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No Class Warfare, Please: We’re Americans

Here's what we talk about when we talk about inequality.

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They were there seeking jobs as well as justice, not just the absence of oppression but the presence of economic opportunity. For what does it profit a man, Dr. King would ask, to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he can’t afford the meal? The gap in wealth between races hasn’t lessened, it’s grown.

Most coverage followed Obama’s lead, focusing narrowly on racial disparities without exploring how they relate to the growing overall gap between rich and poor.

“Even as racial barriers have tumbled and the nation has grown wealthier and better educated, the economic disparities separating blacks and whites remain as wide as they were when marchers assembled on the Mall in 1963,” wrote the Washington Post ( 8/28/13), citing as an example the fact that the poverty rate for blacks remains triple that for whites. And while the article did mention the 1963 march’s call for a raise in the minimum wage to $2 an hour—the equivalent of $15.29 an hour today—the main focus remained on how to get black Americans on par with whites, not with addressing the persistence of income inequality in general.

Addressing not just African-American hardship but overall poverty is an issue that likely would have been raised by King himself, who launched the Poor People’s Campaign in 1967 to seek an economic bill of rights that would include housing and a guaranteed annual income for all. As the Atlantic ( 8/28/13) noted, King had decided that battling racism without conquering economic inequality—not just between black and white, but between rich and poor overall—was not only futile, but immoral:

The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.

It’s a sentiment that, the Atlantic’s article aside, remained absent from coverage of the anniversary of the march. But then, saying that accepting the continued existence of poverty is the moral equivalent of cannibalism isn’t the kind of thing that’s likely to get bipartisan support.

 

Neil deMause is a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist.

 
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