The crusade against racism in the United States appears to involve two main factions. Those factions can be identified by how they answer the following question: Is institutional racism in the United States currently a problem? Those who say yes, we imagine, are part of the solution while those who say no are ignoring the problem.
This, in my view, is far too optimistic. If we accept this basic categorization between those who say "yes" and "no" as ultimately informative, then we are ignoring an important finer distinction. Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, agrees aloud that institutional racism is a problem. Here is a picture of him kneeling in front of a bank vault in solidarity with the protests. Now, I don't intend for this post to be the length of a book, so let me try to briefly summarize how much of an "ally" Jamie Dimon has been to oppressed communities of color.
He led JPMorgan Chase through a fraudulent scheme of epic proportions involving the sale of ticking time bombs called mortgage-backed securities that exploded in 2008, for which the bank was forced to pay a record $13 billion settlement to the federal government in 2013. The financial crisis of 2008 is incredibly complicated and perhaps I will try to offer my more complete thoughts in another blog post. This is a noteworthy occurrence during Dimon's tenure.
The predatory loans that comprised many of the securities targeted poor communities, especially those of color, and black wealth in the United States was disproportionately tied up in home equity. Due to these facts, the massive housing crash of 2008 decimated black wealth disproportionately. Dimon fared quite well through and beyond the crash, and received an $18.5 million bonus for his work in 2013, a year in which JPMorgan Chase payed a record settlement for misconduct, as I earlier referenced. The fact that it takes so long to tell even the basic story is part of the reason why Dimon can get away with such preposterous racial posturing.
In 2016, median black family wealth was half of what it was just prior to the recession of 2008, while median white family wealth increased by 15 percent over the same period. There is plenty of finger-pointing to go around regarding this statistic, but neglecting to cast blame on one of the biggest architects of the financial crisis is ludicrous.
Dimon is a microcosm of a much broader phenomenon that is incredibly frustrating to me. Let's put a name to this phenomenon I'm about to describe: "Starbucks liberalism." Nowadays, most major corporations are led by people who are happy to adopt the vernacular of racial oppression and justice. They embrace most social and cultural issues of the left: anti-racism, LGBTQ+ rights, abortion rights, regulation of firearms, token environmentalism, and supporting liberal immigration policies as a demonstration of tolerance. These are issues that someone like Jamie Dimon or Jeff Bezos happily supports.
It's good PR for major corporations to embrace forward-thinking cultural attitudes. Now, I am not saying that these stances are entirely insincere. I think that most big business owners and executives truly do agree with these stances. However, I ask you to observe what issues are not included in the Starbucks liberalism canon.
Starbucks liberals tends not to prioritize ensuring that the minimum wage is a living wage for those in different localities. Starbucks liberals seem unconcerned by the offshoring of manufacturing to countries where workers are not protected by decent labor standards. Perhaps worst of all, Starbucks liberals seem content with the United States being the only developed country where medical bankruptcies are common. These are but a few of the most important issues regarding which Starbucks liberals have little to say.
To put it simply, there is a significant subset of liberals who focus exclusively on cultural issues, to the point of neglecting important economic ones. Anyone can engage in symbolic cultural pandering, but this does nothing to address the deeper economic issues, and may actually do the disservice of obscuring them.
How do we remember Martin Luther King Jr. in the United States? As a peaceful leading advocate for racial justice? Yes. As a magnificent, passionate orator? Surely. Strangely, there is a vital dimension to the great man that we seldom discuss, even while we celebrate his memory. We all know that he was assassinated in 1968, but there is an important detail of the assassination that we tend to forget.
King was assassinated while in Memphis, Tennessee, protesting in solidarity with sanitation workers. This protest was aimed at securing decent wages, safety standards, and recognition of a sanitation workers' union. King was a democratic socialist, for those previously unaware. He preached how critical economic rights and conditions were for blacks and non-blacks alike in order to live decent lives with dignity.
I wouldn't blame you if you didn't know this. I certainly was not taught about King's democratic socialist leanings. Nevertheless, King taught us that the fight for the affirmation of black humanity does not cease with basic legal equality being granted. In 1961, King said "Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God's children."
Here's a statistic true as of 2016: the median wealth of a white family in the United States is $171,000, while the median wealth of a black family is merely $17,150. In other words, if you were hoping to hear a story about how far we've come and how we have finally achieved racial justice, you are reading the wrong blog. If you don't like the story I'm telling, I'm sure you can find some self-congratulatory nonsense on Amazon or JPMorgan Chase's websites about their deep commitments to reflecting community diversity in their hiring.
What I am doing here is calling the bluff of people like Bezos and Dimon, and trying to convince you to see the distinction I see between a real progressive take on institutional racism and the Jamie Dimon/Jeff Bezos take on institutional racism. While the former includes an acknowledgement of and pledge to address all dimensions of the problem, the latter cynically adopts the vernacular of racial justice in a grand attempt to convince consumers that they care. If they care, they might bother walking the walk.
Racism in the United States has many symptoms, and police brutality is most definitely one of those symptoms. It must be addressed. However, addressing a symptom of racism alone does not address the core of the issue. Until we all acknowledge aloud and address the vital economic dimension of racism in a meaningful way, we will hopelessly fight surface-level culture wars while the same shameful material disparities persist.