I. Our Blues as the Seeds of the Next
Black America has spent the past quarter century on
the defensive against the conservative assault on equality –
especially racial equality – inaugurated by the election of
Ronald Reagan. The right’s program of reverse Robin
Hood economics and smashing the limited instruments of fairness
fashioned by liberalism between the end of World War Two and 1980
has been a brilliant political success that has deeply wounded black
people. Conservatives have reconstructed the system of racial
inequality in the US by moving away from the racial police state
of the Jim Crow era to a free market strategy of economic abandonment
and incarceration. Under the new racial dispensation authored
by the Republicans under Reagan and the Bush family, with the approval
of the Democrats under the aegis of the Clinton family, blacks can
vote – sometimes – own property, make money, and even
marry across any and all color lines. What blacks cannot do is enlist
the help of government in dismantling the barriers to economic and
social equality that the toxic mix of free markets and petty racial
hatreds throw in our way.
But, strange as this may sound, black America may
now be strong enough to fashion an economic model of development
and justice based on a new mixture of self-reliance and limited
progressive politics. The conservative assault on black America
has been a nightmare, but it has also cleared the way for a new
development path, if we have the courage and patience to take it.
Before outlining this potentially fruitful approach, we must understand
how conservatism rebuilt American racism after the demise of Jim
The Republicans have replaced the weak supports for
equal opportunity erected by the liberals in the 1960’s and
early 1970’s with nearly laissez-faire capitalism in which
needs are met on the basis of free choice and the ability to pay.
Aside from the relatively few public goods that even conservatives
see as indispensable – like national defense, a court system,
the police, prisons and infrastructure like roads, bridges and airports
– ours is an economy where you get what you can pay for.
Need health care? Buy it. Don’t have enough money?
Go to an overburdened public hospital (which will eventually disappear
once taxes are cut enough) and hope for the best. Kids need
good schools? Move to a neighborhood that has them. Can’t
do that because the people in the area have more money than you
and would not sell to you anyway since you are black? Tough,
live with it nigger.
Laws against job, housing and mortgage discrimination
are still on the books – for now – but they are not
enforced with any conviction. Affirmative action has not been
killed off – yet – but so many of our kids are badly
schooled that they are not ready to succeed even if they do get
into college. Racial decorum demands that conservatives not move
against black people by reinstating Jim Crow because that would
upset middle class white people – such is the limited political
utility of soccer moms. Discrimination in the marketplace is perfectly
acceptable to the conservatives, even though racist choices erect
sturdy barriers to black development by depriving us of the goods
we need to develop and compete, because the rights of private property
and unfettered choice matter more than the deprivation caused thereby.
Racial separation and hierarchy are now sustained by a pungent mix
of petty racism and competitive capitalism that systematically withholds
knowledge, health care, housing and credit from black people, thereby
locking a substantial number of us into the nation’s economic
basement without the need for government to use police dogs, cudgels,
prisons or men with white hoods.
Despite this bleak situation, black America has managed
to build skills and wealth in the face of a vicious and determined
conservative assault. We have met the blows of our right wing
nemeses by doing what we do best: forging ahead in the face of adversity
with that special calm display of strength and seriousness of purpose.
According to the Census Bureau, the high school graduation gap between
whites and blacks has virtually disappeared since 1980. In
1980, 17.8 percent of whites over twenty five held college degrees
compared to 7.9 percent of their black counterparts; in 2004, the
percent of blacks holding college degree rose to 17.6 compared to
28.2 for whites. Yes, there is still a gap, but it is closing
even in the face of conservative racial animus. Blacks in
1980 earned about 59 cents for each dollar earned by whites; in
2004 we earn about 69 cents for every dollar earned by whites.
This last bit of data must be handled with care: the
collapse of wages for modestly educated workers in this country
– those with only a high school education or less –
accounts for much of the lack of progress in closing the black/white
earnings gap. Global competition, technological change, the
collapse of unions and the resulting shifting of job opportunities
away from modestly schooled workers to highly educated workers has
occurred faster than we have been able to adapt. Free market
racism limits black access to crucial developmental resources, especially
education, thereby slowing down our capacity to adjust to the new
economic realities, including the collapse of the blue-collar road
to the middle class. Yet, there is a way for black Americans
to increase our access to some developmental resources through a
potent mixture of self-help and crafty progressive politics which
can withstand conservative pressure and, with a little luck, become
the basis for a sturdy, though perhaps limited, economic development
and justice coalition across the black/brown color line. (It
is, perhaps, too much to hope that a substantial portion of whites
would join a multiracial – really, post-racial – coalition
in favor of real equality for all in the face of the brilliant politics
of hatred practiced by the right. I hope my pessimism on this
score is excessive rather than accurate.)
II. Economic Development in Black
I will use the problem of schools to develop a few
core principles that can guide a viable development program of progressive
self-reliance for black America.
Too many black children, whether in urban, suburban
or rural school districts, are offered substandard schooling in
decaying facilities with overcrowded classrooms, overburdened and
underpaid teachers – many under-qualified or teaching out
of their fields of expertise – in localities trapped in the
downward spiral of economic decline made worse by the high taxes
required to finance failing schools. This is where free market
racism bites hardest: public schools serving poor communities do
not have the resources to compete for the best teachers on the basis
of pay, perquisites or working conditions, nor do they have the
means to repair, rebuild and update their facilities – classrooms,
libraries, laboratories, bathrooms, heating and air conditioning
systems or safety measures – to create an appealing environment
for faculty or students.
Yet, the conservative ban against redistribution that
traps black kids in failing schools – which cannot possibly
be addressed by the stingy and silly voucher proposals currently
peddled as miracle cures by policy charlatans – can be defeated
if black America replaces ever stingier redistribution from outside
with subsidies from the inside i.e. if black American adults choose
to reduce our consumption in the interest of supplementing the educational
resources available to our kids. I am suggesting that the
problem of educational failure in black communities – a complicated
situation with many causes and no easy solution – can be eased
a small bit if black adults directly and wisely subsidize the operations
of public schools serving black kids through a particular kind of
non-profit enterprise – an education development fund (EDF).
These subsidies could be used to (1) supplement teacher
pay, both by boosting the average level of pay for all teachers
and by funding a bonus system for exceptional performance by teachers
and other school personnel, (2) provide financial incentives for
teachers with specialized skills – particularly teachers with
advanced training in mathematics as well as scientific and technical
skills and the arts – to work in black schools, (3) create
endowments for sustaining and updating important school facilities
like libraries among other activities. A system of private
subsidies financed by black adults (as well as non-blacks who do
not think that “black intelligence” is an oxymoron)
attempts to increase the ability of black schools to compete for
the most important educational resources – particularly good
teachers – while increasing the leverage that black adults
have over the process of schooling. In addition, the system
of subsidies attempts to inject a substantial element of competition
for excellence within the schooling process by rewarding achievement
in ways that enhance cooperation between black communities and schools
in setting goals, evaluating performance and adapting to changing
This system of subsidies is not to replace public
funding of public schools, nor to create a de facto set of private
schools for black kids. The democratic institution of the
common school is to be protected, but enhanced, in communities where
severe budget restrictions combined with conservative hostility
to redistribution puts black schools at a disadvantage in the competition
for top quality talent and for other crucial resources. The
majority of school operations would still be financed in the usual
manner – through taxes of various sorts as well as help from
richer communities via federal and state government when the conservatives
are finally dispatched. However, the education development
funds would, over time, increase the ability of communities to support
Consider the example of a superb teacher who is committed
to the idea of social justice by doing his or her best in the classroom,
but who must also pay bills and send their own kids to good schools.
He or she is mulling offers to teach in a wealthy suburban district
that offers high pay, excellent working conditions and pleasant
surroundings while teaching children from highly educated families
in a community full of like families, or in city schools with none
of these advantages. Our teacher is still torn between doing
well by his or her family or serving social justice, but the harsh
reality of doing right by one’s own kids wins out.
Now suppose that the education development bank in
the city offers to fill the gap between the city and suburban offer,
or, if need be, to add other inducements that tip the balance in
favor of teaching in the city. For instance, the suburban school
may offer a salary of $50,000 and benefits while the city only offers
$45,000, again with benefits. But the education development
bank then offers to add $8,000 to a teacher’s salary and,
on top of that, to contribute $2,500 a year to a college fund for
the teacher’s young children in a designated 529 account –
a tax free college saving plan program available to everyone in
this country but used mainly by higher income families.
Many teachers in this position might still take the
suburban job because they do not want to teach black kids, but that’s
fine since we don’t want them around anyway. But lots
of teachers on the fence – and I suspect that there are quite
of few of them of all colors – will opt to teach in the city
for a few years, and maybe longer than that because the subsidy
tipped the balance.
Note that the subsidy, in this case $10,500 a year,
is far less than the $45,000 salary paid by the city school district.
Governments will still pay the base salary and benefits of teachers,
which are not enough to attract higher quality labor. However,
the subsidy can, if designed in the right way, combat the educational
consequences of free market racism by gently tilting the flow of
educational resources in the direction of black kids.
III. The Limits of Self-Reliance
This may all seem quite dreamy and irrelevant, especially
since this scheme is based on voluntary contributions in the absence
of government power to force most people – particularly the
well to do – to contribute to the well-being of other people’s
kids. Where on earth will the money for this come from?
Suppose that, each year, ten million black adults
give $400 each – $33.34 per month per person, or a little
more than $1 a day – to a Freedom School Fund for the
purpose of creating a system of private subsidies. Four billion
dollars a year, every year, going into a fund for providing subsidies
to people who teach black children. One half of the contributions
would add to an endowment that paid teachers out of the income earned
through careful financial management by the best managers available
– two billion dollars a year is an attractive pool of money
for talented financial professionals to work with – with the
rest of each yearly contribution being paid directly to teachers.
If the fund began operations in 2008, and earned a
modest five percent rate of return per year, after inflation and
fees for fund managers, with four percent going to pay teacher subsidies
and the remaining one percent retained for growth, then the Freedom
School Fund would grow to $23.13 billion by 2018, with $2.95 billion
paid out in teacher subsidies. If these payments are dispersed
among 250,000 teachers across the US, then each teacher would receive
a subsidy of $11,701, after accounting for inflation. By 2038,
the fund would grow to $72.26 billion with $4.89 billion available
to pay teachers.
Let’s continue with the example of a city school
district considered above to show why a system of private subsidies
is quite practical, and radical, on a smaller scale. Suppose
the city’s employs 5,000 teachers and serves 150,000 students,
100,000 of whom are black and 50,000 of whom are in terrible schools.
The city has 500,000 residents, seventy percent of whom are black,
with a high black adult poverty rate in the neighborhood of thirty
percent. If ten percent of the black population, 35,000 adults,
put aside one dollar a day in a City Freedom School Fund, then they
will contribute $12,775,000 to the fund each year. If the
City Freedom School Fund is operated along the same lines as the
national fund considered in the foregoing paragraph, then it would
grow to $73.88 million after ten years while generating $4.95 million
in potential subsidies. This does not seem like very much
money until you realize that the fund would disperse the subsidies
on a targeted basis, in light of careful analysis of the most effective
ways to alter incentives or finance changes to generated the greatest
bang for the buck. Four million dollars is more than enough
money to begin attracting specialized talent as well as financing
particular building projects that improve academic performance in
a small city. After thirty years, the fund would grow to over $230
million while paying out more than $11 million in subsidies.
Of course, there would be lots of political and other
troubles if such a system were to develop. First, conservative
political forces would be sorely tempted to cut funding to black
schools on the theory that those otherwise shiftless Negroes had,
for some reason, found a way to raise money for themselves.
This could be easily countered by legal and political strategies
that insist on non-discrimination on the basis of race, trapping
the right in its own color-blind rhetoric.
Second, this approach offers a direct challenge to
many teachers’ unions, which might oppose a subsidy scheme
on the claim that all of their teachers work hard and deserve the
subsidy. The counter to this is that the subsidy scheme is
based on the principles of need and merit – where need is
defined in terms of what is in the academic interests of the kids
and merit is defined by those practices that lead to the best results.
There is no reason why the community and the teachers cannot get
together to administer the fund – though the teachers would
be junior partners in the enterprise – thereby creating a
common interest in spending money wisely.
Third, the locus of black politics would subtly shift
from electoral office to the creation and management of non-governmental
institutions with the resources and power to alter the use of wealth
in society. The Democrats and Republicans, and hopefully less
reactionary new parties, would soon find themselves in the position
of fighting over which party could best aid the efforts of black
communities to improve their schools, since we would no longer simply
be beggars asking someone else to help us teach our kids.
We would have wealth that commands the attention of important groups
– like teachers – who would have an interest in backing
those parties which support policies and funding schemes that improved
black schools. The funds would be strictly non-partisan on
pain of losing their tax exempt status, thereby forcing the politicians
to serve black communities and not vice versa.
Also, black politics would soon focus on how the funds
were managed, who ran the organizations, and what they did with
these precious resources. However, the only way the funds
can sustain themselves is if they perform – else the public
would soon use their $1 a day for something else – thereby
giving the public ultimate veto power concentrated in the black
community. Ideally, we would have competition between a limited
number of funds that reflected the real diversity among black Americans,
thereby expanding the options of using subsidies in the interests
of black children and their parents.
IV. Return of Frederick Douglas and
All of this from contributions of $1 a day by a smallish
portion of the black public. Can this sort of scheme work?
I do not know. I do know that we are now able to build institutions
that can, with time, greatly alter the social landscape without
Herculean effort, but we must be far-sighted enough to put in some
effort, and vigilant enough to protect new institutions once established.
Similar structures could be developed to finance black candidates
for office, or progressive investment banks aimed at financing small
business or non-profit organizations in black communities.
We are now in a Frederick Douglas/Malcolm X moment,
and we have no excuse if we fail to act on this opportunity.
Douglas told America that it was obliged to free us from bondage
if it was to live up to its principles. Malcolm X told us
that we must stand on our own two feet and stop depending on those
whites whose hatred of us seems to know no bounds. The conservatives
now in power surely hate us, and have decided to leave us alone,
perhaps in the hope that we will wither away quietly, or in jail,
since they truly believe we are apes. We have it in our power
to slowly, but surely, rearrange the economy and politics of the
US by creating new institutions. The subsidy system described
above is one among many new approaches that should be explored,
and soon. We can’t waste much more time hoping that
conservatives will turn into moral people – they will not
and cannot – or that the liberals grow a new spine.
Once again, we are on our own.
Marcellus Andrews is an economist and senior
research fellow at the New America Foundation. Dr.
Andrews writes on economic policy and economic justice for academic
and popular audiences, including The Political Economy of
Hope and Fear: Capitalism and the Black Condition in America
(1999, NYU Press) and Universal Capitalism and the Quest
for Economic Justice (forthcoming). Dr. Andrews received a
PhD in economics from Yale University and has taught economics
at Wellesley College as well as the City University of New York.