When Andre Perry thinks about American policing and incarceration, he sees an economic issue as much as a human rights one.
“There’s no bigger wealth extractor than the criminal justice system,” Perry, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities told The Root. “Investments in cops— they’re not leading to economic growth in the community.”
Perry likened the police to “a bad kind of jobs program,” drawing in massive amounts of public funding—about $115 billion, according to Bloomberg—that could be directed to other jobs and services that add value to the community. But the criminal justice system doesn’t just redirect public funds that could be better spent elsewhere: it is also a form of economic violence, depressing wealth and destabilizing households by pulling out parents, neighbors, and workers from society.
With Black people comprising 33 percent of all those incarcerated in U.S. prisons, there’s no doubt whose communities and whose households have been most devastated by mass incarceration. The high-profile police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have once again foregrounded this issue, and for good reason: America’s massive carceral structure is unique in its size, scope, and effects. We are a country defined by cops, cages, and guns; buttressed on all sides by an unfathomable sum of money extracted from taxpayers.
But two other national crises have shaped the current conversation around racial injustice: the coronavirus pandemic and the current recession, both of which have and will likely continue to disproportionately impact African Americans. This has made the abolitionist calls for defunding and divesting from the police all the more urgent: we inevitably find ourselves questioning why housing, healthcare, jobs, or education aren’t similarly prioritized when such funding could have saved lives.
Perry distilled the conversation this way: It’s not just about disrupting racist systems, “we need to find ways to restore value to people that have been victimized by racism.”
This call requires our re-energized conversations about racial justice to include an equally bold reimagining of economic justice—what we fund, how we fund it, and why we fund it. We must think about economic justice with the same vigor, and through the same racial lens, as we have done with criminal justice. The calculus here is plain: If we do not value Black livelihood, we cannot say we value Black lives.
It is difficult to overstate how dire the current economic forecast is for many Americans. The federal and state mismanagement of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic helped spur a premature race towards economic recovery. But a return to “business as usual” has only prolonged the first wave of coronavirus cases in the U.S., creating a rapid new surge of infections in South Carolina, Florida, Arizona and California. Americans still largely fear returning to pre-pandemic routines, and businesses have not reopened or rehired employees furloughed or let go during the pandemic. Some economists predict the longer the recession lasts, the less likely it is those jobs will return.
Meanwhile, key provisions of the CARES act are set to expire soon—most notably the $600 boost to unemployment benefits that finally made unemployment insurance comparable to workers’ take-home pay, preventing many Americans from having to choose between paying for food, rent, or bills. Mortgage and rent protections passed in certain areas are also set to expire between the end of July and August, creating an “eviction cliff” during which scores of tenants and homeowners will need to figure out how to make up for missed payments or risk losing their homes.
While it’s challenging to predict how severe this recession will be and how long it will last, economic experts can use past downturns to forecast how this crisis will affect Black households.
“We know from history that black folks’ recovery always took longer. And some of that is because their actual losses don’t peak till after the recession,” says Rebecca Dixon, the Executive Director of the National Employment Law Project (NELP), a national nonprofit that advocates for greater job access and a more inclusive economy.
The old maxim, “last hired, first fired” also rings particularly true for Black workers in recessions. They’re typically let go first, and do not get hired until much later—a phenomenon that explains why peaks for Black unemployment typically happen after a recession has ended. And when they do get rehired, it’s usually for lower-paid positions than white workers: a statistic that can be partially attributed to stagnant skills as a result of the time spent away from the workforce as well as hiring discrimination.
Dixon also points out that historically, Black Americans also experience more severe impacts: during the housing crash of 2007, for instance, far more Black Americans defaulted on and subsequently lost their homes, due in part to subprime lending that preyed specifically on Black and Latinx homebuyers.
But it’s also true that African Americans are in a uniquely precarious situation during economic downturns because they have always lived in a different economy than the rest of America—a pattern so consistent it must be by design, Dixon says.
“We’ve always had a Jim Crow labor market,” Dixon continues. “People tend to think that Jim Crow is over. It’s been used to talk about criminal justice. But if you really think of it, Black folks are just as concentrated in low-paying jobs now as they were in the ’40s. So how does that happen if it’s not intentional?”
The history and effects of this segregation are easy to trace. The landmark National Housing Act, one of the most substantial components of the New Deal, created unprecedented opportunities for homeownership for white Americans, and economic marginalization in the form of redlining for Black folks. Through this process of redlining, African Americans were constricted to living in the most undesirable, polluted areas—a fact that did not make housing any cheaper. Government interventions like these have long-term, generational impact, but they’ve also been compounded by other developments: a shrinking middle class, rising income inequality, a student loan debt crisis, stagnant wages, and a porous social safety net—all of which have disproportionately affected Black people.
Right now, the Black unemployment rate isn’t reaching the historic highs other racial and ethnic groups are experiencing, in part because Black people are overrepresented in jobs deemed essential. But the pandemic has also shown us that “essential” often means expendable. Black people are more likely than white Americans to work in “essential” jobs—as delivery people, as warehouse workers, grocery store clerks, home health care aides, sanitation workers, meat packers, and bus drivers. But many have continued to work without adequate protection, sick leave or hazard pay.
This, Dixon explains, is a form of economic violence.
She points specifically to workers at meat processing plants, many of whom are Black or immigrants from Latin America, and President Donald Trump’s mandate that those workers be considered essential—without ensuring protocols that could allow them to do their work safely, if at all possible.
“They’re getting sick and dying. And so it’s fine for those workers to go in and have to risk their lives for their livelihood. And it is not fine for white-collar workers because they can work from home,” Dixon said. A March report from the Economic Policy Institute found that only a third of American workers could telework—an option that provides the best opportunity for personal safety. But for Latinx and Black workers, this rate was even lower: less than one in five had that option.
“We just need to think about our economy and what are the ways in which it is actually destroying the lives of people of color in this moment because of the way our labor market is structured,” said Dixon.
The rush to reopen—a desire voiced most loudly by conservative and white Americans—might be explained by America’s specific infatuation with the promise of economic and social prosperity, the slow disappearance of which has fueled white grievance politics for years. But prosperity has simply never been a fact African Americans could take for granted, even as some economic and political gains have been made. How then, can we start thinking about economic prosperity in the same ways we are now thinking of criminal justice?
We can begin by thinking about Black wealth and Black prosperity in terms of extractors—systems or enterprises drawing money out of the Black community—and investment, as scholar and writer Andre Perry advises. But it also requires questioning the philosophies that lay the foundation for how federal, state, and local governments spend money. Take the South, where most Black Americans live and work, and where state governments have ensured that unemployment benefits are difficult to access, available only for short durations of time, and are insufficient to replace wages. This phenomenon has parallels with the sharecropping era, when Southern lawmakers fought against the minimum wage and Black labor rights by ensuring that the safety net was so porous, Black workers would be forced to accept harsh working conditions.
That narrative—that African Americans “won’t work unless they’re compelled to work”—needs to be challenged, Dixon said. Responding to the pandemic and the recession, coupled with a new focus on racial justice, could provide just that opportunity.
Perry would like to see New Deal-size investment in programs specifically targeted to Black folks to counter hundreds of years of wealth extraction, like taking money out of private schools and reinvesting in public education, defunding the criminal justice system, and using that money for universal healthcare and affordable housing—policies that would bring outsize benefits to African Americans.
“Homeownership is highly correlated with a lot of positive things,” he explained. A homeowner has an easier time predicting their expenses because they are not subject to rent fluctuations. There is great stability, which is linked to people being more likely to participate civically; they are also less likely to be victims of crimes. And of course, a home can be used to accrue or pass down wealth.
“I think the civil rights bills of the ’60s and ’70s did a lot in terms of telling people what not to do. What they did not do is lead to greater levels of investment,” said Perry.
For both Dixon and Perry, this current holistic restructuring and reimagining is what gives them hope, even as they expect the immediate future to bring more pain. But it’s also personal. Dixon shares that at NELP, she’s been involved with leading an internal reckoning about structural racism.
“It’s really hard work and it’s ongoing,” she said. She would also like to see corporations step up to address economic disparities—putting their money where their Black Lives Matter statements are. This means providing living wages at all levels of the company—from the warehouse on up—as well as restructuring the workplace so that more decision-making power is in the hands of Black workers and other workers of color.
As we discussed what transformative economic policies might look like, Perry threw out a compelling suggestion that drew back to his personal experience— government-subsidized merit scholarships for the children of people who have been incarcerated.
“If you’re the child of someone who’s been incarcerated, you should have access to higher education. That is a way of restoring the value that’s been extracted by racism.”
While such a policy proposal seems impossible, this act of moral imagination is important, forcing us to reckon with the human and material cost of our systems. We can quantify the financial cost of policing and incarceration—how much it takes to run a police department or jail—but putting the solutions in monetary terms pushes us to grapple with the depth of the problem in ways that are uniquely clarifying.
Perry’s own father was killed while incarcerated. When he thinks about the loss, he thinks of all the other losses associated with it, rippling out not just through his life, but his neighborhood, his community.
“Who knows how my life would be different,” he says. “You took food off the table. Labor out of the community. A parent out of the community.”
“I’m grateful for being who I am. But who knows the wealth I could have had if it wasn’t extracted by the criminal justice system.”