Racial inequality and economic inequality are not synonyms. That premise is the foundation behind an intellectual skirmish between The Atlantic columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates and other commentators about Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ stance (or lack thereof) on reparations for black people. What follows here is not a rehashing of that debate–that has been handled capably by journalists and Twitter denizens (including one of my favorite rappers) alike–but a dissection of the claim advanced by Sanders supporters that their candidate’s focus on inequality and poverty will be the rising tide to erase racism as well.
That claim is most succinctly and capably advanced by Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan here. In that commentary, Nolan acknowledges that poverty, inequality, and racial injustice are separate concepts but still asserts that the most effective way to deal with them is to erase poverty instead of implementing race-specific reparations as advanced by Coates. The argument is backed up by a good deal of statistics showing just how black people are impacted by poverty at higher rates across all aspects of life–employment, health insurance, housing, business ownership, and education. It would stand to reason by this formulation that colorblind poverty and inequality alleviation policies would stand to benefit black people disproportionately and could thus actually be considered reparations, loosely. However, Nolan falls into the same trap as Sanders: he believes that poverty functions the same for blacks and whites and can be defeated by the same policies.
One of the major thrusts of Coates’ work on reparations and otherwise is that inequality and poverty behave differently for black folks and white folks because of America’s long history of racism. America has long behaved as a kleptocracy that actively keeps black people from any real type of social mobility through a number of means, which in turns makes the manifestation of poverty entirely different. Although poverty is but one of the end effects of racism, it has been created and enforced through a campaign of both policy and private action; a campaign of outright theft, murder, redlining, incarceration, job discrimination and on, as outlined in “The Case for Reparations.”
What Coates’ work does not elucidate is that black poverty and white poverty are not two manifestations of the same thing–a general lack of resources at a family level–but two concepts that function and arise so differently as to be considered entirely distinct.
Poverty is easily defined as a family unit’s lack of resources relative to some threshold set where an average family might be able to afford an average family’s expenses. And this is the lens through which it is discussed, generally, through a white-centered policy perspective. Anti-poverty programs and the American safety net, a combination of Roosevelt’s New Deal, Johnson’s Great Society, and a few more recent policy agendas, are designed to provide financial support, housing, health insurance, and food for struggling families. While much of the safety net, save TANF, is not explicitly designed as such, the central conceit of anti-poverty programs is that a temporary injection of resources can help families rebound from poverty back above the threshold where they can pay for living unassisted again. Life above this threshold is generally considered some variation of lower-middle class. The logic checks out for poverty at large.
And the math checks out too. After Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” reforms, the national supplemental poverty rate–which takes into account a broader range of income as well as taxes and other expenses–decreased by an astonishing ten percentage points! This is good. Even as the age of inequality grips America, the basic assumptions of lifting people out of poverty–providing immediate living aid, health coverage, jobs, education, and housing–would probably do a decent job at it if we invested enough in it. For now at least.
But these proposals alone don’t quite work for black poverty. Black poverty is best understood as a societal-level phenomenon by which black people are in a sense predestined to poverty. Social mobility for white people is only loosely assortative; while the most poor white people and most wealthy white people are most likely to stay in their income ranges for life, there are good chances that people of any income range can wind up in another one. White children born in the middle three income quintiles can expect about a 25% lifetime chance of moving to another of the middle income ranges or even to the highest range. The only real rule here is that white people who aren’t born poor are unlikely candidates of ever becoming poor.
That dynamic flips on its head for black poverty. Half of all black children born into poverty will stay in poverty. The most likely destination for children born in the quintile above it is still poverty. The second-most likely destination for both of the quintiles above that is still poverty. Let’s put it this way: a black child born into a household making $100,000 is still twice as likely to die as a poor adult than to reach the income level above her parents. Poverty is the ultimate teleology of Black American life.
The basic facts of life for poor black folks and poor white folks are entirely different as well. For one, a wide racial wealth gap exists even among the poor. Black people are more than twice as likely as white people to be among the ranks of the extreme poor. Black poverty is also extremely concentrated and segregated, a facet that makes it even more difficult to escape. This segregation bleeds into poor education, environmental injustices, housing opportunities, jobs, and lack of access to infrastructure. There are also the issues of disappearing poor black men into the criminal justice system and the burden on black women to work multiple jobs.
Such is the insidious nature of black poverty. It is extraordinarily sticky and most black people, even in the middle class, are a mistake away from being caught in its tentacles again, if they truly ever even left. The lack of wealth cushions and the high amounts of debt required to reach the middle class for black people leave them with little margin for error. Even homeownership, education, and owning businesses do not help alleviate black poverty alone as each of these is still likely to end in crippling debt and loss of assets far more often for black people than white people. Educational gains often do not follow black parents to their children. At the end of most possible roads, there is still poverty.
Would anti-poverty programs alone be enough to solve this unique form of black poverty? Probably not, as constructed. Anti-poverty programs are designed to provide safety nets for middle class families going into hard times and to lift up poor families. Inasmuch as they are even effective at that at current investment levels, they are far less effective for black people. This is most evident in the effects of the Great Recession: while the safety net did a pretty decent job of keeping most people from being doomed to abject poverty after losing jobs, the slide in black median wealth has been unabated since and does not look to be slowing down. Most real economic gains for black folks since the Civil Rights Movement have been wiped clean.
And there’s this: if a goal of anti-poverty programs is to lift black people out of poverty into the middle class, it must grapple with this peculiar fact; that black people of all income levels are less likely to make it to the middle class than are the poor people of other races.
There would seem to be hope for Sanders supporters in Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, as real and supplemental black poverty rates dropped from 1964 to 2012. However, Johnson’s larger Great Society included policies that actually addressed race and the stickiness of black poverty–namely the landmark 1964 and 1968 Civil Rights Acts and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. And all in all, these policies still fell woefully short of actually closing the gap between white and black families. The rising tide lifted all ships, but it still managed to promote rather than heal racial inequalities.
That’s the thing: a policy can’t solve an inequality if it doesn’t put the people on both sides of the equation on equal footing. That sounds tautological, and it probably is, but it underscores the nature of the problem with the pro-Sanders argument: it takes targeted policies to make gains in inequality. Even if the policy of bolstering anti-poverty programs can reduce black poverty, if it continues to do a better job of lifting white people out of poverty than blacks and a wealth differential remains, the policy does not actually promote equality. Just as the solution to overall income inequality cannot be the income-blind provision of resources, so the solution to racial wealth inequality cannot be the colorblind provision of resources. Race-progressive policy is the only solution.
Now whether that race-progressive policy entails direct cash-transfer reparations or not; I make no recommendation. But it would have to entail some very specific targeting of black, specifically black, policy goals and resource transfers that Sanders has deemed “divisive” and politicians generally treat as anathema. And, of course, it should be a process repeated for all of the groups of people that America has wronged–especially its people of color–on a level and scale of the largest truth and reconciliation process ever undertaken in world history. Is that politically feasible? Hell no. Is it practically feasible? Probably not. But Sanders is the candidate who burns to push the limits of feasibility and who has already stretched the political imagination in a way that has been uncomfortable for many. Why not go all the way?