This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
Economic inequality is a hot topic in America these days. It is the subject of hefty bestsellers, presidential addresses and even Hollywood movies. The issue has even appeared on the radar screen of foreign policy pundits.
In the November 28 Washington Post, former assistant secretary of state Kurt Campbell writes about how “income inequality undermines U.S. power.” Campbell writes about how the growing divide between rich and poor undercuts US “soft power” and saps US ability to compete economically with a thriving Asia.
It’s unusual for former State Department officials like Campbell to delve into ostensibly domestic issues. Perhaps income inequality has become so unavoidably grotesque that it has begun to worry even the foreign policy elite. Perhaps Campbell’s essay is a trial balloon for his mentor, Hillary Clinton, as she tests which issues might play well in the 2016 presidential campaign.
What makes the essay particularly interesting, however, is what Campbell doesn’t address. He doesn’t discuss how US policies accentuate global inequalities. Nor does he appreciate how the wealth gap at home is reinforced by US foreign policies on resource extraction, for instance, or global trade.
But the most glaring absence from Campbell’s essay is the word “race.” Reading his piece, you might come away with the impression that inequality is not a black-and-white issue.
But it is.
Consider these two astounding facts: “The United States incarcerates a higher proportion of blacks than apartheid South Africa did. In America, the black-white wealth gap today is greater than it was in South Africa in 1970 at the peak of apartheid.”
This quote comes from Nicholas Kristof, who has been publishing a series in The New York Times under the title “When Whites Just Don’t Get It.” In an earlier column in the series, Kristof points out that whites in South Africa owned fifteen times more than blacks in the 1970s, while the current ratio for the United States is 18 to 1.