EAN Editorial note: This article is just over a year old, but the message is just as timely and urgent as when it was first published.
There is nothing more expensive in America than being poor.
Poverty is the quiet, quotidian violence not easily captured in live streams and news feeds. It rarely strikes with a flashy bang, manifesting more often as the slower destruction of accumulated theft.
Since the death of Freddie Gray after being in the custody of Baltimore law enforcement, the city’s residents have come together to protest both the injustice of Gray’s last moments and the broader series of everyday horrors of which it is only one part. This civilian uprising occurs against and because of the backdrop of Baltimore’s economic abandonment, which has left its primarily black residents vulnerable not only to police violence, but also to a dangerous lack of basic human services like water and affordable housing.
Baltimore’s schools remain underfunded even though almost 85% of the city’s students come from households with incomes low enough to qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches. The impossible constraints the city’s residents must grapple with are as unique as they are emblematic of economic injustice facing all black people in the US. Too often, economic discrimination (or the threat of it) heightens the violent targeting of black individuals and communities by law enforcement.
When black people are incarcerated at impossibly high rates, private prison companies and state governments both stand to profit. That profit motive accelerates state violence across the country. Ferguson’s police violence and open hostility toward black residents were part and parcel of a law enforcement practice that prioritized the extraction of revenue from its citizens over public safety needs. Horror stories of thousands of dollars accrued in fines, days spent in jail and jobs lost as a result are not an anomaly; they are simply the accumulated, mundane discrimination against which black residents have no readily accessible recourse.
In New York, the dubious “resisting arrest” charge is a hallmark of the “Broken Windows” policing strategy that targets low income communities of color for petty offenses. Used most often to stamp people viewed as inherently criminal with an arbitrary arrest record, “resisting arrest” – or simply, existing while black – can cost someone up to one year in jail and thousands of dollars in fines.
Arrest records, even when they don’t lead to sentencing, can dramatically reduce someone’s chances of attaining an education or stable employment. For black people, who are already pushed out of the workforce by so many other factors, an arrest incurred for simply “pissing off police” can be the difference between having a job and starving.
Indeed, the violence of the state extends beyond fatal or expensive encounters with trigger-happy law enforcement officers, long before the final breaths now played on harrowing, infinite loop. To stifle a community slowly, without the decisive replay value of a chokehold, you criminalize poverty while withholding the resources needed to escape it. There are many quiet ways to rob someone of breath.
Across the US, racial and ethnic wealth gaps continue to increase, climbing to record highs even as the economy slowly churns out of a recession. In 2013, the poverty rate among white Americans was 9.6%; among black Americans the number jumped to a whopping 27.2%. The wealth of white American households in 2010 was eight times the median wealth of black households; by 2013 it had risen to 13 times greater.
And that gap grows in no small part because of the intertwining forms of economic discrimination that target black communities – a complex web of racist housing policy that creates intergenerational poverty, education practices that funnel black students into prisons and out of classrooms and an economic climate that offers primarily low-wage jobs in lieu of better-paying work.
Though the black unemployment rate is consistently double that of whites, many black Americans are among the expanding ranks of the nation’s working poor, often working two or three low-wage jobs but still unable to consistently afford rapidly rising cost of living expenses (most notably, rent).
Black workers must also contend with a job industry informed by the same racist beliefs that seep into other facets of American life. Across sectors, black workers experience myriad forms of race-based discrimination in the work place –from being fired over complaints that there are “too many” of them, to not being considered for positions because their names are “too ghetto”, to being bombarded with a series of harmful microaggressions on the job that both reduce morale and inhibit professional progress.
For low-wage workers, these consequences are especially dire. The current job climate is structured to slow or stop their advancement at every turn: erroneous complaints that low-wage work is “low-skilled” work, that most low-wage workers are “teens looking for supplementary cash” and that low-wage workers simply haven’t tried to “attain an education” halt workers’ progress toward securing a living wage. For decades, minimum wage has not provided workers with the necessary resources to move above the poverty threshold, let alone thrive beyond meeting basic needs.
But, as conversations about racial justice and police brutality progress, propelled by the diligent, unceasing work of activists around the country, opportunities emerge to re-examine the stakes of our nation’s investment in this damaging economic system. #BlackLivesMatter, the ongoing movement to address multiple forms of injustice facing black people and build a world in which we can not just survive but prosper, is working to build a world in which black labor is appreciated and compensated accordingly.
That activism takes multiple forms – like Baltimore’s protests, or holding the state accountable for fining black residents simply to cover its revenue needs and demanding that corporations pay employees a decent wage. On 15 April, the largest national group of low-wage workers in US history gathered to demand a wage of . #BlackWorkMatters, a conversation led by member-based activist organization Black Youth Project 100 as part of national labor protests, highlighted the tangible and symbolic consequences of devaluing black labor (and by extension, black workers).
Addressing economic discrimination is a multi-pronged struggle that affects every arena of black life; our lives are informed by the complex, violent circumstances that shape black oppression. There is no racial justice without economic justice: we can’t breathe if we can’t eat.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010