When blacks demand that our poverty be alleviated, it’s simply a matter of one race prioritizing its path to living well, when we should be fighting for everyone to live well. Prioritizing the economic needs of those who share my ethnicity, while so many others are suffering along with us, is morally wrong. The struggle against poverty needs to be a collective fight.
“We are tired of the racialization of poverty, the partisanism of poverty,” William Barber II, a Protestant minister who is a co-leader of the Poor People’s Campaign, told the members of the Budget Committee. More whites live in poverty than people of any other ethnic or racial group; a higher percentage of Native Americans live in poverty than members of any other ethnicity. Poverty isn’t a black problem, but an American problem, Barber told the committee, just as he had told the nine Democratic presidential candidates who spoke to the Moral Action Congress convened by the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C., earlier that week.
The Poor People’s Campaign holds that it is a moral failure in a nation this rich, one that can afford to offer everyone a decent standard of living, that poor people cannot access adequate health care, food, water, or homes.
If I agreed with some scholars and pundits that this nation’s prevailing system is white supremacy, I’d say that African Americans have learned its lessons well enough to mimic its logic. But the prevailing system in the United States isn’t white supremacy, but rather, economic oligarchy. And too much of the discussion of racism adopts the language of oligarchy, offering economic ascension as an antidote.
While racial inequality is sometimes quantified in other ways—by the composition of the prison population, levels of education, or health—it is most often quantified by dollars, and how many one has. In 2018, the Equality of Opportunity Project released the results of a multiyear study of economic mobility. Most of its findings were about economic opportunity. People homed in on its statistics about black boys, who had much less of a chance of rising to a different economic tier than the one into which they were born, or of staying rich, than white boys. Less was said about Native Americans, who, the study’s statistics showed, were about as poor as blacks, or about Asian Americans, who had a better chance to rise economically than whites.
Reparations are often presented in terms that are meaningful within an oligarchic system: A long history of racist practices has created economic inequality between blacks and whites. Of this, there is no doubt. But this is not the racial wealth gap; it is merely a racial wealth gap. One goal of reparations is to close this gap. But that adopts the logic of oligarchy, instead of challenging it. More black people reaching higher wealth tiers, and then living in the cocoon those tiers provide? That’s not something I am willing to fight for.