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Jeffrey B. Perry Blog

Jeffrey B. Perry, "Some Class and Racial Aspects of the Conjuncture" (written in 2012)

The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights from Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight against White Supremacy


Jeffrey B. Perry

Some Class and Racial Aspects of the Conjuncture

(This was offered over a decade ago, but people may find the comments of interest.

Deepening Economic Crisis

On June 25, 2010, the Congressional Budget Office reported that the after-tax income gaps between the richest one percent and the middle and poorest fifths in the United States had more than tripled between 1979 and 2007. The concentration at the top of the income scale was the greatest at any time since 1928, immediately prior to the Great Depression.[1] With the gap between rich and poor so vast, and with poor and working people increasingly limited in their spending, it came as little surprise when the Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman wrote in his June 27, 2010 New York Times column what millions of Americans already knew - the United States was in a depression. He called it "The Third Depression," after those of the 1870s and 1930s, and he predicted that "tens of millions" of American workers would suffer, "many of whom will go jobless for years" including some who "will never work again."[2]

Facts supported Krugman's contentions. On July 1, 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that 14.6 million Americans were unemployed, 45.5% of these were long-term unemployed (27 weeks or more), and the official unemployment rate was 9.5 percent. Another 8.6 million were listed as involuntarily working part-time and 2.6 million more were marginally attached to the economy (they hadn't looked for work in the four weeks preceding the survey). Included in this group were 1.2 million "discouraged workers" who had given up looking for work "because they believe no jobs are available for them." Overall, the BLS counted 25.8 million workers unemployed/underemployed, some 17 percent of the workforce.[3] Other workers were turning to the Social Security Administration's disability program for help and the SSA's chief actuary predicted "roughly a million more disability applications from 2009 through 2011 than it would have without the recession."[4] Approximately 40 million Americans, 13.2% of the population, were living in poverty,[5] fifty percent of children would need food stamps while growing up,[6] over 46 million Americans were without healthcare,[7] home foreclosures hit a record high of 937,840 in the third quarter of 2009,[8] and a newly developed Economic Security Index found that 20 percent of Americans without a financial cushion experienced a 25 percent or greater loss of household income in 2009 (and conditions were expected to worsen).[9]

U.S. Workers Faring Badly

Joseph E. Stiglitz, another Nobel Prize-winning economist, emphasized in Freefall: America, Free Markets, and the Shrinking of the World Economy (2010) that this "'Made in the U.S.A' crisis" has "quickly spread round the world" and since 2008 "tens of millions lost their jobs worldwide - 20 million in China alone - and tens of millions fell into poverty."[10] In addition to recognizing the devastating consequences worldwide, it is especially important to emphasize that poor and working people in the United States are not faring well either. The World Health Organization reported that "the U.S. health system spends a higher portion of its gross domestic product than any other country," but it ranked 37th in performance.[11] The Social Security Administration found that "50 percent of wage earners had net compensation [wages, tips, and the like] less than or equal to . . . $26,261.29 [$505 per week/$12.63 per hour pre-tax] for 2009.[12]America, according to Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010), has "the highest rate of incarceration in the world."[13]At a June 2010 Congressional Summit it was reported that "incarceration rates have increased 800 percent in the last 30 years" and that "90 percent of all criminal defendants fall below the poverty line."[14] The Economic Policy Institute compared the U.S. to 19 other industrialized countries and found that it had "weaker unions, lower minimum wages, [and] less generous social benefits" than the other countries. Not only do U.S. workers work more hours than those in these other countries, they do so without statutorily paid public holidays and they are alone amongst this group in not receiving statutorily paid vacation time. Most significantly, on the two major measures of household income inequality (the Gini coefficient and the ratio of 90th-to-10th percentile), the U.S. showed the greatest inequality.[15]

White Supremacist Shaping

In the United States the suffering and hardship reflected in these and other areas are intensified by racial oppression. In July 2010 Black unemployment was reported at 15.6%, white unemployment was 8.6%; in 2008 Black poverty was reported at 24.7%, "non-Hispanic White" poverty was 8.6%.[16] Ninety percent of Black children will be on food stamps at some point while growing up.[17] Stark racial disparities exist, and in general have increased, in jobs, housing, health care, education, incarceration and every major social and economic indicator measured in the Urban League's State of Black America 2009. That report describes "persistent inequalities" in American society and utilizes an "Equality Index" that considers five areas - economics, health, education, social justice, and civic engagement in order to compare Black to "white" equality (with equality being 100% and an index of less than 100% indicating that Black people are

doing worse relative to "whites"). The overall Equality Index is 71.1%. The index for economics is 57.4%, social justice 60.4%, health 74.4%, education 78.5%, and civic engagement 96.3%.[18]

Incarceration figures are staggering. Black males are incarcerated "at a rate more than six times higher than white males" and Black females at a rate over 3.6 times that of white females.[19] Alexander, in The New Jim Crow, emphasizes that "no other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities" and she describes how America has "a set of structured arrangements that locks . . . [African Americans] into a subordinate political, social, and economic position, effectively creating a second class citizenship."[20] Jan M. Chaiken, Director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, found "approximately 30 percent of black men ages 20 to 29 were under correctional supervision" and "a young black man age 18 . . . had a 28.5 percent chance of spending time in prison during his life."[21]

Alexander's work focuses on the criminal justice system and the "racialized social control" system that she wishes to "dismantle" and it describes "mass incarceration," much of it rooted in the white supremacist "War on Drugs," as "the most damaging manifestation of the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement." In her book she explains that the "current system of social control permanently locks a large percentage of the African American community out of the mainstream society and economy" through a "system of laws, policies, customs, and institutions, that operate collectively to

ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race." She also details how "mass incarceration marginalizes large sections of the African American community, segregates them physically (in prisons, jails, and ghettos)" and then "authorizes discrimination against them in voting, employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service." Alexander also advises: "Whites should prove their commitment to dismantling not only mass incarceration, but all the structures of racial inequality that guarantee for whites the resilience of white privilege."[22]


In early 2011 much of the nation's attention focused on attacks on working people and public sector unions, centering on struggles in Madison, Wisconsin. A few related race and class aspects of that situation merit attention.

First, the public sector, nationally, according to Steven Pitts, of the University of California Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, "is the single most important source of employment for African Americans."[23] Both in terms of membership in those unions and in terms of the constituencies they serve, African Americans are hit hard by such attacks.

Second, other attacks on working people, along the lines that Alexander describes, have been occurring throughout the state. Though much less discussed, these attacks and their interconnection with the more publicly visible events in Madison are important. Wisconsin, which has less than a six percent Black population (and a history that includes nine "all-white" "sundown towns"), has the second highest rate of Black incarceration of any state in the country. Milwaukee, 80 miles from Madison, is the state's largest city with the largest Black population and has been ranked the nation's most segregated metropolitan area and the nation's first or second most segregated city. According to Marc V. Levine of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, in 2009, the most recent year for which data were available, "a staggering 53.3 percent of metro Milwaukee's working age African American males were not employed: either unemployed, or, for various

reasons (including incarceration), not even in the labor force." Levine points out that "This is the highest jobless rate among working age black males ever recorded in Milwaukee, " which, he notes, also has "the widest racial disparity in jobless rates among forty of the nation's largest metropolitan areas." Milwaukee, though extreme, is not alone, however, and the "jobless" figures for adult Black males in other cities are similar: Detroit - 59.5%, Cleveland - 52.3%, Buffalo - 52.3%, Chicago 50.3%, Pittsburgh 50.3%, and so on.[24]

A direct connection between the attack on labor rights and the incarceration, segregation, and lack of job opportunities for African Americans is found in the story of how Governor Scott Walker, the outspoken opponent of labor rights in Wisconsin, rose in Republican Party ranks as a state representative from a small city outside Milwaukee (Wauwatosa -"white" population approx. 94%, Black population approx, 2%,). As a county executive from Milwaukee County, he was a leading opponent of a public transit bill that sought to connect the city to the suburbs, a bill that would have increased access to jobs for Black workers from inner city Milwaukee, and thus would have posed a potential challenge to white supremacist housing segregation and employment patterns.

Millions Are Suffering and Conditions Are Worsening

Overall, the facts of the current conjuncture indicate that millions of poor and working people are suffering under U.S. capitalism, that millions are suffering under the white supremacist shaping of this system, that these conditions are inter-related, and that these conditions are worsening.[25]

The lives and work of Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen offer important insights for understanding and challenging such conditions. It is to some of these insights that we now turn.[26]

[1]  Arloc Sherman and Chad Stone, "Income Gaps Between Very Rich and Everyone Else More than Triples in Last Three Decades, New Data Show," Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, June 25, 2010, <http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=3220>. In the May 2011 issue of Vanity Fair Joseph E. Stiglitz elaborated further. He pointed out that "1 percent of the people take nearly a quarter of the nation's income" and "in terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1 percent control 40 percent." See also Joseph E. Stiglitz, "Of the 1 %, by the 1 %, for the 1 %," Vanity Fair (May 2011) online at <http://www.vanityfair.com/society/features/2011/05/top-one-percent-201105>.
[2]  Paul Krugman, "The Third Depression," New York Times, June 27, 2010, A 19,

<http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/28/opinion/28krugman.html>. Theodore W. Allen described such a crisis as "a capitalist crisis of overproduction." He explained, "The crisis of overproduction means . . . you can get anything you want if you have the money. But you ain't . . . [the crisis is] not of underproduction, but of over-production of Kapital." See Theodore W. Allen, "A Transcript of Ted Allen's Talk on the Domestic Economic Situation," March 2, 1974 - Chicago, p. 6, copy in possession of author.
[3]  United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Employment Situation Summary," July 2, 2010, <http://www.bls.gov/news.release/archives/empsit_07022010.htm>. In addition, on July 2 the New York Times reported that 652,000 Americans stopped searching for work in June. See Michael Powell, "Recovery Slows with Weak Job Creation in Private Sector," New York Times, July 2, 2010, at <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/03/business/economy/03jobs.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=michael%20powel l%20recovery%20slows&st=cse>.
[4]  Conor Dougherty, "Beyond the Bubble: The Long Slog: Out of Work, Out of Hope," Wall Street Journal (Eastern Edition), September 25, 2010, p. A 1.
[5]  Carmen DeNavas-Walt, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Jessica C. Smith, U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, P60-236, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2008 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2009), p. 13, <http: //www.docstoc. com/docs/

[6]  Susan Lang, "Half of U.S. Children - and Most Black Children - Will Use Food Stamps," Cornell University, Chronicleonline, November 3, 2009, <http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/Nov09/ KidsFoodStamps.html>, citing Mark R. Rank and Thomas A. Hirschl, "Estimating the Risk of Food Stamp Use and Impoverishment During Childhood," Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, No. 163 (11) (November, 2009), pp. 994-99.
[7]  DeNavas-Walt, et al., Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage, 66. A Harvard Medical School study indicated that this resulted in 45,000 preventable deaths per year. See "Harvard Medical Study Links Lack of Insurance to 45,000 U.S. Deaths a Year," New York Times, September 17, 2009, at <http://prescriptions.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/17/harvard-medical-study-links-lack-of-insurance-to- 45000-us-deaths-a-year/?emc=eta1>.
[8]  Les Christie, "Foreclosures: 'Worst Three Months of All Time," CNNMoney.com, October 15, 2009, <http ://money.cnn.com/2009/10/15/real_estate/foreclosure_crisis_deepens/?postversion=2009101507>.
[9]  Jacob S. Hacker, et al., "Economic Security at Risk: Findings from the Economic Security Index," July 2010, available at <http://nw-assets.s3.amazonaws.com/pdf/ESI_report_embargoed_until_7-22_low- res.pdf> and at the bottom of <http://www.stateoftheusa.org/content/report-economic-security-slidi.php>. Conditions did, in fact, worsen for millions. By the end of March 2011 former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich pointed out "consumers are 70 percent of the American economy," their "confidence is plummeting," and is "weaker today on average than at the lowest point of the Great Recession." See Robert Reich, "The Economic Truth That Nobody Will Admit: We're Heading Back Toward a Double Dip," March 31, 2011, Huffpost Business, April 7, 2011, at <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-reich/the- truth-about-the-econo_b_842998.html>.
[10] Joseph E. Stiglitz, Freefall: America, Free Markets, and the Shrinking of the World Economy (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010), p. 1.
[11] "World Health Organization Assesses the World's Health Systems," June 21, 2000, <http://www.who. int/whr/2000/media_centre/press_release/en/index.html>.
[12] Social Security Online, "Wage Statistics for 2009," at <http://www.ssa.gov/cgi-bin/netcomp.cgi?year =2009>.
[13] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010), p. 6.
[14] American Civil Liberties Union, Blog of Rights, June 24, 2010, "Innocent Until Proven Indigent," <http://www.aclu.org/blog/racial-justice/innocent-until-proven-indigent>.
[15] Lawrence Mishel, Jared Bernstein, and Heidi Shierholtz, The State of Working America 2008/2009 (Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute, 2009), Chapter 8, "International Comparisons," pp. 357, 365, 367, 380. The nineteen other industrialized countries include France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Canada, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, New Zealand, Iceland, Norway, Italy, Australia, United Kingdom, Spain, Finland, Japan, Greece, and Ireland.
[16] Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Employment Situation Summary," July 2, 2010 and DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, and Smith, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2008," p. 15.
[17] Lang, "Half of U.S. Children - and Most Black Children - Will Use Food Stamps."
[18] Wilson, "Introduction to the 2009 Equality Index," in The State of Black America 2009, 15-41, esp. pp. 15-17. All of these numbers with the exception of health declined from the previous year and in that area some 19.5% of African Americans had no health insurance. Thomas M. Shapiro, Tatjana Meschede, and Laura Sullivan, "The Racial Wealth Gap Increases, Fourfold," May 2010, Institute on Assets and Social Policy, Heller School, Brandeis University, <http://iasp.brandeis.edu/whatsnew/index.html>. At the end of March 2011 the Urban League reported that its 2011 Equality Index stood at 71.5% and that "Since the publication of the 2010 index, we have observed growing gaps in the relative status of blacks and whites in the areas of loan access, wealth, and children's health." See National Urban League, Executive Summary: The State of Black America 2011 Jobs Rebuild America: Putting Urban America Back to Work, March 31, 2011, pp. 2-3.
[19] U.S. Office of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Number of State Prisoners Declined by Almost 3,000 During 2009; Federal Prison Population Increased by 6,800," June 23, 2010, <http ://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/ content/pub/press/pim09stpy09acpr.cfm>.
[20] Alexander, The New Jim Crow, pp. 59, 180.
[21] Jan M. Chaiken, "Crunching Numbers: Crime and Incarceration at the End of the Millennium," National Institute of Justice Journal, January 2000, pp. 10-17, esp. p. 14, <http://www.ncjrs.gov/App/publications/ Abstract.aspx?id=180078>. Chaiken explained that "in prison" reflected "actual prison sentences, which ordinarily are for at least a year and follow a conviction for a felony."
[22] Alexander, The New Jim Crow, pp. 10-11, 13, 17, 19, 59, 94, and 244.
[23] Steven Pitts, "Research Brief: Black Workers and the Public Sector," University of California Berkeley, Center for Labor Research and Education, April 4, 2011, p. 1. Pitts also points out (p. 2) that "Prior to the [current] recession the wage differential between Black and white workers was less in the public sector than in the overall economy."
[24] Marc V. Levine, "Research Update: The Crisis Deepens: Black Male Joblessness in Milwaukee 2009," Working Paper, October 2010 (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Center for Economic Development," pp. 2, 3, 11, available online at <http://www4.uwm.edu/ced/publications/blackjoblessness_2010.pdf>; Daniel Denvir, "The Ten Most Segregated Urban Areas in America," Salon, March 31, 2011, available at <http://www.salon.com/news/politics/war_room/2011/03/29/most_segregated_cities/slideshow.html>; Harry Bradford, "America's Ten Most Segregated Cities," Huffpost, April 7, 2011 online at <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/07/americas-10-most-segregated-cities_n_845092.html>; and The Sentencing Project, Uneven Justice: State Rates of Incarceration by Race and Ethnicity (Washington, DC, July 1907), p. 8 available online at <http://www.sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/ rd_stateratesofincbyraceandethnicity.pdf>. James W. Loewen, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism (New York: The New Press, 2005), pp. 2, 5, defines a sundown town as "any organized jurisdiction that for decades kept African Americans or other groups from living in it and was thus 'all- white' on purpose." He found nine sundown towns in Wisconsin.
<http://www.epi.org/publications/entry/bp306-class-of-2011/>, which says that "In 2010, the unemployment rate for workers age 16-24 was 18.4% - the worst on record in the 60 years that this data has been tracked." See also Ruth Helman, Mathew Greenwald & Associates, and Craig Copeland and Jack VanDerhei, "The 2011 Retirement Confidence Survey: Confidence Drops to Record Lows, Reflecting 'the New Normal,'" Issue Brief, No. 355 (Employee Benefit Research Institute, March 2011) at <http://www.ebri.org/pdf/surveys/rcs/2011/EBRI_03-2011_No355_RCS-11 .pdf>.
[26] Much information on the wide-ranging Harrison, in addition to his work on the centrality of the fight against white supremacy, has recently been made available through A Hubert Harrison Reader, Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918, and through access to the Hubert H. Harrison Papers at Columbia University. Allen's Papers are not yet publicly available, however, and that fact prompted a decision to include more from his writings in the extended section on his work.

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