Civil Rights, Poverty and Capitalism

Against the Current, No. 168, January/February 2014

Marty Oppenheimer

IN 1962 A socialist writer, Michael Harring­ton, came out with a book called The Other America.(1) It was about poverty in the United States, a subject getting little attention in the media, in the academic world or in social policy circles at that time.

True, a handful of sociologists and social workers had been concerned with poor neighborhoods at least since the 1920s. They were primarily interested in such “deviant behaviors” as hoboes, prostitutes, taxi dancers, juvenile gangs and the like, although some also described how slums develop. But their studies did not address the wider social system.

Harrington’s book, reviewed in advance in The New Yorker by Dwight Macdonald, produced a sensation. It can be compared to “Occupy Wall Street” in that it put the notion of two nations on the map, one rich or relatively well off, the other poor. It was an oversimplification, as is the idea of the 99% versus the 1%, but it caught the attention of president Kennedy and his advisers, and of social policy wonks.

Half a century ago 40-50 million people lived in poverty, 20-25% of a much smaller U.S. population than today. In the context of the Cold War, such levels of poverty were embarrassing. A series of reforms were slowly initiated, culminating in president Johnson’s “War on Poverty.”

Ten years later the poverty rate was 11.1%, the lowest on record. But that “war” foundered on the aftermath of the war in Vietnam, which led to inflation, and soon to the backlash that began in 1968 with the election of Richard Nixon.

Today the poverty rate is 15%, or about 46 million people, of whom nearly half earn below 50% of the poverty line ($19,500 for a family of three). Try making a budget based on that: Here in Pennsylvania, the minimum wage (same as the federal) is $7.25 an hour. This comes to about $15,000 a year, below the poverty line. It’s $1250 a month, or $42 a day for the family.

A person (usually a woman) on TANF (Temporary Aid to Needy Families), commonly called welfare, gets about $3500 a year for a family of three, plus “food stamps” worth $6300. This makes $9800, or half the poverty line — $26.50 a day. But more than six million people in the United States have no income other than food stamps.

Some additional points: (1) Most of the poor work at least part time, but half the jobs in the U.S. economy pay less than $34,000 a year, and a quarter pay below the poverty line. (2) About a third of the poor are children: 16 million (22% of all children), putting the United States second from the bottom among 35 “wealthy” countries. Of these children, 2.8 million live in households with incomes of less than $6 a day ($2,184 per year). (3) But these rates differ by “race:” 16% of white children are poor, 35% of African-American, and 46% of Latino/a. (4) Although the majority of the poor (and the unemployed as well) are white, rates vary widely: The official poverty rate for whites is 10.6%, for Blacks 25.9%, for Latino/as 23.9%.

These figures correlate to their respective unemployment rates: 6.8% for whites, 13.8% for Blacks, 9.6% for Latino/as, with the important caveat that we know that real unemployment rates are considerably higher if we include those who have given up looking for work, and those working part-time who would like more work but can’t find it.(2)

Race and Economic Justice

This leads me to my first proposition: that civil rights, which we associate with Martin Luther King Jr., and economic justice are inseparable. Why? As Dr. King understood, the majority of the African-American population is middle to lower-income working class with much of that class poor or near poor (including the often overlooked segment of sharecroppers and tenant farmers that continue to populate areas of the South, especially the Deep South).

Civil rights become issues of economic justice when civil rights demands move to the areas of job discrimination (calling for equal opportunity) and access to decent paying, union-level jobs. Hence access to unions (including leadership positions), becomes part of the demand for civil rights and therefore for economic justice.

As King also understood, for civil rights to win, mass support was needed, so that the movement had to address more than access to public accommodations. It had to address basic economic issues.

We are familiar with the Greensboro, North Carolina sit-ins that triggered sit-ins for public accommodations throughout most of the South (and even some Northern communities) in 1960-61. But many are not aware that at the same time (late 1960) in Fayette and Haywood Counties, Tennessee, white property owners expelled Black tenant farmers and sharecroppers, most of them poor, in order to block them from voting.

The farmers, with support from sympathizers all over the country, erected a tent city and lived there throughout the winter. They won after a court fight, breaking the monopoly of political and economic power in the area. It wasn’t a revolution, but it was a significant step in creating a wider awareness of the prevalence of poverty in the country.

Dr. King continued to press on this issue. Many have forgotten that the famous 1963 March on Washington was for “Jobs and Freedom.” Later he promoted the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Poor People’s Campaign. The Campaign organized a tent city of some 3,000 people on the Mall in Washington in the spring of 1968 in order to make poverty more visible to the public.

Another example was his support for the Memphis Sanitation Strike in February, 1968. It was called to protest discriminatory placement in dangerous jobs, disrespect, and for the right to join a union. After his assassination, a silent march led by his widow, Coretta King, resulted in victory.

King also saw that the war in Vietnam was draining resources from Johnson’s “war on poverty.” The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was the first civil rights organization to oppose the war, but King soon followed.

Neither King nor SNCC opposed the war only on the pragmatic reason that it diverted attention from poverty, of course; SNCC saw the war’s official rationale, to defend democracy in Southeast Asia, as hypocritical given the government’s failure to protect Blacks’ voting rights in the South. SNCC even supported draft resistance. King opposed the war more through the lens of his pacifism.

The Need to Challenge Capitalism

Now to my second proposition: Once economic issues are raised, this necessarily forces us to examine the way the overall economic system, capitalism, functions.

Civil rights demands (especially voting) threaten existing white-dominated political institutions (government), and elite social institutions because they challenge the white ruling class’s political domination and its monopoly of decision-making circles, such as exclusionary private clubs. But these demands do not inherently question capitalism as such.

Economic demands on the other hand, such as access to decent-paying jobs, nondiscriminatory working conditions (including for women), and the right to collective bargaining, do challenge corporate priorities and private property “rights” because they threaten to shift the balance of decision-making power from a monopoly by property owners to a bargaining situation in which others also, unions for example, have a say. These demands challenge the profits of the corporation, and for some lead to questioning an economic system in which profits come before justice.

Whether civil rights or economic demands, they are resisted by the power structure with every means at its disposal. In the South civil rights were reisted by force for a long time, and today voting rights are still in danger. On the economic front unions were attacked by paid thugs and the National Guard and later by legalisms, obstruction, and well-organized attempts, often successful to destroy them.

Yet resistance to change by the power structure only goes so far in explaining why there has been so little improvement in basic living standards for large numbers of Americans, especially Blacks and Latino/as. The historic fact is that the civil rights movement (as well as other protest movements of the 1960s) died down.

Many local leaders, facing police and FBI repression, took jobs in the “war on poverty.” Others quit, simply exhausted from the struggle. Still others, after winning access to the Democratic Party structure beginning in 1968, were elected to public office where they continue to promote, to one degree or another, the civil rights and economic justice agendas as best they can given the control of the Congress and court system by white conservatives, not to mention state legislatures, especially in the South.

The rule, stated by sociologists Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward long ago, is that when the pressure goes off, we enter a period of reversal or backlash.3 The 1970s not only ushered in a backlash, and a general attack on unions by the corporate sector, but also major changes in the economy that put downward pressure on the living standards of many American workers, especially people of color.

These changes are rooted in what is called “deindustrialization”: the movement of manufacturing to lower-wage areas (to the fiercely anti-union South, and offshore), and technological innovations that eliminated jobs. Corporations, pressing to lower costs and side-step unions, increasingly hired part-time workers and outsourced work to non-union sub-contractors.

Moreover, from 1970 to 2012 the share of manufacturing jobs, many of which were middle-income and unionized, declined from 25.1% to a paltry 8.9%, and the percent of private-sector workers in unions skidded correspondingly.(4)

Galloping Inequality and Race

These trends led to what is called the decline of the so-called middle class, meaning folks in the middle of the income and wealth distribution (most of whom are working class). By one measure the share of income and wealth of the middle 60% has declined from 53% in 1970 to 46.6% in 2011.(5)

More importantly, by another measure the number of those in the income range around the median of $60,000 has also declined — with these folks moving either upward or downward on the scale — creating what’s called a bi-modal, rather than the former normal (“bell curve”) income distribution. This is called the “hollowing out” of the so-called middle class.(6)

However, concentrating on this segment misses an important point. What most observers fail to note is that although, to paraphrase George Orwell, most people are unequal (to the top 20%) some are “more unequal than others.”

According to one study, since 1995 the bottom fifth of the population has lost 7% of its income; the next lowest fifth lost 1%, while all others gained at least a little, with the top fifth gaining the most and the top 10%, 5%, and the famous 1% gaining more as you go farther up.(7)

Given that Black and Latino/a workers find themselves disproportionately in the lower income sectors, it follows that as jobs in manufacturing disappear and as jobs in the lower-paying services sector (fast food, etc.) grow, the disproportionate number of people of color, women, and minority women who are forced to shift to these jobs will find themselves with below average and poverty-level wages.

On average, the incomes of Blacks and Latino/as are half of white incomes; but the wealth (assets) of Blacks and Latino/as are only one-sixth that of whites.(8) The stable Black and Latino/a working class today is located increasingly in public sector jobs (teaching, clerical, the post office, etc.). And right now these jobs (often unionized) are being cut by government at all levels due to so-called austerity programs, therefore disproportionately affecting minorities, Blacks in particular.

One point should be emphasized: the inequality that has provoked so much discussion in the last several years (the notion of the 99% against the 1%) is not due to the impersonal rules of the economy, about which, it is said, we can do nothing. What inequality is really about is that the gains of the top 1%, 10%, even many of the top 20% are at the expense of the rest — that is, those gains are based on exploiting the large mass of the working population, extracting from them as much as possible.

In a nutshell, the profits of the top (including the outrageous incomes of corporate heads) can be sustained or increased only by suppressing the wages and benefits of the rest, and, of course, dodging taxes. That is why the corporate sector is so keen on suppressing labor unions, why the tax structure is so unfair, why “deregulation” is pushed by economists on the corporate payroll.

It follows, therefore, that although every struggle on the part of working people to get more of the pie, or at minimum to prevent the slice going to the mass of the population from getting smaller, is necessary, this does not change the basic dynamic of a system that is based on exploitation.

In order to achieve a society in which everyone’s needs are met and poverty is eliminated, a new kind of system must be created. By the end of the 1960s many of the most active fighters for civil rights had come to realize this, and had begun to advocate some form of socialism, some even to the point of advocating a revolution.

SNCC, the Black Panther Party, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit, and numerous other small groups had come to believe that racism and capitalism were linked, and that the overthrow of both was necessary. Malcolm X was also moving in this direction when he was assassinated in 1965. Although Martin Luther King Jr. was hardly in a position openly to advocate revolution, he accepted the idea that some form of democratic socialism might be necessary to achieve a more just society.

The dismal state of the current economy with its scary unemployment rate was not suddenly triggered by the financial meltdown of 2008. It has been building since the 1970s; indeed one could argue that it was almost planned by corporate leaders.

Deindustrialization is a deliberate policy decision. The attempted destruction of labor unions is another, and the imposition of austerity, deregulation, and the privatization of government functions, the same. All in the interest of sustaining and increasing profit. The choice is clear: profit, or economic justice. We can’t have both.


  1. The Macmillan Co., 1962.
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  2. Peter Edelman, “Poverty in America: Why Can’t We End It?” N.Y. Times, July 29, 2012; also 2012 U.S. Census.
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  3. Poor People’s Movements, Why They Succeed, How They Fail, Vintage Books, 1979.
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  4. New York Times, April 1, 2003, from Bureau of Economic Analysis.
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  5. Statista, 2013, from U.S. Census 1970-2011.
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  6. Pew Research Center, The Lost Decade of the Middle Class: Fewer, Poorer, Gloomier (Aug. 22, 2012).
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  7. Congressional Research Service, Linda Levine, “An Analysis Of the Distribution of Wealth Across Households 1989-2010;” Economic Policy Institute, The State of Working America, “Changes In Real Wages, 1979-2010.”
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  8. New York Times, April 29, 2013, from Urban Institute study.
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January/February 2014, ATC 168