An Accounting Problem: Reimagining Racial Healing in the US
Fifty-two years after Martin Luther King’s grueling assassination offered the U.S. its opportunity to pursue a route of cheap justice—a facade of progress that fails to check the uncontrolled power of white supremacy and the U.S .government, his spilled blood still obscures the public truth that his protestations of systemic poverty and his militarism made him one of the most unpopular personalities in the nation the last years of his life. The infamy surrounding the last year’s of his life coagulated as revoked access to President Johnson’s Oval Office, vitriol from white racial justice sympathizers, and desertion by close associates. In the last year of his life, nearly three-fourths of the nation disapproved of the freedom-fighter, and roughly three-fifths of Black Americans dubbed the Baptist preacher from Georgia irrelevant to the cause of racial progress. Now scavengers from every ideological camp pick his bones bare by canonizing him into “American Sainthood” and appropriating his words for their purposes. Just one day removed from the national day dedicated to his memory, Dr. King reminds us that racial healing requires restorative justice—restorative economics.
Dr. King proffered, “Now America must hear about its sins because we will never understand what is happening in this country today without understanding that we are now reaping the harvest of terrible evil planted by seeds centuries ago. Yes, we were given emancipation but no land to make it meaningful. Yet it would not do it for those who had been in the land, brought here in chains for 244 years so emancipation for the negro was freedom to hunger.” What is the U.S. willing to give up to heal its material racial divide?
Growing Black wealth
The financial security of Black families requires increasing their net incomes and creating public conditions ripe for growing Black wealth. According to the New York Times, though Black people compose roughly 13% of the United States population, they possess less than three percent of the nation’s wealth. The median white family’s wealth sits around $171,000, while average Black family wallows at a mere $17,600. For every $100 in white family wealth, black families hold just $5.04. If some disruptive cosmic force broke into time and froze average white household wealth today, Black households would work, earn and save for 228 years before they find economic parity with their white counterparts; Latinx families need 84 years to catch up to a frozen white wealth mean. This is the evolving, yet-to-be interrupted legacy of chattel slavery, Jim Crow economics, Mass Incarceration, and racial caste.
An approach to racial healing devoid of attending to and repairing the disastrous consequences of the 400-year material history of whiteness lived daily by nonwhite communities only shields white supremacy and its conscious and unconscious contemporary beneficiaries. Whiteness refers to structural logic, not simply skin color or ancestry. White supremacy is a logic that governs our lives, forges ways of thinking, and produces frameworks of meaning. White Supremacist logic silences and works against the legitimacy of nonwhite equality and belonging. Whiteness inheres an unchecked political-economic indebtedness to nonwhite lives, people descended from African chattel or exterminated natives. The slow-healing holes in the soul of the US, to a profound measure, amount to an outstanding accounting discrepancy. To frame the deadening distance between the essential US and the existential US, I echo the language of theologian James Perkinson: an accounting problem. Upwards of five trillion dollars for unpaid wages and white wealth creation during the chattel regime, another two trillion dollars of underpaid wages of the Jim Crow era, existing underpayment and underemployment of Black Americans, and the growing debt for the wrongful, unjust, and unnecessary incarceration of Black youth, women, and men.
Dismantling a system built on white supremacy
To heal from whiteness, our nation cries out for something more than personal improvement, multiracial dialogue, and random acts of kindness. When we reduce White supremacy to send-them-back chants, racist epithets, and multifarious lynchings, we cede a gross type of innocence to our republic, providing a moral cover for the slow deaths and structural sins inflicted on nonwhite lives every day. Though by no means an exhaustive list, one can enumerate the daily forms of White supremacy as underfunded urban schools, mass incarceration and black criminalization born out of a government-manufactured War on Drugs, redlining that created concentrated pockets of nonwhite poverty, popularly referred to as Ghettos, a racialized wealth gap, hiring discrimination against the formerly incarcerated and legalized voter suppression enabled by the Supreme Court’s decision to pull the teeth out of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
White supremacy manufactures the types of knowledge necessary to maintain itself in each passing era—knowledge to be communicated about nonwhite people, to nonwhite people, and even by nonwhite people. Black criminalization, a symptom of white supremacy, functions as the kind of knowledge needed to shield Mass Incarceration as an acceptable approach to racial control and social domination, recruiting the nation’s courts, law enforcement agencies, financial entities, and educational institutions, and religious communions to do the biddings of whiteness.
Racial healing necessitates White people confronting the heartrending history of strategically manufactured Black disinheritance and the economic implications of racial caste, and, further, divesting from whiteness. Whiteness is a moral choice worth abandoning in the name of cultivating an equitable society. We need a moral exorcism of whiteness. When we flood our legislatures, judicial benches, City Halls, and corporations with white—and nonwhite–antiracists, we may, then, witness a forceful current of healing ripple in our direction. White guilt without White action is merely centering white feelings, which, again, is white supremacy.
The US, the most prosperous nation on the global stage, must finally abolish all wealth-stripping practices targeting Black and other nonwhite communities—centuries-old practices of economic terror morphing from one era to the next. We need structural healing—new laws that equalize economic opportunities, a new budget that prioritizes education and guarantees living-wage jobs, healthcare and housing, new legislators surrendered to the cause of ending the matrix of Mass Incarceration, and a new politic unencumbered by the whims and wishes of the corporate class. In short, we need an antiracist economy.