The Black Lives Matter movement, in demanding that we reconsider how Black lives have been valued, or rather de-valued, in U.S. culture, society, and political economy, essentially asks us as well to interrogate our entire system of economic and cultural values.
On what basis do we in our socio-economic system and culture assign different values to people’s lives?
Such a question really brings us to the heart of our class society that we really tend not just to take for granted but to see as absolutely justified. Of course the CEO, the doctor, the manager, or the lawyer make more than the agricultural worker in the field, the grocery store clerk, the bus driver, or the mail carrier.
The U.S. dominant culture doesn’t ask us to question this state of affairs, and so most people don’t. Even if we argue over the degree of income inequality, few argue for full and outright economic equality and for an end to this differential valuation. Our cultural value system tends to justify this differential valuation of work and thus by extension the differential valuation of the lives of the workers. And we know, of course, that often the work of devalued because of who is doing it. Women and people of color have historically received less pay for the same work white men are doing.
Based on their wages, people have different access to healthcare, to education, to housing—to basic means of survival. They may have no access at all. The story we are told is that this arrangement is a meritocracy, so people get what they deserve. In other words, some lives deserve less—and thus they matter less.
We also like to say in our culture that “we,” or “people,” aren’t making these decisions, but rather an indifferent market is determining the economic value of work—and hence the human value of workers’ lives.
But it really isn’t the market. Gains in benefits and pay and improvements in working conditions have historically been the result of the collective organizing and protest of workers, often far more violent and deadly for workers than the protests we are witnessing today. Maybe you’ve seen the bumper sticker: “The Weekend: Brought to You by the Labor Movement.” This is why we see wages and benefits are invariably lower for non-unionized workers and why the right wing continues to undermine the power of labor unions.
The market isn’t determining the value of people’s lives; people through brute political will and force are.
We see “essential workers” these days–upon whom, it should now be crystal clear, we all vitally depend for our food and survival—being effectively forced to work, and this recognition in our culture of their “essential value” has not translated into an elevation in their economic value, in the mattering of their lives as registered in the resources, the money, they have to take care of their lives.
The police murder of George Floyd, just one in a long string of murders of African Americans at the hands of police for which there had been little to no accountability, constituted a tipping point, triggering widespread protests by American finally declaring, “Enough.” What America on the whole had willfully denied—the reality of racism—it has seemed to admit, on the whole.
What will it take to reach this tipping point on the injustice of class inequality?
Millions of Americans are suffering.
Recent statistics show 26 million Americans cannot afford to pay for adequate food for their families and are going hungry.
Keep in mind that millions of Americans lost their health insurance when they lost their jobs. This July 32% of U.S. households could not make their full housing payment, making the fourth month in a row of “historically high” numbers of Americans unable to meet these payments.
This past week another 1.4 million Americans filed for unemployment.
And yet the Republican Senate is loath to extend enhanced unemployment benefits or approve another relief package for the average American wanting work.
Meanwhile, millions, nay billions, of dollars are being distributed to the wealthiest among us who are doing just fine. Nicholas Kristoff reported in The New York Times that last relief package provided $135 billion dollars in “relief” for real estate developers, offering retroactive tax breaks for periods that preceded the coronavirus outbreak. As Jason Easley has reported for PoliticusUsa.com, businesses connected to the families of Donald Trump and Jared Kushner have also received millions, as have businesses of families connected to Mitch McConnell.
But it’s not about these individuals. It’s about the wealthiest class in America using its power to raid the nation’s coffers we taxpayers fill, supposedly to serve us all in democratic fashion.
We see class inequality isn’t just about income inequality. It’s about the unequal power in the key political processes of decision-making.
How much is enough?
Remember Trump’s tax cuts?
These tax cuts benefited the wealthy and did not trickle down, despite Trump’s promises that companies would invest in workers and not cut jobs. Companies like AT&T, Wells Fargo, and General Motors lobbied for them, promising to re-invest their tax savings in their workers and companies to the benefit off the nation as a whole. And yet all of these companies have engaged in massive layoffs or plant closings. AT&T has eliminated over 23,000 jobs since the tax cuts went into effect, despite receiving a $21 billion windfall from the tax cuts with the prospect of cashing in an additional $3 billion annually in tax savings. In November 2018, GM announced it would be closing five plants, eliminating 14,000 jobs in communities across Ohio, Maryland, Michigan, and Ontario, Canada, while buying back $10 billion in stock and earning a net profit of $8 billion on which the company paid no federal tax. Wells Fargo did raise the minimum wage of its employees, though the tax savings for the company were 47 times larger than the cost of that pay raise to the company; and the company announced its plans in September 2018 to eliminate 26,000 jobs, at the same time that it has raised health insurance costs for its employees.
There may be no one George Floyd to push us over the edge, to bring us to the tipping point.
But there are whole classes of people suffering en masse.
When will we tip?
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.