Robinson: We need racial and economic justice

Marge Robinson

It’s no coincidence that the majority of faces seen out in the streets over the last several years agitating for an increase in the minimum wage and for fairer working conditions look very much like the same ones seen out in the streets leading the Black Lives Matter movement: young, black and often working class.

And it’s no coincidence that many of the same people we see so vigorously rejecting these basic demands are those aligned with reactionary political and economic forces. They are the ones who marginalize the poor, craft and support social and criminal justice policies that oppress people of color, and restrict the rights of people of color to vote.

Some people debate whether racial justice or economic justice is more urgently needed. In truth, neither is mutually exclusive. Racial justice is economic justice. And without one, there cannot be the other.

One needs look no farther than the city of Chicago, a hotbed of racial and economic justice activity due to a brutally violent and racially hostile police department. It has paid out more than $500 million over the past decade in damages to citizens due to police brutality, even as it has closed hundreds of neighborhood schools in poor communities because of fiscal woes. The victims of police violence have overwhelmingly been African-American and poor.

A $15-per-hour minimum wage would give a raise to an estimated 510,000 workers representing 38 percent of Chicago’s workforce.

In New York City, where African-American citizens have been protesting against a police department so brutal and racist that it has been criticized by Amnesty International, half of all black workers are in low-wage jobs.

Detroit, Flint and nearly every other city in Michigan that has been under control of an emergency manager is majority black. And all of these cities have been economically devastated by de-industrialization and burdened by a heavy population of unemployed or under-employed citizens.

This is not simply coincidence.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. recognized this as he defended the rights of striking sanitation workers in Memphis and planned a “Poor Peoples’ Campaign” march to Washington.

Even today, a race gap persists in median household income. According to the U.S. census, white households made just over $60,000 in 2014, Hispanic households made about $42,000 and black households made just $35,000. One in 10 white people was below the poverty line in 2014. For blacks, it was more than 1 in 4.

America’s “original sin” — slavery — was as much about economic exploitation as it was sheer racism. The severe economic exploitation of so many workers of color today echoes that evil institution of our not too distant past.

Marge Robinson, a registered nurse, is president of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare Michigan.