In new report entitled State of the Dream 2011, progressive group United for a Fair Economy answers an important question: Who, exactly, will be impacted by the "fiscal responsibility" agenda this year that both parties have called for? The questions I put before you are these: If these policies have disproportionate effect on people of color, are they racist policies? If they are racist policies, and should President Obama approves of these policies, what are we to conclude? I'll tackle the first question as best I can and the second in a follow-up piece.
First, let's note a few points in the report:
- Blacks are 30 percent more likely than the overall workforce to work in public sector jobs as teachers, social workers, bus drivers, public health inspectors and other valuable roles, and they are 70 percent as likely to work for the federal government.
- The recent income tax extension heavily favors Whites, who are three times as likely as Blacks and 4.6 times as likely as Latinos to have annual incomes in excess of $250,000, according to original analysis in this report.
The unemployment rate is 15.8 percent for Blacks, 13 percent for Latinos and 8.5 percent for Whites.
- Blacks hold 10 cents and Latinos hold 12 cents of net wealth for every dollar of net wealth Whites hold (p. 15).
In the professional and business services sector, Black males earn only 57 cents to each dollar of White male earnings. By comparison, Black males earn 80 cents to each dollar of White male earnings in the public administration sector. This trend of greater parity is also true for Black females, Latino males and females and White females (p. 24).
Due to pre-existing wealth disparities, Blacks and Latinos depend on unemployment insurance in times of crisis more often than Whites. A total of 16.4 percent of White households lack enough net worth to subsist for three months at the poverty level without income while 41.7 percent of Blacks and 37.4 percent of Latinos are in that position.
There is more data, but these brief points give you an idea of what you probably already know. Black and Brown people have high levels of poverty and are more likely than Whites to have high levels of public sector employment. Blacks and Latinos earn less money, own less things, and have higher relative debt than Whites. These things are obvious.
The question then puts certain economic policies in context. For example, President Obama recently announced a pay freeze for federal workers. The goal of this action is to save the government some money due to budgetary constraints. However, since Blacks are 70 percent more likely to be federal employees, this particular pay freeze will have a larger impact on Black Americans than Whites. Is this a racist policy? Additionally, there is a just introduced Republican bill to cut the federal workforce by 10 percent across the board. This bill isn't designed to target Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans. At least, not explicitly. However, if large groups of people of color are far more likely to be federal employees, those are the groups that will bear a disproportionate burden for the cuts. Is this racist?
Consider another example: The wealth disparities described above among people of color and Whites reflects a scenario in which people of color are more dependent on unemployment insurance than Whites. Therefore, the recent one-year extension will benefit people of color as a group more than it will benefit Whites as a group. Is this "reverse racism" at work? Could this be why so many Republicans have no problem with trying to end the program, because of their noted hostility to people of color?
In my opinion, these and other economic policies are not explicitly racist in intent and application. But because we exist in a society that has an infrastructure and legacy of racism, the effect of these policies is the same as explicitly racist ones. For example, if you work at the DMV in your state and you're a minority, it probably will seem very much like racism to have your job eliminated while simultaneously the wealthy White guy at your counter is registering his new Bentley as a result of his brand new tax cut. Especially if half your co-workers are of color and most of the new luxury vehicle registrations are from people who are White. The governor may as well have said, "Give the rich White folks a tax cut and fire the coloreds." The policy isn't explicitly racist because a wealthy Black guy would get the same tax cut. The problem is there just aren't as many of those guys as a percentage of the Black population. Years of racially oppressive policies have stunted opportunity for Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans to develop an equal amount of wealth. Latinos are routinely kept away from promotion and opportunity due to discrimination. Things happen as a part of the fabric of our society. The economic policies, while racially blind, add to the problem because of the lack of attention to said fabric.
So what would replace it? Would racially conscious economic and fiscal policies be preferable? For example, what if there were policies that took into account the fact that Blacks are far more likely to be federal employees. Because of institutional discrimination and racism as a part of American society, let us say that President Obama's pay freeze would only apply to 30 percent of Black federal workers and 60 percent of White federal workers. Is this fair or is it discriminatory? While it may correct for racism, it does strike a person as not the sort of "ideal" policy one would like to embody in law. Ideally, all economic and fiscal policy should be racially blind in a racially blind society. Unfortunately, we do not live in such a society. So shouldn't economic policy either match who we actually are? Or, perhaps help correct who we are?
If we are going to try and negate the racist effects of economic policy, race has to be taken into account when making the policy. While we do run the risk of enshrining racial thinking into the law, the bottom line is that we are not color blind. We shouldn't go down the road of making economic policy strictly on the basis of race; however, it has to be a factor in the decision-making.