Economic justice

MLK’s fight for economic justice continues more than ever

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew that achieving equality under the law was only the first step to ending white supremacy; equity in economic opportunity was more critical and difficult.

“The prohibition of barbaric behavior, while beneficial to the victim, does not constitute the achievement of equality or freedom,” he wrote in an essay for The Nation magazine on March 14, 1966.

“Someone took advantage of the low wages of the Negroes. The depressed standard of living of blacks is a structural part of the economy. Some industries are based on the supply of low-wage, under-skilled and immobile non-white labour,” he added.

The United States has come a long way since King’s assassination in 1968. But so many of his words still apply today.

“Conflict is inevitable because a stage has been reached in which the reality of equality will require significant adjustments in the way of life of part of the white majority,” he wrote. “There is no discernible will on the part of white leaders to prepare the people for the changes at the new level.”

Politics today is just as defined by ethnicity as it was in 1966, although the roles have changed. The Republican Party, which gave us Abraham Lincoln and the fight against racist oppression, today opposes efforts to expand voting and economic programs to end racial inequality.

Democrats, meanwhile, remain guilty of prioritizing power over justice. Those who represent predominantly white populations oppose voting protections and tax credits to lift children out of poverty. The senses. Joe Manchin and Kristen Sinema provide cover for many neo-Dixiecrats in Congress.

Opposition to anti-poverty programs makes little economic sense. We know that when people make more money, they need fewer government services and pay more taxes, which eases the burden on others. Pandemic relief efforts make the case.

“The stimulus payments, enacted as part of economic relief legislation related to the COVID-19 pandemic, lifted 11.7 million people out of poverty,” the Census Bureau reported in September. “Unemployment insurance benefits, also expanded in 2020, prevented 5.5 million people from falling into poverty.”


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Social Security, the program that former Gov. Rick Perry called a Ponzi scheme, displaced 26.5 million people of poverty in 2021, the bureau added in its analysis of the supplementary poverty measure.

Companies have also proven the wisdom of diversity. Companies whose boards include women and people of color drive higher profits and greater innovation, according to data analytics firm MCSI and investment bank Morgan Stanley. The private sector realizes this.

“Directors who are black, Asian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern or of another non-white ethnic group now hold 4,500 board seats among companies in the Russell 3000 stock index, 25% more than ‘at the end of 2020 and almost 50% more than at the end of 2019,’ reported the New York Times, citing data from ISS Corporate Solutions.

Yet the US economy remains far from racially neutral. Bishop William J. Barber II and the Poor Peoples Campaign are fighting for a fairer system that raises wages for the 43% of American citizens who earn so little they pay no taxes and depend on government assistance .

“Stopping $15 and a union for workers struggling to survive is a form of abuse,” Barber said, protesting Manchin’s opposition to the Build Back Better bill last month. “Failing to fight poverty when you know it kills 250,000 people every year is a form of abuse. Blocking a child tax credit that will help 39 million families, or 61 million children, is a form of abuse.

Barber’s radical idea is that all Americans should be treated fairly. That low-income workers can and should expect their democratically elected representatives to provide greater protection against exploitation by employers.

“We believe that people should not live or die of poverty in the richest nation that has ever existed,” states the Poor Peoples Campaign manifesto. “We recognize that the central role of systemic racism in sustaining economic oppression must be named, detailed, and expounded empirically, morally, and spiritually.”

While many will view the campaign as radical, it is simply an extension of King’s work.

Black people “need to have the opportunity to advance in their work; they need the kind of job that feeds, clothes, educates and stabilizes a family,” King wrote. “The Negroes wait for their freedom, not as subjects of benevolence, but as Americans who were at Bunker Hill, who worked hard to clear the forests, drain the swamps, build the roads – who fought the wars and dreamed the dreams the nation’s founders considered to be an American birthright.

As we honor King this holiday, we must remember that his work is incomplete. We are just getting to the hardest part.

Tomlinson writes commentary on business, economics, and politics.

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