The legacy of the civil rights movement to provide economic equality is not lost or forgotten.
Gary Cunningham, CEO, Prosperity Now
Last month, Prosperity Now, a national economic and racial justice nonprofit, hosted its first national in-person conference since 2018. Held in Atlanta, Georgia, the conference attracted over 1,200 people, making it one of the largest gatherings of racial and economic justice advocates since the start of the pandemic.
Historically, Prosperity Now, formerly called the Corporation for Enterprise Development, had focused on promoting tax incentive policies that support individual savings and wealth building by low-income Americans. This is still part of its agenda. However, Cunningham noted, the nonprofit now takes a much broader approach than seeking to “change a little program here and there.” A principal goal of the gathering in Atlanta, Cunningham insisted, was “to reimagine economic justice for all.” This reflects an organization-wide decision “to go bold and big to focus our work exclusively on racial and economic justice.”
The opening plenary—titled “Where Do We Go from Here?”—was an explicit callback to the last book published by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1967—namely, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? In the book, King called for the “total, direct, and immediate abolition of poverty.” King, of course, began his organizing and preaching career in Atlanta, so the callback was appropriate.
Earlier in 1967, at Riverside Church in Harlem, King made explicit the link between racism and economic injustice, noting, “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
The extraordinary victories of the civil rights movement in the political sphere are rightly celebrated. Passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, for example, marked the first time that the United States approached universal adult suffrage, a “minimum threshold” that, according to political scientists, must be crossed for a country to be considered a “democracy.”
Yet, when it comes to the civil rights movement’s economic agenda, the record of achievement is far less pronounced. Today, for example, the racial wealth and wage gaps remain largely unchanged, and are indeed worse, than they were in King’s time.
So, where does the movement go from here? This question, posed at the conference’s opening session, served as a common thread that helped to connect the conference sessions. Below are some key themes that were raised over the course of the gathering.
The Long March of Institutions
One suggested strategy, offered by Glenn Harris, president of Race Forward, was to gain ownership of institutions. As Harris put it, “We have to own the institutions in our lives.” He particularly emphasized the need to own and control institutions at the local level. “There is so much national noise, and it matters,” Harris noted. “But the real change we are looking for is happening in our neighborhoods, our local communities. You can’t lose sight of that.”
Dr. Manuel Pastor, a longtime advisor of labor and social movement activists based at the University of Southern California, concurred. “How do you become impatient about injustice but patient about strategy?” Pastor asked. Transformation, he contended, will occur through “the long march of institutions.”
Challenging Harmful Narratives Through Data Linked to Activism
A second plenary session was titled “Our Lives, Our Stories, Our Solutions.” On that panel, Eva Matos, an associate managing director for Ideas 42, a nonprofit consulting group, identified five false narratives that her group aimed to challenge. One is the false notion that poverty is a personal moral failing. The second is the myth that the United States is a meritocracy. A third myth is that welfare cheating is normal. The fourth is fatalism—the myth that poverty is inevitable. And the fifth is the paternalist myth—ie, the pernicious notion that people with low incomes need decisions to be made for them. In short, media discourse reduces poverty to individual behavior, ignoring systemic drivers of poverty that are rooted in structural racism and capitalism.
At a later plenary session on “Using Data to Advance Racial Wealth Equity,” Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist and founding director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research, argued that research could help challenge the false narratives that Matos referenced. As Kendi emphasized, while some may like to attribute the racial wealth gap in whole or part to Black Americans’ alleged deficiencies, data from the field roundly refutes such claims.
For example, Kendi noted that a common refrain is, “If only Black people would save more,” the racial wealth gap would be less. But Kendi pointed out that the “data have shown that if you control for income, there are no differences in savings patterns. Studies show when you control for income and wealth, there aren’t disparities in financial education.”
During the conference, two large data projects on racial justice were highlighted. One is the Black Wealth Data Center, which aims to be a one-stop shop for racial impact data. The effort is funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies and is being incubated by Prosperity Now.
A second project, led by Alicia Garza, cofounder of Black Lives Matter and a principal of Black Future Labs, is called the Black Census. As Garza notes, this is the project’s second iteration; in 2018, an estimated 30,000 Black Americans were surveyed. This iteration aims to conduct 250,000 interviews. The census is finding that “Economic issues across the board are what are keeping people up overnight. Not having the safety net supports you need. Along with student debt being a huge concern. Unaffordable housing. Quality of affordable healthcare.”
Both Kendi and Garza were clear that data alone is insufficient. It needs to be embedded in larger movement strategies. Kendi called for a four-pronged approach that combines research with policy work, narrative change, and advocacy. For Garza too, policy and advocacy are critical. As Garza put it, the objective of the census is to build “a legislative agenda we are fighting for. We are providing an opportunity for people to win locally and change federal policy.” She added that she envisioned the census as a “vehicle for collaboration and a vehicle for power building.”
The Importance of Historical Analysis
At a plenary session on “Big Ideas for Economic Equity,” Darrick Hamilton, a New School economist and founding director of the Institute on Race, Power, and Political Economy, emphasized the need for historically grounded understanding. “The racial wealth gap is an implicit measure of our racist past,” Hamilton emphasized. “We focus on poor financial choices. That framing is wrong. The directional emphasis is wrong. Meager economic circumstance constrains choice itself and leaves poor borrowers with little or no options other than to use predatory services.”
In another plenary session on “Radical Collaborations: Centering Children and Families on the Path to Justice,” Hamilton’s historical point was driven home by Washington Post reporter Robert Samuels. Along with fellow Post reporter Toluse Olorunnipa, Samuels is the coauthor of the book, His Name was George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice, a biography based on 400 interviews conducted after Floyd’s murder.
Samuels noted that in researching the book, he and Olorunnipa went back seven generations. They learned that after emancipation, Floyd’s great, great grandfather “amassed over 500 acres of land,” making him one of the wealthiest landowners in North America. “If George Floyd were white, he would have been born into wealth,” Samuels observed. “But before a single generation, all that land was stolen.” As a result, the Floyd family enjoyed no intergenerational wealth, instead growing up in segregated communities with inadequate schools. Samuels added, “What George Floyd went through has happened to untold numbers of Black people.… The history of your family and what they went through has an impact in how you live your life.”
The Struggle for Economic Democracy
The closing plenary, titled “Until We All Prosper: The Road to Economic Justice for All,” focused on the intersection of democracy and economic justice. Not surprisingly given current voter suppression efforts, much of the discussion focused on defending the right to vote. Miles Rapaport, who, with E. J. Dionne, Jr., co-authored 100% Democracy: The Case for Universal Voting, laid out the struggle’s different dimensions—including campaigns to enable same-day registration, restore voting rights for the formerly incarcerated, expand mechanisms for voting (such as mail-in voting and ballot drop boxes)—as well as defensive struggles against voter suppression laws and the influence of wealthy donors.
In her remarks, though, Taifa Smith Butler, president of Demos, made explicit the deep connections between political and economic democracy. “Economic and political power are inextricably linked,” Butler observed. She added, “This system was designed to create winners and losers. We have valued the landowner or the land thief. We have valued white skin or the capitalist or the wealthy. We have undervalued folks like Indigenous people from day one.… We have undervalued agriculture, domestic workers, care givers.”
“Unless and until we make sure we center people of color,” Butler continued, “we will continue to perpetuate exploitation and oppression in our economy.”
Early in the conference, Cunningham had challenged attendees to reimagine economic justice for all. What does this entail? For Butler, the answer to this question was clear: “Democracy is everything. It is the ability for us to influence the economic forces that shape our lives.… We want people to have agency and control over the economy.” That, Butler added, “is the work we want to dig into in this next generation.”