Mass protests continue to rage in cities across the U.S. after grand juries neglected to indict the police officers responsible for the killings of unarmed men Michael Brown and Eric Garner, in Ferguson, MO and New York city, respectively. But it remains to be seen if the outrage and demands for justice and accountability will coalesce into something truly resembling a sustained social movement. The protests, which remain largely peaceful, have been rightfully focused on the extra-judicial killings of unarmed black men by police. But what if this issue, and many others that have surfaced recently in the American psyche, are symptomatic of a larger problem? An economic problem.
Poverty; the elephant in the room. Certainly race and poverty are closely interlinked. In a society where people of color have historically been marginalized time and again, at every turn, it makes sense that the poor will disproportionately be the non-whites. Therefore, wouldn’t it stand to reason that non-whites are also disproportionately victimized in a society which has left its poor behind? While the inherent racism in the structure of our society is a major factor, all who are excluded from the miniscule ranks of the extremely wealthy are at risk as the gap between poor and rich continues to widen. Injustice and exploitation are not simply racial issues. They are the manifestations of an unjust and vicious economic reality. They are human issues.
The utter impunity granted to police in these extrajudicial killings, only two of a myriad in 2014 alone, is symptomatic of a larger systemic problem. At a Dec. 4 summit of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey, hosted in the unlikely choice of Monroe Township, a relatively affluent Middlesex County municipality known for its open space holdings and agricultural roots, speakers repeatedly cautioned that “poverty in a nation of plenty degrades everyone.” Georgian Court Professor Katsuri Dasgupta sought to hammer that idea home as she delivered a scathing critique of American society’s apparent inability or total unwillingness to address the structural underpinnings of poverty. Without true reforms to the institutions that perpetuate social inequality, she told the crowd of more than 200 attendees, even a tidal wave of government services, non-profit and grassroots efforts to eradicate poverty could only amount to spitting into the wind,
“The problem of poverty and inequality is ultimately a problem of insufficient jobs. Not just any jobs, but jobs that pay adequately so that people can live with dignity and their well-being intact. But the system of Capitalism is not in the business of providing jobs; at least, not the kind of jobs which allow people to realize their inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Not because Capitalism has necessarily failed, but because it simply cannot.
… Capitalism is an economic system which has to continuously increase its profit margin if it is to survive; if it is to compete; if it is to drive its competitors out of market. Wages and salaries drain the profit margin more than anything. In its simple-minded drive to garner increasing levels of profit; finding cheap regions of labor, mechanizing work, diverting more and more capital to financial speculation; [Capitalism will do] anything that minimizes labor costs –and even eliminates the need for labor … But that leaves people and communities empty handed. People need work to survive; to flourish; to get ahead in life.” – Dasgupta, Dec. 4
According to a 2013 report from the non-partisan Pew Research Center, income inequality in the U.S. is at its highest levels since 1928, right before the stock market crash that lead to the Great Depression. Since the early 1970s, income has overwhelmingly gone to the top one percent of American earners. Shocking, I know. Well recently, Fortune reported that wealth inequality, or the actual value of all assets owned, is ten times worse than income inequality. Meanwhile, U.S. household debt has continued to increase, and national student debt easily sailed past the $1 trillion mark in 2013. It’s hardly a stretch to say that minorities have borne the brunt of this consolidation of wealth, but middle class Americans of all ethnicities and backgrounds have suffered from this trend. And they stand to suffer more.