to these cycles of humiliation where you see poverty, you see blighted communities, you see a high crime rate, poor-performing education—you see all of these things that stack one on top of another and lead to depressed communities.

GK: In contrast to economies of humiliation, you’ve talked about building a “dignity economy.” What is a dignity economy?

CAL: A “dignity economy” is an economy that focuses on the inherent dignity of everyone. This discussion about guaranteed income is not new to me, and I was delighted to see that Springboard to Opportunities was bringing it to [Jackson]. It is something that has been explored in other countries, and there has been some demonstrated success, and where we see glaring inequity in our society we would be foolish not to find every possible mechanism to address it. But this is just one mechanism, and I am not ignorant of the limitations that exist there. Ultimately, we want people to be able to live the self-determined lives that they want and need. How do we become more self-determined, more self-sufficient? How can we control our education, control the infrastructure problems in our community, support our parents and our mothers and children in every possible way?

I had a discussion at a convening of mayors from around the world. It was about what is leading to the growing inequity in our society. So we talked about issues like the minimum wage, innovation versus workforce. But I felt we were looking at this problem in our nation from the wrong angle. As I see it, we hadn’t taken a “wrong turn.” I don’t see a system that has gone wrong, I see a system that is working in the way it was always intended to, and probably over-performing. What we’re finding out is that the system as is simply doesn’t work for us. It’s not failing, it just wasn’t designed to work for us. And so we have to be willing to make the appropriate adjustments. A guaranteed-income idea is not unlike many of the policies and programs that have been established in this nation over time. We have Social Security, for example, because we recognize that there is a need to support elders who have given their time and made the sacrifices; and we have to recognize where these other gaps exist within our society, because we have so many with so little and so few with so much, and we have to address that.

GK: So if a guaranteed income is one idea of how we go about addressing these gaps or revamping a system that is performing exactly as designed, what are some of the other ideas you are most passionate about?

CAL: The dignity economy is a multi-front approach—we’re looking to address everything from the health of citizens, to affordable housing in safe communities, to education and work opportunities, to giving more voice to citizens. We work with organizers in the community to hold People’s Assemblies, for example. The people should have voice, and we should be accountable to the people—give them information and also learn from the community what their needs are. I believe that everyone may not be an expert on economic development, or infrastructure, or education, but everyone is an expert on the conditions in which they live. Everyone knows what has made life hard, or what they would like to see. And so we need to listen to people. So how do we give them more access to their governance than has taken place in the past? Part of that is also looking at a participatory budgeting model—so that instead of finding value in what we’re funding, we begin to fund what we collectively value.

There are a number of other things we are pursuing. Universal pre-K, we’re on the precipice of being able to provide that. When we talk about poverty and the correlation between the gaps in education and the gap between haves and have-nots, education plays a significant role in that. But to say that is the only reason is reductive. I have a school system here in Jackson where last winter we had to close schools for about two weeks because we had a water crisis—pipes had burst all around the city. And then we see all of the children who are unable to eat, because the only meal that they get is the meal during school. And when I say all of the things that stack on top of one another and lead to depressed communities—when we talk about crime, economic development, the lack of opportunity—and you have on the most basic level children who are not eating [except] in school, what does that say to me? That’s a child who is not going to perform in school. That’s a child who’s going to miss opportunity in life. That’s an economy for this city that won’t [benefit from that child].

And so instead of looking at issues like crime on the back end and saying, “Well, we just need more police”—the reality is you can’t out-police crime. The reality is we live in a nation that has more police than any other nation in the world. And we have more people incarcerated than any other nation in the world. And still we have more crime than any other nation in the world. If it was simply about how we over-incarcerate our society and that leads to safer communities, then we’d be living in the safest place on the planet. But that isn’t it. And so what are the programmatic solutions that other countries and other spaces are pursuing that are leading to the decline and eradication of the things which lead to crime? That are eradicating the issues that lead to poverty?

GK: You did human-rights work as an attorney. When you think about the things we all need that would help eradicate poverty—like food, housing, health care, education, retirement—do you look at access to these basic necessities as human rights and is part of the solution for America to start thinking of these things as human rights?

CAL: I would 100 percent agree with that. Many of the struggles that we have participated in have been struggles that ultimately were a microcosm of a bigger issue, and the macro issue is the human rights. When we talk about a civil-rights movement, a civil-rights movement is a movement based on those things you can change through civil means—through a court system, through the structure that is in place. It’s clear that we don’t have a mere civil-rights problem in this nation, we have a human-rights problem. There are things that people should have a right to by being human—you should have a right to basic necessities to take care of your family, to feed your children, to have clean water and not lead within our systems, and so on and so forth. And so I see these as human rights struggles that we need to be a part of.

I have an analogy that really shows how people have not been given their basic human rights and their basic right to self-determination. Here in Jackson the things that our citizens are most concerned with are our infrastructure woes. We have a $2.5 billion infrastructure problem. It didn’t take you long riding into the city to see all the potholes, right? Ultimately, there is a “pothole to pothole” analysis: We have to connect pothole to pothole, and community to community, so that people in Jackson, Mississippi, can see that there’s a community that looks just like theirs in Gary, Indiana, in Chicago, Illinois, in Washington, DC, and so on and so forth. And ultimately what you learn is that your problem isn’t simply just a problem with a pothole, your problem is that you have no control over the decision-making process that leads to a pothole being fixed. Your problem is that you have no control over the decision-making process that leads to more equitable housing, better school systems, opportunities for mothers.

I don’t think we should see this merely across political lines. Whether you’re Democrat or Republican, in Mississippi you live in the poorest state. Whether you voted for Donald Trump this time or Obama last time, you’ve lived in the poorest state regardless. People asked me how did I feel after Donald Trump was elected; I said, “the Wednesday after Donald Trump was elected, I woke up in Mississippi.” We’re talking about Mississippi issues. We’re talking about how do we begin to recognize the conditions that people live in and not be caught up in the fictitious divisions amongst us? How do we demonstrate operational unity that allows us to move forward based on our common ends and objectives rather than the mere differences we see?

GK: But in order to be able to move forward with our common objectives, how much do we have to openly confront and work through issues around race and racism? I mean, in your “pothole-to-pothole” analogy you are talking about primarily black and brown communities.

CAL: I think the notion that you could act as if racism doesn’t exist; the notion that we could somehow close our eyes and get to work without confronting these issues—that’s a farce. Now, I think there are some things that we can achieve through operational unity where we focus more on the objective than on the differences, but you know the hardest thing to confront is yourself, and if you love someone or something enough, then you have to be honest in your assessment of them so that they can correct that behavior. So I think we have to be honest that America suffers from a disease called racism. And then we have to confront and make it personal to every individual.

If we take the institution of slavery, the truth is that a slim minority of white folks owned slaves. A slim minority could afford to own slaves. And the institution of slavery was obviously oppressive to people of African descent. But you know who else suffered at the hands of slavery? Poor white people. Because if your labor policy is free labor, then who aren’t you paying for the labor they are doing work for?

When you think about people who are proud of that history and that legacy, they were some of the victims of it as well. The best job you could hope for during a time of slavery was a job as an overseer of a plantation—if the slaves themselves hadn’t become the overseers. And now, when we talk about building walls instead of building bridges of opportunity—and saying stuff like “we have people coming from other countries and taking our jobs”—well, we need to start confronting the fact that if it was your job, no one could take it in the first place. You need to start confronting the horrible labor practices that allow for the exploitation and demand that you pay any and everybody who is working, and that will lead to a better condition for us all. Then we’d see less issues of poverty for mothers and their children, and less of these cycles of humiliation.

GK: You are now a little less than a year and a half into your administration. What’s your assessment of where you are in your overall effort to create a dignity economy—what, for example, were some challenges you might not have been able to anticipate? And what do you still hope to accomplish before the end of this term?

CAL: We’ve been very excited about some early wins and things that we’ve been able to accomplish and we remain excited about the direction that this administration, the city of Jackson and the people of Jackson are moving into. We feel that we are putting the building blocks in place to create the radical city that we desire. Some of the challenges have been some of the basic functions of city government and the great deficit that we discovered when we came into office. We discovered that [the] city was in financial strain and so we had to work to fill a $6 million hole and we have now created a $19 million surplus. We found city employees on furlough [who have] not received a raise in more than a decade. We were able to end the furlough and also provide a small cost of living adjustment; a small 2 percent raise and we look to do more. We found a city that has struggled for quite some time just to bring in the receivables that a city needs in order to function, in order to address the basic needs and necessities of communities. And so, a lot of our work has been focused not only on our radical agenda, but making sure we provide efficient, effective, and collective governance.

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