Just as First World conditions exist among the elite in the Third World, Third World conditions exist in the First World.
According to data released from the Internal Revenue Service, the share of U.S. income in 2005 that went to the top 1 percent of Americans (average income of $1.1 million a year) was the largest share (21.8 percent) since the eve of the Great Depression of 1929 (the peak was hit in 1928 when the top 1 percent reported 23.9 percent of all income).
The top 10 percent of Americans (who average more than $100,000 a year) received 48.5 percent of the nation’s income, again a share not seen since 1929.
The remaining 50 percent of national income is shared by the remaining 90 percent of Americans whose income–across the board–have been steadily dropping. Today, the top 300,000 Americans collectively enjoy as much as the nation’s income as does the bottom 150 million Americans. That’s 440 times as much as the average person in the bottom half, a near doubling of the 1980 gap.
Not since the years of Robber Barons has this nation seen such an intense concentration of wealth in the hands of so few individuals. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, thanks mainly to massive tax cuts to the wealthiest of Americans since the 1980s coupled with deep cuts in social services like health care, welfare, child care and education.
It should be no surprise that the poorest of the poor, those who suffered the most in the transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich are disproportionately those of color.
For the U.S. economy to function efficiently, an industrial “reserve army” of laborers must always exist. This is a racialized “reserve army” disproportionately comprised of people of color, as has been shown by almost every U.S. study of unemployment or underemployment.
No matter how one chooses to quantitatively measure the disenfranchised in the U.S., every academic research always points to racial and ethnic inequalities. Those who are most removed from the “white ideal” disproportionately fill our prisons, attend dilapidated schools, occupy the most menial jobs and live in the most economically deprived neighborhoods or reservations.
Park Avenue profits by the surplus extracted from Spanish Harlem. The taming of the “West” was made by corralling native people onto reservations. Atlanta’s wealth was created by the black ghettos of that city. The households and businesses of Los Angeles thrive by utilizing “illegal immigrants.”
The luxury houses of the exclusive gated “vanilla” suburbs are established at considerable cost. Their privileged space protects them from the menace of the “chocolate” urban centers, while drawing upon this marginalized space for help when needed. The term dependency theory is used to describe such a relationship.
In addition to dependency theory, the reserve army of the underclass is systematically barred from economic opportunities that would significantly raise its status. Both exclusion and exploitation contribute to the conditions prevalent in this nation’s ghettos, reservations and barrios.
In the minds of some within the dominant culture, marginalized groups who continue to “choose” to live in disenfranchised conditions are blamed for their failure to take full advantage of the civil rights movement’s reforms. A commonly held belief is that if the marginalized or underrepresented can’t make it with a “quota” system such as affirmative action, it is solely their fault.
Besides, the defenders of neoliberalism insist, the economic privilege shared by the empire’s elite will “trickle down” to the masses. “A rising tide lifts all boats.”
And while such slogans are usually associated with the political “right,” members of the traditional left provide no better alternatives. Liberals may express, with teary-eyes, guilt over the plight of the marginalized, but all-too-often it is done from the comfort of financial and socio-political security, unaware of their own complicity with oppressive social structures, while arrogantly professing to understand the disenfranchised social location.
To an extent, particularly in terms of global economic policies, it really didn’t matter whether neoconservative George W. Bush or liberal John Kerry won the 2004 presidential election. The democratic system seems reduced to choosing between two individuals with no significant difference in their commitments to protecting the rights of multinational companies to globally expand, even at the expense of their constituents.
Both would ignore that the gap between the rich and poor more than doubled between 1980 and 2005 as the U.S. experienced the greatest growth in wage inequality in the Western world. Both candidates would defend free-market policies, and neither would deal seriously with the undemocratic distribution of wealth, resources, and privilege.
In effect, Americans in general and people of color in particular are actually precluded from any meaningful participation in determining the country’s destiny. This assures a future America with a privileged white minority, because of a socio-political structure that hints strongly of apartheid.
In the 21st century, economics will be the means by which the “color line” is drawn. The vast majority of the poor, those locked out of the economic benefits of this country, are and will be persons of color.
Miguel A. De La Torre is professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.