“Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know now, that it isn't enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn't have enough money to buy a hamburger…What does it profit one to be able to attend an integrated school, when he doesn't earn enough money to buy his children school clothes?” — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The alt-right and President Trump would have you believe that attention to America’s festering legacy of white supremacy and racial hatred is a losing fight for progressives. They are confident that talking about and dealing with issues of race helps their divisive agenda and mobilizes their base while progressives lose on the economic front. Former White House strategist Steve Bannon went so far as to say recently that the Trump camp can “crush” progressives as long as they stay “focused on race and identity.”
This stunning perspective couldn’t be more misguided.
You can’t “Make America Great” while ignoring marginalized communities. As we look to move this country away from its racist and oppressive past, we can’t afford to shy away from calling out racism and white supremacy for what it is. What’s more, we can’t ignore the reality that racist policies have been directly tied to the economic inequalities that persist today.
America created this racial dichotomy when the economy of this country was built on slavery. It was later reinforced by segregation and oppressive laws that undermined social and economic opportunity for black people. This included policies carried out in recent decades by our own government, like the mid-century redlining policies that refused loans to black families trying to buy a house.
Through the civil rights movement, the women’s equality movement, the LGBTQ rights movement and others, many have fought and died to make America more inclusive and open for those left out of the American Dream. And while there has been significant progress made over the years, systemic racism still contributes to economic oppression and stagnation. As long as communities are traumatized and held back because of policies that undermine racial equity, America is not stronger.
To actually “make America great” we must build a more equitable union on all fronts. That cannot happen by ignoring or scapegoating historically marginalized communities.
President Trump’s coded mainstreaming of the white supremacist marches in Charlottesville and his apparent support for Confederate statues across this country exacerbates tensions and speaks volumes to those who know the legacy of Jim Crow and the lingering wounds of slavery.
We must instead see our diversity as a strength that supports our economic growth and well-being. We cannot shy away from calling out those who undermine all of us by clinging to symbols of hate and policies of oppression. This is a fight to dismantle these vicious ideologies and show the world that this will not be tolerated.
It’s time to be intentional about fighting against all forms of inequality in our country. This is a time for leadership that brings us together for a stronger commitment to economic and social justice for everyone. It is a fight that has to be waged in classrooms, in communities, in city council meetings, in state legislatures, in Congress — and yes, in the White House. To stand true to progressive values, we can’t stay silent.