Response: January 2016 Issue

The State of Inequality

It’s time to rewrite the “American Dream” to include all, acknowledging the unjust systems that benefit few at the expense of the most.

The State of Inequality
Several thousand United Methodist Women members joined local activists to demand racial and economic justice during the 2014 Assembly.

In 2003, I led a training with the Miami Workers Center in Florida. There were about 18 participants in the room, but one person in particular sticks out in my memory. She was an Immokalee worker whose business was bankrupted as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement (or NAFTA) that went into effect in 1994. After the passage of NAFTA, U.S. corporate interests gobbled up the white corn crop in her hometown in Mexico. This meant that her way of life and her business were suddenly compromised. In a last-ditch effort to keep her business open, she transitioned to yellow corn, a food reserved for pigs in Latin America. She and others like her were not those who were kept in mind during NAFTA's creation.

Two weeks after NAFTA was implemented, her family was forced to begin a long and perilous process of migration to the United States. Her son was sent in advance in the hopes of making money to help the rest of the family come. He didn't survive the journey after being abandoned in the desert by a coyote, or immigrant smuggler. NAFTA set in process a series of events that destroyed her family.

Racial wealth divide

NAFTA is but one of many economic policies that favor well-connected and wealthy people and corporations in the United States. Present-day America can't forget a history that didn't give everyone a chance at success. From the genocide of Native Americans and the theft of indigenous land to the dehumanization of slaves over hundreds of years, much of the wealth that is controlled by the United States has roots in colonization. This, combined with the fact that 80 percent of private wealth is passed on from generation to generation, explains the causes of our racial wealth divide. That's why today, 240 years after the signing of Declaration of Independence, for every dollar of wealth a white family has, a black family has less than a dime.

Stealing resources and marginalizing communities of color with warped media narratives is still at the heart of the 21st century inequality crisis. When presidential candidates like Donald Trump and Ben Carson make racist comments toward Mexicans and Muslims respectively, it becomes our job to counter these narratives that dehumanize communities of color. Through storytelling ground in history and facts we can fight against the causes of the racial wealth divide.

Myth of the American Dream

Often there is little room for these stories in the media. The media (and many Americans) have a love affair with the "American Dream." The problem with this frame is that it pins the blame of inequality on low-wage workers. Although many white European Americans made it into the middle class because of open borders and policies that expanded the middle class like the G.I. Bill, we're sold a story of huddled masses coming to America working their way to success with only sweat and hard work. Coming from El Salvador, I was familiar with the idea of the American Dream, allegedly a ladder of success I would have access to.

In fact, most "self-made" millionaires and billionaires start already on third base, if a baseball diamond is a metaphor for life. As an example, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg launched his company with a $100,000 loan from his parents. As Facebook rose in popularity and Mr. Zuckerberg rose in wealth, media outlets profiled him as self-made. The unspoken message is that if you worked as hard as the Facebook founder, you could also join the 1 percent. The policies that gave Mr. Zuckerberg's parents a boost are ignored in favor of the naïve rags-to-riches story of the glowing American Dream.

We're not powerless in the face of historical injustice-we can draw on a different legacy: the previous social movements that advanced the rights of the marginalized. We can learn from these past mobilizations to gain the tools and spirit to tackle the current crisis. At the peak of the labor movement after World War II, 35 percent of workers were unionized, providing a solid base for a healthy middle class. Following this success, the 1960s and 1970s saw the rise of the civil rights and environmental movement.

If the crisis of the recent Great Recession is an indicator, we need a social movement to end the racial wealth divide more than ever. From 1979 to the aftermath of the crisis in 2012, the income of folks with $200,000 or more increased by 75 percent. Meanwhile, big banks like Wells Fargo were deliberately targeting communities of color with risky mortgage schemes. In a 2014 article in The American Prospect Nathalie Baptiste states, "According to court testimony, some of the loan officers at Wells Fargo spoke of these subprime loans as 'ghetto loans,' and referred to their black customers as 'mud people.'"

As the Black Lives Matter movement has refocused the country on racism, our niche in this movement is captured eloquently by Martin Luther King Jr. when he said, "What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can't afford to buy a hamburger?" At United for a Fair Economy, our job is to make sure everyone has a fair shot at buying a sandwich at that lunch counter. Join us.

Jeannette Huezo is the executive director of United for a Fair Economy in Boston, Massachusetts. She spoke to United Methodist Women about wealth inequality during the 2015 National Seminar in Chicago, Illinois.

Posted or updated: 1/5/2016 11:00:00 PM