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Labor Voices: Economic justice linked to racial justice

Marge Robinson

I’m a white woman, and I don’t know what it’s like to face racism every single day of my life.

The only time I remember coming remotely close to understanding that feeling was in August 2014 when Michael Brown, a young black man, was killed in Ferguson, Mo., by Darren Wilson, a young white police officer. The city broke out in rioting that night, and I watched the news coverage.

Suddenly, I saw my own son’s face appear in the crowd. He happened to be standing right next to a police officer who was holding an assault rifle.

I thought, “My God, my son could be killed by a police officer.” It was then I realized I was feeling an emotion that many of my black friends and fellow SEIU members fear every day: That something terrible will happen to their children.

Young black men and women are being killed for failing to signal a lane change, for selling cigarettes in front of a store—or for doing nothing at all.

Just like the fear that shot through my body when I saw my son next to a police officer holding an assault rifle, they know their sons and daughters are vulnerable and could be killed for simply being black.

It’s called structural racism, which also will determine where they will work, how much they will earn, where they live, what type of health care they will receive, and many other factors. In some cases—no matter their decisions, education, behavior, and values—they will wind up shortchanged because of the color of their skin.

That’s why SEIU this year passed a resolution, “To Win Economic Justice for Working People, We Must Win Racial Justice.” This is our union’s unwavering commitment to link our fight for economic justice with racial justice and to change the way we deal with race inside and outside our union.

Structural racism is a feature of today’s social, economic, and political system. This system includes public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms that work to reinforce ways to perpetuate inequity against black people. It is how our culture and history have allowed privileges associated with “whiteness” and disadvantages associated with “color” to endure.

White people have historical and contemporary advantages when it comes to access to quality education, decent jobs, livable wages, home ownership, retirement benefits, and more. Whites also are less likely to be convicted of crimes, and less likely to be incarcerated, and they receive, on average, lighter sentences for the same crimes. Whites receive better healthcare and better treatment from doctors.

This has gone on way too long, and we need to stand against it because everyone deserves to be treated equally in this nation. SEIU is not afraid to discuss this situation or take a stand on it. To stamp out structural racism, we must start with the racial inequity of black Americans. If we do this, everyone will benefit and we all will win.

Marge Robinson is the president of SEIU Healthcare Michigan.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook.