Thanks to Karen (Schreiber-Mason) for inviting me to do this once again, and to Jodi (Sipos) for coordinating the technical end. When Jodi asked me for a title a few weeks ago, I wasn’t sure what to say. I’d originally planned to focus on the public health crisis and economic fallout caused by the coronavirus. Then George Floyd was murdered. Now it seems public attention has shifted to the ongoing crisis of our inner cities and racist police violence.
So, I want to talk about both of these crises, because I think they’re related.
On the one hand, the coronavirus has exposed fundamental cracks in our social system. On the other hand, the brutal and senseless murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, and the unprecedented wave of protests that followed, has resurfaced fundamental cracks in our racialized system of policing.
What I want to talk about today is how those two systems are connected.
I’ll start with the cracks in the American social system that have magnified the devastation brought by the coronavirus.
Currently, the U.S. leads the world in coronavirus cases and deaths. The U.S. has roughly 4% of the world’s population and 33% of the world’s coronavirus cases. As of June 10, we lead the world in total confirmed coronavirus deaths at 112,006. That’s almost 3 times the number of deaths of the next highest country, the United Kingdom at 40,261.
Something is clearly wrong. Not only do we have 4% of the world’s population and the majority of cases and deaths, we are also the richest country in the world. Our political leaders boast all the time that we have one of the best healthcare systems, the greatest doctors, and so on.
But if that’s the case, why do we lead the world in coronavirus cases and deaths?
The answer is that we are suffering from more than a virus, as dangerous as that is. We’re also suffering from a social system that isn’t working when it comes to providing us the basic things we need, especially during a pandemic.
Right now, we are the only industrialized country in the world that does not guarantee healthcare to its citizens.
Likewise, we are one of only 14 countries out of 193 that does not provide paid sick leave to workers. This means that workers will be out—at gas stations, construction sites, on shop floors, at retail stores—even if they’re sick, because they don’t have any other option. They will be forced to work or lose their jobs, making it easier for the virus to spread. The lack of worker protections thus endangers the whole community.
So does the lack of universal healthcare.
“All of this reflects the outrageous state of our health care system. It demonstrates how our failure to deal with a public health emergency is not some natural disaster; it’s not an act of god. It’s the product of a system built around for-profit medical treatment and corporations seeking to make money off a basic human need for health care.“
Right now, the average cost of hospital treatment for coronavirus is $30,000, and some insurance companies aren’t covering the cost. In March, a Boston woman tested positive for coronavirus after three trips to the ER and was billed $34,000 for tests and treatment. In Pennsylvania, Frank Wucinskia tested negative for the virus in March, but the hospital that tested him sent a $4,000 bill. In Miami that same month, a man who tested negative for the virus had to pay a $1,400 deductible and provide his private health insurer three years of medical records to prove that his flu-like symptoms were not related to a preexisting condition. Without the records, he would owe $3,000.
All of this reflects the outrageous state of our health care system. It demonstrates how our failure to deal with a public health emergency is not some natural disaster; it’s not an act of god. It’s the product of a system built around for-profit medical treatment and corporations seeking to make money off a basic human need for health care.
The writer Megan Day has noted, “a virus can make a person sick enough to need a ventilator — but it can’t create a shortage of ventilators. That’s not the result of nature but of medical device companies promising to build them” — even taking public money to do so — then failing to build them because it wasn’t profitable. “The coronavirus didn’t cause our understaffed and under-resourced hospitals, ‘lean production’ in hospital management did that. It didn’t cause an unemployment rate that rivals the Great Depression — the United States’ unwillingness to protect workers’ jobs did that. The coronavirus didn’t cause millions of newly unemployed people to lose their private health insurance during a public health crisis — the United States’ stubborn refusal to implement a single-payer system did that. What allowed each of these systems to atrophy,” Day says, “is the brazenly pro-corporate disposition of American governance, and the successful suppression of a working-class mass movement that might reverse it.”
The mainstream media doesn’t cover this aspect of the coronavirus. They’re too busy covering Trump’s tweets and press conferences.
The same goes for the crisis of militarized policing in the inner cities. Very rarely do we hear about the underlying social and economic causes of the problem.
Of course, we all know about the racial disparities: in the U.S., police shoot and kill black people at twice the rate of white people. No doubt, racist policing is part of the problem; “the system” is clearly racialized. But what does that mean, exactly? What “system” (or systems) are we talking about?
“Defund the police” has become the new slogan among activists, and for good reason. As David Sirota has shown, since the 1970s, “spending on police has far outpaced population growth and drained resources from other public priorities.” New York’s police budget, for example, is “more than the city spends on health, homelessness, youth development and workforce development combined.”
So, we’re basically talking about a “system” that siphons money away from things like health care, housing, education, and other social services in order to funnel cash into ever-larger militarized police forces.
And what are these police forces charged with doing? What is their function?
Political scientist Cedric Johnson has argued that the basic function of militarized police is social control; they exist, Johnson says, “to manage and contain a huge and growing surplus population,” “often confined to ghettoized zones of the inner city, blighted inner-ring suburbs, and depopulated Rust Belt towns.” Indeed, the common denominator among victims of police violence (across racial categories) is that they live in impoverished areas.
In this sense, violent regimes of policing are “the product of an approach to policing that emerges from an imperative to contain and suppress the pockets of economically marginal and sub-employed working class populations produced by revanchist capitalism.”
That is why, if we want to do something about racialized patterns of police violence, we have to do something about the economic system that militarized policing is designed to protect. We have to connect the problem of racial inequality to the problem of economic inequality.
As Michelle Alexander recently wrote in the New York Times, “We cannot achieve racial justice and create a secure and thriving democracy without also transforming our economic systems.”
As an example, Alexander points to Martin Luther King Jr, who, in a 1952 letter to his wife, wrote that “capitalism has outlived its usefulness.” King would later go to write the Foreward to the now long-forgotten policy document called A “Freedom Budget” for All Americans, which was co-written by civil rights activists A Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin during the so-called race riots of the late 1960s – a period of time that many have likened to our own moment.
“If we want to do something about racialized patterns of police violence, we have to do something about the economic system that militarized policing is designed to protect. We have to connect the problem of racial inequality to the problem of economic inequality.”
In that document, Randolph and Rustin (who had previously organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom) put forward a concrete proposal to achieve racial equality, but their program for equality is perhaps unrecognizable to most of us today. Why? Because it doesn’t follow the usual recipe for addressing racial disparities.
Where contemporary liberalism calls for technical reforms, diversity measures and anti-discrimination policies to address racial inequality, the Freedom Budget calls for a robust program of economic justice “for all Americans” based on broadly redistributive policies like full employment, basic income, universal health care, housing and education. In short, it offers economic redistribution as the route to social justice.
And the focus on downward economic redistribution echoes King’s realization in 1967, when he told the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, “we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power…We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together…you can’t really get rid of one without getting rid of the others.”
What King knew then (and what many of us can learn from him now) is that you can’t separate the problems of racism and the problems of capitalism. If you want to combat one, you have to combat the other. Otherwise, you’re just making pretense.
You’re just doing what Democratic Party leaders did when they “took a knee” against racist policing a week ago. While they’re showing symbolic support for racial justice, they’re also openly opposing redistributive policies like Medicare for All, free higher education, a jobs guarantee, and the expansion of public housing.
These are the things we need right now. But they are also the things we lack because of generations of public disinvestment. Lawmakers on the both sides of the political aisle have worked for decades to cut whatever remains of the social safety net, leaving us completely unprepared to deal with the crises at hand.
So, if you’re outraged by all of this, good—you should be. But I want to finish by cautioning against a common trap, one that confuses moral outrage with political action; one that substitutes symbolic displays of support like “taking a knee” for real change.
That is the trap of treating racial inequality as a moral dilemma—a problem of good and bad people; of simply “making your presence known,” of “calling out hate,” or “bearing witness” to suffering. Sure, those things make us feel like we’re “taking a stand.” But they hardly address the structural economic forces of inequality.
As King, Randolph and Rustin made clear, our problems are not simply moral problems; they are political problems. They require more than changing people’s minds, attitudes, and behaviors; as King said, they require “redistributing economic and political power.”
Posting on Facebook, having conversations about racism, calling out the police, or participating in protests are not going to cut it; they are certainly useful in drawing public attention to issues, but they cannot substitute for the protracted (and less flashy) work of political organizing.
Civil rights leaders of the 1960s knew this. They spent decades building a mass movement to end state-imposed segregation, disenfranchisement, housing and employment discrimination.
“As King, Randolph and Rustin made clear, our problems are not simply moral problems; they are political problems. They require more than changing people’s minds, attitudes, and behaviors; as King said, they require “redistributing economic and political power.”
By contrast, mainstream liberalism today seems more interested in “calling out racism” and hoping that it will somehow spark a movement.
In 1965, Bayard Rustin made a similar point when began to question whether the struggle for racial equality should actually be described as “a civil rights movement.” After winning the battle for legal equality, Rustin wrote an article called “From Protest to Politics,” in which he urged the civil rights movement to “expand its vision beyond race relations to economic relations,” asking: “What is the value of winning access to public accommodations for those who lack money to use them?” What is the point, in other words, of legal reform when we live in a society of intensifying economic inequality?
Surely, it goes without saying that all of us should be against racism and discrimination. But what about capitalism? What about economic inequality? Are you willing to follow Rustin and King’s lead here? Are you willing to march in the streets and protest economic exploitation?
Right now, 40 million Americans live in poverty. That number is larger than the entire population of Canada. Yet, I don’t see any protests about it.
Or what about the 26,000 Americans who die each year because they lack health insurance? That’s 26 times the number of Americans killed each year by police. Those deaths might be less dramatic and violent than the police killings of black men we see on video, but does that make them less reprehensible?
We only seem to notice these problems in a time of crisis. But when it comes to health care, should we only protect people in a state of emergency, providing Medicare for All…but just for the coronavirus?
Even before the pandemic, 80 percent of American workers were living paycheck to paycheck.
Where is the outrage here? Where are the calls for change? Why aren’t people marching in the streets?
We’re often told that real change requires us to be kinder, better people; to “love your neighbor,” to “check our privilege,” to be more sympathetic and understanding toward the victims of poverty and racial inequality.
But that kind of story is a trap: a moralistic solution that makes us feel like better people whose job it is to get other people to become better people, i.e., to be just like us. But solving the problems of poverty, economic exploitation, and racial inequality involves more than being better people; it involves, as King said, “redistributing economic and political power.”
If we’re not willing to do that, we’re just pretending.
Joe Tompkins is a Meadville resident and associate professor at Allegheny College
Find more of Joe Tompkin’s writing for our blog here.