It is no strange coincidence that a decade of uprisings against white supremacy have shaken the US at the same time as a growing mass movement for economic justice. Since 2020, the ruling class has tried to pass off addressing personal biases as “anti-racism.” But racism itself exists because the system of capitalism gives it shape. In a special panel hosted by Rithika Ramamurthy, editor of Economic Justice at Nonprofit Quarterly, TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez and ACRE Co-Founders Saqib Bhatti and Bree Carlson explain how racial justice can’t be achieved without economic justice.
Production: The Nonprofit Quarterly
The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.
Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to Remaking the Economy: Race for Profit. I’m Rithika Ramamurthy, editor of Economic Justice here at Nonprofit Quarterly, coming to you from Brooklyn, New York on land historically stewarded by the Lenape people. For this webinar, our panelists will discuss racism and economic unfreedom, from corporate profiteering to antidemocratic states and how to fight them together.
For this conversation, our expert panelists are Maximillian Alvarez, editor-in-chief at The Real News Network in Baltimore, and the host of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today. He’s also the author of The Work of Living, a book of interviews with workers conducted after year one of COVID, and he hosts the Art of Class War segment on Breaking Points.
We also have Saqib Bhatti and Bree Carlson, co-executive directors at Action Center on Race and the Economy. An organization working on campaigns to win racial and economic justice, by taking on the corporations responsible for extracting wealth and resources from communities of color and poor people. Saqib is co-founder of ACRE, as well as Bargaining for the Common Good.
And is a veteran organizer with experience in the labor movement working on corporate campaigns with UNITE HERE and SCIU, as well as co-founding and steering the Bargaining for the Common Good Network. Bree spent 10 years before ACRE at People’s Action, first as the director of the Structural Racism Program, and then as its deputy director and director of organizing. Before we get started, I have a few notes.
First, we’re very excited to take your questions and we have time for questions. We will start with a few prepared questions of our own, and then we’ll get to yours. Please enter your questions into the questions box at the bottom of your screen, and I will share as many of them as I can. Second, this recording will be available online about a week after the webinar.
Please also join the conversation via social media with our #RebuildtheEconomy, and visit the NPQ website for past webinars in the series. One last thing before we get started, if you could please complete the brief survey after the webinar, it helps us inform our work and continues to offer programming that you want to see. We can get started.
Max, could you introduce yourself and talk a little bit about your work at The Real News, making media elevating movements that advance the cause for a just and equal world?
Sure, I’d be happy to. Thank you so much, Rithika, for having us. Thank you to NPQ for organizing this important event. It’s a real honor to be on this panel with everyone here, whose work I’m incredibly grateful for and a big fan of. As Rithika said, my name is Maximilian Alvarez. I’m the editor-in-chief here at The Real News Network in Baltimore. I’m sitting in our main recording space in downtown Baltimore.
The Real News is a viewer supported, nonprofit multimedia network where, as my colleague, Mansa Musa would say, we give volume to the voiceless. We are a small organization, but we are an incredibly dedicated one. We are dedicated to lifting up the voices and struggles of people on the front lines of the fight for a better world. That fight, as we know, takes many forms.
It could be happening where folks are organizing with their coworkers in their workplace to form a union and to fight collectively to improve their working conditions. We report on that every week, with myself conducting long-form, one-on-one or panel interviews with working people. We’ve been covering from a grassroots perspective, the incredible labor struggle that we’ve been seeing in this country and beyond over the past few years.
We have an incredible video documentary series called Workers of the World, where we published on-the-ground reports featuring workers in Palestine passing through Israeli checkpoints at 3:00 AM in the morning on their ways to work. We’ve covered extensively the general strikes in France against Emmanuel Macron’s proposed changes to the retirement system, the strike wave in the United Kingdom.
But also here in North America, we’ve covered extensively the crisis on the freight railroad system. I’ve interviewed railroad worker after railroad worker, along with my colleague, Mel Buer, as well as organizing drives from the workers involved in them at places like Starbucks, places like Home Depot, places like Amazon. But also places like Kellogg’s, Frito-Lay, healthcare, education, so on and so forth.
But we do much more than cover labor struggles. We really try to take that grassroots focus, and apply it to a number of realms of crucial struggle where working people, regular people, people like you and me, are understanding that they are the agents of change. That it is us who are going to be the ones to build a new world out of the shell of the old. We, as media makers, believe we have a role to play in that, in not only lifting up those voices and struggles.
But putting those voices and struggles in direct contact with each other, so that they themselves can learn and share notes and determine ways to better support one another, and build solidarity across our respective struggles. One example is we are working to bring together environmental activists, labor activists, and anti-police brutality activists, who are all involved in the necessary struggle to stop Cop City in Atlanta, for example.
We also cover the violence and victims of the police industrial complex every week on the Police Accountability Report hosted by my esteemed colleagues, Taya Graham and Stephen Janis. Rattling the Bars, our weekly show that premieres every Monday, was founded by a longtime political prisoner, an incredible organizer and activist, our dearly departed brother, Eddie Conway.
That show is now hosted by Mansa Musa, who himself was locked up for 48 years in the Maryland penitentiary system. Now as a free man, Mansa interviews people involved in the fight to end mass incarceration in this country. That’s a little taste of what we do. We produce original podcasts, video reports, text reports. Please check us out, please support us. We also host The Chris Hedges Report every Friday.
We just launched a great new show about sports and struggle with the great Dave Zirin, which premieres every Wednesday at 7:00 PM, but we’ve got a lot more work to do. We really want to dig deep into the housing crisis, the fight against the climate crisis, and the fight against endless war and US imperialism. That’s a little taste of what we do at The Real News Network.
Very light work, Max. Thanks so much for providing everything that the mainstream media doesn’t. Saqib, maybe you could introduce yourself and talk a little bit about your work at ACRE, fighting for justice by exposing corporate and political profiteering from racism.
Yeah, happy to. It’s great to be here, Rithika. Thanks so much to you and to NPQ for organizing this great conversation and to everyone who is joining. As you mentioned, I’m the co-executive director of ACRE, the Action Center and Race and the Economy, along with Bree. Also, I’m on the executive committee of the Bargaining for the Common Good Network. My background’s in the labor movement, as you mentioned, SCIU and UNITE HERE for 10 years.
Really, I spent much of my career working on corporate campaigns, and especially campaigns focused on challenging Wall Street. Throughout much of my career, we were working with, whether it was union locals or community organizations that were organizing predominantly in communities of color. We had this idea that by doing economic justice work in communities of color, we were doing racial justice work.
A big shift for me came in 2016 actually at a meeting that as chance would have it, that Bree was facilitating where we were really talking about, “Okay. Well, what does it mean for us, for so many organizations that lead with economic justice?” The way we talk about racial justice is that bad things happen and people of color are disparately impacted.
We keep saying bad things happen and people of color are disparately impacted, as though there is something inherent to communities of color that makes us more likely to be disparately impacted, but not actually naming why is it that that happens? Of course, it’s because it’s intentional. It’s actually intentional targeting that corporations, they target harm.
Corporations and politicians, they know they’ll face less resistance if they target harm to fall predominantly on communities of color, particularly Black, Indigenous, immigrant folks. It’s important to actually be explicit about that. Because the truth is, if we have a race blind analysis of the problem, that’ll lead us to race blind solutions. The idea that a rising tide lifts all boats isn’t actually true.
Especially not in this country, where we’ve seen time and again, that some boats have holes in them that have been punctured in there through racist, white supremacist structures. That really was the starting point of ACRE. That meeting where we had that piece of analysis, ended up being the main thing that led us to starting ACRE and thinking about what does it mean to actually build out campaigns and to work to support the work the local community organizations, local unions are doing around the country?
To support that work and really support them in sharpening their analysis of racialized capitalism, of why is it that the harms fall on communities of color and who is driving that? Really, naming the corporate actors, particularly on Wall Street and the Silicon Valley, that we owed a whole bunch of economic and political power in our communities. Naming the ways in which they’re driving racialized harm and profiting from racialized harm.
Even though they might be posting Happy Juneteenth on their social media next week, what are the ways in which they’re actually profiting from actually oppressing communities of color? That’s the work that we do.
Thanks so much, Saqib. Bree, could you introduce yourself and talk a little bit about your work at ACRE, empowering communities of color and the struggle for democracy, and anything else you want to talk about?
Absolutely. I’ll try not to be too repetitive of what Saqib said. I also come out of organizing, but I was mostly organizing on the community organizing side. While I worked briefly with labor, the bulk of my work has been working with communities of color directly impacted by any number of issues in our economically and racially unjust society. I am actually really excited to be at ACRE because I think that I came up in the ’90s in a world of organizing, where economic and racial justice were thought of as two separate threads.
To Saqib’s point, as long as you have people of color and you do an economic justice fight, that just makes racial justice happen. The racial justice work that was born in opposition to that, that would exclude economic factors to a certain degree. Really focused people on the way in which people of color were being directly targeted without actually talking about the why. Being in an organization where we understand that both there is no economic injustice that’s possible in the United States absent racism.
And racism the way that we’ve created it, wouldn’t be possible in the United States without capitalism that is designed to be the most egregious, extreme wealth extracting tool that it is here. All of our campaigns make an effort to do a few things. One is to really help focus the attention on the corporations and people who profit from this arrangement. We’re trained to think of racism as the bad things that happen to people of color and not to ask hard questions about why.
But in reality in this country, race is a strategic force that’s used by capitalism to allow for incredible, profound, obvious disparities to exist across the population. Everybody to be able to think that that is just a natural outcome of people of color being just a little less hungry, a little less motivated, a little less talented, a little less whatever, and it’s deeply embedded in each and every system.
We at ACRE don’t believe that you can actually win the kind of change that’s necessary for communities, without being explicit about the role that race plays in allowing it to happen, which is both the extraction of wealth by the corporate few and the elite. But it’s also the way that all of the rest of us support it because it’s an arrangement that we’re so accustomed to, we’ve never seen anything else.
Thank you so much everyone for those introductions. I want to just jump right in and open by asking, what does it mean to say that racism is profitable? The title of this webinar borrows from Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s 2019 book, Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership.
That book tells the story of how the push to end redlining in the wake of the civil rights movement created a system of predatory inclusion, where bankers and investors targeted Black women most likely to go into foreclosure to maximize their profits.
Many of you on this call may have read this book. How does that political economic story continue today? How do corporations and cities continue to profit from racism today? Saqib, maybe you could get us started.
Sure. Corporations profit from racism in really all kinds of ways, whether it’s funding private prisons, immigrated detention centers, building and polluting infrastructure through Indigenous lands or Black neighborhoods, or selling police brutality bonds that let investors profit from police killings. Corporations are just incredibly adept at finding ways to make money off of white supremacy and racism. You mentioned predatory inclusion.
One of the things that I think is really salient these days, is the rise of cryptocurrencies. A lot of cryptocurrency corporations, they’re really trying to market themselves as civil rights heroes. This is really actually another example of predatory inclusion. We know that traditional banking system has really done a terrible job delivering high-quality, affordable, wealth-building financial services to communities of color.
The crypto bros are really trying to market themselves as an intervention in that system, as a way to really fight the racial wealth gap and for Black and brown families financial security. They do things like talk about crypto reparations for Black folks or developing a crypto utopia in Puerto Rico. But in all these ways, the crypto bros are explicitly marketing themselves to communities of color, and it’s actually working. The survey last year found that nearly 40% of Black investors under 40 own crypto.
Black investors are more likely to see it as safe than white investors. This is likely because Black investors are being aggressively targeted by the industry. That’s interesting because the biggest cryptocurrency investors, of course, are white billionaires. Many of them bought into cryptos when the price was very low. They got to profit immensely as demand increased in something that one could say it resembles a Ponzi scheme. Even after the big crypto crash, many of them still made millions because they got in so low.
But with a lot of the smaller investors, who bought when prices were already high and then they actually got wiped out in the crash, they actually lost everything. Among these smaller investors, Black investors are more likely than white ones to own cryptocurrencies. They are much more likely to be invested in cryptos than in mutual funds or stocks, or other more diversified asset classes that are not just Ponzi schemes.
This means that what we’re seeing now is even at this new industry that’s really marketing itself as the frontier of the way that capitalism is going to really drive racial justice, we’re actually seeing Black investors bearing an outsized share of cryptocurrency losses. This is important because a lot of the ways in which the systems works, is that if something is seen as predominantly harming Black and brown communities, it is seen as less important to try to fix that, even if it harms everyone.
Another example that comes to my mind is actually in the housing crisis. We know that an outsized share of foreclosures were born during the foreclosure crisis of the last decade, were born by Black and brown folks who were disparately impacted because they were actually targeted for predatory loans. It is also the case that 70% to 80% of people who went through a foreclosure, were white families, because the truth is white people are just a much larger share of the population.
It can be true that Black and Latinx folks, bear a disproportionate share, and that’s due to only 20%, 30% of all foreclosures. But by actually painting that as a Black and brown and as an issue of irresponsible Black and brown homeowners, we had the powers that be, the banking industry was really able to turn the tide against meaningful loan modification with principal reduction. Which is what it would’ve taken to keep the majority of folks in their homes, to actually keep people from losing their homes to foreclosure.
By actually turning this issue that affects mostly white folks into a racial issue that is Black and brown, be able to turn the tide and turn popular opinion against it. That’s one of the big ways in which predatory inclusion works today, but then also ends up driving, making sure that the harm is able to continue because race is a great way to try to manipulate public opinion around it.
Bree or Max, please jump in.
You want to hop in, Bree? I can hang out.
I’ll hop in because I’m going to add on to what Saqib was saying and then hand it over, so I won’t take up too much time. I just want to talk about one other dynamic, which is something we talk about a lot because of our policing work. We’ve talked a lot about technology companies that are profiting because they’re beginning to develop tools for surveillance. In a country where we’re overreacting to crime, where we have a history of doing that.
Whether or not crime rates have increased, there’s this very easy space to build a market. We specifically have a campaign dealing with a company called ShotSpotter that’s been really effective in forcing the company to react, but the larger question is it’s not just ShotSpotter. It’s not an individual corporation, it’s that they’re creating a market now where there’s an expectation that something about public safety requires surveillance, and it requires surveillance of Black and brown people.
People are easily willing to support technologies like what they use with ShotSpotter, which is essentially a microphone that captures sound. It says that it can identify when a gunshot’s been heard in a neighborhood. I don’t think it’s difficult for anybody here to imagine which neighborhoods they’re talking about, but the really terrifying part is that it fails far more often than it works. The impacts for communities of color, I think, are easy again to imagine.
Over-policing is intensified, people are killed, children are killed as a result of these failures. All the companies required to do is say, “Hey, but it works sometimes. We can provide an example of a place where it worked.” Because of our fear of crime, they’re able to create a whole market and a whole set of police agencies across the country that are taking this technology in, even as they understand that it fails far more often than it works.
That’s another way in which racism is profitable, because as Saqib said, if you target communities of color, there is a built-in narrative in the marrow of this country about the inadequacy of people of color. Any dynamic that is racialized, instead of people asking the question, who gains from that, who profits from it? They understand it as just further evidence of the inferiority of the people who are most impacted.
Again, it’s very easy to sell the country on the reason we had a foreclosure crisis wasn’t the greed, it wasn’t about investments. It was about homeowners who were irresponsible. Every time we highlighted in our organizing communities of color that were disproportionately impacted, all we did essentially for the narrative was reinforce what people already believe about the failure of people of color.
Well, I feel interpolated by that in, I guess, the most personal way, because my family was one of those that lost everything in the recession. In many ways, my path to doing the work that I do began then when our family lost the house that I grew up in. When I was working low wage jobs with my family to try to stay afloat, so I’d wholeheartedly agree with that. Would also just say, I don’t know if I can swear on this, but screw ShotSpotter. This thing is bunk technology.
We’ve reported on it here in Baltimore. I’d recommend folks go check out Brandon Soderberg’s great piece on ShotSpotter here in Baltimore, which the city is giving money to, even though it has proven to be a completely failed technology. Brandon Soderberg also just published a blockbuster report where he poured over 30 years of statistics from the Baltimore Police, definitively showing that there is no correlation to throwing more money at the corrupt police department and increasing safety in the city.
It has made zero dents, so go check that out. Okay. Taking a step back, so why is racism profitable? I think in many ways, the United States is the answer to that question. I mentioned my dearly departed brother, and comrade and colleague, Eddie Conway. Eddie was very adamant that in the grand history of the United States, slavery was the bedrock of modern capitalism. What he means by that, and what I think we all would agree with here, is that this is baked into the concept of racial capitalism itself.
That capitalism was not some great historic break with feudalism. It was just an evolution in which the lower classes, the hyper-exploited underclasses that were always needed to supplement the riches of the people at the top, they just got recategorized and resubjugated in newer and more efficient means of exploitation. That is written into the very story of this country. The United States with all of its wealth and largesse, was bounded on the mass enslavement of Black people, and the mass genocide and dispossession of Indigenous peoples who were already here.
The wealth of the United States is predicated upon that murder and thievery, the world historical thievery. Then we construct systems that maintain the hierarchies that emerge within that historical synthesis. A great example of that, which I’ll connect to contemporary circumstances, is that after the Civil War, after Black slaves were at least nominally freed. You had the swift implementation in the south of the Black codes in 1865 and 1867.
These were legal mechanisms to discipline freed slaves back into slave-like subservience, because they criminalize things like vagrancy. Slaves who on paper or freed slaves on paper, were not in effect able to refuse work for subpar wages in the South, because it was criminalized to not be working or to reject the terms that were being offered by southern employers. This is just the system again learning to adapt, and using exceedingly and openly racist premises that we’ve covered here.
To use things like law to subjugate poor and working-class people to be the proverbial grist for the mill. Now, fast-forward to the ways that this has continued to evolve and become ever more functionally necessary to the profit-seeking prerogatives of our capitalist system, look at what’s going on in Florida right now. Everyone’s talking about Ron DeSantis’s new anti-immigration law, which will go into effect on July 1st. I would point people to the incredible scholarly work of Shirley Lung, who has looked extensively at the anti-immigration laws.
Particularly the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, and the anti-vagrancy laws in the wake of the Civil War, showing how they both adopt an underlying racist logic that is meant to serve the needs of racial capital. You see that in what’s happening in Florida right now. We’re hearing these devastating reports of undocumented migrants, 40% of whom constitute the labor force in the agricultural sector. I think around 30% of whom constitute the labor force in the construction sector.
If this law, which is essentially just the Immigration Control and Reform Act on steroids, which would reinscribe the very same problem with IRCA in 1986. Which is that it delegates state enforcement power of immigration law to employers, who can then use it selectively when it serves their needs. What the bill in Florida is going to do, is it’s just going to stipulate that employers who have 25 employees or more, have to use the E-Verify system.
What you’re going to see is what you always see in systems like these where capitalists adapt. You’re going to see a lot more subcontracting where jobs are being done with workforces of 24 or 23 people that are subcontracted out, so they don’t have to abide by this new law. But you’re also going to see what you’ve seen for the past 30 years, which is employers selectively using these enforcement powers that they have been granted by the state, to discipline racialized labor forces into subservience.
I would draw people again to when Donald Trump announced in 2019, that he and ICE were going to be launching this massive wave of terror that he called the family op. What he was saying is that we are going back to the days of mass workplace raids. We’re going back to the days of home raids. The expressed desire, you saw it in officials in the Trump administration from Jeff Sessions, down to the head of ICE at the time to Stephen Miller. They said, “This is meant to send a message. This is meant to terrify people.”
This is meant to be a spectacle of racialized violence, that is not meant to achieve the ostensibly stated goal of getting rid of the 10 million plus undocumented migrants in this country. We know from statistical analysis that that is not going to happen. Even when we increase in certain states immigration laws like what Ron DeSantis is doing, the stats, the history all tell us one thing. It does lead to some people like selectively self-deporting out of fear, but that’s a minor percentage of the people who are going to stay.
They’re going to accept worse working conditions, worse pay, they’re going to recede further into the cracks of society. They’re going to be that much less willing to speak up against mistreatment. Just like the anti-vagrancy laws that followed the civil rights, just like the construction and explosion of the new Jim Crow in the forms of the prison-industrial complex or even the gig economy. I didn’t get to that, but I’ll shut up in a second. We can maybe get to it later.
But I remember interviewing a rideshare driver, Ahmad Moss, in July of 2021 when Rideshare Drivers United launched a one-day strike against the then pending Prop 22, which passed. Ahmad Moss, a Black rideshare driver, told me in no uncertain terms, “The gig economy is an extension of Jim Crow.” It is not an accident that Black workers and Hispanic workers are more than twice as likely to work in the gig economy than white workers.
Because of things like Prop 22, because of the incentives of racialized capital and the influence that it has in this system. You saw a perfect example in California where these gig companies amassed a war chest of over $200 million, making the disinformation to pass Prop 22, creating a legal third category of worker who could legally make less than minimum wage. It was the most expensive ballot measure in the state’s history. These are just more ways that again the system has learned to adapt, to create and perpetuate.
Then reinscribe with legal backing, these subcategories of hyper-exploitable workers, who for very clear historical reasons, overwhelmingly tend to be racialized. I guess the last thing that I would say on that front, going back to Eddie Conway’s point about US society and modern capitalism being founded on slave labor, this is also the logic of imperialism. It is also not an accident that the white empires of the Brits and across Europe.
Then even the United States in the modern era, expanded that regime of genocide, dispossession, stealing and hoarding wealth and resources from racialized countries and peoples around the world in Latin America, in Haiti, in India, everywhere. Now, basically that system always has to gobble up more and more people, more and more resources. That system isn’t just expanding outwards into the reaches of the globe, but it always extends inwards as well, to colonize and subjugate and oppress the most marginalized and racialized among us.
Thank you, Max, for that super substantial answer. You’ve brought us to our next question, which is about racial capitalism. As you’ve said, as we’ve talked about very clearly here, the idea of racial capitalism is that the capitalist economy depends on racist and classist hierarchies in order to create and continue to extract value. We’ve talked a little bit about the financial and legal instruments by which this works, and we can continue to talk about that.
But I also want to visit the ideological underpinnings of this too. How do things like the myth of the free market and the demand for capitalist efficiency against the laziness and individual bootstrapping, how do these things also play into the technocratic and financial systems that have already been built on legacy of slavery? We can revisit some of the more technical things, but I’d also like to talk about the ideological ones. Bree, maybe you could start us off, and Max and Saqib, feel free to jump back in.
Oh my gosh, that was a lot. I think I’m still thinking about Max’s last response and the complexity of how deeply embedded in capitalism, as we are currently living it, is the need for racism. I just want to underscore or maybe say in a different way what Max already said, which is that I noticed that somebody had added a question. I normally don’t look at them while I’m talking, but I did this time. Somebody had asked a question about the difference between capitalism and oligarchy.
I will just say that I think we spend a fair amount of time nuancing whether or not what we have in the country now is capitalism as it’s supposed to be. Well, no, it’s never actually been our capitalism, our democracy, none of this has ever been what we say it is in the textbooks, that’s reinforcing the narrative underpinnings of it. But every effort, every structure designed to concentrate wealth among a few requires labor. It requires poverty.
It requires a set of people from whom extraction will occur. What we’ve done with the secret sauce of modern capitalism and the way that it operates in the United States, is the story of race. It’s what makes it work here, but it’s an old system to Max’s point. We should bear that in mind because one of the ways race has been so incredibly effective at reinforcing this capitalist structure, even as it becomes more broken and more extractive and there are more crises.
Even as that’s happening, we’re holding tight to it because of how deeply race has affected our ability to understand our own self-interest. We talk a lot about race as the moral problem that it is. We talk if at anything beyond the moral, anything beyond individual meanness, if we go anywhere beyond that, we talk about how painful it is for communities of color, which it is, and how deeply we’ve suffered at the extraction of wealth, which we have.
But I think we often miss as organizers, the importance of understanding race as an arrangement of power. There’s much more to understand about how much folks in this country are required to support policies, and to support corporations and to support markets being created to surveil people. All of these things against their own individual, economic self-interest, even when they’re white, because that’s who the vast majority of poor people in this country are.
It is not just a system designed to be mean to people of color. If we think of it that way and craft solutions that are designed to deal with if people think that people of color are less than. Rather than to ensure that we are fighting for things that change the outcome of institutions in this country, we’ll never really get at what’s really broken. Racism does exactly what it was designed to do. It reinforces this new, modern capitalism, which is devastating actually almost everyone in this country.
We’re almost universally supporting it, even as it happens. I don’t think I got to your question, but I’ll shut up and let someone else talk about something.
Well, I think that was a really important point, Bree, and I just want to build on that for a second. Then I yakked on so much, that I’m going to keep this one shorter. But I just want to build on that really, really important point, and stress to people that the message here is that these systems of racist, brutal, capitalist accumulation hurt all of us. You can see that as clear as day in the area that I cover week in, week out, the labor movement.
This is a tale as old as this country. Read incredible works like David Roediger’s Wages of Whiteness. There’s a whole vast body of incredible literature. Keri Leigh Merritt, who looks at poor white workers in the South, and so many more who show how it was a very intentional move by the landowning, wealthy, white-ruling class to institute. To inject racial difference as a way to break apart the budding solidarity that was emerging between poor whites and freed slaves.
If you give poor whites, that just added incentive to see themselves as better than their Black fellow workers. That in itself becomes what economists would call a shadow wage. It becomes a form of compensation without actually compensating you more. You just get to obtain some ethereal sense of racial superiority, that is confirmed for you in the way that the society around you treats people who look different from you.
But it is again profitable because if you are a boss, who is trying to pay the least amount of wages as you can to the most exploitable, compliant workforce that you can. This becomes an incredibly profitable tool that you can weaponize. It has been weaponized time and time and time again, even and including within the labor movement itself. We can’t let organized labor off the hook for the many years and decades in which it shot itself in the foot, by deliberately excluding non-white workers, by excluding women and by excluding unskilled trades.
That’s not to put all the blame on labor, but it’s definitely something that labor needs to continually reckon with, if we are going to not make the same mistakes in the future that we made in the past. But just to hammer that point home, these racialized categories, the ways that different kinds of people are coded and drenched in certain, as Bree said, these certain myths and stereotypes about their worthiness, about their work ethic, so on and so forth.
These also maintain a very profitable system of divide and conquer, which is the way the bosses have always won and have always been able to oppress us. That is their number one tool, divide and conquer the working class. They do this using things like racial difference. They do this using the legal means that enshrine the mistreatment and differential treatment of different kinds of workers that we were talking about, in order to continue to urge working people of all colors to compete against each other in a perpetual race to the bottom.
I gave already the example of how the racist, Draconian immigration regime that we have in this country from George Bush, Jr.’s devastating workplace raid in 2008 in Pottsville, Iowa, to Barack Obama, the deporter-in-chief, still holding the title for most deportations because the bureaucratic means of silent deportation were far more effective than these workplace raids. To now things like Ron DeSantis invoking that same spectacular regime of terror that Trump et al. and Bush really employed.
Again, when you look at all these things taken together, when you look at the net result, what it means is not that we are going to somehow magically get rid of all the 10 plus million undocumented migrants who live and work in this country. What we are going to do is create again, this regime of terror that further silences those workers, further pushes them into compliancy and subservience, because we see this all the time.
If and when they speak up about having their wages stolen, about harassment, about mistreatment, even about slave-like treatment, that is when the employers decide to use those I-9 checks, those E-Verify checks. They use them in order to send a message to workers who get uppity, that you are going to be out of here if you don’t just accept the lowest possible standard that I am offering here. This is a message to all of you around, that you better keep your mouth shut if you want to keep getting a paycheck.
Why do I bring that up here? Because we know, again, that even the most Draconian immigration enforcement measures, are not going to mean that these undocumented workers somehow leave and all those jobs are going to be taken by good, homegrown American citizens. No, it’s just going to create a deeper race to the bottom, where those undocumented migrants can continue to be used as ploys to undercut the wages of everybody.
Because you can always, if you have the ability to employ hyper-exploitable, cheap, undocumented labor, employers will, and they will use that to bargain down wages across sectors, across industries. This is also then used to foment racist sentiments within labor. People then start to identify the undocumented migrants, the brown, the Black, racialized migrants as somehow the problem. They are the ones undercutting our wages.
No, it’s your boss that’s undercutting your wages and exploiting all of you. But again, when you create that tension, you create a system where workers are defeating themselves. They’re fighting against themselves, they’re not fighting against the bosses. The system of mass incarceration is another outgrowth of this. I did a great interview with Mansa Musa, my colleague on Mayday, where we talked about how the institution of the 13th Amendment.
The continuance of slavery in the United States to this very day, as long as it is meted out as a punishment for a crime. The creation of a basically free slave labor force across an ever expanding prison-industrial complex, that also undercuts wages. That also means that prison labor gets first dib on government contracts for a lot of jobs that could go to union workers, but because of the system that you get a shortcut there.
Then the only other thing I would say there is that obviously, well, maybe not obviously, but it bears repeating. Even just the threat of something like the prison-industrial complex, the threat of losing freedom, losing your life to just horrifying prison apparatus that we’ve constructed in this company, because you live in a society that criminalizes poverty where we see in New York and across the country.
If you are out on the street, if you are unable to survive in a system that makes it increasingly harder to survive on the wages that poor and working people make in this country, where housing prices are skyrocketing, where the social safety net has been gutted over decades, you basically have a downward spiral to prison. That also becomes a stick with which the entire working class can consistently be beaten, in order to accept lower wages, worse working conditions.
Because they know that the alternative to accepting those poor wages and working conditions, and at least keeping a roof over their head, is a cold, unfeeling society that will shuttle you into prison where you can be a slave worker making cents for your labor. This is all part of the system of racialized capitalism and subjugation of the working class.
Thanks, Max. Saqib, did you want to respond before we move to the next question?
Yeah. The one thing I should add to this is I think for me, the term that perfectly captures racist and class hierarchies and how they’re enforced by the current system, is the term white working class, working-class white. If we think about it, we only ever talk, for the most part, we hear working-class white. We don’t really hear working-class Black, working-class Latinx, working-class Indigenous.
We actually know because white people who are poor, are working-class whites. Black and brown people who are poor, are Black and brown because they’re lazy or because they want to mooch off the system and so forth. I think that is really part of how we are pathologizing Black and brown folks, which really it speaks to the racial hierarchy there that exists even within the layer and top of the classes.
What’s also interesting about this, is when we talk about the economy or one of the things I think pre-market ideology points us towards thinking about the economy as a natural thing. It’s a natural thing that when it functions well, if the economy is doing well, people are doing well. Working-class white people, they’re working, so them being poor, well, they’re actually deserving. But the reason why Black and brown folks are not deserving is because they’re actually not working.
They’re being pathologized. They’re actually resisting the system, and so that’s why they deserve to be poor. Of course, the thing is I think this points to referring back to that same question in the Q&A, which talks about are we capitalist or are we an oligarchy? Well, I agree with what Bree said, that for me, I think the answer to that is we are an oligarchy. I reject the premise of the question, because the question actually presumes that capitalism is supposed to function some different way.
The truth is that the reason why we’re able to remain an oligarchy, is because the race class hierarchy is actually what makes it possible to sustain the system, and what makes it possible for those at the very top to keep growing their power and wealth at the expense of the rest of us. Yeah, I think that’s a key piece. There was a study by the University of California at Berkeley several years ago, that showed that white folks, conservative, white folks, they’re actually generally are supportive of raising taxes.
Taxing themselves to increase social services and to strengthen the social safety net. But when you remind them that in some number of years, the majority they’ll support plummets. Alongside of that, if you talk about race and basically shift folks into thinking about race, support amongst white folks plummets for the same programs. That’s why really those, the oligarchs, which again, in our society it’s billionaires, mega corporations, increasingly it’s the titans of Wall Street and Silicon Valley.
They have a vested interest in making sure that race stays front and center in our minds, and really speaking very deliberately about working-class whites versus the welfare queens. Making that dichotomy to make it clear that they’re not really trying to prevent working-class folks from having ideas of maybe the system doesn’t need to be this way. I think that that’s sort of… Yeah.
Thank you. Our next question is we’ve been talking about politics implicitly here, but I want to turn to democracy in particular. What is the relationship between racial and economic justice and a democratic society? Conversely, how do both racial and economic inequality depend on anti-democracy?
You can answer these questions more in the abstract, or you can also talk about the specific kinds of legislative policies. More obvious ones might be defund the police or prisons, or protecting the right to organize, which ones might support both racial and economic justice and create a more democratic society. Saqib, since you went last last time, maybe you can start this question this time. You are muted.
Yeah. I’m sorry, can you repeat the question? I’m just not going to pretend that I heard what you said
Sure, no problem. We’re talking about the relationship between economic and racial justice and democracy. We have an anti-democratic society, we have a society of record wealth inequality and racial injustice.
What kind of ideas but also legislative policies, specifically like defunding the police, defunding private prisons and protecting the right to organize, for example, might support the social transformation that would create that kind of democracy and justice?
I think that what we really need is a massive redistribution of power and wealth in this country. I think one of the key challenges we have is when we try to focus purely on legislative answers, we’re not able to get the legislative victories we need. Because at the end of the day, politicians are more beholden to corporations than they are to their voters. I think really what we need to be doing is challenging the power of the corporation.
One of the things that’s interesting is since Citizens United, I think you hear much more of corporations run the government, but our campaign for the most part still target government as of that’s where the power is. Theoretically, that’s where the power is, but we need to look up the food chain, look up the money tree. Why is it that even if we elect the “right people” nothing changes?
It’s because at the end of the day, there are a set of folks who are very, very invested in status quo. Those folks are able to make sure that any changes we get are crumbs, but nothing structurally changes. I think the key thing we need is to figure out, the biggest thing would be how do we actually chip away at their power? I think the only way to really do that is by organizing.
We need to organize and we need to organize with an explicit analysis of who is in power, how do they use race to keep them in power? How do we actually advance policies to build our power in a way that takes away their power? To really have this clear power analysis, I think is the most important thing. That if we can actually chip away at their power, that’s how we can start to then lay the groundwork for passing the kinds of policies that we need.
I think one of the things that really gives me hope is I’m in Chicago, and just this last election cycle we had here in Chicago where we elected Brandon Johnson as our mayor, along with a historic number of progressives in city council races. That wasn’t done purely with an electoral strategy. That was the result of decades of organizing that happened on the ground to actually build power in neighborhoods. Brandon was outspent, I think, two to one or something like that.
But at the end of that, he was the only person with the with the ground game because people were actually holding house parties in every neighborhood, that were actually hitting the doors in all 50 wards of the city. Doing so in a way that was very much driven from the grassroots, because it built off of actual campaigns that had been happening to try to change the power structure in the city. I think that’s the kind of stuff that we need to see more of.
Bree, do you want to respond?
Yeah, I’ll add, which is exciting. Thank you for talking about the power analysis piece. I’m going to get to talk about something I rarely get to, because I get so distracted by racist power and you don’t. I’ll talk about something else, which is I support every policy that you laid out, but I would say that we don’t have democracy. I would start with that as a premise. If we wanted to experience what is actually possible in terms of the romanticized narrative we have about democracy, then I think we have to start quite a lot further back.
The easy stuff, it’s not easy, but the easy stuff to say is that as long as people are disenfranchised and lose their right to vote based on their relationship to the criminal justice system, we can’t have democracy. Just not possible because we’ve disproportionately pulled Black and brown people right out of the electorate. But beyond that, we also have a system that is so corrupted by greed and by capitalism, that even if we were to give everyone the ability to vote, there is far too much in the way of voting being what determines outcomes in our democracy.
I think about things like participatory budgeting. If we’re talking about if I get to let go of the power analysis piece and talk about people being ready for democracy, I get super excited. I really geek out when I hear about processes that give people not just the ability to go and cast a vote and a story about what that did or didn’t mean, but give people actual experience of what public leadership of public systems might look like if we had democracy.
If we had an economy that was actually developed and designed for the wellbeing of all people, and folks actually got to put their hands into it and think together about collective needs. I sound ridiculous to myself, but I think that is so beautiful and so outside of the experience of the vast majority, the overwhelming majority of people who’ve ever been in what we call the United States. It is just so far away from what we actually have.
Talking about democracy, well, you would need to have democracy for most of the real change that we need, the structural, long-term change to our economy to ending race and racism as the construct of organizing breed. To get on the other side of that, the other thing we need to try is to imagine something that’s an alternative. It’s very exciting to me when people are making experiments that give everyday folks a sense of what might be possible if we shared leadership, and we all took responsibility for our collective wellbeing.
Thanks, Bree. You identified that this was a leading question and that democracy certainly not what we have now, but hopefully what we can imagine in the future. Max, did you want to respond briefly before we move on to our final question?
Yes, emphasis on the briefly. Please start waving your hands if I’m going over three minutes, because I already feel really bad for talking so much so I’m going to make this short. But I think one of my favorite titles of any book ever is by the great Astra Taylor. It’s a book called Democracy Doesn’t Exist but We’ll Miss it When it’s Gone. I think that’s a great way to understand it. Democracy is a powerful and essential idea. I think in many ways, the history of this country is the history of the dialectical struggle to expand that promise.
That principle to those who were not included in its actual material and societal founding. Everyone who was not a landowning white men, that is the history of struggle to expand that idea, but also we are seeing the dialectic move in the other way. All the ways that promise of democracy, the practical ability to exercise democracy, has been chipped away at systematically, especially in community poor and communities of color.
I think there’s starting with that, the understanding that our task, as always is to… God, I’m forgetting who had this great quote, but to make America as good as its promise. To actually fulfill on the practical reality of democracy that so many of us do not enjoy. One of the key areas I think that in which we need to drill down and commit to the promise and practice of democracy. One of the great absences of the American Democratic Project, is the concept of democracy existing in the workplace where we spend the vast majority of our waking lives.
Yet it is this democratic no never zone where most of us don’t have any rights to speak of, even if maybe we do on paper. If we can get fired like that in a state that doesn’t require just cause, what good is that right? Just to really make this point about why workplace democracy is so important in the larger scheme of democracy. Actually, instead of waffling, I’m going to just read from a piece that I was commissioned to write on that Obama series for Netflix, where he’s trying to be the new Studs Terkel.
Obviously, as someone who spends his life interviewing workers, I had a billion people asking me what my thoughts were about this series. I’ve now watched it eight times. I’m writing a piece that’s like 10,000 words and I’m like, “It’s breaking my brain.” But one of the things that I really try to get across in this piece and in my work, it basically boils down to what I write here. I say, “More goes on at work than the work we do on our shifts. A lot of social engineering happens at the workplace.
A lot of work is done on us at the workplace, especially those of us who work low wage, non-union jobs. The workplace is a social factory where people are made into subjects. A brutal schoolhouse, where we learn how to be powerless. We are conditioned there to be and feel like compliant, replaceable numbers in a larger system we do not control. Through repetitive exposure to the same old, same old, we are conditioned to accept being treated and paid like dog shit.
Conditioned to believe our bodies are nothing but grist for the mill in the world of work to be discarded when we break down. We are conditioned to accept that we don’t really have rights in the workplace, least of all, the right to make demands on our employers. Conditioned to accept undemocratic hierarchies and our relative powerlessness as workers at the bottom of them.” What I’m saying here is that in a society where the vast majority of us have to spend the vast majority of our lives working low wage, crappy jobs where we don’t really have any rights.
That is part of the social conditioning to make us good capitalists’ subjects, it inevitably has an impact on how we understand ourselves as agents of democracy. Because if you don’t have it in the workplace, that the workplace is an autocracy, it is an undemocratic hierarchy over which you have no say, and that is where you spend the majority of your time. That is the majority of the interactions that you have with upper socioeconomic classes.
That’s inevitably going to trickle into your sense of self and the way that you relate to other hierarchical systems like government or private companies that you consume products of. How much democratic say do you have over the leadership of corporations like Norfolk Southern, that have poisoned the entire East Palestine area? We don’t. We don’t have that democratic, that means to exercise our democratic agency in the workplace, the vast majority of us at least.
Only 10% of currently working Americans are in a union across the private and public sector, so most people don’t have that. Then most people, again, were conditioned day in, day out to feel powerless and to accept our powerlessness. In many ways, what democracy is supposed to look like is so alien to so many of us, which is why it’s so important that we support the labor movement. That we really do our best to build solidarity with workers across sectors.
Young workers, queer workers, Black workers, undocumented workers, workers in the healthcare industry, workers in logistics, and all over the place. The more that we can foment that grassroots struggle, the more that we can help be the wind at the backs of our fellow workers, who are learning to stand up perhaps for the first time and say, “I am worth more than this and I have rights in the workplace.”
We together collectively can work to change our circumstances by exercising the raw practice of democracy, that too will filter out into other areas of civic life. That’s why I pay so much attention to the labor movement.
Thanks, Max. I want to make sure we get to our last question before we turn to audience questions. I’m going to try to fold them in a little bit as well. We have to talk about organizing. We’re having this conversation three years after the largest uprisings for racial justice in the United States. People have begun to develop a more systemic and strategic view of the relationships between police violence, between prisons, how they connect to wealth extraction and inequality.
How can we organize to transform the economy and build the racially just future that we want? What are some strategies to organize for racial and economic justice together? I’m hoping that Bree and Saqib can answer this question first, since there’s a question in the chat about what possibilities for challenging racial capitalism there might be at the local level, given the recent mayoral election victory of Brandon Johnson.
Saqib, you should definitely take the first stab at that, particularly given the Chicago connection.
Yeah. I think generally speaking, it’s interesting. As I was hearing your question, what I couldn’t help but think was it’s true that two or three years after the uprisings, that there is a heightened awareness about racism and structural racism in this country. But it’s also true that in a lot of corners, there’s a sense of like there was a reckoning and we have reckoned with race and that is done, like check.
I think that that’s a part that as you were saying the question I was like, couldn’t help but focus on that piece. I think for me, what it speaks to is that this is actually, I think, part of our capitalist system. That the capitalists are very good at co-opting and making sure that whatever we do is just bandaid solutions without actually addressing root causes and without actually structurally affecting power.
Bree and I, just on a call before this, were talking about Juneteenth, which is why that’s fresh on my mind, but it’s like, “Okay, we make Juneteenth a federal holiday.” Juneteenth should be a federal holiday, but now even companies like ShotSpotter, which their entire business model is premised on criminalizing Black and brown folks, and they’re wishing their customers a Happy Juneteenth.
I think what we need to be doing is really figuring out how do we actually look at the structural causes? How do we actually put forth policies that automatically change the way power works in our cities? I think it’s a hard job because I think seeing within the Democratic Party, for example, which for better or for worse right now, they’re the standard-bearers of the driving legislative change from our side at the federal level certainly in many cities.
At the end of the day, their biggest donors are actually the very corporations that profit from keeping the system exactly as it it. That’s why when it comes to policies like, “Okay, how do we actually?” If we have this greater understanding of the fact that police don’t actually keep us safer, they actually are a tool for maintaining white supremacy for terrorizing Black and brown neighborhoods.
We can’t actually talk about the fact that they don’t actually give us real safety without being lectured from the likes of Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, about the fact that we’re harming Democrats chance at the next election. I think for me, what’s exciting about Chicago, what we did here with this last election, is I think Chicago really gives a blueprint for how do you actually talk about what real public safety looks like and when?
The other side really tried to come after Brandon and Paul Vallas, his kids are cops. He was endorsed by one of his kids is a killer cop. Literally, murdered someone in San Antonio just a couple of years ago. He doesn’t condemn that certainly. I don’t know if I’ll say that he endorsed but he was the FOP candidate or the police union candidate and so forth, Paul Vallas. Very much the election was about policing and about public safety.
Very much Vallas and his folks tried to come after Brandon by saying he’s the defund candidate. Brandon actually, his big thing was we need to look at the root causes of violence and how do we address those? He talked about having this policy treatment, not trauma, which is instead of just sending police to respond to mental health emergencies, we need to send non-police responders, non-uniform responders.
We need to reopen mental health clinics. We need to actually invest in yearlong youth jobs programs. We to actually bring jobs to communities throughout the city, especially putting money, investing in the south and west sides of the city, which are predominantly Black and brown, but have been long neglected by past mayors. I think those are the types of things that we need to be doing, which are fundamentally about shifting the way the power and resources flow.
The flow actually help us address these issues in a real way. I think what that means though, is not being afraid of taking on or not being afraid of being labeled as like you just want to defund the police or you just want to. To be clear, for better for worse, Brandon does not support defunding the police, but he does also support these other policies around people not trying to look at the underlying causes of police violence.
I think that that’s all very important. I think that what I’m hoping is a big takeaway from Chicago nationally is that gives progressives a roadmap for how you can actually talk about these issues in a real way, instead of pretending that they’ve already been addressed and instead of pretending that we’ve already dealt with that and actually still win.
Thanks, Saqib. Bree, did you have something to add on organizing?
Yeah, but that was just a lot too. A couple of things to add. I guess I want to just underscore that organizing is the only path that we can take to make these changes. I think sometimes we get confused about shorter or more expedient ways of making policy change, or quick practice changes that we know will have a huge impact on solving problems, and so we go for them.
I mentioned organizing is the only way, because I think if nothing else surfaced from this conversation so far, I think we have some shared understanding that the meaning that people make about things, the narrative, the story. The worldview that is behind so much of the economically and racially awful policies that can get passed in this country, it’s the way that people understand the story.
There’s no getting around the hard work of what it takes to give people an imagination or help people’s imagination imagine something other than the status quo. That’s required because there is no small tweaking of systems that we are currently living under that would actually repair the problem. As we’re making increment steps, as we’re taking small victories and having small electoral shifts.
We have to keep in mind that the kind of systems change that we need requires the ability to hold the win. As long as all of our solutions are not bigger than just advocating for the government to do a particular thing or not. Or tarnishing the public faith in a particular organization, when it’s part of a bigger set of organizations doing exactly the same stuff. We have to think differently about how we approach organizing.
I would just say that the way to get there is not overnight. It’s to keep in mind that this is a long arc of transformation. What are all of the various pieces that help to move you in the direction you need to go? Too, that we need to remember that my dear friend and genius friend, David Hatch, talked about the difference between the society that existed as organizing as an art and a craft was being developed, versus the modern version of it that we use now versus the world we live in.
One of the big takeaways from that is we have to remember that it was designed to go to government and ask them to solve problems that communities were experiencing, and government does not have the resources to do that anymore. As we’re fighting for change at the government level, one of the things that ACRE really tries to take some leadership around, is we need corporate targets that actually frame who has the power to make the change we’re asking for.
Because now, we have a government we need to fight for because the last part is if we’re ever going to experience democracy, real democracy, it requires all manner of public institutions are deeply invested in across the board. All of these things have to work in tandem, but we have to get enough people engaged to shift power to our favor so that we can win things and hold them. That when we do that, people have had some experiences that reinforce that us having public sector investment is a good thing.
Saqib mentioned the people who support increased taxes, but not when you talk about what the spending might look like. There’s also a lot of evidence that most people in this country think corporations should be taxed. That they’re evil or bad or whatever they think, that they know that everything we say about how nasty and greedy corporations are is true. But they’d rather take the money from them and burn it than give it to government.
Thanks, Bree. Max, anything to add on racial and economic justice organizing together?
No, I’d say that was beautiful. I’ve talked enough. Let’s roll into audience Q&A.
Okay. Yeah, that definitely picked up a question that was in the audience Q&A on context specific organizing. There’s another question here on reparations. A panelist is asking on the positions on cash reparations for descendants of slaves.
I’d just like to add to that question to expand to the concept of reparations broadly, what else could reparations look like? Whoever wants to take this question, Max, you are certainly welcome to respond and I’d like to hear your position.
Bree, go for it. If you’ve got head steam, roll with it.
I’ll try to do a quick one, which is yes, of course, first of all, yes, I support cash reparations. It is nothing but racism to suggest that reparations could come in a particular form because you don’t trust the people you stole from to spend it the way you think they should. That’s just horrific. But there are also many, many other ways that reparations could happen.
As long as there’s some level of democratic control of people who are receiving the reparations, deciding how best to use them, myself included, then that is a fine way to do it. But we should definitely push back on the idea that cash reparations is somehow not appropriate, and that the people who did the stealing are the ones who get to decide whether or not it makes sense.
Yeah, wholeheartedly endorse that. I think that’s perfectly put. Yeah, I’m all for it. We’ve had so much stolen from us, and this is I guess a response to another question in the Q&A. Which is do we feel like the US can ever fully reckon with the racism and its DNA? No, it can’t, because time moves one way. We are working on this is I guess Marx, one of his many great insights.
People make their own history, but not under the circumstances of our choosing. We are thrust into a world that has been assembled for us, that has been shaped by generations past, but we still have agency within the time and place we live. It is up to us to use that agency as best we can, to make the world we hand over to our children better. We have no choice but to fight, because we see that the pillage, the dispossession, the exploitation is going to continue.
In fact, it is getting worse. In fact, it is threatening the very continuation of our species and so many other non-human species on this planet. We are really facing an existential crisis for our civilization. I think in that regard, it’s worth understanding these questions. I mean this not in just a conceptual way. I do mean this as a practical mantra for us as organizers, is we have to understand ourselves in generational terms.
We need to see our role in the long fight that has been going on since time immemorial. One of my favorite quotes that’s ever been said on my show, was by the great labor organizer, Indigenous labor organizer, Cooper Caraway, who said the labor movement didn’t start when a bunch of guys sat down in a hall and called themselves the amalgamated bricklayers. He said from the moment one human being had to serve another to survive, the labor movement was born.
The labor movement is there in the fight against the Pharaohs in Egypt. It is there in the fight against slavery in the Antebellum South. It is there in the fight to expand women’s right to be full employees in the workforce and receive equal pay for equal work. It is always there and it is here now, and that struggle is never ending. We have to understand, it’s important to understand this because the present context that we live in, work against us having that generational mindset and in fact, stunt a lot of our imagination.
Take the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Glacier Northwest against the Teamsters. This is going to severely hinder the legal ability of unions to strike in this country. It’s going to open the floodgates for employers to sue unions out of existence for economic damages incurred during a strike, when causing economic damages is the whole damn point of a strike. We can look at that in two ways. One, “Well, shoot, they just took another weapon out of our arsenal, so we’ve got to just work with what we’re given.”
Or we take the generational stance and we say, “You know what? In the 1930s before the Wagner Act was passed, workers were getting militant and they were forcing the government’s hand. They were scaring the living jeepers out of the ruling class.” In fact, many in the ruling class were beseeching the government to find some peaceful resolution, unless we devolve into all-out class war, which many feared we were at the precipice of. That’s like the broth from which the new deal itself emerged.
But the point being is that we cannot undo these systems of oppression by playing by the rules that that same system sets for us. We need to understand in generational terms, that many of the biggest gains that working people have made fighting, just as imposing and daunting or even more imposing and daunting circumstances like the divine right of kings, like the Atlantic slave trade, so on and so forth.
If we can overcome that, we can overcome anything. That I do believe. Now whether or not we can repair all the damage that those systems have done and the unequal, uneven societies that we have inherited from them. I don’t think that we’ll ever necessarily reach a point of equilibrium of stasis of full equality, but we can move towards the horizon of it. We have to move towards that horizon because amazing things can happen, even if you don’t achieve that ultimate goal.
I guess the last thing I would say is that I would stress to people that we can’t be so sure that we know how things are going to shake out. A lot of us did not know or expect that one protest in Minneapolis was going to spawn a worldwide protest movement, the size of which we couldn’t even conceive of a month earlier. We can’t necessarily anticipate the cascading effect that it has when more and more people get involved in the fight.
But the more that we do the tilling work, the more that we organize daily, the more that we talk to our coworkers, our families, our friends, our church members. The more that we do the work to remind ourselves and our fellow workers that we are the agents of change. That we have it within ourselves, as Thomas Payne once said, to make the world over again. If we start building those muscles.
If we start seeing that we do have the ability to change our circumstances in our workplaces, in our apartment buildings, on our blocks, we start seeing the tangible results of our agency, our action, our collective work. Then that is only going to fuel more energy that is going to bring more people into the fight. That is going to make us that much more confident as we continue to move towards that horizon that is not inevitable.
Thanks, Max. I think that the responses here have really actually mapped the spectrum of approaches to reparations, in particular, which is what the question about Olufemi Taiwo talks about in his book, Reconsidering Reparations. Which on the one hand, needs to take stock of historical harms and redistribute wealth and provide resources to rectify those harms.
On the second part, gives people the actual resources to be able to be economically not degraded the way they are today. Third, does the things, the speculative and visionary things that we’re talking about here, which is struggling for more participatory, equitable democratic structures the way that Bree is mentioning, which we might not even be able to conceive of yet, but have to struggle for in the present.
The first step, of course, which is where we began this webinar, is taking down the corporations, politicians and people that have begun to amass and concentrate that wealth and power in the first place. I just wanted to bring us back full circle here to reframe the question. There is one last question that I’d like to visit in the chat, which is practical. Is asking what are some of the most concrete ways today that the racial wealth gap can be closed, and whose responsibility is that to lead? Saqib, maybe you could chime in here.
Yeah. I don’t want to sound like a broken record here, but redistribution, I think, is the key thing. It’s not just enough to, “Yes, we need to raise the minimum wage. Yes, we need to raise the floor.” But you will not close the wealth gap, unless you’re actually taking from those that have been given to those who don’t. I think for me, this also gets at this question of reparations.
Yes, we need reparations from the government, but we also need reparations from the corporations that have profited from racialized harm and interactive profits. I think that that just is a big piece. We know that one of the most effective ways to actually redistribute wealth is through taxation, progressive taxation. I think that’s what we really need to be looking at.
Is how do we actually just tax the hell out of folks at the folks who have the most, in order to have deep investments in the communities that don’t have both cash investments and investments in infrastructure, public services? Just really lifting up the communities that have been starved of resources so that a handful of old white guys can get wealthier.
Bree and Max, Saqib said one word, redistribution. If you could have one word, I’m just kidding, but feel free to respond before we close out here.
Voluntary taxes, just to make sure that [inaudible 01:27:31].
Yeah. The two things I would say, one, we need all of it. I would just ask people to not be so sure that we know the exact right path to achieving equality and justice, especially when we are living in a society where so many people feel thoroughly disempowered. They are treated as idle spectators and consumers by our corporate media and our politicians, and our bosses, so on and so forth. Are just pliable numbers, disposable discardable numbers in a larger system.
Anywhere there are people who are fighting back and realizing that they are the agents of change, we need to support that. Again, the cascading effect is important, so I would say that. And second, I would just put in a plug, unionize your workplace. It’s not going to solve everything. But as I’ve aforementioned, it will give you a necessary sense of power that you have it within yourself and your coworkers have it within yourselves to change your circumstances.
Also, union contracts drastically improve the earning power of Black people, people of color, and other marginalized groups when compared to non-union workers from those same categories. That is an essential piece to this pie.
Thank you. Very well said, everyone. I just want to thank our panelists and give them some, my applause is real, but please give them some virtual applause for a wonderful conversation. That’s all we have time for today unfortunately. As I said, this webinar, the recording will be available online sometime early next week.
I want to thank our amazing participants for an excellent conversation. Of course, you, the audience for joining this episode of Remaking the Economy, please complete the survey, which will be available in the chat. Have a wonderful rest of your afternoon, everyone. Take care.