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labor What's Next? Envisioning An Equitable Economy Post Covid-19 & Systemic Racism With Dr. Manuel Pastor

Morgan Simon interviews Dr. Manuel Pastor, a Distinguished Professor of Sociology and American Studies & Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, about the two pandemics: coronavirus and racism.

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Dr. Pastor is an expert on sustainable development and social, economic and environmental justice in urban areas., University of Southern California

The US is deeply suffering from two pandemics right now. First, the novel coronavirus, aptly named as it’s only been with us for less than a year. The second pandemic is anything but novel: the sickness of racism, an over 400 year battle for Black Americans to receive their full rights and respect. In both cases the impact equals harm to Black people — as the most susceptible to Covid-19 and its economic impact, and to the levels of systemic, institutional and individual racist attitudes that permeate our society and economy. 

What also feels novel is a sense of opening — a collective understanding that we can’t go back to the way things were before, and a commitment to emergent strategy — which adrienne maree brown defines as “how we intentionally change in ways that grow our capacity to embody the just and liberated worlds we long for.”

In this “What’s Next” series, I connect with various visionaries to see how they are interpreting the current moment, and the emergent strategy coming out of it. If the economy in the past has been a tool for systemic racial oppression—what could a post Covid-19 economy look like? As Black financial activist Jessica Norwood has posed, “What would a financial system look like that loves Black and brown bodies?”

Dr. Manuel Pastor is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology and American Studies & Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, as well as director of USC’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity and their Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration. He’s also serving on Governor Newsom’s taskforce for Covid-19 recovery, and wrestling with the racialized implication of economic recovery and impact every day. 

As a longtime admirer of his vision of racial and economic justice, I talked with him to examine this moment, and how we move from crisis to opportunity.  

People of color are the most likely to have poor healthcare access and bear the brunt of COVID — risking their lives as the primary holders of “essential work,” while also suffering from the greatest number of underlying health conditions. It’s unacceptable that close to half of Black and Latinx-owned businesses aren’t in a position to survive an economic shock like COVID. What are the cracks in the US economy that COVID exposed? Where do you see this current overlaying with the economic impact of historic, systemic racism?

The expression I’ve been using is that COVID-19 is the disease that has been revealing our illness as society. Illnesses like the precariousness of employment and assets, so that when people lose their assets they have very little to fall back on, the lack of access to insurance and health care, and even the fragility of legal status. In California, somewhere between 8-9% of the employed labor force prior to COVID was undocumented. They lack access to unemployment insurance checks, even any kind of federal relief program, even though they have contributed taxes to the federal government. You can have filed with an individual taxpayer identification number (ITIN), but you can‘t get the tax relief. And if you are part of a married couple, the entire family unit including children is precluded from receiving relief. 

It’s also revealed two other really crucial things.

First, what is an essential worker? In the past, we’ve thought of being highly paid as being “essential.” And what this pandemic has revealed is that we know who an essential worker is... and it’s not a manager of a hedge fund. It's a food service worker, a farm worker, a grocery store clerk, a bus driver. It’s a nurse, a doctor, a delivery driver. It’s someone who is packaging stuff and sending it to us. One of the openings here is the importance of all work and dignity and the essentiality of all work. We denigrate so many: how many people look down on a janitor, but now we know they’re essential to making a workplace clean, healthy and safe? That’s a fundamental potential shift.

A second fundamental shift is realizing that government is the ultimate backstop of a good society. In a crisis, everyone forgets about the deficit and the government needs to step in and spend. We will only have a robust private sector if we have a robust public sector that guarantees our health. We can only protect ourselves when we protect everyone. You can’t isolate into your little pod, we can only combat this disease if we are all wearing masks, following social distancing rules, partly to protect ourselves but in large part to protect others.

The last thing I’d say is how racialized and racist the economic landscape is. Those who found themselves most precarious in terms of needing to work were workers of color; those who are in the most precarious situation, year over year, while high tech and finance employment has not changed because that group can work remotely. Hospitality, however, has fallen 50%, which is largely workers of color. For the Black community in particular, the stress of a racist society leads to hypertension, obesity, comorbidities that have an impact on death rates. And in California, the largest share of deaths ages 18-49 has been amongst the Latinx community, living in overcrowded communities who need to go to work, often taking public transit, and landing in harm's way.

I actually think that similar to how Hurricane Katrina unveiled environmental racism in New Orleans and the racial wealth gap in a very dramatic way — who did not’ have a car, who had to stay in the 9th ward to protect their only asset, their house — this crisis also made so clear the racially disparate nature of our society. So that when the murders of Ahmaud ArberyBreonna Taylor, and George Floyd took place, there was also a kind of growing realization in the nation of the racial dimensions of everything as revealed by COVID. The policing is just the tip of a racist iceberg, which includes educational opportunities, economic opportunities, and outcomes that you’ve been writing about and working on trying to correct, and environmental disparities even down to the different air people are breathing. 

The George Floyd murder would’ve woken everyone up in any kind of circumstance, but with the veil already lifted and how concerned people already were and so many not working, it led to this moment: a time to think and protest. 

Anti-Blackness is so deeply bedded into American culture, that the police—supposed protectors of “public safety”—have shown themselves to often be public menaces for communities of color, with over 1,000 police killings in 2019 alone, compared to a country like England where there were only 55 police killings, period between 1990 and 2014.  24% of the 2019 killings were Black, despite only being 13% of the US population. No can thrive if they don’t feel safe. What would an economy need to build, to ensure all people have the opportunity to thrive? 

The way I tend to think about equity, and this is something I’ve learned with partners along the way, is to think in terms of a time dimension. Equity means seeing and correcting past patterns of racialized opportunity and asset stripping. When you think about the way redlining diminished the value of Black homeownership, the way that lands were dispossessed from Native People and Mexicans in the United States, the ways in which human capital formation is systematically denied to African Americans and other groups — those are all the stripping of assets that people have, and it's something that the country has systematically done. 

And it's also been seen in a system of over policing and over incarceration which limits future prospects. Consider this latest killing of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta. Why didn't the police officer just drive him home? It would’ve eliminated all of this. But over policing leads to over incarceration, which leads to people having trouble in the labor market, and stripped away their human capital assets. 

In any case, racial equity in general is looking at the past and what you need to do to correct it. And it has a dimension of the present. In the present, it means trying to involve people in the design of new programs in a much more democratic and equitable way. It's not just experts, often white experts deciding how to correct a system — there’s an expression, those closest to the problem might be closest to the solutions, but they are often furthest away from the power. We need to create opportunities for communities to participate. For example, Part of reimagining public safety is making sure communities are really dealing with mental illness and homelessness are able to provide guidance on what to do rather than just policing. 

Equity is also about looking to the future — and figuring out if any of the solutions we propose now could have downsides we need to anticipate. One example: we are generally very supportive, as progressives,  of revitalizing cities and promoting mass transit, of having vibrant downtowns and neighborhoods. One thing some of us who wanted that didn’t think through, were the pressures of gentrification and displacement for longtime residents. If we had thought ahead we would’ve put in more rent stabilization, more community land trusts and asset development for small businesses to stay, we could’ve done more to encourage home ownership on the part of low income renters, so they could benefit as the neighborhood value went up.

The guidepost is to look at the past, involve people fully in the program right now, and try to look forward to unanticipated consequences.

That squares with police reform too. A lot of stuff around trying to redesign policing hasn’t been as successful as people thought, and some of that probably could’ve been anticipated, like putting on body cameras without fully retraining people not to shoot at people running away — now just your camera records that. That’s looking at the past to think about how to have full participation in the present and what problems you could cause in the future. 

In terms of specific economic strategy, we recognize over policing and incarceration, and creating better opportunities for reentry into society. Second, we recognize the long lasting character of the racial wealth gap, which has been $171,000 net worth for white Americans, and just $18-21,000 for Black and Latino households. I saw an anecdote on twitter recently, someone saying she was a Black woman looking for a house and her realtors would say “a lot of parents are helping their kids by putting out the first $100-150k for kids to buy their house.” That’s white privilege, class privilege… that that’s even in your head as something families can do when you’ve had this long term gap in terms of wealth. We need to do a lot about flooding schools that have concentrations of low income kids with the kinds of resources they need to get ahead. We need to promote small business development, particularly owned by women and POC. And we need a broader set of changes as well that are really critical. 

Importantly, we recognize much more fundamentally that our fates are bound together. We think of it as a real moral statement. Let's be clear: any place you have high tech and software programmers and venture capitalists, you have an army of nannies, food services workers and gardeners. Those two parts of the economy actually go together. It's not just about high tech driving things forward; in that kind of economy a process is built in that's de-equalizing. We need to aggressively raise the minimum wage, make sure people have portable benefits to carry from job to job, create a “data dividend” to fund UBI. Where we have a thriving metropolis, think about how to build tons of affordable housing because the jobs we are generating don’t currently pay well — and we need to remember that auto jobs didn't pay well until unions made it happen.

When you first heard me speak six years ago Morgan, I was probably talking about demographic change and how we will become a majority POC nation by 2043-44. But the biggest shift isn't the ethnicity of our population — in CA we will be majority Latinx and Asian, that’s not changing — but mostly, we are aging. In 2010, 11% of Californians were 65 or older, by 2060, it’ll be 25%. Home health care workers, those jobs are rising faster than high tech because we are an aging society. That means we are going to have a lot more care workers, and need to have a lot more flex time at work for people to be able to take care of their children, because of that demographic change in the population. But we treat that work like it's not essential. At least in terms of the way we reward it, with pay and conditions. But it's going to be critical work because of the need to care for the old and because those of us who want to go to work, we need to rest assured that our parents or children are in good hands. People who have decent working conditions and feel honored by the work we are doing. If the COVID crisis wakes up a sense of mutuality, that we are all in it together, that we need to care for one another, it opens up the opportunity to care for one another to open a caring economy. 

There’s been a lot of conversation about how the call for racial equity in our country feels more powerful this time around. What, if anything, feels different about this moment to you? Is the long arc towards justice moving any faster? 

I’m 64. I came of political age at 12 in 1968 when I saw the world fall apart, shattered by the murders of MLK and Robert Kennedy Jr. I saw my illusions about America shattered as the Democratic nomination was stolen from the antiwar forces, and those forces were met with violence on the street in Chicago. That was also the year of Chicano blowouts about schools — really life altering for me and world altering as well, as struggles for racial justice gave a particular impetus to the Chicano movement that helped to define consciousness as time went on. And I've been through others, like the 1992 civil unrest in Los Angeles. 

This is different. This feels bigger, deeper and more cataclysmic, tectonic than any other time. I think it’s because of the two things we just discussed — COVID’s ability to reveal and George Floyd’s killing being uniquely agonizing — plus a third.

This third thing is that in early 2016, when we moved into the presidential elections I started saying we were seeing the rise of facism in America. That is the Donald Trump campaign, which threw us a big man, a big lie, blame on other people — in that case Mexicans, because it had become impolite to blame Black people, but if he had been able to do he would’ve and did in some ways — and a very simplistic view of how to solve our economic problems. A lot of elements were just nationalism and the classic elements of fascist impulses, whether or not it’s fascism. 

What Donald Trump has done over the past three to five years is exhaust America. From the Women's March aware of the misogyny, to people of color who were continually protesting, to immigrants who found themselves demonized and their families separated by ICE, to scientists who found their advice around climate rejected in favor of what the fossil fuel industry might want, to people who saw the impeachment proceedings and all sorts of constitutional safeguards tossed aside, to us all watching the COVID criss emerge and have a president tell you to drink bleach. What Trump represented with “make America great again” was a bubbling up of resentment that wanted to pull the nation back to the 1950’s. And pulling against that was scattered progressive forces wanting to pull us further into the 21st century. And into that stew came COVID and the murder of George Floyd.

So are you gonna go with the guy who tear gassed peaceful protestors for a photo op with an upside down bible? Or push us in an opposite direction towards the future that seems to be represented by people willing to take over the street to make their point, and politically sophisticated enough to recognize that Joe Biden might be an imperfect shell for what progressives might want? Angela Davis recently said, “I’m not voting for him, I’m voting for me.” The past and the future have been struggling against one another in the US. And this moment made clear, do you want to go back to the kind of policing or envision something different? And none of the old playbook is working the same way it did. Donald Trump trying to blame all the destruction on the looters didn't really fly. Trying to put off any idea of reform didn't really fly. 

Going back to 1968: he thought he could pull “law and order” Nixon and it would draw attention and animate that older America. He’d have a better chance if older Americans committed to going back to the way things were. But others are saying “wow this guy is willing to kill us in the COVID crisis, maybe we should try something different.” I feel like this is really something 

You’re in academia in Southern California, but more broadly a part of the Latinx and immigrant integration community. What does a racially equitable economy concretely look like for your local community? 

One of the biggest and most fundamental things is, change has to happen nationally, but we need to work locally. 

In Los Angeles county, 18% of our population is undocumented or living with an undocumented family member. That’s about 800,000 undocumented people, 775,000 US citizens living in a mixed status household, 250,000 lawful permitted residents (Greencard holders) in those families too. That group is not exclusively but overwhelmingly Latino. Seventy percent of the undocumented population in Los Angeles County has been in the US for over a decade. They’re deeply settled, and not going anywhere. So really key for the Latino community is under a new administration, how we rapidly get comprehensive immigration reform to protect their families, that’s absolutely critical. I look to groups like the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights LACommunity Change, and FIRM (Fair Immigration Reform Movement). 

Second thing that's crucial is education. In California we’ve done some good stuff with the local control funding formula that tries to redirect resources to districts and schools that have more kids in poverty, English learners, foster kids, etc. It's a good step but not enough. My wife is superintendent of Lawndale district; which is largely Latino and Black, and 85% low income. Right next to that is Manhattan Beach, who are able to raise $2M in one night. Lawndale, if they are lucky, can host a parent-sponsored taco sale and raise $500 for teachers.

For kids who are K-12 in school in Los Angeles County who were sent home as a result of the COVID crisis: 13% of white kids were on the wrong side of the digital divide and didn’t have high speed internet and a laptop, and 35% of Black kids and 39% of Latinx kids were. That’s three times the lack of digital access. So these kids just spent three months not learning as much as white, wealthier kids with parents who could also stay at home and access digital resources. We need to continue to push up the minimum wage, create conditions for unionization so that workers can have a voice. We need to expand affordable housing and make home ownership more possible for low income communities of color. We need to make sure that we have truly universal health insurance so that people can be taken care of. We need to get at some of the social determinants of health through adequate parks and walking so people can stay healthy and have good food in local neighborhoods. There is no shortage of things to do that we know will work. It's just interesting how we haven't done them. We have been seeking to develop “solidarity economics” as a new frame. And to us that has three different meanings:

First, the understanding that people don’t just ask out of self interest but also solidarity and mutuality. We’ve seen that in this criss, people working out of mutuality. Your business readers know that they can’t only act out of self interest or they won’t last as a business. You have to treat your employees, customers and suppliers right. We operate out of mutuality and that can work better.

Second, there’s an emerging body of research that metropolitan areas that are more segregated and economically unjust find it more difficult to sustain job growth over time, because they tend to then have less investments in human capital development, less prepared workforce, and also more social conflict. And that conflict can actually get in the way of arriving at a consensus on what’s a growth model for your community. If you spend all your time fighting against the minimum wage, you won’t have time to build industrial clusters to build the middle class. When you disenfranchise people, they are going to fight back. 

Third: attention gets shined on these issues, in times of conflict, and in order to really right some of these wrongs we need to shift power to make that happen. Was there anything we didn’t know two weeks ago, about not shooting people as they are running away, or not putting a knee on someone’s neck for 9 minutes? Anything we didn't know? No. We just didn't have the political will to go against the police unions, to go against qualified immunity, to create a national database of officers who have been abusive before. Only now are people realizing that there is a need to take action, and shifting consensus to make that actually happen. 

Now let’s zoom back out: What can a just economy look like for our country, and its position as a global actor? What are the concrete opportunities we can leverage — as a result of the COVID pandemic and the movement for Black lives — in building a more just economy? 

There’s two aspects to this. First is understanding what our relationships are economically in terms of migration flows over time. We probably will not see too much rising migration to the US given how unfavorable the economy has been. But it hasn’t diminished the violence in Central America that is driving so many people northwards. One of the connections people are making is between arbitrary policing and arbitrary immigration enforcement. Again, we look at the Rayshard Brooks situation in Atlanta and at least in this moment, with the evidence in front of us, a lot of people are asking why after talking to him and learning he just went to visit his mom’s grave, with everything going, telling him he shouldn’t be in his car….  Why didn’t the officer just take him home? There’s a parallel between that and going into a meat processing plant and stripping people away from their families. A parallel in terms of the dehumanization that allows both of those instances to persist — that’s a connection and a realization that will and has come up.

Another interesting thing to examine is anti-Black attitudes within the Latino community, and countries that have their own version of racism and colorism. This has become an opportunity for Latino activists who are seeking more alignment with Black leadership to lift up some of those uncomfortable issues. 

Finally, what is your role right now in working toward this vision of economic safety and equity, where money is a tool for social change, instead of a weapon of inequality? And how can people join you? 

We are working on three things. First, with UCLA and a number of community leaders, we’re working on what would a more equitable and inclusive Los Angeles looks like post COVID. How do we understand that recovery doesn’t mean reversion, going back to where we were before, but a re-imagination and restructuring? And what would be the principles of equity, notably racial equity, guiding that? 

Second, I’m part of the Governor’s task force on jobs and business recovery. There's  a commitment to have equity be one of the through-lines. I wrote a book called State of Resistance about California. California has shown itself to not just be a state of resistance to Donald Trump, but also resilience to combat COVID, and can now be a state of renewal and rebirthing a much more just economy. 

Third, the biggest thing: developing a theory, narrative and policy around solidarity economics. Look at any big debate. What do we do about climate, what do we do about education? If you’re on the right, your answer is almost always the market. The market will eliminate racism, capital and trade will regulate climate, and private institutions can solve education. On the left, people often refer to ‘the government’ or the state. You need the government to step in to solve racism, to create public housing, to command and control on the environment

The market clearly doesn't work: it individualizes things and clearly trickles down. And the state is also problematic when they are responsible for state violence, and we know our economy is not going to be a full state economy in any sense of the word in years to come. 

There’s a third answer and that’s mutuality and solidarity. That’s a way that we can solve the challenges of racism and labor markets. We can stand with each other to protest systemic racism and shift our patterns to make sure we’re combating it. When we talk about the environment and climate, we may use the tools of the state, but the answer is really solidarity and mutuality. What kind of planet do I want to give my children versus selfishly live in right now? With housing, we can stand up for social housing, saying “if there is going to be an affordable housing project, it's okay to be in my neighborhood.” If we could reframe the debate in the US away from market versus state, to what responsibilities do we have for each other, we have an opportunity for responsible investors to also jump in, for high road businesses to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. 

For example, addressing COVID required a government that put restrictions in place, but mostly us as individuals learned social distancing and cleaning. For new coalitions between labor and business and civic leaders to solve problems: we can realize the power of solidarity and mutuality rather than the tired debate of private versus public, what we individually and collectively need to do. 

Thanks to Jasmine Rashid for her contributions to this piece. Full disclosures related to my work available here. This post does not constitute investment, tax, or legal advice, and the author is not responsible for any actions taken based on the information provided herein.