A four-decade onslaught of neoliberal Reaganomics has decimated the American poor and working class. Median wages have remained stagnant since the late 1970s, despite a consistent increase in productivity. The top 1 percent owns 40 percent of the country’s wealth, and top CEOs make more than 300 times that of the average worker (which is a 1,000 percent increase since 1978). There are 46 million Americans officially living in poverty, but, due to the arbitrary nature of the poverty line, another 100 million are “near poor” (i.e. cannot afford basic necessities). And keep in mind — this is happening in the richest country in world history. These third-world levels of economic inequality make the U.S. look a lot like an oligarchy. The vast majority of new income goes to the top 1 percent, and one family — the Waltons of the Walmart empire — has more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of the population.
Wealth concentration and poverty under neoliberalism aren’t abstract concepts; they have tangible consequenses. For example, half of all Americans don’t even live paycheck to paycheck, student loan debt is diminishing the prospects of home ownership, climate change is beginning to devastate poor communities while helping the rich, and 45,000 people die every year due to a lack of health insurance. In Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967, he said:
“One day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy.”
But this is a democracy, right? Who would vote for such a grim existence? Well, according to an academic study from Cambridge, there is literally no correlation between public opinion and government policy. Turns out the plutocrats are running the show (thanks, in part, to Citizens United).
Generic, theoretical capitalism is inseparable from our current paradigm of advanced, hyper-consumerist, job-shipping, union-busting, soul-crushing neoliberalism. Prominent capitalists have fought desperately to achieve this sadistic system, which is the culmination of an evolutionary history of laissez-faire. One day, long ago, Adam Smith planted roses, and all that remain are the thorns. To quote King again, “today capitalism has out-lived its usefulness.”
But capitalism is not an equal-opportunity destroyer. These social tragedies demonstrably and empirically affect folks of color at vastly disproportional rates. For instance, the average net worth of black households is $6,314, compared to $110,500 for the average white household. Blacks are more than twice as likely as whites to be poor, and a white male with a criminal record is more likely to get a job than an equally qualified person of color with a clean record. Median black household income is approximately $43,300, while median white household income is around $71,300. This discrepancy is roughly 40 percent greater today than it was in 1967. And these economic disparities are just the beginning. For instance, in the area of mass incarceration, more than 40 percent of US inmates are black men, while that demographic only makes up 6.5 percent of the general population. In the area of police violence, black teens age 15–19 are 21 times more likely to be shot and killed by the police than white teens of the same age group. These statistics could continue for pages. Profound systemic racism poisons every aspect of American society. These horrors are manifestations of the racial caste system that has always existed in the US, which is discussed at length by Michelle Alexander in her groundbreaking bookThe New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
We often forget that merely five decades ago, our country maintained a government-sactioned apartheid system. This included the intentional creation of black ghettos through redlining and other discriminatory policies. Political inertia, mixed with the racist War on Drugs, has preserved the vestiges of white supremacy. The reality on the ground looks a lot like the same ol’ Jim Crow; that guy we swore we kicked out by the end of the 1960s.
But racism isn’t just institutional; it is often overt. The recent emergence of Trump made this crystal-clear. Not only did the Ku Klux Klan and white nationalists endorse him, but even for his voters, “fear of diversity” was a significant motivating factor.
The evils of racism are clearly apparent, but racial ideologies also serve to pit poor and working-class white folks against people of color and minorities, distracting them from their true nemesis; the ruling class. This is a classic example of “divide and conquer,” and has benefited the elites immensely. Anti-racism activist and author Tim Wise elucidates this phenomenon in a concise Marxian manner:
The history of America is the history of rich white men telling not rich white people that their enemies are black and brown.
Let’s put an end to this maddness. Let’s build a movement to confront and destroy this dual evil of economic and racial injustice. Might I suggest…
Socialists have a rich tradition of fighting racism, from the Communist Party of Alabama, to Cuba’s crucial support of black South Africans during Apartheid, to early 20th century socialist politician Eugene Debs, to revolutionary Marxist Rosa Luxemburg, to the original Black Panther Party. Socialists see racism as not only contrary to worker solidarity, but as a destructive and dehumanizing hierarchy, just like the class system itself. And indeed, capitalism and racism have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship thus far. Two modern organizations that are battling this double-headed beast are Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and Redneck Revolt.
Founded in 1982, DSA is the largest socialist organization in the U.S., with a total dues-paying membership of 25,000 (a four-fold increase since November of 2016). Members have been active in opposing the agenda of the Trump regime, as well as carrying the torch of the Bernie Sanders political revolution. DSA has been on the front lines fighting for a $15 minimum wage, universal healthcare, LGBTQ equality, climate justice, reproductive rights, and many other progressive causes. However, one thing that separates DSA from other left-leading organizations such as Our Revolution is their vehement anti-capitalism. DSA documentWhere We Stand: Building the Next Leftexplains:
We are socialists because we reject an international economic order sustained by private profit, alienated labor, race and gender discrimination, environmental destruction, and brutality and violence in defense of the status quo.
We are socialists because we share a vision of a humane international social order based both on democratic planning and market mechanisms to achieve equitable distribution of resources, meaningful work, a healthy environment, sustainable growth, gender and racial equality, and non-oppressive relationships.
A long and deep legacy of white supremacy has always arrested the development of U.S. democracy… When the system is declining, it can bring despair. That’s why Black Lives Matter — and all other young people of all colors who are mobilizing — is a beautiful thing. We are having a moral and spiritual awakening. It gives us democratic hope… It’s time to move from being spectators, to being actors.
Members of Redneck Revolt are not liberals. They are pro-gun, pro-labor, anti-fascist, and anti-racist. The movement is rapidly expanding, with more than 30 chapters around the U.S. Developing in 2009 as an outgrowth of the John Brown Gun Club, this diverse group now focuses on recruiting rural southern and Appalachian working-class folks to join the fight against white supremacy and capitalism, while protecting and supporting people of color and other marginalized communities. After all, many of these impoverished white folks have been voting against their own interests for decades, after falling for the xenophobic rhetoric of prominent politicians. Dave Strano, a founding member of the organization, explains:
“The history of the white working class has been a history of being an exploited people. However, we’ve been an exploited people that further exploits other exploited people. While we’ve been living in tenements and slums for centuries, we’ve also been used by the rich to attack our neighbors, coworkers, and friends of different colors, religions and nationalities.”
Member Max Neely summarized their strategy by saying simply:
“We use gun culture as a way to relate to people. No liberal elitism. Our basic message is: guns are fine, but racism is not.”
Simply mentioning the term “white privilege” can make people uncomfortable, but this sociological reality must be acknowledged and dismantled as an inherent aspect of entrenched white supremacy. White privilege is the flip-side of the oppression and marginalization faced by people of color. Simply being given an unconditional pass to avoid oppression, discrimination, profiling, and other forms of profound inequality is in itself a major manifestation of white privilege. But an understanding of intersectionality as it relates to privilege is also crucial, just as it is in understanding oppression and exploitation. If one has privileges based on other sociological aspects of their identity, this privilege may extend beyond merely avoiding the injustices uniquely faced by non-whites. In addition to race, these realms include class, sexual orientation, religion, gender identity, etc. The more dominant groups one belongs to, the more privileges that are usually offorded to that individual. Based on a rudimentary analysis of modern American society, the most privileged demographic would be wealthy, white, heterosexual, cisgendered, Christian men. Indeed, if you pay even peripheral attention to current events and history, you’ll quickly realize that these are, more often than not, the people who own and control our society and have since its inception. One such man was “founding father” and forth president of the United States, James Madison, who was passionate about protecting “the minority of the opulent against the majority.” Oh, and he also owned over a hundred slaves. There are still dudes like this, but now they’re banksters and Koch-fiends. Let’s break this trend. To those of us with various forms of privilege, let’s use it to fight for a better future for everyone.