POLITICS
06/08/2016 05:03 pm ET Updated Jun 08, 2016

Here’s Why Progressive Economic Policy Cannot Ignore Race

Civil rights leaders and economists unite to shed light on a debate that has dogged Democrats.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton implied that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) did not emphasize the im
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton implied that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) did not emphasize the importance of racial inequality enough.

Achieving racial justice and economic equality are sometimes viewed as mutually exclusive goals that appeal to distinctly different progressive constituencies. But two reports released by the Roosevelt Institute on Wednesday challenge that notion.

The papers -- “Untamed: How to Check Corporate, Financial and Monopoly Power” and “Rewrite the Racial Rules: Building an Inclusive American Economy” -- and their themes were the subject of a conference in Washington on Wednesday afternoon. The gathering brought together some of the biggest names in the world of civil rights activism, such as Melissa Harris-Perry and Alicia Garza, with titans of progressive economic thought like Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz.

The event occurred at the close of a bruising Democratic primary characterized by deep ideological divisions over the respective roles of racial and economic justice in securing a progressive future.

One of Hillary Clinton’s more trenchant critiques of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was that his populist rhetoric failed to emphasize solutions to endemic racism that can persist even in otherwise progressive societies. Sanders supporters argued that the Vermont progressive’s commitment to social-democratic policies like single-payer healthcare and free college tuition would actually do more to improve the lives of black Americans, who suffer disproportionately from poverty.

While the two Roosevelt Institute reports were not exclusively developed with the primary season in mind, its relevance is not lost on the reports’ authors. The papers effectively contend that both sides -- the staunch economic populists and the hard-core racial justice advocates -- are right. They just need to meet somewhere in the middle.

“Everyone who is interested in racial inclusion and inclusion of all in the economy should also be interested in tackling the issues of corporate power and financial power, and vice versa,” said Mike Konczal, a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, who co-edited “Untamed.”

Looking ahead to the general election, Andrea Flynn, who co-authored “Rewrite the Racial Rules,” said the paper’s analysis of economic equality and racial justice is something that both Republicans and Democrats can learn from.

“Both parties have been fueled by this unrest around inequality ... and we weren’t seeing a lot of conversation [from the] candidates at the policy level that were coherently linking the two agendas,” Flynn said. “We really believe that we cannot achieve economic equality for all if we don’t tackle systemic racism. This framework might help link those two issues in the presidential campaign.”

Recent protests against police killings of unarmed black people have drawn attention to ways in which racism transcends econo
Pacific Press/Getty Images
Recent protests against police killings of unarmed black people have drawn attention to ways in which racism transcends economic policy.

Why Progressive Economic Policies Matter to Communities Of Color

The 86-page “Untamed” is comprised of a series of articles co-edited by the Roosevelt Institute’s Nell Abernathy, Mike Konczal and Kathryn Milani, proposing progressive economic reforms in corporate governance, the financial sector and the regulatory state. It reads like a wide-reaching policy manual for a future president. The recommendations are not necessarily new, though the paper’s focus on lesser-known priorities like breaking up monopolies to improve competitiveness expand the boundaries of a debate that is more often limited to taxes and banking policy.  

What makes the paper truly stand out, however, is an article devoted to explaining why the reform agenda it is promoting will positively impact communities of color. It is something progressive think tanks and elected officials only bother to do intermittently. In “Racial Justice and This Agenda,” the Roosevelt Institute’s Konczal makes the case that in a society in which a handful of corporations control a disproportionate share of wealth and power, already-marginalized minorities are often hurt the most.

It is hard to understand how monopolies, for instance, harm consumers in general, let alone how they impact communities of color in particular. Konczal explains that telecommunications companies’ fight against net neutrality is a prime example of the way anti-competitive practices disproportionately restrict people of color.

Under the current neutral system, the internet has many of the features of a public utility required to provide unrestricted, equal-quality service to all users. But the already-highly concentrated telecommunications industry that provides internet service want the ability to create “fast lanes” for individuals and companies with the means to pay for them, which would make it harder for new internet companies and digital movements to arise. A more closed internet could also allow the internet providers to discriminate against content or causes that conflict with their agenda.

As a result, eroding net neutrality could have prevented contemporary civil rights efforts, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, from getting off the ground, according to Konczal. He notes that Rashad Robinson, head of Color of Change, an online civil rights group, praised a February 2015 decision by the Federal Communications Commission to protect net neutrality for that very reason.

Progressives may have won the short-term battle, Konczal argues, but net neutrality is still vulnerable to being weakened without adequate regulation. And internet-based companies themselves, like search engines and social media platforms, are not yet subject to transparency about the way they mediate information and provide services for the public. Understanding the racial justice dimension of those reforms improves progressives’ odds in the fight to enact them, Konczal implies.

If presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump really wants to change the perception that he is a racist, h
Bloomberg/Getty Images
If presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump really wants to change the perception that he is a racist, he might want to read the Roosevelt Institute's new reports.

Colorblind Solutions Are Not Enough

But while the Roosevelt Institute wants to show how these sorts of universal regulatory reforms provide key benefits for people of color, the think tank acknowledges in a companion paper that so-called colorblind economic policies are not enough to ensure racial equality in all aspects of American life.

The 92-page “Rewrite the Racial Rules,” focuses on the causes of, and solutions to, African-American racial and economic inequality. The paper’s co-authors Andrea Flynn, Susan Holmberg, Dorian Warren and Felicia Wong explain how the “trickle-down” economic policies of recent decades that have hollowed out the middle class have hit black Americans especially hard. But they also highlight the persistence of racial disparities in education, criminal justice, health, democratic participation, income and wealth that no amount of colorblind fixes will address.

American society, the authors maintain, must fundamentally “rewrite the rules” with an eye toward the specific challenges black Americans face, as well as reverse a misguided economic system under which all Americans suffer and black Americans suffer disproportionately.

“Rewrite” breaks down the current set of unwritten racial rules into three categories: “exclusionary rules,” “inclusionary rules” and “non-rules.”

Exclusionary rules are discriminatory policies like slavery, Jim Crow laws and “redlining” -- a policy that limited black homeownership -- all of which ensured that black people were economically and socially segregated, according to the paper. Inclusionary rules consist of laws and policies that try to advance racial equality, such as the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. And non-rules are the absence of policies that protect people of color and allow racism to survive. 

The paper’s co-authors Andrea Flynn, Susan Holmberg, Dorian Warren and Felicia Wong argue that the inclusionary rules that already exist have not gone far enough to remedy the effects of centuries of racist “exclusionary rules.” They must be updated for the contemporary era and expanded to cover the areas of American life where “non-rules” are currently the norm, they contend.

Although the report aggregates many progressive reforms in areas like criminal justice that are already part of the mainstream discussion, what makes it unique is the way it frames its proposals as an explicit rebuke to those who argue that progressive economic policies are sufficient to address deep-seated racial injustice.

“For black Americans, higher incomes or more education do not remove the threat of injustice,” the paper states in its introduction. “Indeed, the continued shooting of unarmed black Americans underscores the limits of economic policy in addressing systemic racism.”

This moment called for a framing that connected the economic and race conversations. Andrew Flynn, Roosevelt Institute

One compelling way the report makes this point is in its discussion of the disparity between the incomes of black and white Americans thanks to the years-long deterioration of “inclusionary rules” in the workplace. From 1965 to 1980, strong affirmative action policies reduced segregation and discrimination in many occupations. Beginning in 1980 this trend ebbed as the country moved toward supposedly colorblind employment policies.

As a result, segregation has crept steadily upward and rampant job market discrimination has returned. Racial discrimination prevents many black applicants with equivalent qualifications to their white peers from getting the same jobs, the paper notes. It is also why in 2008, according to figures the report cites, black men with a high school or college degree earned three-quarters of what their white peers with equivalent degrees earned.

“We argue strongly for a renewed look at affirmative action, or directly targeted efforts to build the pool of qualified educational and job applicants, in order to continue to ensure the reality of equal opportunity,” the authors write in the report’s conclusion.

The original intention of “Rewrite” was to look at race, gender and immigration more broadly. But after doing some research, the authors decided to focus the report on African-Americans exclusively -- as a “starting point,” according to report co-author Andrea Flynn.

“Given the history, given where were are today, given the increased focus on the continued injustices of the criminal justice system and looking at how the shift to restrict voting access is going to impact black Americans, we felt like that that was where we needed to start,” Flynn said.

“This moment called for a framing that connected the economic and race conversations,” Flynn added. “And this was a good place to start that conversation.”

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