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      Racism & Poverty:
      Two Diseases of Decaying Capitalism in the U.S.

      By Alison Bodine

      “Now, an awful truth emerges, out of the sweet mouths of the youth: “We Can’t Breathe!” they shout. Why not? Because, in the richest country on earth, poverty pitches pennies on the street corner, hoping, against hope, to hit. Because a simple education is beyond the ability of the neo-liberal state to provide. Because today’s school is tomorrow’s prison, and a place where hatred and humiliation lives, not knowledge; under the ridiculous rubric of No Child Left Behind.

      Because, for too many children, childhood is but an illusion, as it was for Tamir Rice, a 12-year old boy, doing what boys have been doing for over a century: playing with a toy gun, becomes a death sentence.

      Because every hand and every face is turned against them, as futures are as bleak as lunar landscapes. “We Can’t Breathe!” they howl. But we can’t hear them. The neo-liberal state is too busy, choking them to death.”

      – Mumia Abu Jamal, Black political prisoner held in U.S. prison since 1982, Prison Radio Broadcast, December, 2014

      That racism exists in the U.S. Against black and Latinos, and in Canada against Indigenous people, should not be a shock to anyone. The names of Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner, just some of the many victims of racist police brutality, have now been repeated hundreds of times over in major media. Images of Charlotte, South Carolina where a racist murdered nine black people in cold blood inside of a historic black church, have appeared on the TV screen of nearly every household. Even with all of this, the violence and brutality that has been shown is only a fraction of that which exists in the United States, where someone is killed by police every eight hours, the majority of which are black or brown people.

      This violence and brutality are symptoms of the disease of racism, and the disease of racism cannot be discussed without also discussing another disease which gives it horrible strength – poverty. Racism and poverty constitute two diseases that are growing and coming to the surface in the United States in the face of decaying capitalism.

      Capitalist Crisis & Growing poverty in the U.S.
      One way that poverty in the U.S. can be examined is by looking at the effects of the financial crisis that came to a head in 2008, known now as the “Great Recession.” By the time the recession, which ran officially from 2007-2009, was over 1.2 million people in the United States had lost their homes and 8.7 million jobs had been lost.

      Nearly seven years later the U.S. economy is no longer considered to be in a recession – at least technically - but its damaging effects on the working and poor population have not been erased. According to an article from CNBC by Daniel Alpert a managing partner at Westwood Capital, “Median household real incomes have not recovered and jobs created have been at lower wages than previously existing jobs. The pace of job growth has slowed significantly this year, with the percentage of the employable population actually working near a 35 year low.”

      Looking beyond what can be considered the effects of the Great Recession, there are other significant markers of an economy that does not serve poor and working people. The wealth gap in the U.S. has been increasing significantly since as far back as 1978. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average top CEOs now make over 300 times what typical workers earn. Real wages have stagnated, with the Pew Research Center reporting that, after adjusting for inflation, the average wage today buys you no more than it did in 1979, and less than it did in 1973. To match the average hourly wage in 1973, a person would have to be making $22.41/hour.

      Simply put, according to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2014 more than 45 million people, or 14.5% of the U.S. population live below the poverty line (an income of less than $24, 817 for a family of four with two children under 18).

      Poverty in Black and Latino Communities
      When the U.S. poverty rate is broken down into poverty in Black and Latino communities, the situation becomes even direr and the relationship between poverty and racism clearer.

      “We don’t have ‘equal rights, we have the rhetoric of equal rights used by the elites and the state to camouflage the real situation of Black Americans — one of dire, unremitting hell. Equal rights would not produce the glaringly unequal outcomes that lead to mass incarceration, poverty and death.”
      - Mumia Abu Jamal, March 2015, interview for Sputnik News

      As compared to the general poverty rate of 14.5%, the black poverty rate is 27.2% and the Latino poverty rate 23.5%. The poverty rate of households headed by black women is even more staggering, at 42.5%. (all statistics from 2014, U.S. Census Bureau) This poverty divide based on race was increased with the Great Recession, which disproportionately targeted Black and Latino communities. For example, in 2009, the Pew Research Center found that the average wealth of a white household was 20 times higher than a black household. The foreclosure crisis also hit black families the hardest, for one, because their wealth was more concentrated in their homes (and less in the stock market or retirement plans), and secondly because the sub-prime mortgages and high-interest loans were specifically targeted towards the Black community.

      How poverty affects every aspect of life
      The destruction of poverty on human life and development runs through all indicators for quality of life in the U.S. With the increased rate of poverty in the Black and Latino community, there is a subsequent consequence on health, education and employment. Both racism in society and institutional racism promoted by the state and U.S. government feed off of this lowered quality of life, keeping Black and Latino people in a cycle of poverty and maintaining the pool of cheap and desperate labour that the capitalist system needs to exist.

      A few statistics can give us an overview of the situation for Black people in the U.S.:
      - Life expectancy - The life expectancy of black men is 71 years, compared to 76 years for white men. (2009)
      - Infant mortality – For black mothers, the infant mortality rate is 12.4 infant deaths per 1,000 live births, for white mothers this rate is 5.3/1,000 live births. (2009, Urban Institute)
      - Education - Across the U.S. the high school graduation rate for black people is 69%, for Latinos, 73% and for white people, 86%. (2011-2012, National Center for Education Statistics)
      - Unemployment: As of February, 2015, the official employment rate for black people was 10.4%, for Latinos, 6.6% and for white people 4.0% (Bureau of Labor Statistics)
      - A black college graduate has the same chances of getting a job as a white person who dropped out of high school or has a prison record. (2014, Young Invincibles)

      Symptoms of Racism and Poverty: Prisons & Police Brutality
      The U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration of any country in the world. Although the U.S. has only 5% of the world population, they have 25% of the world’s prisoners, with 2.3 million people behind bars. Nearly one- half of people locked up, 1 million people, are black, meaning that black people are put in prison at a rate 6 times that of white people. Combined, black people and Latinos made up 58% of the prison population in 2008, although they only represent about 25% of the U.S. population. These are staggering numbers considering the lasting effects that imprisonment has in communities, from the break-up of family structures and support systems, to the difficulty of getting jobs after release, to problems of drug addiction and crime that are propagated through the U.S. prison system.

      Recent reports have shown how deep the racism in the U.S. “justice” system goes, with black people receiving longer prison sentences then white people, with similar criminal histories, that committed the same crimes. Not to mention, the countless examples of black people imprisoned in the U.S. by all-white juries and openly racist judges. Within this, there are also countless tragic cases of people who have their lives taken away from them because of the brutal and inhuman prison system. Kalief Browder, who committed suicide in June of 2015 was one of these people. He was sent to Rikers Island in New York when he was 16 years old. He never received a trail throughout three years of imprisonment, including almost two years of solitary confinement.

      The brutality, killing and targeting of black people and Latinos is an everyday occurrence. So common, in fact, that the phrase “Driving while black” which has existed for many years and used to describe the targeting of Black drivers by police officers, has expanded to “Walking while black.” Take for example, New York City’s “Stop and Frisk” policy which allows NYC police officers to stop anyone they deem suspicious. The New York Civil Liberties Union reported that, in 2014, police stopped people 46,235 times under this policy. 38,051 of these people were totally innocent. Of all of the people stopped, 55% were black, 29% were Latino and 12% were white.

      Racism and Poverty are Rooted in History
      Since the police murder of 18 year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in August of 2014, there has been an increase in the number of police killings in the U.S. that are making international media. This has been due in part to the struggle of the Black community and their allies who have not been able to take the blatant racism and murder by police officers silently anymore, pushing their call for justice to the forefront of public discussion.

      This has sparked an important discussion about racism in the U.S., a discussion that must take into account the legacy of slavery and the long history of the suppression of black and brown people in the U.S. if it is going to work towards the elimination of racism in the U.S. For many, images of the police brutality against black and brown youth at a swimming pool party in Texas invoked other images of racism. Nearly 51 years earlier, on June 18, 1964 the owner of a white-only hotel in St. Augustine, Florida poured acid into a swimming pool where Black people and their allies had organized a swimming protest against segregation. This is only one example of the many that could be used to show the ways that racism and poverty in the Black community has persisted in the years since the Civil Rights movement, and has continued in the time of the U.S.’s first Black President.

      But, it is also important to recognize that gains for black people in U.S. society have been won and understand the character of those gains. Since the end of slavery in the U.S. in 1865, and because of the struggle of black people and the support of others who marched alongside them, the lives of black people in the U.S. have improved in many ways, especially in certain sectors of society. But, the one thing that persists is the level of poverty, brutality, violence and racism experienced by overwhelmingly majority of black people.

      During the time of slavery in the U.S., racism was used to justify the use of slaves, which represented the cheapest form of labor in the U.S. economy. For the ruling elite of the U.S. during slavery, it was only possible to keep a population enslaved if it was considered to be different and lesser, in fact, more animal then human, by the majority of the white population. Today it is no different, racism is the means by which the majority of an entire population, the Black population, is once again impoverished and enslaved.

      For the capitalist class in the U.S., racism is merely a method they can employ to keep a pool of cheap labour that is poor, terrorized and divided. Without racism and the poverty that it both feeds off of and perpetuates, the capitalist system bent on ever increasing profits would not work.

      In one of his final speeches before he was assassinated, Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said something that is as relevant today as it was nearly 50 years ago “There are forty million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society...And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the oil?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the iron ore?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?’ These are words that must be said.”

      Whether in the U.S. or Canada, it is time that we ask ourselves that same question, and work to eradicate the diseases of racism and poverty once and for all.

      For more about Mumia www.freemumia.com

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