“It has nothing to do with being black.”
An interesting phenomenon has developed in the media in the last several years: the persistent and proactive obfuscation of race in the interest of emphasizing economics. This sidelines/denies the reality of Native American/Indigenous decimation, African-American slavery/ history in the US, the fact of domination of a wide range of black and brown peoples worldwide, and the primary sociopolitical structure which characterizes the human race for the last few centuries worldwide: white supremacy.
These attempts are ultimately linked to groups which have power to alter policy, such as the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), yet all of these are dominated by white people. As Fazia Shaheen notes in her May 2019 piece in The Guardian, ‘Racism is deeply intertwined with historic and modern wealth divides,’ and Angus Deaton’s IFS is comprised of 13 experts, all of whom are white.
As a result, it seems that the centrality of race — that is, the invention of race in the interest of subordinating African-American peoples in order to unfairly enrich white people as a group — is constantly obfuscated in the interest of discussing economics. ‘Race’ and ‘whiteness/blackness’ were specifically invented to increase opportunity and shift resources (that is, money/economics) for Europeans at the expense of Africans; this fact is central to the establishment of the US as we know it. Obviously, then, any discussion of economics must include African-Americans. Due to the global effect of white supremacy, obtained after centuries of destructive indigenous colonization and a result of the binary of white/black, ‘anti-blackness’ is a feature of worldwide behaviors, and being nonwhite of any kind confers some degree of automated social ‘inferiority.’
An approach which refuses to acknowledge the fundamental centrality of race — of the institution of slavery and the profound effect it continues to have on African-American communities (and other peoples of color)— by sidelining it in favor of economics operates to maintain the status quo. As Shaheen points out, this is true in Britain as well, where the IFS is the recipient of L2.5 million pounds (about 3.3 million dollars) with the specified purpose of allowing 13 white men — an utterly homogenous group — to decide how to study inequity and which particular parameters to either embrace or ignore. Dr. Deaton has already published papers and has been interviewed in a manner that indicates bias.
The Institutionalization of Slavery Still Exists, Even though ‘Slavery is Over’
Unlike other countries, America as we know it is built entirely around the institution of African-American slavery, after the decimation of the indigenous population. Its establishment as a country and a world power depended critically on African American labor, unpaid, for centuries. Though other countries gained from the free labor of African-Americans (and from the continuous genocides perpetrated against indigenous peoples worldwide), unlike America as we know it, none of them attained world power status based, from its inception as the US, on the wholesale abuse of black bodies.
The US is unique in that its wealth and power are intrinsically linked to slavery and the persistent subordination of African-Americans. The frequently (white)-deployed ‘slavery is over’ narrative doesn’t work because the consequences of slavery are still highly penetrated in the US in the form of red-lining, redistricting, prison sentences, etc etc: a list too long for this piece of writing and which has been elaborated many times (though perhaps to somewhat deaf ears.) Gross prejudice exists worldwide against black peoples, but the US is unique in that it wouldn’t have become a world power if it hadn’t poached from African Americans, in a variety of ways, for hundreds of years and counting. As of 2020, African Americans in the US have been, as a group, enslaved for more years than they have had freedom.
As a result, and not surprisingly, due to the long-standing history of African-American labor which resulted in the unmeritorious enrichment of white people as a group, African-Americans as a group are consistently derogated in a variety of economic and cultural ways. White people — as a group — have garnered unearned favor/money in a wide range of arena at the expense of black people. All people — white or nonblack people of color (NBPOC) — benefit at the expense of African-Americans. But let’s face it, white people benefit most. This makes sense given the history: whites as a group established a system with one central tenet: we’re better than all other peoples, especially black ones, therefore we can do whatever necessary to steal from them. Then, they codified it, thus linking it both officially and directly to economics.
The Intrinsic, Inevitable Link: Race and Economics
Our economic situation arises from the establishment of white supremacy, a very specific invention of the last few centuries that affects the entire planet, but which was used to extreme ill-effect in the US in the form of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade (TAST). Thus, any discussion of economics — at least in the US, and possibly worldwide — must acknowledge that ‘America’ as we know it is successful due directly to African-American labor. Despite this massive contribution, as a group they still have the least wealth/resources.
This discussion point must be central to any discussion about economics because it is the central marrow of America: white supremacy. ‘Racism’ is not a disease that infected the establishment of America and the writing of the Constitution because it was already at the very root of the European conquest. It’s a disease they had already started to incubate in the colonial endeavors of the previous centuries during which a wide range of brown and black bodies were subordinated, and the conclusion of this delusion of superiority dictated that black people were/are the binary opposite, the ‘least white.’
The United States exists entirely due to the decimation of almost 60 million Native North American peoples (in quantity, similar to Lenin’s campaign) and then the very deliberate codification of African peoples as ‘lesser than’ so that they were forced to perform the duties of Europeans, now ‘settled’ in America, while European-Americans reaped all the benefits of the work. This is historical fact that persists in current reality, and the disparities on multiple levels between black and white peoples in the US clearly a result of this history and the unmeritorious/unjust attainments of whites as a group at the deliberate expense of black peoples.
Deaths of Despair and the Minimization of Race
Enter Drs. Deaton and Case, professors of economics at Princeton, who published a study in 2015 indicating that a subgroup of white people are experiencing ‘deaths of despair.’ During the course of this paper and the multiple interviews that followed, it became clear that this study elaborates on economic causes without much attention to race and, as a result, declines to acknowledge centuries of relevant American history. This fact immediately marks the study as biased: a discussion about economics in the US cannot be accurate without discussing African-Americans and their 400 or so years of ‘deaths of despair,’ which persist, because economics have depended intrinsically on African-American labor for which they were never paid.
Deaton and Case maintain that focusing primarily on economic indicators is more relevant than focusing on racial ones, not only by dint of this study but also in multiple interviews. They indicate that rising ‘deaths of despair’ among economically-challenged white people in the United States in the last 20–30 years is a crisis, which it is. But because African-American deaths of despair have been ongoing for centuries, this study — which failed to acknowledge the centrality of race in discussions of economics in the US — provoked what should have been an expected response: why is race being ignored in a country established by the TAST whose wealth is intrinsically and necessarily dependent on African-American unpaid labor?
Without question, all poverty and drug abuse should be unacceptable in a civil society, regardless of race or any other human dimension, and all desperate people deserve help from the larger society. The deleterious effects of poverty on any human being or group of peoples are uniformly harsh and must be addressed. The focus on economics itself is appropriate, so that ultimately all people with this sort of desperation are given aid. It is the absence of race as a necessary parameter — and the way in which this indicates group-level behavior — that conveys some degree of ‘white ignorance’ and which must be addressed.
At a group level, race should be embedded in any discussion about economics, yet it is persistently sidelined. The employment of ‘white ignorance’ in this regard continues to result in supporting a system of white supremacy. One cannot have a discussion about economics in the US without discussing race — specifically, African-Americans and the legacy of slavery — as a core issue, as the basis of our current structure of economics.
Deaton and Case: A ‘Case’ of ‘White Ignorance:’
“It has nothing to do with being black…”
Drs. Deaton’s and Case’s responses consistently convey a lack of willingness or ability to engage with the central facts of American history as well as the way in which European dominance has damaged the entire planet for the last few centuries. They employ a ‘color blind’ stance and do so with open disbelief that anybody would question their stance. They focus on the economic situation of one subgroup of white people as if the legacy of slavery is an aside. Pressed on this matter in a Washington Post interview (‘How Dare You Work on Whites: Professors Under Fire for Research on White Mortality’), Deaton states:
“There was this terrible drug epidemic among blacks 30 years ago, and people used to say, ‘well that was because black culture or black society is terribly deficient.’ One way to look at these figures is to see that this has nothing to do with being black. It can happen to whites too.”
Wait a minute. This has nothing to do with being black?! Did he mistakenly say the word ‘nothing’? Is this still America? Did he forget about century after century of the TransAtlantic Slave Trade?! Did he just skip 370 years of America and start 30 years ago, in 1990??
Dare I say it: have some old white men, American and British (and this guy is both), decided that attachment to historical and current facts is simply undesirable? And why? Who put the word ‘nothing’ in there?! Deaton did. Yes, indeed. Right here, in the good ole U.S. of A.
I admit I was shocked to read his words. As a nonblack person of color (NBPOC) who has been in America for one generation, I repeat: this statement is shocking. How can it be that, in a country based on slavery — ie, the systematic, codified, deliberate derogation of ‘blackness’ and African-Americans — this statement is even marginally accurate? It seems Deaton has relinquished his tether to reality, at least in this regard.
White supremacy’s entire birth and existence relied/relies on a binary of race that frames black people as necessarily inferior, connected directly with their unpaid labor vis a vis slavery. Basically, resources were stolen from those to whom they belonged (Indigenous) and those who earned (Africans) and handed to white people. This includes ALL white people — rich, poor, and middle class — at the expense of African-Americans, unfairly enriching white people as a group. This may be a simplification but, at some basic level, it is accurate.
Socioeconomically well-situated, wealthy white (elite) did — and still do — pit poor whites against poor blacks, but poor white people have also had a racial advantage for centuries: they’re white, no matter how poor. They still have this advantage in 2020, and evidence shows that they want to keep this superiority at a group level. Through perceived ‘racial status threat,’ white people as a group indicate a desire to maintain white supremacy.
All Americans have an advantage due to the damage incurred, both in the past and currently, by African-Americans, including NBPOC. But white people as a group have the biggest advantages because all nonwhites face some degree of discrimination.
Economic Forums: For Whites Only?
Central to the problem is the fact that some of these economic forums are almost entirely staffed with people who have a European background, and are certainly deficient in representing either African-Americans or black people from anywhere on this planet as well as a variety of brown peoples from a wide range of countries. This situation creates the vicious cycle of white domination by continually pulling attention, and thus resources, to white people as a group. White people as a demographic are still the wealthiest compared to all other races and ethnicities, yet due to a deterioration of one subgroup, elite white people are attempting to frame economics as the central problem. What elite white people pointedly do not do, however, is implicate themselves as the primary beneficiaries of white supremacy while distracting from their own efforts to maintain it.
I know of no other demographic in the US which divides itself first on the basis of economics, then on their individual race or ethnicity. As groups, virtually all nonwhite peoples consider first their racial or ethnic status, then their economic status (typically relative to the white population), because people of color — and in particular African-Americans, due to the institution of slavery which is not an aside — understand through lived, embedded experience the centrality of race and its establishment as a marker for wealth and success.
Many people of color, black and nonblack, have faced discrimination from poor, middle-class, and wealthy white people, because many white people from every socioeconomic level look down on people of color. We are routinely relegated to stereotypical categories which completely effaces our individuality and erases us as people in order to continue to elevate white people as a group and underline the import of their individuality; this binary was established when white supremacy was established. As a group, African-Americans are routinely derogated most in our society; without the black ‘inferior,’ the white ‘superior’ simply ceases to exist. This behavior of the (white) group as a whole is ongoing, thus reinforcing for many POC that ‘whiteness’ is the primary focal point.
As a NBPOC, my central experience has been about ethnicity and race, then about economics. I have been both poor and not poor, but I have always been ‘other,’ not white. The centrality of ‘race’ which comes directly from the establishment of white supremacy is clear to almost all people of color. It seems that, because white people have the privilege of being spared this onerous reality, they are unable — or unwilling — to acknowledge its centrality.
This luxury — that ‘whiteness,’ which requires no effort and is immutable — is characterized by the fact that white people as a group do not have to consider race because it doesn’t affect them negatively. They should, however, because it pointedly affects them positively at the expense of African-Americans. This is continually ignored in these discussions about economics, chiefly by placing economics at the center, denying the core relevance of race, and ignoring how it impacts African-Americans negatively and profoundly, and all peoples of color to some extent. All so that white people can maintain a system of inequality that benefits them while allowing them yet another luxury: the ‘ignorance’ of pretending merit was involved, of NOT SEEING, of LOOKING AWAY.
Drs. Deaton and Case look away when they are insistent that economics are central and sideline race, thus minimizing or even erasing the historical and current conditions due to slavery. The institution of slavery is central to our economic condition, has been long-standing, and its consequences are most certainly still alive. This fact indicates immediately that any economic forum must include a majority of nonwhite peoples, and perhaps a majority of African peoples, at levels of power. White people have the profound privilege of ignoring race, and the wealthier white people who control this point of view have the power. This is a vicious cycle that must be broken.
This fact illustrates that the central problem is the dominance of white peoples in these positions of power. Is it really right to call them experts when they display an onerous ‘white ignorance,’ as a group, in the commission of sidelining African-Americans and declining to comment on the ongoing centrality of the legacy of slavery? Economic institutions in particular are linked to money, by definition: is it not our goal to alter these institutions so that they represent the views of others?