Regardless of when the president and Congress decide to end their current budget standoff, it is increasingly clear that the emerging deal will do very little to reverse the fiscal wrongs at the heart of the tax code. These wrongs have transformed America’s economy into the least equitable and most racially unfair it’s been in almost a half century.
Our collective denial over the fundamental injustice at the heart of our economic system is a result of white supremacy. The words “white supremacy” are radioactive to be sure. It pains me to write them. However, as a trained economist I go where the facts lead me. Since I have written potentially inflammatory words, let me be clear about what I mean.
White supremacy is a low-level assumption about characteristics that white people allegedly have which transforms inequality between them and everyone else into something natural. It often masks itself as fairness and goes unquestioned as a result. Using this definition, our current tax code is a work of white supremacy.
The fact that we’ve arrived at this point on the watch of the country’s first black president is an irony too large to ignore. Mostly victim, partly complicit, Obama is not fully to blame. Yet, economically speaking, the stubborn fact remains that the country is at a moment of racial injustice not seen in more than a generation. In the last four years, that injustice has only expanded and calcified.
White wealth is double what it was 30 years ago. Black and Latino wealth is at its lowest point ever recorded. These inequitable consequences flow directly from political choices embedded in our tax code. But since 1980 when these choices began to be implemented, we’ve talked ourselves out of race and into a mess when it comes to taxes. In fact the frame for our current fiscal debate has clear white supremacist roots.
As I’ve written previously, it began in 1980 when Ronald Reagan announced that he wanted to reduce taxes and return money to the states. This was long a demand of southern White Citizens Councils. He did so in a Mississippi county were one of the most brutal murders of the civil rights era took place.
White Citizens Councils, the political wing of the Klu Klux Klan, detested federal taxes because they were used to promote economic fairness for blacks in the South. Government spending on economic opportunity had upset the pre-existing racialized economic order. So in speech after speech, Reagan promised to “turn back the clock” and won in a landslide.
Once in office, Reagan did as promised. He re-constructed a system which took money from the employed poor and working class—who are disproportionately black and brown—and gave it to a mostly white minority who were already wealthy.
The result of Reagan’s policies—which were turbocharged under George W. Bush—is that the top 1 percent have a greater share of national income than at any point in American history. And 97 percent of the top 1 percent are white. Yet poverty is stuck at decades-high levels. One out of three blacks and one out of four Latinos is poor.
Reagan’s policies, largely followed by his predecessors in both parties, have left us a country where a child born in poverty in any other advanced economy on the planet has a better chance of becoming rich than one born in the United States.
This is blatantly wrong to the vast majority of Americans, regardless of race. They would not allow this injustice to stand, if spoken to plainly about it.
But since Reagan’s success in winning office off of white supremacist notions, the U.S. has struggled to be honest with itself about the racial impact of its economic choices. The trouble is that you can’t solve a problem that you don’t admit exists.
A Longterm Legacy
The stubborn truth is that economic white supremacy hangs like poison in the national air. It’s been the default position of the United States since the country came into existence as a slave republic. The only way to neutralize white supremacy is to admit that it still animates many of our basic economic assumptions.
The fact that Oprah and Jay-Z are points of interests because they are people of color with vast wealth makes the point. We’re conditioned to be astounded by the economic success of blacks and more unassuming about the wealth of whites. Our stereotypes about who’s deserving and who’s not are grounded in an ongoing white supremacist paradigm.
You would think that having a black president would help us work through some of this. But President Obama has yet to give one speech dedicated exclusively to the Depression-like economic distress in communities of color nor the three-decades-long government policies which caused it. In his silence Obama extends his party’s complicity in our economic system’s destructive racial aspects.
Democrats argue that they fight for race-blind, middle-class economic policies.
The only problem is that Americans aren’t attune to issues of economic injustice. In our national subconscious, economic inequality is just assumed as a natural result of capitalism. It is not. However, through hundreds of years of struggle, Americans, are actually sensitive to racial injustice.
By not confronting the racial aspects of economic inequality, we’ve actually hardened our former racial caste system, which had economic implications, into an economic caste system that has racial implications. From the perspective of economic rights and wrongs, both approaches appear eerily similar.
Instead of a debate over tax increases or spending cuts, what we need to have is an argument about what kind of country we want to have. We need to ask ourselves whether the past was both right and good enough, and how we can build a better, stronger, and fairer future.
Until we have a real stand-off over our fundamental values, we’ll continue to be stuck in a national economic cul-de-sac shaped by white supremacy. Without real change, we’ll circle there in a fruitless, schizophrenic argument with ourselves.