Will Team Hillary Play the Race Card?

As the pressure mounts, the Hillary campaign may try to isolate Bernie Sanders from African-American and Hispanic voters.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recently floated the first trial balloon when he put forth an unsubstantiated claim expressly designed to promote tensions between class and racial justice advocates. He writes:

To oversimplify a bit -- but only, I think, a bit -- the Sanders view is that money is the root of all evil. Or more specifically, the corrupting influence of big money, of the 1 percent and the corporate elite, is the overarching source of the political ugliness we see all around us.

The Clinton view, on the other hand, seems to be that money is the root of some evil, maybe a lot of evil, but it isn't the whole story. Instead, racism, sexism and other forms of prejudice are powerful forces in their own right. This may not seem like a very big difference -- both candidates oppose prejudice, both want to reduce economic inequality. But it matters for political strategy.

Krugman is fanning the flames of an age-old debate that runs deeply within the progressive community. Some argue that runaway inequality is key to confronting a myriad of issues plaguing our society including racism, while others stress that overcoming racism should be our first and foremost goal.

Team Hillary clearly wants to pigeon-hole Sanders on one side of the debate hoping to isolate him from Black and Latino voters.

But her strategy is likely to fail. That's because the groups most victimized by runaway inequality and Wall Street are low income families, and those families are disproportionately people of color. So when Sanders calls for programs to reduce inequality, he is disproportionately assisting low income families of color.

At the same time, Sanders also is coming to the aid of aspiring Black and Hispanic
home buyers who were targeted and victimized by Wall Street predatory lending. Furthermore, when Sanders assaults runaway inequality, he attacks the deeper connections between the rise of inequality and the unconscionable rise in the prison population as well as the local police policies that have led to the deaths of innocent people of color in low-income communities.

The more extreme inequality becomes, the more people of color will suffer disproportionately. A full-scale assault on runaway inequality would generate the public resources needed to create jobs, invest in schools, raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and thereby significantly improve the day-to-day living conditions of low-income families.

In short, the issues of race, class and runaway inequality are deep
ly entwined.

What Team Hillary Fears

As Black and Hispanic voters get to know Sanders better, his message is likely to erode Hillary's support. As they find out more about Hillary's entanglement with Wall Street and about the Clinton's neoliberal attacks on the poor, she could lose even more support from lower-income Black and Latino voters.

But, what Team Hillary should fear most is that the African American and Latino communities will see that Bernie is an authentic anti-racist.

They also will see that runaway inequality is not just another issue among many. It is a core issue that crosses race and class, and that could form the basis for a wide and deep movement for economic and racial justice.

Childhood Poverty

It is obscene that the richest country in all of history has not eradicated child poverty. The US ranked last among major OCED countries in relative childhood poverty. In fact, there is an inverse relationship between childhood poverty and inequality: The countries with much lower levels of economic inequality -- those in northern Europe --- have nearly eliminated childhood poverty.

Who are America's poorest children? Thirty-nine percent of all black children lived in poverty as of 2013. The percentages were 36 percent for Native American children and 35% of all Hispanic children and 13 percent of all white children.

It's getting worse. In our current recovery, during which 95 percent of all the new growth has gone to the top 1 percent, childhood poverty has increased. The rate jumped for all groups -- up 6 percent for black children, up 4 percent for Hispanics and up 7 percent for Native American children and up 2 percent of white children.

A similar pattern emerges for all those living in poverty. The rate in 2012 among those who define themselves as black was 27.2 percent and 25.6 percent for Hispanics. For those calling themselves white it was 12.7 percent.

Therefore, a full-throttled attack on runaway inequality --which in its very essence must be an attack on poverty -- would help address these racial disparities.

Educational Disparities

Runaway inequality both increases poverty and financially starves the public sector as worker incomes stagnate while super-rich and large corporations stash their wealth off-shore to evade taxes.. State and local taxes are further eroded as localities are played against each other in search of corporate relocations by providing billions in tax breaks that should have gone to improve, not impoverish, the public sector.

As a result of this neoliberal assault, our schools have become increasingly separate and unequal.

Compared to other developed nations our educational system is suffering on every front. According to rankings developed by the Organization for Economic Development (OECD), we are near the bottom in education for three year olds, four year olds, and 5 to 14 year olds.

The OECD reports:

The odds that a young person in the U.S. will be in higher education if his or her parents do not have an upper secondary education are just 29 percent -- one of the lowest levels among OECD countries.

Children of poorer, people of color families suffer the most. According to a 2015 study by the Urban Institute:

Nationally black students are over six times more likely to attend high-poverty schools than low-poverty schools and about six times more likely than white students to attend high-poverty schools.

But why do we have any high poverty schools at all? Runaway inequality guarantees it.

Youth Unemployment/Underemployment
Another consequence of runaway inequality is the abject failure to create jobs for young high school graduates. The unemployment/underemployment rates are astronomical for all categories, but the rates for black youth are staggering: 51.3% for black youth, 36.1 percent for Hispanic youth and 33.8 percent for white youth.

To reduce these rates dramatically requires government money, government programs, and government jobs. The money must come from the financial strip-miners on Wall Street.

Predatory Lending
The Sanders assault on Wall Street also will protect aspiring lower income homeowners from predatory lending, especially people of color. Mortgage companies backed by Wall Street targeted Black and Hispanic home buyers and stuck them with high interest high risk loans. As studies show, "Even when credit risk is controlled, Blacks were 3.9 times more likely than whites to receive subprime loans, while Latinos were 2.6 times more likely."

Alan Greenspan, whom Bill Clinton re-appointed as the head of the Federal Reserve in 1996, was warned repeatedly about predatory lending, but chose not to interfere with his beloved financial markets. As a result, he let Wall Street destroy the incomes of Black and Hispanic home buyers who were saddled with predatory loans and suffered extraordinary rates of foreclosures.

It is worthwhile to recall that the deregulation of finance reached its peak during the Clinton administration when Glass-Steagall was destroyed and regulations on dangerous derivatives were forbidden. (Seared in my memory is Hillary Clinton proudly sitting next to Alan Greenspan during President Clinton's 1993 State of the Union address to send a signal to Wall Street that all was well.)

Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System
Not only do we have the highest level of inequality in the world, we also have the largest prison population -- largest in absolute number and largest in percentage of the population. The two trends in fact mirror each other -- runaway inequality took off about 1980 as did the prison population. The most unequal country is now the largest police state.

This is not an accident. As neoliberalism wiped out government job programs and public sector efforts to reduce poverty, those at the bottom of the economic ladder were swept up into the criminal justice system. In a very real way, prison replaced the 1960s War on Poverty.

We should recall that Eric Garner, the man killed during an arrest in Staten Island, NY, was working. He was selling loose cigarettes. That was his poverty program.

Or take Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri. The Justice Department investigation shows that as the Wall Street crash decimated the budgets of the low-income towns like Ferguson, city officials urged the police to pull low income residents into the criminal justice system in order to increase revenues from fines and forfeitures.

The amount of money collected from such fines in Ferguson nearly doubled from 7.4 percent of the local budget in 2008 to 13.3 percent by 2013. As the Department of Justice put it:

Ferguson has allowed its focus on revenue generation to fundamentally compromise the role of Ferguson's municipal court. The municipal court does not act as a neutral arbiter of the law or a check on unlawful police conduct. Instead, the court primarily uses its judicial authority as the means to compel the payment of fines and fees that advance the City's financial interests.

Runaway inequality, to be sure, is not the sole cause of police harassment and the rise of the incarceration state. However, taming runaway inequality will be absolutely necessary in order to protect low income residents from police harassment and to reduce mass incarceration.

Free Higher Education

Team Hillary is attacking the Sanders plan to use a financial speculation tax on Wall Street to fund free higher education. Hillary says that everyone should have "skin in the game" by paying for some of their education and that rich students should not be subsidized.

But like nearly every part of the Sanders program, those who would most benefit from this plan are low-income students of color and their families. Recent statistics show that "Black students also borrow at much higher rates, and in higher amounts, to receive the same degrees as their white counterparts."

Black students aiming for bachelor's degrees and public colleges graduate with an average debt of $29,344, while white students leave with $25,807.

Also means testing for free higher education is a political loser as it turns the simple concept of free higher education into a complicated mess. Means testing for Social Security has always been the right's weapon of choice to erode public support. The same would apply to free higher education were it limited to lower income families.

Historical Fiction

To paint Hillary as caring more about racism than Bernie is to re-write American history. Sanders was part of the Civil Rights struggle since the 1960s. He understands that runaway inequality and the rise of Wall Street have intensified nearly every aspect of discrimination and widened economic disparities.

Furthermore, he knows that racism not only harms those who are discriminated against, but also creates severe working class divisions that make it much harder to organize a unified fight against runaway inequality. He actually believes in the old labor slogan: "An injury to one is an injury to all."

Hillary should be particularly cautious about waving the flag of her husband's administration. Like Reagan and HW Bush before him, Bill Clinton kissed the Wall Street ring -- passionately. He did nothing to curb its power and everything to enhance its reach by smashing the last vestiges of New Deal financial controls.

At the same time he harmed low income families by "triangulating" the end of welfare "as we know it," and he presided over the "end of big government," which has destroyed millions of public sector jobs that were disproportionately held by African-American women. Further, his vigorous support for tougher crime laws helped turn us into the largest police state in the world and put into prison a disproportionate percentage of Black men.

In short, the Clinton administration pushed forward the entire neoliberal project including the divisive dog whistles of welfare and crime.

Hillary also should remember that those who entwined themselves with Wall Street have done real harm to those at the bottom of the income ladder, especially people of color. Her Wall Street speaking fees and donations harm her credibility with those who suffered the most.

So where is the evidence that Hillary will do more than Bernie, because she supposedly won't just focus on runaway inequality? It doesn't exist.

What does exist is an enormous challenge for the progressive movement. This is the golden moment to build a powerful, united movement, whether Bernie wins or loses, to tear down rule by the "billionaire class," to end poverty, and to dramatically reduce racial disparities.

Sanders is committed to doing just that.

Is Hillary?

Les Leopold, the director of the Labor Institute, is currently working with unions and community organizations to build the educational infrastructure of a new anti-Wall Street movement. His new book Runaway Inequality: An Activist's Guide to Economic Justice (Oct 2015) is a text for this campaign. All proceeds go to support these educational efforts.