We are in the midst of a movement to upend white supremacy. Thousands of people across the country, acting in response to the unpunished killings of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, Michael Brown and so many more unarmed black people who have lost their lives to police or vigilante violence, have taken to the streets to proclaim that “black lives matter.” While this is a powerful proclamation all its own, it can now be strengthened by a vision of what it will take to make those lives matter in America.
In 1966, along with A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and other organizers and scholars, Martin Luther King Jr. released the now all-but-forgotten Freedom Budget for All Americans, which included full employment, universal healthcare and good housing for all. “The Freedom Budget is essential if the Negro people are to make further progress,” he wrote. “It is essential if we are to maintain social peace. It is a political necessity.” Dr. King came to espouse this view toward the end of his life, acknowledging that civil and voting rights were a critical but merely partial victory in the struggle for complete equality.
King’s vision, needless to say, was never realized. This is why we propose that, in addition to calls for police reform, it is vital for the defeat of the racist system that the #BlackLivesMatter movement advance an economic program. We cannot undo racism in America without confronting our country’s history of economically exploiting black Americans. Demands from Ferguson Action and other groups include full employment, and this foundational item is one that can and should be fleshed out, as we hope to do here.
Before laying out our proposals, we should clarify why, historically, eliminating racism requires an economic program. America’s story is one of economic exploitation driving the creation and maintenance of racism over time. The inception of our country’s economic system condemned black people to an underclass for a practical rather than bigoted reason: the exploitation of African labor. Imported Africans were prevented by customs and language barriers from entering into contracts, and unlike the indigenous population, their lack of familiarity with the terrain prevented them from running away from their slavers. To morally justify an economy dependent on oppression, in a nation newly founded on the rights of men to freedom, it was necessary to socially construct a biological fiction called race, one that deemed some people subhuman, mere property. “During the revolutionary era,” Karen E. and Barbara J. Fields write in their book Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life, “people who favored slavery and people who opposed it collaborated in identifying the racial incapacity of Afro-Americans as the explanation for enslavement.” White citizens, making their fortunes and proving their social standing through the ownership of African persons, codified the idea of race into law. Those of African origin would come to form the lowest class of American life, while people of Western European origin were free to extract labor and wealth from their bodies. Material inequality, in other words, preceded the racist rationale.