The legacy of the civil rights movement to ensure economic equality is not lost or forgotten.
Gary Cunningham, CEO, Prosperity Now
Last month, Prosperity Now, a national nonprofit for economic and racial justice, hosted its first in-person national conference since 2018. Held in Atlanta, Georgia, the conference drew more than 1,200 people, which makes it one of the largest rallies for racial and economic justice. defenders since the start of the pandemic.
Historically, Prosperity Now, formerly the Corporation for Enterprise Development, has focused on promoting tax incentive policies that support individual savings and wealth building by low-income Americans. It’s still part of his program. However, Cunningham noted, the nonprofit is now taking a much broader approach than looking to “change a little program here and there.” One of the main goals of the Atlanta meeting, Cunningham insisted, was to “reinvent economic justice for all.” This reflects an organization-wide decision to “go bold and big to focus our work exclusively on racial and economic justice.”
The opening plenary – entitled “Where do we go from here?” – was an explicit reminder of the last book published by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1967 – namely, Where do we go from here: chaos or community? In the book, King called for the “total, direct, and immediate abolition of poverty.” King, of course, began his career as an organizer and preacher in Atlanta, so the recall was fitting.
Earlier in 1967, at the Riverside Church in Harlem, King made explicit the link between racism and economic injustice, noting: “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are seen as more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being defeated.
The extraordinary victories of the civil rights movement in the political sphere are rightly celebrated. The passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, for example, marked the first time the United States came close to universal adult suffrage, a “minimum threshold” that political scientists say must be crossed. for a country to be considered a “democracy”. ”
Yet when it comes to the economic agenda of the civil rights movement, the record of achievement is much less pronounced. Today, for example, racial wealth and wage gaps remain largely unchanged, and indeed worse, than they were in King’s day.
So where does the movement go from here? This question, posed during the opening session of the conference, served as a red thread which made it possible to connect the sessions of the conference. Here are some key themes that were raised during the gathering.
The long march of institutions
One suggested strategy, offered by Glenn Harris, president of Race Forward, was to own the institutions. As Harris said, “We must own the institutions in our lives.” He particularly emphasized the need to own and control institutions at the local level. “There’s so much national noise, and that’s important,” Harris noted. “But the real change we seek is happening in our neighborhoods, our local communities. You cannot lose sight of this.
Dr. Manuel Pastor, a longtime adviser to labor and social movement activists based at the University of Southern California, agreed. “How do you become impatient in the face of injustice but patient in the face of strategy?” asked the pastor. Transformation, he argued, will occur through “the long march of institutions.”
Challenging harmful narratives with activism-related data
A second plenary session was entitled “Our Lives, Our Stories, Our Solutions”. In this panel, Eva Matos, associate chief executive of Ideas 42, a nonprofit consulting group, identified five false stories that his group intended to challenge. One is the misconception that poverty is a personal moral failure. The second is the myth that the United States is a meritocracy. A third myth is that it’s okay to cheat on welfare. The fourth is fatalism, the myth that poverty is inevitable. And the fifth is the paternalistic myth, that is, the pernicious notion that low-income people need decisions to be made for them. In short, the media discourse reduces poverty to individual behavior, ignoring the systemic drivers of poverty that are rooted in structural racism and capitalism.
In a subsequent plenary session on “Using Data to Advance Racial Wealth Equity,” Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to be an anti-racist and founding director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research, argued that the research could help challenge the false narratives Matos was referring to. As Kendi has pointed out, while some may like to attribute the racial wealth gap in whole or in part to alleged shortcomings of black Americans, data from the field flatly refutes such claims.
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For example, Kendi noted that a common refrain is “If only black people saved more,” the racial wealth gap would be smaller. But Kendi pointed out that “the data showed that if you control for income, there are no differences in savings patterns. Studies show that when you control income and wealth, there are no disparities in financial education.
During the conference, two major racial justice data projects were highlighted. One is the Black Wealth Data Center, which aims to be a one-stop-shop for racial impact data. The effort is funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies and is incubated by Prosperity Now.
A second project, led by Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter and director of Black Future Labs, is called the Black Census. As Garza notes, this is the second iteration of the project; in 2018, approximately 30,000 black Americans were surveyed. This iteration aims to carry out 250,000 interviews. The census reveals that “economic problems at all levels are what keep people awake overnight. Not having the safety net supports you need. With student debt being a huge concern. Unaffordable housing. Quality affordable health care.
Kendi and Garza were clear that data alone is insufficient. It needs to be integrated into broader movement strategies. Kendi called for a four-pronged approach that combines research with policy work, narrative change and advocacy. For Garza too, politics and advocacy are key. As Garza said, the purpose of the census is to build “a legislative agenda that we are fighting for. We offer people the opportunity to win locally and change federal policy. She added that she envisions the census as a “vehicle of collaboration and a vehicle of empowerment.”
The importance of historical analysis
In a plenary session on “Big Ideas for Economic Equity,” Darrick Hamilton, New School economist and founding director of the Institute on Race, Power, and Political Economy, stressed the need for a historically grounded understanding. “The racial wealth gap is an implicit measure of our racist past,” Hamilton pointed out. “We focus on bad financial choices. This frame is wrong. The directional emphasis is wrong. Poor economic circumstances limit choice itself and leave poor borrowers with little or no choice but to use predatory services.
In another plenary session on “Radical Collaborations: Centering Children and Families on the Path to Justice,” Hamilton’s historical point was highlighted by Washington Post journalist Robert Samuels. With a comrade Job journalist Toluse Olorunnipa, Samuels is the co-author of the book, His Name Was George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Fight for Racial Justicea biography based on 400 interviews conducted after Floyd’s murder.
Samuels noted that in researching the book, he and Olorunnipa went back seven generations. They learned that after emancipation, Floyd’s great-great-grandfather “amassed over 500 acres of land,” making him one of the wealthiest landowners in North America. “If George Floyd was white, he would have been born into wealth,” observed Samuels. “But before a single generation, all this land was stolen.” As a result, the Floyd family did not enjoy any intergenerational wealth, but instead grew up in segregated communities with inadequate schools. Samuels added, “What George Floyd went through happened to countless black people. … Your family history and what they went through impacts how you live your life.”
The struggle for economic democracy
The closing plenary, titled “Until We All Prosper: The Path to Economic Justice for All,” focused on the intersection of democracy and economic justice. Unsurprisingly, given current voter suppression efforts, much of the discussion has focused on defending the right to vote. Miles Rapaport, who with EJ Dionne, Jr. co-wrote 100% Democracy: The Case for Universal Suffrageoutlined the various dimensions of the struggle – including campaigns to allow same-day registration, restore voting rights for formerly incarcerated, expand voting mechanisms (such as mail-in voting and ballot boxes) – as well as defensive struggles against voter suppression laws and the influence of wealthy donors.
In her remarks, however, Taifa Smith Butler, President of Demos, explained the deep links between political and economic democracy. “Economic and political power are inextricably linked,” Butler observed. She added, “This system was designed to create winners and losers. We assessed the landowner or the land thief. We have valued the white skin or the capitalist or the rich. We have undervalued people like indigenous peoples from day one… We have undervalued agriculture, domestic workers, caregivers.
“Unless and until we make sure we center people of color,” Butler continued, “we will continue to perpetuate exploitation and oppression in our economy.
At the start of the conference, Cunningham challenged participants to reinvent economic justice for all. What does this imply ? For Butler, the answer to this question was clear: “Democracy is everything. It is the ability for us to influence the economic forces that shape our lives… We want people to have power and control over the economy. That is, Butler added, “that’s the work we want to deepen into this next generation.”