Just Economics: Looking through the lens of ‘The 1619 Project’

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In 2019, The New York Times published The 1619 Project, a collection of essays, short stories, and poems intended to revisit United States’ history through the lens of slavery and racism. The creators of The 1619 Project hoped that it would be used in public schools. This has happened in over 4,000 schools, mostly in urban areas such as Washington D.C., Newark, New Jersey and Chicago. However, use of the project has been sparse in other parts of the country, partly due to opposition by local school boards and state legislatures in places such as Arkansas, Iowa and Mississippi. Was such opposition entirely due to the rural-urban divide or was something else at work?

One must note that the original version of The 1619 Project was criticized on several fronts. Historical scholars criticized it for certain factual inaccuracies and for overreaching analyses. The World Socialist Web Site repudiated the project stating, “The historical slogan of the socialist movement is ‘Workers of the World, Unite!’ not ‘Races of the World, Divide!’” (December 2019, wsws.org)

However, the economic divide between white households and African-American households remains extreme. A 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances sponsored by the Federal Reserve Board found that Black families’ median and mean wealth are both less than 15% those of white families, at $24,100 and $142,500, respectively. The famous historian Eric Williams (first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago) writes in his book Capitalism and Slavery (1944), “Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.”

The 1619 Project details how racism has been used to make the accumulation of wealth more difficult for African-Americans. Its final chapter, titled “Justice,” presents a history of calls for reparations along with a renewed appeal for them. Nikole Hannah-Jones, originator of The 1619 Project, authored this chapter and in subsequent speaking engagements has advocated for Universal Basic Income (UBI). It is these positions that the Just Economics column would like to address.

Our current capitalist economic system, which Eric Williams and sociologist Matthew Desmond (The 1619 Project) claim was founded on slavery, has become enormously unequal. Thus substantial wealth transfers in the form of reparations and UBI appear to be a necessity for economic justice. Unfortunately, the socialist movement and other progressive forces have been unable to prevent our economy from reaching one of the most unequal conditions since the Gilded Age of the late 19th century. Now we have reached a major fork in the road. This fork presents two alternatives: (1) leaving the current system in place; (2) structural changes that ensure a more egalitarian economic system.

Descendants of slaves have valid arguments for reparations. The labor of their ancestors was stolen, and they have been subjected to numerous racial injustices in many realms, including that of economics. The argument for UBI reveals how broken and unjust our economic system really is. The system used racism to prevent one sector of society from enjoying the economic fruits of its labors. But as that sector slowly gained more rights, the system found ways to suppress the economic lives of all citizens regardless of their ethnicity.

In lieu of slavery, financial instruments such as payday loans, low-wages and student debt, to name a few, are now deployed to keep wealth in the hands of “successful” capitalists. These modern day weapons of exploitation are justified via an unrealistic belief in meritocracy, a belief which has rationalized an ever-widening income and wealth divide. School districts that chose to use The 1619 Project can ponder challenges to the status quo. School districts that reject The 1619 Project hang on to beliefs in the biased meritocracy and discourage any consideration of reparations or UBI. Sadly, almost no school district confronts our economic system squarely and encourages consideration of changes that would address the roots of social and economic inequality.

Reparations, if paid, could cost trillions of dollars. Yet would even this address the fundamental problems with our economic system? Many full-time workers earn so little that government intervention is needed to subsidize rent, food, transportation, and medical care. It is truly shocking that few attempts are made to hide this odious form of neo-slavery. Combine poverty wages with the exclusion of ethnic minorities from wealth generating instruments such as fair housing mortgages, and it becomes clear that racism has become a proxy for slavery. White America deliberately oppresses people of color in order to control neighborhoods, jobs, politics, education and capital, while dividing a multi-racial working class against itself.

The authors of The 1619 Project have offered us a chance to understand the institution of slavery and its descendants: segregation, Jim Crow, lynching and most recently neoliberalism. Racism has not succumbed to civil war, civil rights, fair wages or progressive taxation. The ideology of racism as embodied in neoliberal capitalism justifies deficient healthcare, starvation wages, persistent unemployment, homelessness, regressive tax policies and a nation divided along racial lines.

Did slavery end in the United States with the passage of the 13th Amendment? In theory, slavery ended. But the slavery-induced desire to subjugate other people by whatever means possible did not end. Today it merely takes a monetary form. Among other things, the racial divide enables the neoliberal economic system to pit liberal communities against conservative ones. Is The 1619 Project the straw that breaks the back of structural racism? Probably not. But it deepens our understanding of why human groups sometimes desire to subjugate others, and it might help us squelch that desire and engineer a more egalitarian world. 

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