We often hear the story of corporations laying off hundreds or thousands of employees. Shortly after that, we learn that multi-million-dollar bonuses were paid to company executives. This reveal is followed by social media outrage and frustration. As a result, capitalism loses a bit more of its luster and mythology. Bonuses paid to CEOs upon securing taxpayer-funded government bailouts, subsidies, and tax breaks further contradict our fair play and free markets ideas. Corporate bailouts and subsidies weigh heavily on the minds of working people who pay their fair share of taxes. Additionally, the ultra-wealthy and highly profitable corporations engage in tax avoidance, tax breaks, and corporate welfare. This is another dent to our faith in capitalism.
As a child, I would often hear sermons in church espousing the poor’s virtues and suffering. In these stories, the impoverished who have endured life’s tribulations are guaranteed a smooth passage into heaven. A different fate awaited the rich and gluttonous, who would undoubtedly burn in hell. These ideas and the premise behind them, even as an adolescent, never seemed quite right to me. They also did little to edify my understanding of the economic systems that led people to be poor. The pulpit’s skewed, dogmatic, and polarizing views on wealth placed many underestimated, young Black and Brown people at a further disadvantage by ignoring a nuanced exploration of capitalism’s virtues and failings.
Many tax-paying working-class people and families have grown frustrated with the hypocrisy of corporate elites who espouse the merits of hard work, fair play, and capitalism, as they play by a contradictory set of rules and values. Capitalism can be a more equitable stabilizing force for American democracy — if it were to benefit the masses, workers, and those historically disenfranchised by systemic racism and inequality. One of the statistical myths of capitalism is the idea that any person with enough effort and a little luck can reach a middle-class lifestyle and potentially more. This reality is not the case as generations of BIPOC people have and continue to be left behind. Political and business leaders would be prudent to remember that stable societies are comprised of many factors, the most significant of which is a durable, growing, and thriving middle-class.
For a capitalistic democracy such as the United States to thrive and become genuinely equitable, BIPOC people must be included in its prosperity and gains. Black and Latinx people of color must be engaged throughout the political, business, and economic systems. When flustered and fatigued Black and Brown leaders react to capitalism’s failings with anger and outrage, it is understandable. However, just like the sermons I was exposed to as a child, these messages can fall short and lack the education and strategies required to take personal and collective action. In the worst cases, they leave us feeling disempowered and helpless. We need bright, curious, and ambitious people interested in engaging our economic system, how it operates, and questioning what can be done to make it work better for those left behind. We need to be more than consumers.
It can be disappointing when you play by the rules, do the work, put in the time, and don’t accrue the rewards equal to your efforts. One of capitalism’s weaknesses, particularly when exacerbated by racism, is that the few benefit at the expense of the many. Our history is riddled with tragic examples of capitalism’s contradictory practices. One of the most horrific was the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921, which took place in the wealthiest Black community in the United States, known as Black Wall Street. It was “May 31 and June 1, 1921, when mobs of white residents, many of them deputized and given weapons by city officials, attacked black residents and businesses of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It has been called “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history.” The attack carried out on the ground and from private aircraft, destroyed more than 35 square blocks of the district—at that time the wealthiest black community in the United States”.” Source: Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tulsa_race_massacre
Mass violence on the Tulsa massacre scale is not likely at the moment; however, the legacy of mass economic violence continues to this day. The wealth gap between Whites and Black/Brown people and the concentration of poverty in every urban and many rural areas of the United States are evidence that capitalism is not benefiting everyone fairly. Our democratic republic is an experiment; it is imperfect, fragile, and unfinished. Democracy and capitalism have left millions of hardworking people behind during a global pandemic, Black Lives Matter protest, sustained social unrest, and a widening wealth gap. Now what?
The outrage and frustration expressed by BIPOC leaders on social media are understandable but insufficient. There is little to be gained by unilaterally demonizing capitalism or superficially reacting to its many failures. We benefit when our leaders empower us to understand how capitalism works. David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist, has written extensively about economics and how the U.S. tax system benefits the wealthy at the middle class’s expense. His work serves as a guide to understanding corporate tax abuse. This is the sort of information Black and Brown leaders can use to design strategy, messaging, and action for sustained public interest advocacy. It is also the type of information that helps strengthen the checks and balances needed to hold capitalists and policymakers accountable.
I am not meaning to be Pollyanna about the harsh reality many people live in. As someone who grew up below the poverty level, I want to point out that it is valuable and potentially life-changing to understand and learn how to thrive in a capitalist society. BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People of Color) leaders serve our interests by focusing on education, economic activism, and action. Whether it’s buying a house, starting a business, learning to invest, creating a family budget, or teaching children about saving and managing their money, these things help create a society where capitalism’s virtues and drawbacks can be more equitably dispersed. The extreme and growing wealth gaps between Whites, Asians, Blacks, and Latinx people make this an urgent matter.
We can do many things, big and small, to make money matters more accessible to poor children and families. One of them is familiarity with financial institutions. Every Monday after school, my mother, Santa Rodriguez, took me to the Dry Dock Savings Bank a block from our church to make my twenty-five-cent deposit. Over time the size of my deposits increased. This ritual not only gave me a lifelong habit, what I saved helped with my college expenses. Many institutions, including neighborhood credit unions, have programs and initiatives to assist with education. Invite local advocates, entrepreneurs, and BIPOC business associations to speak at your events, faith-based gatherings, neighborhood meetings, civic group, students, school, or social action committees. One resource I recommend for financial literacy and have seen in action is the West Advisory Group at http://www.westadvisorygroup.org/rightmoney.htm. Check out their training offerings.
Another resource for those interested in business and entrepreneurship is Walker’s Legacy Foundation. The foundation has extensive digital and regional programming and can be reached at https://walkerslegacy.com/.
Book resource: Norman and Olivia West at http://www.westadvisorygroup.org/index.html. Check out their book “Debt Free at 33.” There are many ideas in it applicable at any age