By Marya Axner, Regional Director of the New England Jewish Labor Committee
As Martin Luther King Day approaches, I’m thinking about the connection between racism, income equality, and worker justice.
These issues are sending people into the streets. Mark Bittman speaks about this connection in his December 13, 2014 New York Times, op-ed, “Is it Bad Enough Yet?” In the article, Bittman observes, “When underpaid workers begin their strikes by saying ‘I can’t breathe,’ or by holding their hands over their heads and chanting ‘Hands up, don’t shoot,’ they’re recognizing that their struggle is the same as that of African-Americans demanding dignity, respect and indeed safety on their own streets.”
I find this hopeful. The fact that people are connecting these issues and speaking out about them is a good sign for all of us.
The targeting of any group for unfair treatment and stereotyping, whether it be African American men or Jews or poor white people, serves to confuse us and distract us from structural inequities in our society. We are taught, in a million different ways, that other groups in society (besides our own), are getting a better deal than we are. We are saturated with messages that say some groups should get a worse deal because they are less deserving, stupid, or because they didn’t work hard enough. Right wing interests fund media that broadcast these distortions of reality, and they have an overall effect.
I’d like to think I am not vulnerable to this kind of messaging. However, I grew up watching the same TV and movies that other people did, where black men are portrayed as dangerous rather than open hearted, where poor people are portrayed as stupid rather than wise, where Jews are portrayed as wealthy or greedy, rather than having integrity. In fact, we live in a world that is set up to keep us thinking that we are in essence, different from each other. We come to believe that we are better than other groups and that we must protect ourselves and our loved ones from the “others” who are not quite as human as we are.
Once people have an “us versus them” mindset, it’s easy to build on that foundation to create other divisions: Public sector workers and private sector workers, working mothers and stay-at-home moms, immigrants and U.S. born, urban and suburban, and so on. The right wing think tanks and their funders and their media manipulate us to feel that we get the short end of the stick and someone else is getting more. They convince us that there are good guys and bad guys, while never addressing a set of economic policies that are ultimately at odds with our collective self-interest.
I find hope in the fact that these deeply rooted inequities are being more exposed than they have been in the past. Working people in all sectors, whether they are airport workers or adjunct faculty at colleges, are beginning to understand in larger numbers that we live in a society in which increasing inequality is not sustainable.
We know that income inequality is growing. The 1% continues to amass more wealth than they had even a few years ago. The Walton family, owners of Wal-Mart, owns more wealth than the bottom 42% of this country combined. The one percenters get wealthier while we fight amongst ourselves for what small bits are left. Ultimately, even they will not benefit from living on a planet where people cannot cooperate. In Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything, she makes the case that in order to address the environmental crisis that we are all facing we must create a more just economy.
Those of us who have committed our lives to social justice understand that if people would stop fighting amongst themselves for the little resources we have, and focus our energies instead, on building a more equitable economy, we could set up a just society where everyone got a fair deal.
That’s why the recent protests are so hopeful and significant. White people are yelling at the top of their lungs that “Black Lives Matter.” People are seeing that we have to stand up for each other in order to stand up for ourselves. More people understand that we have more in common than the 1% wants us to believe.
Martin Luther King Jr. died in Memphis Tennessee shortly after protesting with black sanitation workers, in the “I am a Man” march. He understood the connection between racism and economic injustice.
He said, “We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing’-oriented society to a ‘person’-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable to being conquered.”
I think Martin Luther King understood that economic justice and ending racism go hand-in-hand. Happy Birthday, Martin. There are reasons to be hopeful.