The Problems of All Americans

I basically agree with the arguments Michael Dawson puts forth in his thoughtful article, especially his call for the black public sphere and black political organizations to address both racial justice and economic justice for all. The former has been a central concern of black leaders; therefore, I would like to focus on the latter—the quest for economic justice for all—which unfortunately has received far less attention.

The pursuit of economic justice, as Dawson suggests, requires multiracial cooperation. Accordingly, to strengthen the foundation for multiracial cooperation, we need to develop a new public dialogue on how our problems should be defined and how they should be addressed. This public dialogue should focus on problems that plague broad segments of the American public—from the jobless poor to the struggling working and middle classes.

This new public message should help ordinary Americans become more aware of how global economic changes, as well as monetary, fiscal, and social policies, have increased social inequality. It should make clear that inequality in the labor market has risen just as new constraints have emerged on the use of federal resources to combat social inequities. More specifically it should be pointed out that many government policies exacerbate rather than alleviate the economic stresses of ordinary families. These include monetary policies to combat inflation, which elevate real interest rates and lead to increased unemployment; trade policies that place low-skilled labor in the United States in greater competition with low-skilled labor around the world; tax policies that favor wealthier families at the expense of ordinary families; and congressional inaction on or opposition to programs such as public investment and national health insurance.

Without racial blinders, all groups are potential allies in a reform coalition.

Furthermore, the public rhetoric should embrace inclusiveness and encourage Americans to remove their racial blinders and recognize all groups as potential allies in a reform coalition. As Dawson, drawing on the work of Barbara Ehrenreich and Dedrick Muhammad on the racial realities of the economic crisis, points out, “White racial resentment reinforces the need for a conversation about race that presents the facts of race in America and gives Americans a context for listening to each other, so that they begin to understand their real interests.”

We should also convey the idea that changes in the global economy have increased social inequality and created situations that enhance antagonisms between different racial groups competing for shrinking resources. Although many of these groups are perceived as social adversaries, they are potential allies in a reform coalition. Why? Because they are all more or less vulnerable to impersonal global economic changes.

The racial dialogue in the United States often obscures this commonality. This is especially clear in the tendency to view current problems in the African American community as exclusively matters of race. Blacks still confront racial barriers in the labor market, as Dawson describes; however, many of their problems, especially among low-skilled workers, stem from changes in the demand for labor in the global economy. In general, highly educated and highly skilled workers in all racial groups have benefited, whereas workers with lower skills face the growing threats of job displacement and eroding wages.

If leaders in the African American community perceive the economic problems of blacks as separate from the national and international trends affecting all ordinary Americans, they will be less likely to join forces with other groups seeking economic reform. This would be unfortunate because no group in the United States would benefit more than African Americans from the creation of a progressive multiracial coalition.