Race and the New Economy

04/22/2015 - 12:18pm
Protesters holding signs and banners walking down a New York City street. In the center of the crowd is a giant puppet.

This post was originally published at neweconomyweek.org.

In his article entitled “What’s the Role of Race in the New Economy Movement?” author Penn Loh argues that people of color have a foundational role to play in the establishment of a new economy because the very idea of a new economy has arisen from a discontentment with the injustices of the present system, of which people of color have borne a disproportionate share of the burden. I commend Loh for making this important and essential argument because there really is no point in re-conceptualizing “the economy” unless one is able to explain why such a re-conceptualization is necessary.

In this article, I will attempt to cover some ground that Loh does not cover in his piece. That is, I will press a little deeper into the question of what the notion of a new economy entails, at a conceptual level. I will do this along two different but related dimensions. The first has to do with reframing the notion of equality and securing its foundations in the idea of group identity rather than that of individual responsibility. The second has to do with articulating a conception of the family or household different from the nuclear family that has served and been served by the present day or old economy from which we are looking to evolve. In both of these respects, race will be shown to have an ontological import for the new economy movement. That is, to leave behind the old economy will mean a kind of shift in our perceptions and beliefs that will prepare the stage for a new way of thinking, which is the site of the first economy.

To take up the theme of equality (and by implication, of justice), then, let us begin by considering some pertinent statistics that clearly indicate why the old economy is failing.

1. Among the four principal racial groups in America (Whites, Blacks, Hispanics and Asians), Black households have consistently earned the lowest income over the last 4 decades. (Source: US Census Bureau)

2. The wealth gap between Black and White households has grown significantly over the last 30 years, and in 2010, the average family wealth for White households was more than 6 times that for Black households. (Source: Urban Institute)

3. As of 2011, the poverty rate for Blacks was higher than that for Hispanics, and more than twice that for Whites. (Source: US Census Bureau)

4. For the last 50 years (1964-2012), the unemployment rate among Blacks has been almost consistently twice as high as that among Whites. (Source: Economic Policy Institute)

5. In 2010, incarceration rates among Black men were almost 2.5 times as high as that among Hispanic men and almost 10 times as high as that among White men. (Source: Pew Research Center)

6. Even when they had good credit ratings, Blacks and Hispanics paid higher rates on mortgage loans in 2004-2008, compared to Whites. (Source: Economic Policy Institute)

7. During 2009-2010, the public high-school graduation rate for Whites was above 66% in most states. The corresponding figures for Hispanics, Blacks, and Native Americans were 47%, 47% and 38% respectively. (Source: Diversity Data Kids)

8. During 2006-2008, the highest infant mortality rate recorded among states for Whites was 7.67. The corresponding numbers for Hispanics, Blacks, and Native Americans were 7.94, 18.54 and 15.37 respectively. (Source: Diversity Data Kids)

9. During 2007-2011, the percent of working parents in a “bad” job (no health insurance, no pension, below family economic security wage, not eligible for FMLA) was, on average (across states), 18.4% for Whites, 31.4% for Hispanics, and 20.5% for Blacks. (Source: Diversity Data Kids)

10. During 2008-2012, the child poverty rates was, on average (across states), 12.5% for Whites, 31.5% for Hispanics, 37.1% for Blacks, and 35.3% for Native Americans. (Source: Diversity Data Kids)

11. During 2008-2012, the poverty rate for children living in high poverty (poverty rates of 30% or more) was 30% for Blacks, and 23% for Hispanics, compared to 4% for Whites. (Source: Annie E. Casey Foundation)

12. In 2012, teen birth rates (per 1000) were 44% for Blacks, and 46% for Hispanics, compared to 20% for Whites. (Source: Annie E. Casey Foundation)

13. The American Human Development Index is a modified version of the traditional Human Development Index that aims to better represent the US context. According to a report published by the Social Science Research Council, Native Americans are one of the two worst performers (the others being either Blacks or Hispanics) in the categories of Human Development, Health, Education, and Income. (Source: Social Science Research Council)

14. In 2014, the National Urban League published it’s Equality Index, which describes how well Blacks and Hispanics are doing relative to Whites in the domains of economics, education, health, social justice and civic engagement. An index of 100% in any one of these domains would indicate perfect equality, and any number less than 100% would indicate a disadvantage for Blacks and Hispanics. An overall index is arrived at by computing a weighted average of the indices in the different domains. The 2014 overall index came in at 71.2%. The greatest inequality was registered in the domain of economics (55.5%), whereas social justice fared only slightly better (56.8%). Inequality was present but much lower in health (76.8%) and education (76.8%), whereas in civic engagement, a large increase in Black voter participation in the 2012 Presidential elections meant significant gains towards equality (104.7%). (Source: National Urban League)

15. The unemployment rate during 2009-2011 among Native Americans was higher than that of Whites nationally and in every US state, with the difference being as high as 32.7 percentage points in South Dakota. (Source: Economic Policy Institute)

16. With respect to basic living characteristics such as availability of electricity, kitchen facilities and phone services, Native Americans lag behind the average American. Poverty rates are also much higher for Native Americans relative to the average American. (Source: National Congress of American Indians)

What the above statistics indicate is that America remains a deeply divided nation along the lines of race and color. If the minimum requirements for personal and economic success are a decent job, access to subsistence goods, and children’s good physical and mental health, then it is clear that people of color, especially Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans, are disproportionately failing in the old economy. This degree of inequality is one of the primary motivations for envisioning a new economy, as Loh has already argued. But if economic, and by implication, racial justice were the proximate ideal of the new economy, upon what kind of ontological foundation might the notion of equality be constructed? Would existing conceptions of equality that apply in the old economy suffice?

My answer to the last question is in the negative. I will use the terms equality and equity interchangeably in this article, because historical contingency forms the basis of their conceptual difference, whereas in the new economy, these two terms collapse and a new basis for thinking equality emerges. This new thinking recognizes that equality in the old economy centers on a universal political subject who, in a Foucaldian sense, does not exist. But that is not to say that equality is a vacuous concept. Equality ultimately serves a knowledge-power structure whose actual creator and principal beneficiary is not an abstract ahistorical individual but quite specifically the heterosexual white male.

Equality in the old economy is theoretically conceived as a relation between and within racially neutral subject categories such as man, woman, person, and child, but what it actually signifies is a superior political and economic position for the (white) man, the (white) woman, the (white) person, and the (white) child. With the addition of this prereflective, parenthetical adjective, as Lewis Gordon calls it (in Existentia Africana: Understanding African Existential Thought), we are able to mark out the significations of these terms in our present day life world. While the abstract individual has been conceived as the one to whom the notion of equality can be applied, the concrete manifestation of this abstract individual is the heterosexual white man in America. The racially favored group of heterosexual white males is the actual normative standard to which other groups must aspire.

But as a consequence, there is a pathologization of the “problems” of blacks into “the problem” of blacks. This happens when blacks are not seen as “people with problems” but as “problematic people.” “They cease to be people who might face, signify, or be associated with a set of problems: they become those problems. Thus, a problematic people do not signify crime, licentiousness, and other social pathologies; they, under such a view, are crime, licentiousness, and other social pathologies.” (Gordon, p. 69)

The collapse of blacks into pathologies limits, in the old economy, the options available to them and at the same time activates an affective charge among them that has been present through the generations. This is the affect of a lived history of oppression for more then two hundred years at the hands of the heterosexual white man. Nor are blacks the only group thus affected. Women are too. And it is important to note that the problems of women are often also dispensed with in the same manner. The demand for equality has come to be constituted by a process in which individual members of the disfavored groups are required to provide an account of discrimination against them without data that identify patterns of discrimination against them. Our economic measurements have turned out to be the ones by which the personal and economic success of the heterosexual white man is measured. Why? Since, in point of fact, members of that racial-gender group have been economically successful.

As Nkiru Uwechia Nzegwu puts it, in Family Matters: Feminist Concepts in African Philosophy of Culture, “… some white males are not above complaining that the gender equity provisions of the Civil Rights Act discriminate against them in that they give people of color and white women what they do not give to white men. This idea that white women and people of color are taking away from white men offers a window into the privileged male heart of white America. Ironically, white men’s natural sense of entitlement and their natural sense of privilege tells us that the standard of equality has long been skewed to their advantage and that society has always responded to their needs.” (p. 210)

A new economy that would attempt to address the problems of people of color would have to begin by assuming a different structure of equality, one that is sensitive to the trans-generational affect of the long of history of violence and psychological trauma that blacks have undergone and still do to this day, in the so-called “new Jim Crow” era. This new structure of equality would allow people of color to form politically conscious resistance groups who come together on the principle that everyone is not equal and groups rather than individuals must be the basis on which equality is defined and achieved. In a way, there is nothing “new” about this. As Jessica Gordon Nembhard describes in Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice, such politically conscious resistance groups have always been a part of the economic landscape of black America. And so, there is something quite naturally appealing about conceptualizing a new economy around racially coded terms rather than racially neutral ones, and conceptualizing a notion of equality that seeks to first and foremost remove those structural elements in the old economy (a simple example being the criminalization of marijuana possession and all of its debilitating personal and economic consequences for black men) that limit the opportunities available to people of color in general.

This new way of thinking equality will allow for new measures of economic success, and there is a sense in which this has already been happening in the old economy for several years, as evidenced by a gradual turn since the 1990s away from traditional measures such as GDP and towards more sophisticated ones such as the Genuine Progress Index and the Social Progress Index.

So we might say that we are already in the midst of a transition into the new economy, and there is no turning back. In a paper recently submitted for the inaugural issue of the Interdisciplinary Journal of Partnership Studies, I have proposed Social Wealth Economic Indicators as a new class of measures and provided examples of some of them. There the new economy is conceptualized as a “caring economy” in which the work of raising children is accorded a very high productive value even if it goes unpaid in most instances. The concerns I express in this article are in a way complementary to the opinions expressed in that paper, but a fuller discussion of exactly how this is so is beyond the scope of this article. Nevertheless, I mention that paper to suggest that the work of proposing new measurements, testing them, and demonstrating their efficacy in serving as both guides for as well as evaluations of policy, should be considered an important constitutive feature of the new economy, and therefore should be encouraged further through both public and private sources of funding.

It is impossible to envision a new economy without also imagining that it will embrace new forms of family making. For the old economy is allied to the concept of the nuclear family, which is really something that is not that old after all, having crystallized as a model of and for personal and economic success only in the 1950s. It would appear that people of color have never really adapted themselves to this model. In point of fact, they have maladapted because multigenerational poverty simply does not allow very high odds of success for the longevity of a nuclear family among people of color. Therefore, it is not surprising that almost 70% of black children are born to single mothers. And then, if the child is male, the mother must instruct her son on how to walk on the streets so that he is not pulled over by the police ……

This is the structural reality of black America. Poverty, single-parent families, and the ever-present danger of incarceration constitute the environment in which black male children are raised, the dark shadowy side of the prosperous (white) nuclear family. It is not the children that are dark, it is the ugly shadow cast by a skewed model of normativity. So once again, as in the case of thinking equality, we should realize that the problems of family making among people of color must be dealt with at the ontological level of a racial consciousness. We should recognize, in thinking the new economy, that “traditional” family values in the old economy are irreducibly racialized, and cannot be any other way given the conceptual framework within which such values have been constituted.

As in the case of equality, gender and race interact in this conceptual domain. A new equality will go hand in hand with new ways of making families that are not grounded in a mono-sex individualism, as Nzwegu calls it, but rather in models that are communal and child-centered. Families are not defined by an ideal number of members of this or that sex but by the relations of interdependency constituted out of a political structure of sex differentiation, in which roles, responsibilities and obligations within the family have a social nature that does not devolve into a systemic and systematic disadvantage for any group. Again, as Nzegwu informs us through her example of pre-colonial West Africa, complex family structures that appear to integrate the polis with the oikos are not new. Likewise, Nembhard’s history of black cooperative thought and practice shows us that the black leaders of cooperative economic thought in America (such as W. E. B. Dubois, A. Philip Randolph, Ella Jo Baker, and Fannie Lou Hamer, to name only the most significant) all advanced a notion of cooperation that attempted to remake the means of income generation at the same time that it attempted to see responsibilities towards the family and responsibilities towards the community in terms of an integrated whole. And so, in this sense, family making in the new economy is not premised on an ahistorical ontological foundation. It is grounded in the same principles of solidarity and partnership that have grounded economic interaction in cooperative economic thought and practice through the decades. And everywhere these principles have sought to transcend the restrictive domain of the nuclear family.

If equality and family are two important categories of thought for any new economy project, and if these categories implicate race, then they do so in order to remake thought itself. For thought is the first economy. To encode a structure of thought with racially neutral terms is to deny thought choice, to limit thought’s options. Thought assigns value in the old economy. But thought in the new economy also evaluates value. In its deepest vision, the political economy of race project in America today should be the project of evaluating those modes of evaluation that the old economy functions by and whose application has been instrumental in creating the present reality of economic and racial injustice. There is an urgent need for new concepts and new measurements that do not pretend or attempt to be “post-racial” in any way. Instead, a new economy will actively recognize racial contingency and work in alliance with it so that new horizons of prosperity might open for people of color, horizons that are presently invisible because they are, in the first instance, unthinkable.

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