The woman in charge of America’s money said on Monday that the U.S. economy “has never worked fairly for Black Americans.”
It was part of Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s remarks to the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network as the group commemorated the MLK holiday. The speech was short and far from revelatory, as anyone with a passing knowledge of U.S. history is aware that America’s systematic disenfranchisement of Black people has always been primarily economic. Slavery deprived Black people of freedom as a means of cultivating a labor force for an agrarian economy. The key feature of the South’s violent backlash to Reconstruction was resentment of government help for former slaves after that free-labor economy was destroyed.
Today, redlining might be gone but it hasn’t stopped Black folks from being held out of a frothy housing market that’s generating wealth for almost everyone else.
So while Yellen didn’t say anything paradigm shifting, she did capture something that today’s sanitized–and often disingenuous— remembrances of King leave out: that the foundation of his nonviolent movement for Black freedom was more about demanding economic redress than it was appealing to white folks good nature so that we could all just get along.
Like many people, I use this holiday to reacquaint myself with that remarkable speech and was interested see to that Dr. King uses a financial metaphor in a key passage.
“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence,” he said, “they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.”
“It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned,” he continued, “[They’ve been given] a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds. But we refuse to believe the bank of justice is bankrupt!”
It is compelling rhetoric, but I also think Dr. King knew it was more than a metaphor. He knew that economic injustice was bound up in the larger injustice he fought against.
MLK knew that the blank check metaphor was more than just powerful imagery; in the 1960s–before the idea of Congress being so impotent that it regularly furloughs workers rather than agree to raise the debt ceiling–it was an absurd idea that the country might default on a debt.
To say that the United States skipped out on a check was a nod to the fact that the country owed reparations, not in the form of “freedom” as benign but in the very tangible sense that freedom couldn’t be attained unless and until Black folk had been properly compensated for lost wages and property, plus all fees, interest and damages.
That the country has still hasn’t done it is an acknowledgement that it still can’t afford the bill.