This conversation was adapted from the June 1, 2020 epsiode of The Phoenix Project, a political education series that starts from the premise that the world is on fire, and explores with scholars, organizers, and others the question of how to rise from the ashes with a new, dramatically more free, equal, and just paradigm.
Jesse Myerson: You have devoted your life’s study to what you call stratification economics. Can you tell us what that is, and situate it in the field of economics?
Darrick Hamilton: Stratification economics recognizes that we have disparate outcomes across groups based on identities, and that traditional economics has not done an adequate job of explaining this inequality. The field of economics has been dominated by notions of human capital and human capital deficits as the explanation for inequality. In other words, the field points to some type of behavioral or attitudinal deficiency within the underachieving group that is the explanation for inequality. This is simply an inadequate explanation of persistent inequality. For example, Black Americans with high levels of education are still vulnerable to inadequate jobs, wealth inequality, and the threat of state-sanctioned violence when compared to similarly educated whites. Stratification economics presents alternative theories of inequality, most importantly by focusing on notions of power. We don’t treat race, gender, immigrant status, and various identities as peripheral. We take them head-on as the locus of analysis.
Myerson: We’ve witnessed a string of racist incidents that feel quite closely connected to one another. First, the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia; then the video of an investment banker in Central Park making a false report to the police that a Black birdwatcher was trying to attack her; and then, capping off the incendiary moment, the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which has given rise to the first mass political uprisings in the coronavirus era. In cities across the country and in countries around the world, large populations—not just of Black Americans, but of quite diverse populations—are taking to public squares to confront this racist police violence. This conflagration of crises express and mediate the stratification of our society by group, and Black people in America are at the bedrock of racist stratification. It’s hard to understand these protests without contextualizing them within what coronavirus and the attendant economic crisis have done to the Black population of the United States. Can you comment on the ways in which this public health crisis and the economic fallout from it exacerbate the racist stratification of our society?
Hamilton: Politics, economics, and identity are not separable. The three of them must be brought together when thinking about political economy. People understand the role that politics and economics have with regard to consolidation: those with resources are able to structure political outcomes to favor capital or enrich themselves. And vice versa: having political resources is a way to extract and accumulate economic resources. But what is not as well understood is the role that group identity and stratification—based not just on class, but also on race—plays.
First and foremost, whenever thinking about an economic outcome, mortality and health have to be a paramount indicator. It’s wrong to talk about economic outcomes as separable from health outcomes. We can see this, for example, when thinking about lynchings in the context of Black economic fate. Free mobility throughout society, without the exposure to violence and the threat of violence, needs to be a fundamental attribute of one’s economic domain. Period.
These conditions also affect white people. Donald Trump offers the masses the attribute of relative status in exchange for the gross inequity that exists in our society. As we become more unequal, that relative positioning—that status of being white as opposed to, say, Mexican, or being white as opposed to being Native American, or some other group—garners more value. That’s sad, but there’s an alternative: the notion of having dignity because you’re a human being.
We can choose a path where people are not subject to being seduced by relative status or relative positioning in a society that leads to massive concentrations of wealth at the top. If we had a society grounded in values that ensure that every human being had agency in their lives and adequate resources so that they can thrive and not be hungry or unhealthy; if we had a society that focused on basic economic rights along with political and civil rights; then we would be less susceptible to a demagogic, despotic leader.
Myerson: You mentioned that stratification economics confronts the widely held notion that disparities are explained by the deficiencies of those on the bottom. I have noticed that a lot of conversation relevant to coronavirus and how it disproportionately affects Black people is premised on a racist myth that Black people are another race, the very kind of idea used to justify the enslavement of Black people in this country. If people are tempted to look at the disproportionate effects of coronavirus on Black people as something innate—that Black people are somehow inherently more susceptible to the virus—what does stratification economics have to say about that notion?
Hamilton: In economics and beyond, the biologization of race has been largely replaced by the idea that there was something about the choices, attitudes, and norms among Black people that explained inequalities. But frankly, that logic reduces itself to a biological explanation through claiming that something is innately wrong with a group of people. In the context of coronavirus, we know that the mortality rate of Black people is in excess of three times the rate of white people. What that really reveals is that Black people have a greater exposure to the virus. We know that essential workers are disproportionately Black. Moreover, preexisting conditions that make one more susceptible to the virus don’t just materialize out of thin air. Preexisting conditions come about from lack of resources to begin with. We know that Black people have inadequate health insurance relative to white people. We know that Black people have fewer resources because of our country’s racist past and present. We know that, as a result of the racial wealth gap, there are few liquid assets on hand that allow you to decide to stay home if you are an essential worker. You lack the choice to be able to make sound decisions if you lack resources.
Myerson: Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor recently had a piece in the New York Times pointing out that even within a particular healthcare system, such as the Veterans Affairs or a given health insurance company, Black people who are economically equal with white people have worse health outcomes. That’s because white doctors just don’t believe that Black people are experiencing the same amount of pain, which, again, comes out of racist myths used to justify Black peoples’ subjugation. There’s a scholar named Camara Phyllis Jones who points out that if you live in a food desert, or as she says, maybe a “fast food swamp,” that leads to worse health outcomes. If you live near industrial byproducts being dumped into the air and the water and the soil, that leads to worse health outcomes. If you are experiencing the toxic stress of being scared to go out for fear of being subjected to random or state-sanctioned or state-directed violence, that is going to lead to negative health outcomes. So there are all these social determinants of these comorbidities. Who are the essential workers, and who are performing these services? We’re talking about sending people back to work, but there are people who never stopped working. And if a disproportionate number of those people are low-wage Black workers, then we needn’t resort to epigenetic theories.
Hamilton: I think you are spot on. Social determinants of health need to be incorporated into our analysis, and we should also consider racism as a social indicator of one’s health. I’ve heard people say “Racism makes us all sick.” I don’t like that narrative. It makes racism a little passive. Racism is intentional. Racism is used as a mechanism, oftentimes to accumulate or to attain relative status compared to someone else. It allows the accumulation of capital at the top with no bounds, because individuals are persuaded by the promise of relative status.
Myerson: George Floyd was killed by the police after allegedly trying to use a fake $20 bill. Consider that in tandem with the coronavirus, the underlying stratification, the lack of an actual plan coming out of the federal government to protect people from eviction and to protect payrolls and income, the refusal to guarantee people health insurance, the paltry $1,200 that’s supposed to suffice for three months in America, and how difficult it is to obtain unemployment insurance. We see absolute economic evisceration for lots and lots of people. Black people, as with all economic stratification in this society, are on the losing end of it, are overrepresented among the negative outcomes. To then criminalize with lethal force the alleged use of a counterfeit $20 bill—if anyone was expecting that would not erupt into uprisings, then they were fooling themselves. People, it seems to me, will only take so much, or can only take so much. Do you see, in this moment, the confluence of these racist acts leading to this uprising as meaningfully connected to the sort of racist outcomes from both coronavirus and how it’s being treated by the government?
Hamilton: We’d be remiss to not take account of the fact that there are over 40 million Americans that have been unemployed as a result of this pandemic. And that economic anxiety, tied with this racial violence—much of it is at the hands of the state. This is why we need to think about a whole political economy. We can’t isolate things from their larger context. What is the purpose of government, and what should government be doing in this situation? The government is derelict of their responsibility not only in protecting Black people from violence; they’re also derelict in their responsibility to ensure an adequate economic system so that we are less vulnerable to pandemics and have economic security, as opposed to putting corporate and elite interests at the forefront. The government isn’t ensuring that people have health insurance; ensuring that people have access to high-quality education from grade school all the way through college; ensuring that people have shelter; ensuring that people have capital; ensuring that there is at least a base level so that people aren’t exposed to predation from the private sector.
Beyond these responsibilities, the government also has the obligation to protect free mobility throughout society without exposure to physical harm and the psychological threat of physical harm. That plays on people on a daily basis. It’s playing on me right now. There is a pain that people are experiencing that will manifest in ways that we can’t even imagine.
Myerson: Let’s turn to the program that you are advocating for in this moment to respond to coronavirus, and also in the longer term.
Hamilton: Ultimately, we need to fulfill what FDR called for in 1944: an Economic Bill of Rights. We would implement it today, in the twenty-first century, in a more moral, just way, so that it is explicitly anti-racist and anti-misogynistic and anti-homophobic. That would ensure that the goods and services that are so integral to having agency are provided for by the public sector with adequate quality, quantity, and universal access.
What would those goods be? A job. A federal job guarantee. The right to a job with decent wages, decent benefits, and decent working conditions. Capital. Baby bonds to ensure a birth right to capital so that everybody, when they enter their young adulthood, has at least some nest egg. Otherwise, how do we accumulate wealth in society? Without capital, inequality is locked in. These are private assets, but we can do it in a public way as well. Tuition-free colleges and universities would also be part of an Economic Bill of Rights. We should not be making decisions on who has access to college based on your ability to pay. That should be something that we provide for everyone. Everybody deserves the best resources to be able to critically think, to be able to disseminate information, to have analytical skills. It also means Medicare for all. It is an immoral society that makes you think about finances when you’re sick and you need to go see a doctor.
The point is, there are set goods and services that are so essential in order for people to have authentic agency in their lives, and the ability to pay should not be the criterion by which we ration access to them.
People don’t have faith in government. And that cynicism, sadly, although not empirically invalid, iterates this perpetual system of concentration at the top. To reverse that cynicism, we need a new thought process. Our government, our money, and our economy. Take our government back for us. Take our economy back for us. And take our money and use it for its proper purpose.
Myerson: I want to imagine with you that we had accomplished your program: a homes guarantee, public healthcare, a jobs guarantee, universal baby bonds, universal public bank accounts. If we had all of these essential pillars—education, access to community and culture, all of these basic pillars of living a happy, healthy life—do you have any thoughts about what Black life would be like?
Hamilton: My economist brain can’t imagine the kind of work being done by all the sci-fi writers exploring Black Futurism. They probably would be best able to answer that question. But we can chart a different reality; it doesn’t have to be our reality.
If we are going to talk about a future with Black lives in it, America has to come to grips with its past. We need a sobering, and honest, interrogation of why we have such gross inequities today. We need to do this. Not only for truth and reconciliation and providing dignity, but because an understanding of our past would clearly indicate how inequality results from extraction and extortion, not some group phenomena of inadequate choices or behaviors or biology. That said, truth and reconciliation will not be enough. The truth and reconciliation, without redress, would be an empty acknowledgment. In addition to an Economic Bill of Rights, we have to have reparations if we are ever going to get beyond our race problem.
Darrick Hamilton is a pioneer and internationally recognized scholar in the field of stratification economics and the executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University. In 2021 he will return to The New School as the Henry Cohen Professor of Economics and Urban Policy.
Jesse A. Myerson, an organizer and writer from New York City, is the creator and host of The Phoenix Project.