We Don't Have to Choose Between Racial Justice and Class Justice

I’ve been feeling kind of white lately. Maybe it’s some of that white fragility Robin DiAngelo warns us about, but more and more often when I hear somebody say “disproportionately people of color,” it sounds like they’re also saying poor and working-class white people don’t matter. That makes me queasykind of fragile, I guess.

Often it seems the speaker or writer assumes that because Blacks and Hispanic-named people are disproportionately affected by unemployment, poverty, police brutality, net negative wealth, the coronavirus and most other negative phenomena, almost all white people are fine and dandy. That’s not the casenot even close. Because I know that not only from statistics, but from my own extended family, it makes me feel my whiteness in a defensive way.

I suspect most speakers who emphasize racial disparities simply want to keep a strong focus on our deplorable history of racism and its continuing effects as we develop solutions to the many economic problems that, in fact, afflict most of the U.S. population today.

But by not mentioning those problems affect huge numbers of whites, or that progressive economic policies would benefit whites as well as people of color, they leave the impression either that not many whites would benefit or, worse, that policymakers don’t care what impact a given policy would have on whites. 

For example, here’s how the Peterson Institute’s excellent study, "How To Fix Economic Inequality," explains the horrific disproportionality of COVID-19’s effect on Black and brown unemployment: “In April 2020, 61% of Hispanic Americans and 44% of Black Americans reported someone in their household had lost a job due to the coronavirus outbreak, compared with just 38% of white adults” [emphasis added].

These percentages, like many others, clearly highlight the enormity of racial inequality in our country, but why add “just” to the comparative figure for whites? What impact does that “just” have? My working-class relatives do not read Peterson Institute reports, but if they did, that “just” would hurt, and probably piss them off. How is more than one-third of any group being thrown out of work “just”?

On the other hand, how would Peterson’s sentence read if we estimated the actual number of households who experienced COVID [coronavirus] job loss?  You’d have to turn it around and say something like: “32 million white households and 11 million Hispanic households experienced job loss, compared with just 7.5 million Black households.”

Using numbers rather than percentages makes pandemic-related unemployment look like primarily a white problem, thereby discounting the larger magnitude of minority unemployment simply because as minorities their numbers are smaller. Using only percentages, on the other hand, emphasizes racial inequality at the expense of larger class inequality. But we don’t have to chooseand we need to recognize the cost of choosing.

Part of that is a lost opportunity to unify larger groups of people across common divisions. Because people of color suffer economic hardship and injustice at higher rates than whites, a higher percentage of Black and Hispanic-named people will disproportionately benefit from anything we do to address these injustices. 

But the largest group of beneficiaries will be white. A $15 an hour national minimum wage, which congressional Democrats unveiled on Jan. 26, would benefit more than half of both Black and Hispanic-named workers compared with a little more than a third of white workers.  Nonetheless, the majority of workers affected will be white. By ignoring this basic reality, which applies across a wide range of economic policies, we miss an opportunity for class unity.

And it’s not that hard to at least mention the impact on white folks at the same time as you highlight disproportionate effects on people of color. Martin Luther King Jr.  never failed to mention “poor whites” when talking about political and economic conditions they shared with African Americans. That was part of King’s universalist if very Christian morality, but it was also smart political arithmetic. 

This may seem like a fairly minor point, actually just a matter of political rhetoric about acknowledging white workers when they share problems and injustices with people of color. And I probably wouldn’t notice it or feel aggrieved about it if I were not white and part of a white working-class family, many of whom are struggling.

But nothing more undermines working-class solidarity in the United States, in the past and now, like white racism. Simply denouncing it and calling people nasty names has never and will never work. Keeping our eyes on common interests across what we call races is probably our one best hope for winning a more just and more fully democratic future.

In that regard, politically and economically, though not morally, class inequality is more important than racial inequality, today and usually.

First, unity in greater numbers has been the principal strength of working classes since the dawn of capitalism. Fifty million households of all colors experiencing COVID job loss, for example, is not just a bigger problem requiring a bigger remedy than 18.5 million households of color. It is also a much larger population with a shared political and economic stake in pursuing remedies. To unify that larger population, we probably need to at least mention all the colors of the people affected.

Second, reducing economic inequality will routinely reduce racial inequalities unless specific actions are taken to interrupt that connection, as they were in some New Deal labor and social legislation in the 1930s, including the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act, which set up minimum wages and overtime pay.

Such interruptionsbased on plantation-class power back then as well as a much more explicit brand of racismare unlikely today because minorities make up a much larger portion of the population. In some places they are not minorities at all. And minorities are much better politically organized. In addition,  large minorities of whites today, with and without bachelor’s degrees, are hungry for more racial as well as economic equality.

Finally, our lopsided levels of economic inequality are now so huge, with so much income and wealth concentrated in the hands of the super-wealthy, that even a relatively modest redistribution of economic resourcessay, $2 trillion a yearcould improve almost everybody’s lives.

Progressive taxation of our infamous top 1% can provide more than enough to finance dramatic economic transformations for the working class of all colors. And within those economic transformations, noneconomic racial injustices will be more easily addressed when the bottom half of our population is no longer sinking, and even most of the top half is no longer so economically anxious.

We do not have to choose between racial justice and class justice. Racial justice can be achieved within a determined push for economic justice. And truth be told, racial justice can probably only be achieved within a political economic context that mobilizes the huge numbers of white folks who will benefit from economic redistributions that will disproportionately benefit people of color. 


Jack Metzgar is a professor emeritus of humanities at Roosevelt University in Chicago. A former president of the Working-Class Studies Association, he is the author of a forthcoming book from Cornell University Press, No One Right Way: Working-Class Culture in a Middle-Class Society.