Race, Class and Economic Justice
by Hiawatha Demby, Economic Justice Covenant Program Task Force
There is an
increasingly widespread claim that class is a more significant than race in determining
This statement may be true in regard to income and earning ability. But it is
not true for wealth and access to wealth building opportunities, the foundations
of economic justice, that continue to be very strongly influenced by race. Our
country was built on a foundation of race-based practices and behaviors. The
justifications that supported and underlay those policies and actions persist
as undercurrents in our current economic structures. The biased outcomes these
structures produce are tragedies for millions of African Americans and other
people of color.
Our country was built and developed
through race-based practices and behaviors including everything from seizing
land from the Native Americans (for example, the Trail of Tears and westward
expansion) and Mexico (the Mexican-American War) to destroying wealth and other
resources owned by African Americans that had been acquired even under
oppressive conditions, for example in Rosewood, FL; Oklahoma City; and
laws tightly constrained African Americans in an effort to break their ambition
and crush their sense of self-reliance. This was bigotry as public policy and there
was no doubt that one’s race defined their class. The effects of that period
continue to impact the economic status of African Americans today. Consider
entering a game of monopoly that has been going on for hours and every property
has been claimed. The tardy player enters at
a distinct disadvantage with little hope of acquiring any wealth on the board,
grateful for the occasional “Free Parking” or even “Go Directly to Jail” card
that enables her to stay in the game for another round. There is little
incentive to join the game at all.
justifications that supported and underlay those earlier policies and actions
persist as undercurrents in our current economic structures. Today they justify
cuts in social programs and opposition to affirmative action and immigration
reform. Racial injustices are seen in many economic and social measures:
Other examples of racial bias:
outcomes represent tragedies for millions of African Americans and other people
of color. Moreover, they often form the basis for the intergenerational
transmission of poverty that stunts opportunities for future generations.
is very high for people of color. A white man released from prison has an equal
or better chance of being employed as a black man with no criminal record.
discrimination in promotion and pay and low
returns to education make it difficult to inspire minority youth to invest
themselves in the education and economic system either intellectually,
financially or politically.
Wealth is more important than income
important but it can be temporary since it depends upon potentially fluctuating
economic circumstances: a job that provides income to an employee, or a
thriving business that gives income to the owner. To become a permanent asset,
income must be converted into wealth. Wealth provides the means to effectively
participate in the economic system by cushioning against times of scarcity and
providing resources to take advantage of opportunities. Significant wealth may
be accumulated over generations but once lost may be gone forever. An early
start at wealth creation provides an advantage that is hard for those without
it to overcome.
Land can be
a significant source of wealth. Historically non-whites have had their rights
to own and benefit from land ownership limited by law or aggression. Even
today, people of color are denied opportunities to build wealth through new
more sophisticated schemes including payday loans, online gambling, lotteries,
and subprime mortgages, and multi-level-marketing (otherwise known as pyramid
or Ponzi schemes).
Many whites are also victims of these practices but research shows people of color are especially targeted. In poor communities, the opportunity to make a profit may take precedence over consumer protections or even legal restraints. This is seen in predatory lending and also in a community’s tolerance of drugs and crime. The political and economic power in those situations is mostly in the hands of the owners of those businesses and so law enforcement, investigation and regulation are not a priority. In areas with few bank branches, grocery stores, or other retail outlets, those that are present can charge higher prices and use more predatory practices. When people have few opportunities and few choices, they are sometimes willing to tolerate enterprises that would not be otherwise permitted.
Many whites are also victims of these practices but research shows people of color are especially targeted. In poor communities, the opportunity to make a profit may take precedence over consumer protections or even legal restraints. This is seen in the proliferation of predatory lending establishments and also in a community’s tolerance of drugs and other street crime. Much of the political and economic power in these communities is in the hands of business owners so investigation and enforcement of regulations by the authorities are not a priority. In areas with few bank branches, grocery stores, or other retail outlets, those that are present can charge higher prices and use more predatory practices. When people have few opportunities and few choices, they are sometimes willing to tolerate enterprises that would not be otherwise permitted.
Factors preventing non-whites from accumulating
Since before the nation was founded, minorities have been at an
economic disadvantage, receiving little or no pay for their labor,
stripped of their wealth,
and used to undermine the economic progress of others. Racial scapegoating has
been repeatedly used to achieve political aims or simply for profit.
In some situations where minorities have managed to prevail despite the
obstacles, their gains have been violently and dramatically suppressed, for
example, in Wilmington, NC, in 1896;
in Tulsa, OK, in 1921;
and Rosewood, FL, in 1923.
of red-lining and the
resultant white-flight have
continued to block people of color from overcoming the historic wealth
disparities and also stopped many who wished to escape poor environments from
doing so. The devaluation of minority-owned or -occupied properties persists
and transcends class. Environmental racism has also been a constant threat to
the value of properties owned by minorities and the poor. See the UCC’s 1987
ground-breaking report, Toxic Waste and Race. The
placement of industrial zones and waste disposal sites near properties owned by
people of color lowers the value the properties and limits their potential use.
Race and Class influence on economic justice
If wealth creates economic
opportunity and determines class, and if wealth remains strongly correlated
with race, then race will remain a significant determinant of economic outcomes
for the foreseeable future, and an important barrier to economic justice.
Will the economic system ever be
fair? Perhaps not, but as individuals begin to understand the issues and to act
with fairness, the disparities that now exist will begin to shrink. This will
require change and moving past the status quo, but should result in a better
and stronger community for all.
Simple principles of racial and
- Everyone is entitled to justice
- A person is not a demographic
- One person’s loss is not another person’s gain
- Justice and security are illusions unless they apply to everyone
- Ignorance is everyone’s problem
- Blame is not a solution
Additional Historic References
Below is a
selected list of references to notable race-based economic injustices in our
nation’s history. This historical review is not intended to incite outrage or
guilt but to generate a better understanding of how difficult it will be to
overcome the past and create new systems that will assure these injustices
never happen again. But these changes must happen if we are to ever achieve
economic justice in the beloved community.
Injustices to Native Americans
to Mexicans and other Hispanics
Injustices to Eastern and Non-European
'white' changed from being a description of skin color to a term of economic
status used to define those who would be allowed to participate in the economy
and those who would not.
provide current facts regarding race and economic justice
Foundations of racial and economic justice: economic justice is a
priority of our faith
- The Heart of
Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith by Marcus J. Borg, HarperCollins, New
- A Textbook
of Christian Ethics by Robin Gill, T&T Clark, New York, 2006.
 See It’s Class, Not
Race! Stupid by C.B. Warsteane, Warsteane Realty, 2006 http://www.amazon.com/Its-Class-Not-Race-Stupid/dp/1419610562/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1284568685&sr=1-4.
 See The Monopoly Analogy
of race and economic status http://afrospear.com/2008/01/21/the-monopoly-analogy/
 See Nickel and Dimed
by Barbara Ehrenreich and Racism without
Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States
by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva.