Black Americans are dying from COVID-19 at almost three times the rate of white Americans. As has been widely noted, black people in this country face a variety of systemic public health risks—including higher pollution in neighborhoods and greater rates of asthma and heart disease—that contribute to this high fatality rate. Black and brown people are also more likely to work in industries like food service, care work, shipping, meatpacking, and farm work, where workers are being forced to choose between their lives or their livelihoods, while wealthier white-collar workers are better able to shelter and work remotely.
The failures of the federal economic response accentuated these disparities. Wealthier and whiter communities gained quick access to Fed funds in money markets, while black and brown businesses were largely left out of the small business Paycheck Protection Program. Though most people received a one-time $1,200 cash support, debt payments and rent are still due. Working-class families must scratch together money to make these payments, while financiers and landlords retain their revenue streams.
The COVID-19 crisis has cast into stark relief what has always been true: the wealth and prosperity of the U.S. economy rests on the labor, and the lives, of black and brown communities. Systemic racial disparities of wealth and health are woven deeply into the fabric of American capitalism.
This system of racial capitalism is a result of policy choices that structure our political economy. Modern systems of precarious work are rooted in histories of extractive labor models, from Jim Crow to undocumented immigrant labor. Many black and brown workers were cut out of the twentieth-century New Deal social contract. Zoning policies have deliberately concentrated poverty and pollution—and therefore poor health—in black and brown neighborhoods while securing economic gains and class advantage for wealthier and whiter communities. The rise of predatory systems of student and consumer debt paper over the erosion of the safety net and fuel returns for financial interests. The racialization of public goods, from healthcare to welfare to food stamps, has helped drive austerity and the dismantling of the safety net.
These policies are sustained by a set of interests and ideologies. Businesses directly benefit from these extractive economic models. But so too do middle- and upper-class constituencies. An alliance between big business, those hostile to racial integration and the civil rights movement, and anxious and self-interested affluent elites is at the heart of the modern conservative coalition. These political arrangements are legitimated by market fundamentalism and color-blind notions of fairness and neutrality that obfuscate the deep unfreedom and racial hierarchy of our economic system.
The COVID-19 crisis exposes the harsh reality of this system. It might also animate a more equitable and inclusive reimagining of our political economy. We need to direct our political energies toward the liberation of black and brown people—and in so doing, secure the liberation for all of us from the inequities of modern capitalism.
Right now, there are four key fights that could shift the balance of power in economic life.
First, we need to dismantle the concentrations of private power that dominate and effectively govern our economy for their own benefit. This means taking on megafirms and monopolies like Amazon and the world of high finance—sectors that will exercise even more control over the allocation of goods, services, jobs, and investment in the post-COVID-19 era. We need a reimagined anti-monopoly policy agenda that encompasses everything from breaking up large corporations to public utility regulations for privately run infrastructures like retail platforms and the financial services that mediate access to basic credit.
Second, we need to build on this moment of labor mobilization—there have been hundreds of strikes during the pandemic—to advocate for workplace democracy, including a voice for workers on corporate boards and sectoral bargaining to set wages and labor standards.
Third, we need to reinvest in public goods and the public provision of basic necessities in everything from healthcare to child care to an expanded safety net. This also means rescuing the U.S. Postal Service, pursuing public banking, and restoring investments in (and accountability for) utilities charged with providing water, electricity, and other critical services. A commitment to genuinely inclusive public provision also requires enforcing equitable access, undoing exclusionary models of zoning and means-testing that work to limit who receives high-quality public goods.
Fourth, these policies need to be backed by a commitment to inclusive political power. We cannot achieve or sustain a liberatory economic democracy without real political democracy. We have to undo racist systems of voter suppression, and we need working-class people to have more direct control and leverage over administrative governance itself, from the local zoning board to the heights of the Federal Reserve.
The COVID-19 crisis has accentuated our existing systems of extraction and exclusion, which already put millions of Americans in physical and economic danger. By dismantling those underlying structures, we can create a political economy premised not on the inequities of racial capitalism, but on democracy.
K. Sabeel Rahman is the president of Demos and Associate Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School.