The Ways Lives Matter: Elizabeth Warren’s History Lesson

"History often speaks in riddles," Hal Ginsberg argues. "Here, as Sen. Warren accurately relates, it issues a clarion call that when the federal government is dedicated to full employment, high marginal tax rates, cheap education, affordable housing, and increased access to health care, American families – white and black – in the millions do achieve the American dream.  We do even better when the government extends its commitment from economic to racial justice."

/By Hal Ginsberg/ On a recent weekend, Senator Elizabeth Warren gave a justly lauded speech at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate. Warren focused on the interplay between racial and economic injustice in America over the past 80 years. “Prominent [Black Lives Matter] activist DeRay McKesson,” according to Salon, “praised Warren as better than any other politician on her understanding 'that the American dream has been sustained by an intentional violence[.]'” (Emphasis supplied.) I fear McKesson got Warren's message precisely wrong.

Warren describes the growth of the American middle-class from the 1930s to the late 70s as follows:

 Coming out of the Great Depression . . . as GDP went up, wages went up for most Americans. But there's a dark underbelly to that story. While median family income in America was growing - for both white and African-American families - African-American incomes were only a fraction of white incomes. In the mid-1950s, the median income for African-American families was just a little more than half the income of white families.

 According to US Census figures, between 1947 and 1960, the percentage gap in median family income between blacks and whites shrank somewhat. In 1947, a representative African-American family earned 51% of what its white counterpart did. By 1955, the black family had earnings equal to 55% of the white one – a ratio that remained unchanged five years later. Over the thirteen-year period, median black income rose over 50% from $10,704 to $16,100 in constant dollars. Median white income rose over the same span from $20,908 to $29,084 or just under 40%. A rising tide truly was lifting all boats with African Americans gaining slightly on whites albeit not nearly fast enough.

 From the ‘30s to the late ‘50s, America addressed economic injustice forcibly through FDR's New Deal, Truman's Fair Deal, the G.I. Bill, Eisenhower's Highway Bill, and other programs. Unfortunately, racial injustice received far less shrift. This changed, however, as the civil rights movement characterized America's domestic priorities in the ‘60s as much as the war on poverty did.

 With President Lyndon Johnson's commitment to passing the Voting Rights Act and the broad range of social programs known as the Great Society, including Medicare, Medicaid, the Fair Housing Act, and other laws, American liberalism reached its apotheosis. Economically, average black and white families both benefited greatly. Between 1960 and 1970, median black family income rose 52% to $24,401. Meanwhile, the median white family's income rose 37% to $39,979. Simply put, the real purchasing power of whites and blacks grew significantly and consistently from the ‘40s through 1970. A middle class arose and flourished.

 Then things changed. America grew very slowly in the 1970s. The Reagan Revolution in the early ‘80s put the nail in the coffin of widespread prosperity in America. Warren again:

 Just as this country was taking the first steps toward economic justice, the Republicans pushed a theory that meant helping the richest people and the most powerful corporations get richer and more powerful. I'll just do one statistic on this: From 1980 to 2012, GDP continued to rise, but how much of the income growth went to the 90% of America – everyone outside the top 10%,  black, white, Latino? None. Zero. Nothing. 100% of all the new income produced in this country over the past 30 years has gone to the top ten percent.

 Today, 90% of Americans see no real wage growth. For African-Americans, who were so far behind earlier in the 20th century, this means that since the 1980s they have been hit particularly hard. In January of this year, African-American unemployment was 10.3% -- more than twice the rate of white unemployment. And, after beginning to make progress during the civil rights era to close the wealth gap between black and white families, in the 1980s the wealth gap exploded, so that from 1984 to 2009, the wealth gap between black and white families tripled.

 History often speaks in riddles. Here, as Warren accurately relates, it issues a clarion call that when the federal government is dedicated to full employment, high marginal tax rates, cheap education, affordable housing, and increased access to health care, American families – white and black – in the millions do achieve the American dream.  We do even better when the government extends its commitment from economic to racial justice.

 DeRay McKesson interprets Elizabeth Warren as saying that tens of millions of whites attained and “sustained” their American dream in the mid-20th century “by intentional violence” against blacks. His understanding is that the economic well-being of working and middle-class whites is inversely correlated with that of African-Americans, i.e., the better they do, the worse we do.  Thus, posits McKesson, keeping blacks down by violence or other means serves the economic interests of the majority of whites.

 In actual fact though, all Americans, except for the very wealthiest, became much better off when government policies were designed to keep wealth disparities down and foster full employment. By contrast, increases in violence against minorities seem to occur at times - the 1890s, early 1930s, and perhaps 21st century – when most whites and blacks are losing or barely holding on to hard-earned ground contested by royalists.

 The oft-quoted philosopher Georges Santayana wrote “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” As we head hard into the presidential primary season, we would do well to remember the lessons of the New Deal, the Great Society, and the Civil Rights movement.

 These lessons of history should guide us as we evaluate the Democratic aspirants for president: Who best speaks the truth about these links between economic inequality and racial justice?