“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made this warning in his famous ”Beyond Vietnam” speech, exactly one year before his assassination on April 4, 1968.
In 2020, we’ve seen the “giant triplets” in full force. Militarized police forces crack down on racial justice protesters nationwide. The racially driven inequities in America’s provision of health care, as well as inequities in the social determinants of health such as housing and poverty, has made an allegedly “color blind” coronavirus much deadlier for Black people and people of color. And while renters faced eviction, business owners went bankrupt, and people rushed to food pantries, billionaires got richer. Each one of these economic hardships loomed larger and disproportionately impacted the lives of Black, brown, and Indigenous people.
The tension that King spoke of when he warned of “property rights” being “considered more important than people” was in full display over the summer when some tried to discredit the calls of Black Lives Matter by pointing to damaged property. One does not need to condone vandalism to recognize the false equivalence.
The coronavirus pandemic is hopefully in its final act, though how long this act will last and how many people will die before it’s over is unknown. But whenever our leaders do declare “mission accomplished,” it is all but certain that, for many Black people in large poor cities like Philadelphia, the suffering will continue.
When the pandemic hit Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, it was Black and Hispanic workers who were most likely to lose their jobs, according to a new report by the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank.
America is not, as Dr. King dreamed, one Black boy and girl joining hands with a white boy and girl as sisters and brothers away from eradicating racism. America’s problems remain profound, and addressing them will take much more work. We should be grateful that, though his life was cut too short, Dr. King provided us with a blueprint.
There will be no true reckoning with the structural racism of American society without a reckoning with the structural racism of America’s market-driven economy and “piecemeal and pygmy” efforts to reduce poverty, as King called them. He criticized government efforts for always trying to “solve poverty by first solving something else.”
A good example of what King is talking about is the fiasco that was Pennsylvania’s rental assistance program from the CARES Act funds. Instead of making it easy for money to get to pockets of people struggling to make rent, the Pennsylvania General Assembly imposed multiple restrictions, limits, caps, and requirements — all seemed more concerned with a hypothetical scenario of someone gaming the system than actually helping people. In the end, about $108 million out of $175 million for housing assistance went unused. In a tragic irony, the funds were then moved to close holes in the budget of the Department of Corrections. Money that could have helped Black renters in dire need is going to be used to pay for the incarceration of mostly Black people.
To prevent these kinds of problems in assistance programs, and ensure that dollars intended to fight poverty reach people who need it, Dr. King called for a guaranteed income. By creating jobs and providing direct assistance, King believed that poverty could be abolished.
In a moment that so many are hurting financially, particularly Black and brown people, it is more important than ever to be bold in the direct effort to abolish poverty. That is why the message of $2,000 survival checks to individuals has resonated with President-elect Joe Biden, with voters of Georgia, and even some Republicans. Congress should act on that immediately.
The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis — as well as the deaths of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., Walter Wallace Jr. in Philadelphia, and too many other Black victims of police brutality — prompted a racial “reckoning“ in this country. If that is true, the reckoning must extend to all aspects of life — including, and especially, economic policy. Only then will King’s “giant triplets“ be conquered.