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Social Movements, Economic Inequality Spotlight Need for Policy Change

July 13, 2020

With the Black Lives Matter movement maintaining its intensity as communities across the U.S. simultaneously struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic recession it has triggered, scholars, civil rights advocates and activists see current social unrest as a clear call for policy reform that not only addresses racial inequity but the economic inequality that underpins it as well.

In framing a recent webinar on the topic, the Economic Policy Institute said the “police murders of Black people, and the demonstrations against systemic racism that followed, [has] placed a spotlight on the nation’s long history of anti-Blackness.”

The EPI said as protesters across the U.S. “flood the streets to call for social, political and economic change, the similarities between Black Lives Matter and the Civil Rights Movement become clear. Both movements, despite being 60 years apart, demand policy reforms that advance justice, racial equity and accountability for those in power…[and] why policy must be changed in order to reverse the nation’s culture of anti-Blackness and the economic inequality surrounding it.”

And while changing policy and implementing reform are monumental challenges, the private business sector could play a key role. Columbia Law School’s Michael Graetz, who is a noted expert on income inequality and wealth, unemployment and the social safety net and taxes as well as COVID-19’s impact on inequality and insecurity, told WWD that the business sector needs to take on a leadership role and empower policy change.

Graetz — who has held senior positions in the Treasury Department, which include being an assistant to the secretary, special counsel and deputy assistant secretary for tax policy — published a book on the topic earlier this year titled “The Wolf at the Door: The Menace of Economic Insecurity and How to Fight It.” It’s a densely packed, but easy to read 340-page eye-opener for anyone interested in tracing the origins of economic insecurity in the U.S. In it, Graetz said corporate leaders need to convene business groups specifically to help implement legislative policies, which include addressing unemployment and “reemployment” as well as low wages, high taxes and a lack of child care — issues that Blacks and minorities are particularly impacted by.

Rukhsar Sharif, author and founder of counseling and collaboration firm Creatifecundity Inc., said economic and income inequality “has an intersectional impact on social justice issues” that dates back to the early history of the U.S. Sharif said “people of color and minorities have been segregated and treated with inferiority by being allocated much less in terms of wages, salaries or material resources in comparison to their European American counterparts.”

“They have historically been held back, which is the reason for the growing discontent and massive protests,” Sharif told WWD. “People in the United States are seeing with their own eyes through digitalized mediums just how people of color, especially Black people, are being discriminated against and cast off to survive on abysmal means. George Floyd’s [alleged] presenting of a counterfeit [$20] bill represents the financial desperation of African-Americans from struggling socioeconomic and financial backgrounds as they remain neglected by mainstream society.”

Sharif said this neglect and its “resultant, buried frustration spark the human behavioral tendency to explode during stress and release pent up frustrations through resistance and protest movements to regain balance and justice in life. Black Lives Matter is a social justice movement that not only recognizes the lack of equality of African-Americans with people of other races in social standing, but also in economic status.”

Sharif and Graetz both say the government has failed in creating policies to address these issues. Sharif said U.S. policies have neglected to address “socioeconomic inequalities in the long run by not actively taking a stance to help African-Americans and people of color earn higher wages to be able to afford humane and respectable lifestyles.”

Veronique Ehamo, a human rights activist in the Black community and a United Nations Association Emerging Leaders Fellow, also sees economic insecurity and income inequality as part of a systemic problem that policymakers have failed to address.

“Similarly to any market society, the structure of the American labor market is the central social welfare institution,” Ehamo told WWD. “Income is the fundamental mediator of living standards, housing, health care, access to education and quality of neighborhoods. Due to constant negligence of certain communities historically and presently one can only assume the next direct action will result in nonconventional means of expressing frustrations and resentment.”

Reneé Carr, a political and corporate adviser, said income inequality has been “a component of the persistent and pervasive social injustices in America” for a long time, and has now intensified. “Modern-day unemployment and low wages are a continuation of the prejudiced belief systems and thought patterns that African-Americans, and other persons of color, are less intelligent, less capable and less trustworthy,” Carr told WWD. “This produces the expanding financial gap between racial groups and social classes and is the basis for the systemic oppression that movements such as Black Lives Matter are fighting against.”

Carr noted that there’s a significant psychological impact that also needs to be understood and be addressed as well. “For the oppressed persons and supporting allies, the psychological motivation for social unrest is the extreme fatigue from seeing countless incidents of racism, cruelty and murder,” Carr said. “When people see or learn of the repeated unjust verdicts for blatant acts of brutality, or they witness the continued protection of persons who repeatedly abuse power, these persons experience a significant increase of frustration, anxiety and fear. Their emotions become merged with repeated thoughts of unsafety and uncertainty for their own survival — regardless of their skin color.”

In regard to implementing change, Carr said more often than not, policies and programs “fix only the surface of economic inequalities and do not address the root problems. The historical blind eye and deaf ear to the practices that make unemployment, underemployment and underpay of Black persons common are the very reasons why the voices and actions of social unrest are becoming amplified.”

Dr. Roger McIntyre, chief executive officer of AltMed and co-chair of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, agreed that current socioeconomic conditions are having a harmful effect on mental health.

“What’s especially concerning about this is the persistence of unemployment given the ongoing pandemic as well as the uncertainty as to when it will ever end,” McIntyre told WWD. “If we go to the Great Recession, the Great Depression or Asian financial shock, we see all of these psychological and stress reactions which is what we’re seeing playing out now.”

McIntyre said it was important to keep in mind that “when you lose your job, you lose your health care — so we’re seeing an additional tens of millions of people who lost their health care adding further to their insecurity.”

“All of these factors together — the unemployment, economic insecurity, the duration of it, the effect on the sense of self, the fragmentation of the family, as well as the lack of health benefits — it creates a combustible mix of stress and misery and is likely contributing to the unrest and depths of despair,” McIntyre said.

Brenda D. Wilkerson, ceo and president of global nonprofit, said “we must create policies that address and prioritize the needs” of low-income Americans “and provide accessible support systems and resources to decrease social class disparity.”

“The Paycheck Fairness Act and the Raise the Wage Act are important building blocks to help bridge the wage gap; however, they are incremental at best,” Wilkerson told WWD. “We also need to reallocate the secondary and tertiary money that have escaped important programs, like our education system, into places where the people that truly need the support can get it.”

Regarding the role of business leaders in taking a leadership role in helping to facilitate social change, Graetz encouraged the formation of coalitions who then can pressure and lobby policymakers. And he said while writing a big check to a cause is generous, philanthropy is not enough to move the needle. In Graetz’s book, he closes by saying people need “help in responding to well-founded worries of being discarded, and they need resources to cope with a future that has already arrived.”

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