What a Black Lives Matter Economic Agenda Looks Like
Amid all the news and noise that Trump's black voter appeal created, an umbrella operation known as the Movement for Black Lives released an economic plan.
Think of the Movement for Black Lives, also known as M4BL, like the civil rights movement: a broad, multi-pronged attempt to create social and legal change populated, fueled and driven by a wide variety of individuals and organizations committed to a common set of political goals. M4BL also includes the formal organization known as Black Lives Matter and a loose collective of individuals, additional organizations and activists associated with it.
The M4BL economic policy paper issued this month includes some of the things that a largely black collective of activists, academics and voters think black Americans both have to lose and need to gain in coming years.
So we checked in with Dorian Warren, a fellow with the Roosevelt Institute and the Center for Community Change's board chairman. He helped to write a section of the Movement for Black Lives' economic platform. Warren, a former professor at Columbia University and the University of Chicago, has taught courses on racial inequality, economic inequality, social movements and community organizing. Warren also hosts an MSNBC online show, "Nerding Out."
What follows is a Q&A with Warren, conducted via email and edited for clarity and length.
THE FIX: Why did the Movement for Black Lives issue an economic policy paper?
WARREN: First, there is a broad recognition that many of the roots and causes of police violence in black communities are both racial and economic. High levels of unemployment and decades of disinvestment in black communities have led to dangerous interactions with police. For example, Eric Garner and Alton Sterling were working in the "underground economy" to make ends meet when local law enforcement used lethal force to unjustly take their lives.
Second, as the Ferguson Report by the Justice Department so clearly articulates, local police and criminal justice systems have engaged in predatory targeting of black residents as a means to raise revenue via excessive tickets and fines, further impoverishing black communities.
Third, the focus on economic policy continues a long legacy of black activists and organizers raising economic justice demands. Whether the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, or the Black Panther Party’s 10-point platform, economic demands, along with demands for racial justice, are part of the "Dual Agenda" of black freedom movements.
THE FIX: What are the major and key components of the group’s economic plan?
WARREN: There are so many! It's a comprehensive set of economic demands (nine alone under economic justice). One of the key components is guaranteed livable income. Often called a "universal basic income," the idea is for a guaranteed basic floor of income for all, especially given a precarious job market and rates of black unemployment double that of whites for over 40 years. Again, this isn't so new. Dr. King and the Black Panther Party alike called for [a] policy of a guaranteed income and full employment.
THE FIX: In November, if the nation’s next president said pick three things in the M4BL proposal and this administration will try to make them policy, what would you select?
WARREN: That's not my decision. [However,] the three most critical in my view include: (1) [a] federal and state jobs program, (2) the right for workers to organize and (3) reparations [for past and continued harms].
All three of these economic reforms would fundamentally change the material conditions in black communities by eliminating absolute poverty, ensuring full employment and access to the labor market with increased power to shape the conditions of work and rebuild the black middle class.
These three policies would begin the process of economic empowerment, especially for the most economically marginalized in black communities. While no policy is a magic bullet for the complex problems facing black Americans, resolving some of the most long-standing and fundamental economic problems would radically improve life-chances [for] the vast majority.
THE FIX: I wonder what you make of Trump's targeted appeal to black voters.
WARREN: Let’s be very clear: Donald Trump is not targeting black voters. He’s targeting moderate white voters to signal to them he might not be racist and therefore they should feel comfortable voting for him. His speeches supposedly aimed at black voters paint a stark economic picture for black communities, with tiny elements of truth.
What Trump gets wrong is that all black people in America do not live in poverty, are uneducated and are doing poorly. There are millions who are, in fact, highly educated and middle-class or more. Trump’s conflation of “black” and “poor” is very ironically similar to how Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) also talked about race and black Americans.
That said, yes, the black unemployment rate has been double that of whites for decades, and especially high for black youth; ladders to the middle class have been disappearing; there has been disinvestment in economic development for decades in black communities while simultaneous investments in the criminal justice system; the racial wealth gap was exacerbated by the Great Recession and is still far too unequal (whether housing values or liquid assets).
But the causes of continuing economic strife in black communities are decades in the making, mostly as a result of conservative economic policies that insofar as he has any policy specifics (tax policy for instance), Trump supports.
THE FIX: What do you make of each of the two major party candidates' economic plans?
WARREN: The Republican Party nominee essentially has no economic plan. Insofar as one has been articulated, it would be harmful to black communities. The Democratic Party nominee (and the Democratic Party platform) is a good start, especially around plans for job creation and infrastructure investment to put people to work. But even a good job creation/infrastructure bill must include "targeted" language to ensure that funds flow into black communities, and community residents have access to those jobs.
Most of what is in the Democratic Party platform around job creation, raising wages, workers' rights, etc., does indeed overlap with the M4BL policy demands. The key question isn't one of ideas, however, but one of building the political will to enact any of these policies.
THE FIX: Okay, why is targeted economic policy needed and why does it typically get stuck? For instance, Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) has advocated for his 10-20-30 economic plan for years.
WARREN: Most progressive policies have not moved in a polarized and divided government, including Rep. Clyburn’s innovative and targeted 10-20-30 plan.
Targeted policies are important because seemingly “universal” social policies, from the New Deal to the Great Society, often do not benefit those in greatest need. And universal policies have had intended and unintended consequences of maintaining or exacerbating existing racial and gender inequalities. From racial and gender-based exclusions in the National Labor Relations Act, to the Social Security Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the discriminatory implementation of the GI Bill, and housing and access to credit and asset building, many supposedly “universal” policies ultimately were not.
“Targeted universalism” means everyone benefits (the “universalism”) while also ensuring that the policy reaches the most vulnerable among us (the “targeted”). When policies are simply “means-tested,” like in the case of public assistance, they lack the broad public support necessary to remain viable.
THE FIX: Has the economic state of black America received sufficient attention in this election?
WARREN: No. The candidate and party statements are necessary, but not nearly sufficient.
While we might all wish that mainstream political parties would automatically advance bold and transformative policies, it's always social movements that do that work in American politics.
That's precisely what the MBL is doing.
Janell Ross is a reporter for The Fix who writes about race, gender, immigration and inequality. Follow @janellross