Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

This column reflects the opinion of the writer. Learn about the differences between a news story and an opinion column.

Bernie Sanders: Path to racial equality runs through the one percent

By Sen. Bernie Sanders Special to the Washington Post

We Americans owe many of our freedoms to those who put their lives on the line for racial equality: people like Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers and Daisy Bates. But a racial wealth gap of 10 to 1 exists between white and black Americans, and that gap, along with the effects of racism, fuels disparities in areas ranging from health care to housing and from college debt to criminal sentencing.

Many black Americans are disillusioned about politicians who champion the organizing power of black women when it’s time to turn out the vote but neglect their needs between election cycles. They are tired of politicians offering meaningful yet inadequate reforms – kicking the can of progress down the road instead of using their political capital to fight for reforms that current generations desperately need.

They’re tired of coming in second to groups that hold the power of the purse or the might of demographic majority. And they’ve said enough is enough: The status quo is simply insufficient.

I couldn’t agree more.

Structural problems require structural solutions, and promises of mere “access” have never guaranteed black Americans equality in this country. Sixty-five years after Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, education has remained separate and unequal. “Access” to health care is an empty promise when you can’t afford high premiums, co-pays or deductibles. And an “opportunity” for an equal education is an opportunity in name only when you can’t afford to live in a good school district or to pay college tuition.

Jobs, health care, criminal justice and education are linked, and progress will not be made unless we address the economic systems that oppress Americans at their root. As Princeton’s Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor recently argued, “There is no race without class in this country.” Yet most politicians won’t acknowledge the role that our economic system plays in maintaining racial inequality.

Example after example shows that corporate exploitation disproportionately affects black people. Black Americans lost 40% of their wealth in the 2009 housing crisis, and were the target of predatory lenders. Black Americans are more likely than white Americans to be paid a minimum wage salary, and black Americans stand to benefit disproportionately from a $15 an hour federal minimum wage.

Walmart is the largest private employer of blacks in the country – 42% of its associates are black. And it pays its employees below a living wage – even while the Walton family owns more wealth than the bottom 40% of Americans. Former Vice President Joe Biden recently said, “I don’t think 500 billionaires are the reason why we’re in trouble.” I respectfully disagree. It is my view that any presidential candidate who claims to believe that black lives matter has to take on the institutions that have continually exploited black lives.

The racial wealth gap lingers in part because the politicians who could close it are funded by the very corporate donors who continue to benefit from it. Gross inequality persists largely unchallenged despite the United States’ massive wealth because myths about racial inferiority and the “undeserving poor” justify the worst effects of unfettered capitalism. As long as corporations can rely on the indifference to black lives as a cover for their exploitation, they will continue to do so.

Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, argues powerfully that corporations play a central role in “sustaining, or worsening, the forces of racism in America,” whether by advancing racist stereotypes, sponsoring voter suppression or exploiting low-wage workers who are disproportionately black and brown. And he’s right.

The unfortunate truth is that politicians who take checks from millionaires and billionaires owe their corporate constituents first, and everyday Americans last. The black-white wealth gap could be closed by targeting the extreme wealth at the very top. Instead, politicians beholden to the one percent ask the black middle class and the white middle class to fight over scraps. I’m proud that our campaign is fueled by more small-dollar donations than any other – more of our donors work at Walmart than any other company. Our willingness to take on powerful special interests as we fight for universal health care and a living wage – instead of the private prison industry and tax breaks for the rich – is a direct consequence of my campaign’s financial independence.

The straightest path to racial equality is through the one percent. A system where we don’t address both racial and economic disparity is a system in which some people, especially blacks, are going to be left behind. We should not be swayed by those who would try to force us to choose one over the other.

Bernie Sanders, an independent, represents Vermont in the U.S. Senate and is a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president.