Funding Black Futures

The Movement for Black Lives policy platform targets neoliberalism.

Systemic racism means that, in The United States, the threats to public safety for Black people go pretty deep. This is because none of the institutions that uphold our society were built for Black people, so even today they work to hurt Black people, whether those who take part in those institutions know it or not.

Institutional racism in the pursuit of profit has structured the so-called criminal justice system. For example, in Ferguson, Mo., before the death of Mike Brown, Black residents had long been targeted by a system of over-policing that resulted in their being fined at rates grossly out of proportion to our population. Ava DuVernay’s recently released documentary 13th deftly shows how prisons today are descendants of the system of slavery supposedly abolished by the 13th amendment. The documentary correctly argues that mass incarceration is a more contemporary example of how racism in the United States works and how it is profit-driven. 

The math is simple, mass incarceration plus prison labor equals profit for the 1%. This has led to a policing system where it is very clear the promise to “protect and serve” does not apply to Black and Brown people.

Similarly, institutional racism in the pursuit of profit results in the denial of environmental justice. A perfect example of this is the Flint water crisis, where a predominately Black and eco- nomically struggling city was deemed unworthy of an investment in a clean water system. And the city was struggling economically because the industries that left the area years ago had decided it was more in their interests to move jobs out of the city to cut costs, depleting many of the good jobs that had formerly employed the people of this once prosperous city.
We live in a world like this because we live in a world where corporations have more power than people. The Citizens United ruling (which took “corporate personhood” to a whole new level) is a great example of how warped U.S. capitalism currently is. Corporations can actually argue for, and win, recognition as “people” with every right to participate in and influence politics. Meanwhile, during the Occupy protests, it became clear through the treatment of protesters that the police were there to protect the center of capital, not the people. The idea that corporations are “people,” deserving of the rights and protections afforded by the state, stands in bold contrast to the many systems that disenfranchise Black people in the United States. The message is clear: Corporations are clearly people, while Black people in the United States need a grassroots movement to affirm our humanity before we can hope to be seen.

An awareness that this system is a confluence of the ruling class’s need to control the working class and Black people was the spark that ignited the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL). The movement, in turn, is expanding this awareness. The issue of police brutality connects to the broader issue of systemic inequality under neoliberalism. Policing has always been about law and order, and that order has always been about protecting capital. There is a human cost to this. The human cost for Black people in the United States has been the murder of Black people by law enforcement in numbers grossly disproportionate to our population, the loss of homeownership due to predatory mortgage lending, also in disproportionate numbers, a lack of access to quality higher education that actually teaches us our history, as well as over-policing, mass surveillance, and mass incarceration.

What can we do to stop this? This summer, the Movement for Black Lives released a policy platform outlining demands that, if implemented, would greatly improve the economic land- scape for Black people in the United States, as well as keep us safe. Demands include the end of mass incarceration, a divestment from prisons as well as fossil fuels, and free public higher education.

In the United States today, private prisons are known to make millions by filling their cells with predominant- ly Black and Brown people. Prison la- bor is also helping other businesses drastically cut labor costs (the practice was recently parodied in the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black,” where female inmates were made to stitch underwear for an unspecified lingerie company). “It’s no coincidence that the United States now imprisons more of its people than any other country in the world,” write Peter Wagner and Alison Walsh of the Prison Policy Initiative. “[M]ass incarceration has become a giant industry in the U.S., resulting in huge profits not only for private prison companies, but also for everything from food companies and telecoms to all the businesses that are using prison labor to cut their manufacturing costs.” Divestment from prisons would mean that the law enforcement system would no longer be predicated on profit, and the quest for profit would not drive the need for an increased inmate population.
Divestment from fossil fuels would mean that our society would not be tethered to an energy source that is incredibly harmful to our environment and ultimately unsustainable. Let’s not forget that the effects of environmental pollution and disenfranchisement also disproportionately affect Black people (see Klara Zwickl, Michael Ash, and James Boyce, “Mapping Environmental Injustice,” D&S, November/December 2015). Look at the divestment from infrastructure that would have prevented the flood- ing of predominantly Black New Orleans neighborhoods by Hurricane Katrina, or the lack of commitment to relief and reconstruction of the city. Now consider this contrast: Louisiana is the state with the highest incarceration rate in the nation (see Barry Gerharz and Seung Hong, “Down by Law: Orleans Parish Prison Before and The Movement for Black Lives has released a policy platform outlining demands that, if implemented, would greatly improve the economic landscape for Black people in the United States. After Katrina,” D&S, March/April 2006). 

There is money for prisons, but not for infrastructure or human needs. Among those human needs is education. M4BL’s demand for free public higher education is also crucial (see Biola Jeje and Belinda Rodriguez, “Why Free Higher Education Can’t Wait,” D&S, March/April 2016). While it does not guarantee upward mobility anymore, education is still the basis of an engaged democracy. The City University of New York (or CUNY) began in 1847 as the Free Academy. The goal? To provide education for the working class in the hopes of having educated and engaged citizens at all class levels. Social scientists have documented the positive effects of education on the defense of democratic institutions. “As education raises the benefits of civic participation, it raises the support for more democratic regimes relative to dictatorships,” find economists Edward L. Glaeser, Giacomo Ponzetto, and Andrei Shleifer. “This increases the likelihood of democratic revolutions against dictatorships , and reduces that of successful anti-democratic coups.” Free public education can be a support for our own endangered democracy today. This current election cycle, where the Republican candidate is a business owner famous for a reality TV show and a purveyor of multiple blatant -isms, is a prime example of why it’s important to have a population that can engage critically in the political process.

Ultimately, the policy platform laid out by the Movement for Black Lives offers a concrete answer on what it would look like to #FundBlackFutures. More demands include comprehensive reparations, participatory budgeting, a universal basic income, the removal of money from politics, the elimination of barriers to voter access, net neutrality, the release of all political prisoners, the restoration of the ability to unionize, and more.

Right now, too many people are still poor, workers are still disenfranchised, and Black people are still being targeted by the police. The future remains to be written. It’s how we plan to mobilize around concrete solutions that will help us create a world where Black people are safe and prioritized over corporate interests. Creating that world would be breaking a cycle that’s been in place since before the founding of this country.   

Originally published in Dollars and Sense Nov/Dec 2016 issue.