Human Rights

As We Celebrate MLK Day… Tomorrow's Anniversary of Citizen's United Reminds Us of Increasing Injustice

Economic justice and racial justice are connected at the hip.

Photo Credit: AFP

Monday is the national holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., and Tuesday marks the fourth anniversary of Citizens United, the case that dramatically widened the flood of big money in elections. Their confluence is opportune, for while each seems to invite reflection on a different core social problem—respectively racial inequality and the power of concentrated wealth—each teaches lessons relevant to the other.

King clearly saw how racial and economic justice formed mutual requirements. The strike by African American sanitation workers in Memphis, where King was assassinated, reflected the truth that racial justice for minorities would depend on economic opportunities. In the other direction, the Poor Peoples’ March on Washington that King labored for in the months before his death arose out of the conviction that economic security for persons of every race depended on transcending racial divisions.

These were not lessons that King alone championed. They were also key to President Lyndon Johnson’s drive to build a “great society,” a mission launched 50 years ago this year, for Johnson’s vision encompassed mutually supporting wars on poverty and on racial inequality.

But if King and Johnson saw racial and economic justice as entwined and therefore essential to pursue jointly for the good of the whole society, others perceived the tight linkage of the two and realized they could be placed in opposition—that racial anxiety could be used to foment widespread hostility toward policies promoting a broad distribution of wealth.

The Great Depression’s searing experience helped to produce a durable consensus in American politics: society would thrive when government reined in concentrated wealth (including by limiting its influence in political campaigns) while ensuring that economic prosperity was widely shared by a secure and growing middle-class. In the decades leading up to 1964, Democrats and Republicans alike governed according to this view.

That shifted remarkably in 1964, with the selection of Barry Goldwater as the GOP presidential candidate. Goldwater and his conservative faction were fiercely hostile toward the liberal policies that had been pursued by Democrats and Republicans alike since the New Deal. With activist government widely popular, though, Goldwaterites decided to try race baiting.

King clearly saw and loudly protested the Republicans’ new racial politics. Until then King had avoided partisanship, but when the tenor of Goldwater’s campaign became evident, King spoke out forcefully: “While not himself a racist, Mr. Goldwater articulates a philosophy which gives aid and comfort to the racists. His candidacy and philosophy will serve as an umbrella under which extremists of all stripes will stand.”

Goldwater lost big across the country and King initially rejoiced, applauding voters for choosing “to build a great society, rather than to wallow in the past.” But from the South, a warning was rising: Goldwater had carried a majority of the white vote in 10 former Confederate states. Goldwater’s campaign ultimately laid the groundwork for the “Southern strategy,” the conservative tactic of winning votes by stoking racial resentment. It has now been 50 years since a Democratic presidential candidate has won among a majority of whites.

Today, those honoring Dr. King might bemoan the large role coded racial appeals have played in leading to a Republican Party that now draws roughly 90 percent of its support from whites. But this risks losing sight of how racial provocations not only win elections, they build support for policies favoring the very rich.

Ronald Reagan used tales of welfare run amok to justify massive tax cuts for corporations and society’s moguls; one critic put the tax windfall for America’s wealthiest 1 percent at roughly $1 trillion in the 1980s and another $1 trillion each decade thereafter. Following suit, Mitt Romney spent half his advertising dollars attempting to connect Obama to welfare—in an ad campaign that earned him a “pants on fire” rebuke—while his actual policy proposals involved slashing taxes for the rich, deregulating the marketplace and cutting social safety net programs.

Those animated instead by the Citizens United anniversary might decry the rapidly rising tide of dollars surging into national, and increasingly, state and local elections, and also the policy outcomes money seems to buy—the familiar gifts to concentrated wealth of tax breaks, deregulation and lowered social spending proposed in the House of Representatives and largely accomplished in North Carolina and Wisconsin.

But this focus can easily lead to myopia regarding how big donations are actually spent. Often they ricochet around the country funding campaigns built around racial provocations, for instance surrounding food stamps, undocumented immigrants, or Shariah law. Or, laundered through groups ostensibly fighting voter fraud, this money pays to disenfranchise minority and poor voters. For the purpose of assessing rights to political speech, corporations are sometimes analogized to persons; but if they’re persons, many bear an uncomfortable resemblance to Barry Goldwater—pursuing their policy objectives behind the veil of racial insinuations.

Those drawn to the King holiday should also look closely at Citizens United and its repercussions, while those moved to mark the latter’s anniversary should simultaneously accept the previous day’s invitation to focus on race. Together, these dates challenge us to recognize anew the connections between economic and racial justice. Not just minorities but the whole of society suffers when constant racial pandering and torrents of unregulated cash pervade our politics. Someday soon, perhaps, we will live up to King’s sense that we as a nation have the wisdom “to build a great society, rather than to wallow in the past.”

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Ian Haney López is a law professor at UC Berkeley, a senior fellow at Demos, and the author of Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class (Oxford University Press, 2014). Follow him on Twitter @DogWhistleRace.