There’s still much un­fin­ished busi­ness

Martin Luther King jr was a leader who un­der­stood power. His le­gacy lives on, writes

The Star Early Edition - - INSIDE -

WHEN the Rev­erend Martin Luther King jr was as­sas­si­nated in 1968, he was in Mem­phis, Ten­nessee, sup­port­ing strik­ing san­i­ta­tion work­ers. By that time in his cru­sade for racial jus­tice, he had el­e­vated full em­ploy­ment to a key plank in his plat­form. The full name of the March on Washington was the March on Washington for Jobs and Free­dom. A com­mon plac­ard held up that day read: “Civil Rights Plus Full Em­ploy­ment Equals Free­dom”, a pow­er­ful eco­nomic equa­tion in­deed.

In my ex­pe­ri­ence, too few peo­ple re­mem­ber this as­pect of King’s move­ment, in­stead em­pha­sis­ing his stir­ring spir­i­tual com­mit­ment to racial in­clu­sion. But King was, of course, thor­oughly versed in the re­al­ity of the in­sti­tu­tional bar­ri­ers block­ing blacks and his unique ge­nius was to com­bine deep spir­i­tual aware­ness with an equally deep un­der­stand­ing of the role of power in eco­nomic out­comes. That’s one rea­son he was in Mem­phis, sup­port­ing the union.

In 1967, King called for “a rad­i­cal redis­tri­bu­tion of eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal power”. He par­tic­u­larly un­der­stood the power, for bet­ter or worse, of Amer­i­can in­sti­tu­tions, most no­tably of course the in­sti­tu­tion of racism, which so suc­cess­fully blocked African Amer­i­cans from de­cent homes, jobs, schools and op­por­tu­ni­ties.

But coun­ter­vail­ing in­sti­tu­tions ex­isted within his vi­sion as well, in­clud­ing the church and the union, and, if it could be forced to live up to its prom­ise, the gov­ern­ment. Even the in­sti­tu­tions of the con­sumer econ­omy and the job mar­ket could, with the right force and strat­egy, in­clud­ing boy­cotts that flexed black con­sumer mus­cle and equal op­por­tu­nity laws, be nudged in the di­rec­tion of racial jus­tice.

This “in­sti­tu­tional” frame­work may be con­fus­ing. What do I mean by ref­er­enc­ing the con­sumer or job mar­kets or racism or unions, as “in­sti­tu­tions”? This cer­tainly doesn’t square with the clas­sic eco­nomic ex­pla­na­tion of how the econ­omy works: profit-max­imis­ing in­di­vid­u­als achiev­ing op­ti­mal so­cial wel­fare by each in­di­vid­ual pur­su­ing their goals.

The in­sti­tu­tional frame­work, with its em­pha­sis on his­tor­i­cal, le­gal and cul­tural prac­tices (norms) em­bed­ded in eco­nomic sys­tems, stands in stark con­trast to the mar­ket forces frame­work. Surely no one could ques­tion whether the le­gal sys­tem or the hous­ing mar­ket black peo­ple faced in King’s time, not to men­tion our own, pro­moted ob­jec­tive, blind jus­tice. Dis­crim­i­na­tion at schools, the econ­omy, and al­most ev­ery other walk of life could not and can­not pos­si­bly be viewed as a fair or merit-based sys­tem.

Hon­our­ing King’s vi­sion and le­gacy thus re­quires not sim­ply re­mem­ber­ing his best known dream: a racially in­clu­sive so­ci­ety very dif­fer­ent from the one that ex­isted in his, or sadly, our own time. It re­quires recog­nis­ing the need to re­dis­tribute the power from the op­pres­sive, ex­clu­sion­ary in­sti­tu­tions, many of the same ones – hous­ing, schools, crim­i­nal jus­tice, the econ­omy – he fought for un­til the day he was taken from us. What does hon­our­ing that vi­sion mean to­day?

Al­though I cer­tainly don’t ad­vo­cate giv­ing up on Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion be­fore it has started, all signs sug­gest that it and the Repub­li­can-led Congress will hurt, not help, the eco­nom­i­cally less ad­van­taged. Repub­li­can bud­gets threaten to un­der­mine the safety net, Trump’s pro­posed tax pol­icy squan­ders fis­cal re­sources on tax cuts for the rich, un­der­min­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for those stuck in places with­out ad­e­quate ed­u­ca­tional or em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties. There’s talk among Repub­li­cans of try­ing to get more states to pass “right to work” laws that un­der­mine unions and cut work­ers’ pay. Lis­ten­ing to Ben Car­son’s hear­ing for sec­re­tary of hous­ing and ur­ban de­vel­op­ment quickly dis­abuses one of hope that he’ll tackle the le­gacy of seg­re­gated hous­ing that re­mains a se­ri­ous prob­lem. As far as re­form­ing the in­sti­tu­tion­alised racism the re­mains em­bed­ded in our crim­i­nal jus­tice and polic­ing sys­tems, again, it’s aw­fully hard to be hope­ful.

There are, how­ever, many lev­els of in­sti­tu­tional norms, laws and prac­tices. The Fight for Fif­teen has been im­mensely suc­cess­ful in rais­ing min­i­mum wages at the state and sub-state lev­els. I can’t prove this, but I’d bet that with­out Black Lives Mat­ter, there would be no “blis­ter­ing re­port” from the Jus­tice De­part­ment on the racial prac­tices of the Chicago Po­lice De­part­ment. The ac­tivist group “Fed Up” has had great suc­cess el­e­vat­ing the is­sue of eco­nomic jus­tice as re­gards Fed­eral Re­serve pol­icy, a pol­icy area that even lib­eral pres­i­dents have avoided get­ting into.

As I re­cently wrote re­gard­ing “ban the box,” a pol­icy de­signed to give job-seek­ers with crim­i­nal records a fairer shot at em­ploy­ment:

“Nine­teen states and more than 100 cities and coun­ties have al­ready taken sim­i­lar ac­tion for gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees, and seven states (Hawaii, Illi­nois, Mas­sachusetts, Min­nesota, New Jer­sey, Ore­gon and Rhode Is­land) plus Washington, DC, and 26 cities and coun­ties have ex­tended ban the box poli­cies to cover pri­vate em­ploy­ers. Some pri­vate busi­nesses, in­clud­ing Wal­mart, Koch In­dus­tries, Tar­get, Star­bucks, Home De­pot, and Bed, Bath & Be­yond, have also adopted th­ese poli­cies on their own.”

This last part about the pri­vate busi­nesses is in­struc­tive. The Selma bus boy­cott was, of course, in no small part an eco­nomic ac­tion: Black peo­ple would not pay for dis­crim­i­na­tion. Re­gard­ing full em­ploy­ment, King re­alised that at high lev­els of un­em­ploy­ment, it’s cost­less to dis­crim­i­nate against a sig­nif­i­cant swath of po­ten­tial work­ers. But when the job mar­ket tight­ens up, dis­crim­i­nat­ing against a needed worker means leav­ing profit on the ta­ble.

Es­pe­cially in the age of Trump, when so many Amer­i­cans feel as if rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy is se­ri­ously on the ropes, it seems a no-brainer to chan­nel King and once again tap the power of boy­cotts and lean­ing on busi­nesses to do the right thing. It makes no sense at all to cede this field to Trump as he non­sen­si­cally claims (and gets) credit for job cre­ation that al­ready was hap­pen­ing.

My in­tu­ition is that many busi­nesses, as in the ban-the-box ex­am­ple, would be will­ing to help push back on the in­sti­tu­tional in­jus­tices that per­sist. Higher and more equal pay scales, im­ple­men­ta­tion of the up­dated, higher over­time thresh­old that was wrongly blocked by a Texas judge (in fact, many busi­nesses, to their credit, have gone ahead with this change), not block­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing if their work­ers want to ex­er­cise that right, flex­i­ble sched­ul­ing poli­cies that help par­ents bal­ance work and fam­ily – there’s no rea­son for pro­gres­sives not to fight for th­ese ideas at the sub-na­tional level and the pri­vate sec­tor.

Al­though th­ese sub-na­tional fights are more likely where the ac­tion is for the next few years, mean­ing­ful ac­tion is devel­op­ing at the na­tional level as well. King would have eas­ily recog­nised the Trump phe­nom­e­non as the work of ex­clu­sive in­sti­tu­tions once again grab­bing the power and would have or­gan­ised ac­cord­ingly and ef­fec­tively. As we speak, many of us are try­ing to block the re­peal of health­care re­form in this spirit. The In­di­vis­i­ble Move­ment and the Women’s March would also have been highly fa­mil­iar to Dr King.

But on what­ever level or in what­ever sec­tor the fight takes place, as we cel­e­brate King’s in­deli­ble con­tri­bu­tions, let us re­call his un­der­stand­ing of power, the in­sti­tu­tions that power sup­ported and his ad­mo­ni­tions to us not to rest un­til much more of that power lies in the hands of those who still com­mand far too lit­tle of it. – Washington Post Bern­stein, a former chief econ­o­mist to Vice Pres­i­dent Bi­den, is a senior fel­low at the Cen­ter on Bud­get and Pol­icy Pri­or­i­ties and au­thor of the new book

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