TEAR DOWN THE WALLS OF ECONOMIC RACISM
After lengthy hours of debate, the citizens of South Carolina joined their Senate in voting to remove their state flag – a version of the Confederate flag – from state house grounds. Twenty-four hours after Governor Nikki Haley signs the legislation, the flag will be removed. Many South Carolinians are hailing flag removal as a “new day” for their state, as well as a tribute to Clementa Pinckney, one of the massacred Emanuel Nine.
Revulsion from the slaughter at Emanuel AME church has sparked conversation all over the country about the confederate flag. An Iowan who sold ice to Wal-Mart with a confederate logo (go figure), was told he had to change his logo or sell his ice elsewhere. The US House of Representatives has banned display of the Confederate flag on sites maintained by the National Park Service. Mississippi Senators Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker say the Mississippi flag should be redesigned to remove the Confederate symbol.
At the same time, support for the Confederate flag continues. More than half of those polled by CNN say the flag represents Southern heritage, not racism. Most Mississippi legislators oppose changing the flag, and sales of the Confederate flag have soared in some states. In Georgia, the Ku Klux Klan has sued to be included in the Adopt-A-Highway program and display their symbol; in Missouri, the Klan won a similar lawsuit.
Removing the flag from public places and putting it in museums is a victory for those who reject this symbol of racial subjugation. Still every economic statistic screams racial subjugation. President Obama had it right (if belatedly) when he said that employers are more willing to employ James than Jamal. Last month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that Black unemployment rate was 9.5 percent, more than twice the 4.6 percent rate than Whites experienced. Some economists will say that African Americans are less educated than Whites, explaining part of the unemployment rate gap. Others will cite other factors, such as occupation and location. Race still plays a role in unemployment rate differentials.
White men and White high school dropouts have about the same unemployment rate as Black high school graduates, and highly educated Blacks always have higher unemployment rates than less well educated Whites. While education pays off for Blacks, as those with better educations are paid more than those with less education, Whites get a greater return on education than Blacks do. If we want to remove vestiges of racial subjugation, we ought to pay attention to unemployment rate differentials and work as hard to eradicate them as we did to take down that Confederate flag in South Carolina. How? President Obama could sign an executive order directing the Department of Labor, an other federal departments, to target money and programs to the inner city or, more specifically, to African Americans. In these closing months of his presidency, he has used executive orders for other purposes. Why not use one to ensure that Jamal gets treated the same way as Johnny?
In addition to Jamal and Johnny, how about Tamika and Theresa? Though the unemployment rate gap is smaller between Black and White women, there are gaps in pay and working conditions. Because more than 40 percent of Black families are female-headed, low pay for Black women means different working conditions for Black families.
Similar differences are measured in the poverty rate, where more than a quarter of Black families live in poverty, compared to fewer than 10 percent of White ones. Average pay for African American family is about $31,000, compared to about $52,000 for White families. Congress has been hostile to any poverty-prevention programs, fighting to reduce food stamps programs, pushing back on Obama-backed legislation to increase the minimum wage. In the midst of legislative hostility, could President Obama do anything to lower poverty and especially the gap in the poverty rate? Certainly appointing a Presidential Commission to propose legislation on poverty prevention would be a first, if only symbolic.
The wealth gap is staggering. African Americans have a scant 2.5 percent of our nation’s wealth. The median wealth for White families is $120,000 in wealth, compared to $7000 for Black families. The wealth gap is partly a function of the inability for African Americans to attain wealth, certainly during slavery and the Black Codes era, and beyond. There were exceptions, of course, but the gaping wealth gap affects the quality of life for African Americans. What to do? The President might consider the Institute of the Black World’s proposal for a John Hope Franklin Commission for Reparatory Justice to explore the possibility of, among other things, reparations.
Taking down the Confederate flag without tearing down the walls of racial economic inequality is a partial victory. While I am elated that South Carolina governor Nikki Haley has expressed her opposition to the Confederate flag as a symbol of hate and White supremacy, I wonder if she will fight to end the institutional racism that results in higher unemployment rates, lower incomes, and less wealth for African Americans.