Black Lives Matter activists’ interruption of a Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speech in Seattle earlier this month may have represented a new high in tensions between the movements for economic equality and racial justice -- and a progressive coalition’s agenda for a Federal Reserve conference this week could offer a model of fusion for the two camps.
The Fed Up campaign, a coalition of groups led by the nonprofit Center for Popular Democracy, will converge on Jackson Hole, Wyoming, later this week to urge the Federal Reserve to be more responsive to the needs of American workers. In doing so, it will focus on both “economic and racial inequality,” campaign director Ady Barkan told reporters on a Monday press call previewing the campaign’s plans.
The gathering is aimed at influencing Fed officials attending the Kansas City Fed’s annual Jackson Hole symposium.
A major theme of Fed Up's parallel conference on Thursday and Friday will be “Whose Recovery,” based on the premise that the economic recovery has yet to reach many workers, particularly those of color. They note that the official African-American unemployment rate -- 9.1 percent -- is much higher than the 5.3 percent rate for the overall population.
“Although there has been a strong recovery for Wall Street, that recovery has not reached Main Street,” Barkan said. At Jackson Hole, Barkan said, “We will be asking not only, ‘Whose recovery is this?’ but also, ‘Whose Federal Reserve is this?’”
The Fed Up campaign’s immediate goal is to stop an interest rate hike that would slow economic growth, which it says would disproportionately hurt people of color. The Federal Reserve has indicated it will raise interest rates in September, though some economic analysts are speculating that Monday’s stock market slide and turmoil in emerging-market economies will give the central bank pause. Over the longer term, Fed Up hopes to reform the selection process for regional Federal Reserve bank presidents, which it believes currently reflects the interests of financial elites more than the broader public.
(For more on the Fed Up campaign's efforts and the broader debate over monetary policy, head over here.)
Fed Up will bring an estimated 50 low-income workers and representatives of communities of color from across the country to the Jackson Hole gathering -- an increase from the 10 activists it brought last year.
“We see racial justice and racial economic equality as part of the same agenda," Barkan added, referencing the persistent racial disparity in employment.
The campaign has reserved conference rooms where activists will hold “teach-ins” making the case for monetary policy that prioritizes full employment and wage growth, and plan to share their views in informal conversations with Fed officials and members of the media.
The activists will also deliver to Fed officials an as-yet-undetermined number of petition signatures opposing an interest rate hike absent greater wage growth. Last year, Fed Up amassed 10,000 signatures for a similar petition, but this year it hopes to submit a much larger number thanks to the campaign’s collaboration with progressive online heavyweights CREDO Action, Daily Kos and Working Families Party, and a promotional video from popular liberal economist Robert Reich that has already been viewed over 150,000 times.
Asked whether Fed Up planned any public and potentially disruptive protests at the Jackson Hole gathering, Barkan refused to disclose any specific plans, but did not rule them out either.
While Fed Up since its inception has focused on the disproportionate impact of Federal Reserve interest rates on people of color, its events at Jackson Hole this year explicitly appeal to the themes of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has gained steam since last year’s conference. The campaign will host back-to-back teach-ins entitled “Do Black Lives Matter To The Federal Reserve?” on Thursday and Friday that Barkan said will explain how a “weak economy causes racial discrimination and disparities.” The sessions will be organized by activists from the St. Louis and Wichita, Kansas, metropolitan areas, many of whom have also been active in protests against police mistreatment of, and use of force against, black people.
Barkan said that because Black Lives Matter is not a centralized movement, however, it has no formal affiliation with Fed Up.
Dawn O’Neal and Keesha Moore, two African-American rank-and-file Fed Up activists who are attending the Jackson Hole gathering, shared their reasons for lobbying the Fed.
O’Neal described the challenges of earning just $8.50 an hour as a teaching assistant for 3-year-old children in Dekalb County, Georgia, just outside Atlanta. Her husband is unemployed and stands in line at 5 a.m. every day for odd construction jobs at a local gathering point for day laborers. If her husband is lucky, he is one of 30 or 40 men among a group of 300 predominantly black men to be chosen for work that pays roughly the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. They lack health insurance and must choose which bills to pay at the end of every month.
“When the Fed says the economy is recovering, I do not see recovery in my community. I see the struggle of my neighbors, lines of people looking for work, people trying to make ends meet on McDonald’s salaries,” O’Neill said Monday on the press call. “I do not think those at the Fed know how life is here in South Dekalb county when they say the economy is recovering.”
Moore, a 36-year-old single mother of four in Philadelphia, described her dogged and disheartening search for work after being laid off as a data entry specialist seven months ago. She lamented a Catch-22 of job hunting: Getting a good job often requires a car, and she will only be able to afford a car when she has a job.
Moore suspects that being African American has impeded her job search. “They always ask me when I apply what my race is,” Moore said. “I am not quite sure what that has to do with getting a job.”
Moore, like O’Neal, wants to tell the Fed about her community’s urgent need for more jobs and “fair” wages.
Fed Up and its allies say even a modest interest rate hike will slow down a job market that is already inadequate for the size of the population and has yet to produce significant wage growth. That would disproportionately hurt people of color, who are already more likely to be out of work, and often experience discrimination in hiring that they are more likely to overcome in a high-demand economy supported by low interest rates.
Proponents of a Federal Reserve interest rate increase, which include many Fed officials, center-right economists and politicians, argue that rates must rise to prevent excessive price and asset inflation. And some economists are also expressing concerns that prolonged low interest rates will limit the Fed’s ability to stimulate the economy by cutting rates if and when a significant slowdown occurs, The Wall Street Journal reported on August 17.
The Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank, which is hosting the Jackson Hole symposium that Fed Up is targeting, is aware of the planned counter-conference, Barkan said, but has not expressed opinions about it. Fed Up’s actions last year led to a meeting between activists and Kansas City Fed president Esther George.
Barkan said that Atlanta Fed president Dennis Lockhart had expressed interest in attending Fed Up’s sessions.
"President Lockhart’s first obligation is to the Kansas City Fed’s conference that he is in Jackson Hole to attend," Jean Tate, a spokeswoman for the Atlanta Fed, told HuffPost. "He has some other commitments on his schedule as well. If time permits, he may be able to briefly listen to some of the conversation at the Fed-Up event, but it is not something that we can confirm."
This post has been updated with a response from the Atlanta Fed about whether President Dennis Lockhart plans to attend Fed Up events.