Ebony Slaughter-Johnson looks at the history lessons the Democrats refuse to learn
A LITTLE over 80 years ago, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) founder William Edward Burghardt “WEB” Du Bois wrote Black Reconstruction in America, a groundbreaking essay that looked at the racial politics of the post-Civil War years.
The major failure of those years, Du Bois insisted, was that poor whites and poor blacks failed to form an alliance around their mutual economic interests and challenges. Instead, white elites doubled down on their efforts to divide poor people of different races.
“So long as the Southern white laborers could be induced to prefer poverty to equality with the Negro,” Dubois lamented, “a labour movement in the South [was] impossible.”
Though similarly exploited by white elites, economically disenfranchised whites and blacks “never came to see their common interest.”
More than eight decades later, we’re still waiting. In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, the resounding explanation for Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump has been that Democrats failed to respond to the economic needs of the white working class.
As a result, this story goes, the white working class turned towards Donald Trump and contributed significantly to his victory. For some, then, the diagnosis for the party’s malaise is simple: bring the white working class back into the fold. “If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them.
If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded,” Columbia University professor Mark Lilla wrote. He sharply criticised Clinton for “calling out explicitly to” blacks and Latinos while supposedly neglecting the white working class.
Bringing those white voters into the fold would make the Democratic Party a formidable force, but not if it means marginalising the concerns of people of colour. That would be an unmitigated disaster. The best way for progressives to realign themselves with the white working class isn’t to reverse this progress. It’s to argue forcefully that the economic concerns of the white working class and people of colour are more alike than different.
For instance, working white people understandably complain of lower wages and lost jobs. Yet these economic challenges are part and parcel to those confronting communities of colour. The unemployment rate for black citizens is twice that for the white community across education levels.
Similarly, the income gap between black and white households grew to $25,000 (£20,600) as of 2014, a statistic due in no small part to the same wage stagnation, deindustrialization, and de-unionisation plaguing many Rust Belt whites.
Trends in wealth have mirrored those in income. Where the Great Recession led to a 16 per cent loss in wealth for the average white family, it led to a 53 per cent loss for the average black family.
As of 2014, around of quarter of blacks and Latinos lived in poverty, compared to 10 per cent of whites. The racism that’s worsened conditions for many people of colour needs to be addressed head-on.
But many of the same populist economic policies that would lift them up would also help struggling whites. Instead of erasing race from the equation, working people and their progressive advocates should take their cues from Du Bois and get to work building what he called a unified “proletariat” of all colours.
At this rate, we don’t have another 80 years.
Ebony Slaughter-Johnson is a research assistant with the Criminalization of Poverty project at the Institute for Policy Studies. This article originally appeared at peoplesworld.org.