With this article, we begin a new NPQ series, The Vision for Black Lives: An Economic Policy Agenda. Co-produced with the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), this series will examine the many ways that M4BL and its allies are seeking to address the economic policy challenges that lie at the intersection of the struggle for racial and economic justice.
Black life and dignity require the advancement of Black political power. Despite constant exploitation and perpetual oppression, Black people have bravely and brilliantly driven toward collective liberation. In recent years, we have taken to the streets, launched massive campaigns, impacted elections, and joined in solidarity with movements around the world against oppression.
The Black radical tradition has long been clear on the importance of economic justice.
Much of the focus of our work has been against police- and state-related violence. Yet the confluence of crises in 2020—the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, and the exposure of the disparities in outcomes for Black people—have pushed to the forefront one of the most critical areas impacting our material conditions, our quality of life, our ability to live: economic justice.
This has led the organization I work for, the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), to develop an economic justice policy agenda that can advance our vision of thriving communities. In this series, writers from M4BL’s network will explore many aspects of this agenda—and here, we lay the groundwork that inspired it.
The Black Radical Roots of Economic Justice
The Black radical tradition has long been clear on the importance of economic justice, recognizing that our communities suffer the harms of racial capitalism—an exploitative, extractive global system that ensures that Black people around the world live in substandard conditions without access to the avenues for building wealth and self-sufficiency. Because these conditions exist at both the domestic and international levels, our interventions must keep one eye on domestic outcomes and another on global impacts.
Community control is a critical component of economic justice.
Pathways to economic justice require an analysis of the systems, structures, and institutions created to perpetuate the exploitation of Black people. These systems govern our entire societies, including our tax system, prison system, education system, banking and financial system, and more. Economic justice requires assessing the level of control Black people have over their own economies. This notion is aligned with one of the key M4BL values: community control.
Indeed, in a 1964 speech, “The Black Revolution,” Malcolm X said: “Our economic philosophy is that we should gain economic control over the economy of our own community, the businesses and the other things which create employment so that we can provide jobs for our own people instead of having to picket and boycott and beg someone else for a job.”
Community control is a critical component of economic justice. After all, the hallmark of the history of enslavement and racial capitalism, colonialism, neocolonialism, and neoliberalism has been to remove control from the equation and ensure that our existence was contingent on the whims and agenda of exploiters.
As a result, many of our demands around economic justice center on how Black people can have more agency over their economic conditions while freeing themselves from the policies and practices that impede agency and access to economic opportunity. This necessitates the development of alternatives that circumvent harmful systems and frameworks.
Economic justice ensures we can not only meet our basic needs but also thrive.
Historical examples include civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who, in work reminiscent of current solidarity economy models, started the Freedom Farm Cooperative (buying land that Black people could own and farm collectively) and secured 200 units of low-income housing. “If you have a pig in your backyard, if you have some vegetables in your garden, you can feed yourself and your family, and nobody can push you around,” she insisted in the late 1960s.
The 40 acres of land Hamer purchased to start the Freedom Farm Cooperative served more than 1,600 families in the Mississippi Delta. The housing program she created housed 70 families. Hamer understood the economic imperative as a critical component alongside the political imperative. In a 1968 speech she gave in Kentucky called “What Have We to Hail,” she said: “To have a great country, not only will we have to have political power, but we will have to have economic power as well.”
The Case for Economic Justice
M4BL demands economic reconstruction to ensure Black communities have collective ownership of resources, not merely access, and to ensure that we can achieve a high quality of life. Economic justice ensures we can not only meet our basic needs but also thrive.
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The intentionality of M4BL’s focus on economic justice parallels the strategy of the Black Panther Party (BPP). When the BPP was initially formed in Oakland in 1966, one of its objectives was to “police the police.” But that same year, the party also released its 10-point plan.
Number two of the Panthers’ 10-point plan calls for full employment. It asserts that the federal government is responsible for ensuring everyone has access to employment or a guaranteed income. This sentiment has gained even further visibility today with the rise of guaranteed basic income pilots across the United States—and calls for a federal job guarantee as reflected in the Vision for Black Lives. Number three of the Panthers’ plan demands 40 acres and two mules—and accepting payment of that debt in currency. Our calls for reparations echo the spirit of the demand for restitution for crimes committed against Black people and the debt still owed.
In this moment of multiple intersection crises—a situation broadly labeled a global polycrisis—we recognize that we must shine a light on the economic challenges we face and the creative interventions that Black people are implementing across the country. Our people deserve not only to fully understand why we are in our current conditions but also to have a vision that illustrates a path toward liberation.
Regarding the former, structural racism reinforces economic inequality of both wealth and income. According to data from the Institute for Economic Equity at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, as of June 30, 2023, the top 10 percent of households by wealth had $7 million on average and held 69 percent of total household wealth across the United States.
Meanwhile, the bottom half of households by wealth had $48,000 on average, holding only 2.4 percent of total household wealth. Black families own about 24 cents for every dollar of White family wealth, on average.
It’s important to note that though 2020 was an inflection point, these conditions did not arise in 2020. In fact, the events of 2020 only served to further expose the disparities in economic outcomes for Black people.
For example, since the 1990s, Black workers have been more likely to be displaced from their jobs compared to White workers. Moreover, while our tax system is often treated as though it’s colorblind, a study by seven economists from Stanford, the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, and the Office of Tax Analysis at the US Department of the Treasury revealed that Black people are more likely to be audited. Black, Indigenous, and other people of color pay proportionally more in state and local taxes than the wealthy.
Economic justice requires us to dismantle the myth of the objectivity of our tax system and to show the steps necessary to create more equitable outcomes that lead to greater wealth and greater household income. This is especially true because household income is a predictor of health, economic, and educational outcomes. The COVID-19 pandemic also exposed deep disparities in health access, which has a direct connection to economic security.
Setting a New Vision
The landscape for economic justice is brimming. Unions, whether through striking, local actions, or contract campaigns, have made gains in the United States in almost every field—actors (SAG-AFTRA), Writers Guild, United Parcel Service workers (Teamsters), postal workers, the United Auto Workers, and more. New unions have also emerged at Starbucks and Amazon. Other union campaigns, too, are occurring that are less visible but no less important.
These worker actions, many of which have centered on organizing workers of color, have called attention to stagnant wages and labor exploitation, and have shone light on just how many people are living at the edges of precarity. The National Black Worker Center launched its Black Labor Bill of Rights as a response to workers’ issues and as a proactive tool for workers to use to transform their workplaces.
Additionally, Black people are organizing themselves around cooperatives, community land trusts, and other models that are simultaneously creating more economic security and rebuilding the fabric of community with an emphasis on collective advancement. These are themes that Jessica Gordon Nembhard lifts up in Collective Courage: African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice. In this series, we seek to illustrate how those movements carry forward into the present.
We’ll highlight the growing movement for reparations, both in the emerging field of reparative philanthropy and among activists seeking to end the War on Drugs. We’ll delve into community control by exploring participatory budgeting and the ways it puts our people at the center of budget decision-making.
We will highlight housing affordability, examining the mechanisms that put access to housing out of reach, and how our people are developing innovative organizing tactics that push back against predatory actors in the housing sector. Finally, we will explore the evolution of the public benefits system and the myth of meritocracy—and offer solutions for a new safety net built on economic justice.
With recommendations grounded in the Vision for Black Lives and building from the Black Radical Tradition in economic justice, this series lays out some of the many issues that we face while providing a roadmap toward interventions we are creating that help us not just to navigate these challenges, but to build a better world beyond them.