Spotlight Exclusives

Working Towards Economic and Racial Justice: A Conversation with Darrick Hamilton

Darrick Hamilton, Ohio State University Darrick Hamilton, Ohio State University, posted on

The outpouring of national grief, anger and resolve for change in the wake of the death of George Floyd comes as communities of color grapple with the multiple pandemics of the coronavirus, police violence and economic devastation. For context and analysis of this moment, Spotlight spoke with Darrick Hamilton, Executive Director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Can you give us some background and context for this extraordinary moment and how the economic distress communities of color are experiencing is intertwined with the reaction to George Floyd’s death?

 All of this is not separable. The protests and the response to the killings that have taken place, the economic conditions that communities are facing, particularly black and brown communities, are all part of a holistic and linked political economy. And what I mean by that is the fact that a black man could be killed in broad daylight by a law enforcement officer over an approximately 10-minute period with a knee on his neck in broad daylight while he’s screaming for mercy and that he can’t breathe has to be the result of a devaluation of one’s life based on their ethnicity. I think that that’s vivid. And that links to our larger economic vulnerability, whether we’re in a COVID pandemic or not. The public response to poverty and economic insecurity is very racialized. And this moment fits into the notions of deservedness or not – how that narrative of who deserves and who doesn’t deserve impacts our fiscal response to poverty.

Talk more about that concept – of deserving and undeserving.

 At least for the last 45 years, against the backdrop of some of the gains that might have taken place through the civil rights movement, we’ve had a political economy that I and others have described as having a neoliberal frame where deregulation and the market are put at the forefront for how we understand production and distribution. This system attempts to minimize the government’s role with regards to social welfare. And how this system is fueled is through race – race becomes a pillar by which we can generate narratives of who’s deserving and who’s not deserving. We racialize poor people.

We characterize them with anti-black language, imagery of deadbeat dads, welfare queens and super predators, suggesting that these people are not deserving of government handouts because they are engaged in deficient, detrimental, or immoral behavior. It even says that if you are well meaning, government interventions will only encourage or incentivize that type of behavior. So, what the role of government then becomes is one of punishing bad behavior. Here is where the war on drugs comes into play. Here is where law and order comes into play. Welfare and welfare reform become more and more punitive – how do we punish rather than help this population? Anti-blackness and race is used to codify property rights and whiteness. White people are tacitly offered status in exchange for growing inequality.

And so, the response to what we’re seeing now has be multi-faceted, not just looking at reforms like defunding police forces?

 Let me start with humility and state that I do not speak for those eloquently linking fiscal budgets with militarized and unjust law enforcement. With defunding police officers, I don’t think people are calling for a devaluation of physical security. But as currently construed, pumping money into a broken system with the hope of it being reformed has not worked and there’s not an expectation that it should work, in my view, without some extreme reform. And that might entail starting it all over again from scratch. When it comes to policing, targeting implicit bias is not enough. We’ve made great headway in recognizing that individuals are socialized from imagery, language, and narratives and this socialization leads to responses that people, to some degree, have little control over.

However, changing hearts and minds and even correcting that would not get at some of the incentive-based mechanisms for why devaluing black life exists in our political economy. And ultimately to address that, I would turn to economics and factor in plain, old-fashioned incentives and disincentives that would include criminal and civil responsibility for egregious acts. If there is a threat that you may be fired, that you may be sued, that you may be incarcerated, that can effect behavioral changes. If we find that some police departments are engaged in what could be seen as good activities, you could properly incentivize that.

But that is not enough either, as there are structural phenomena, and that is what this defund police department is about. It is trying to fundamentally change these organizations at their structure, to not keep funneling resources into something that is structurally wrong with the hope that a little tinkering will address that structural problem. It is calling for the redirection of resources from police departments into public interventions that might be better able to carry out those social functions. The percentage of the budget in localities that go to police departments compared to other social services is out of whack.

At the federal level, that scarcity is part of a narrative that constrains the government from using its resources to constrain some of the private power that perpetuates poverty. In other words, the federal government has capacities to raise and spend resources in this area, but it is constrained by a public narrative that I do not think is valid.

Do you see signs of change on that front, either on the national level or interesting policy changes at the local level, that give you hope?

 I think if you look at the Democratic primaries, there has been a progressive breakthrough dating back to 2016, at least in terms of rhetoric. One example from 2016 was the attention candidates were expected to show towards the existence and impact of the racial wealth gap. We had a similar thing this year with reparations. Both of those did not seem viable as part of the public discourse in previous primaries. So, one could argue that is a success. But there’s some pretty discouraging counterexamples as well, especially with some of the rhetoric coming out of the White House.

One of the features of both parties – and I’m not making the argument that both parties are the same – since at least 1973 has been a growing consensus in the belief, faith and dogma around neoliberalism, the notion that government was bad, that government incentivized detrimental behavior by intervening, that government had a role of disciplining poor people, that government needed to focus on helping corporations through supply-side economics.

Is this a tipping point? Could things actually change as a result of what we’re seeing?

Oh yes. Life can change in a moment in ways that no one can anticipate. Six months ago, no one could have predicted that we would have literally stopped the economy as a result of a pandemic. Does this create a perfect confluence of activities that could lead to dramatic change? Possibly. What is telling about these demonstrations that may be different than years past is these protests and movements emphasizing solidarity seem to be increasing over time, starting with Occupy Wall Street, other Black Lives Matter protests, the climate movement, and the Me Too movement.

To the extent that these protests become less based in only the identity group that’s affected and more universal and solidified, that becomes a real threat to the status quo. This is sustained and it’s coming from all 50 states. And if white people are willing to give up the benefits associated with white privilege that come about from a political economy where black lives can be devalued, then that helps hasten the emergence of a more just structure.

Now, am I completely optimistic . . . no. But, whether I’m optimistic or not, I believe in justice, so on a personal level I’m going to continue to do what I think is right and work towards creating a just society. I’m going to work towards justice because who knows when the Orwellian moment appears – and also, it’s just the right thing to do.

What is more likely to have a lasting impact – the actions of individuals, particularly white individuals, or a dramatic policy response at the national level?

 I think the answer to that question is iterative. You as an individual may have limited influence but you as an individual are indicative of other individuals who ultimately puts pressure on a political system to make the politicians do it. It is our government. It is our economy. It is our money. When we seize our government, seize our economy, and seize our money, that’s when the system changes. At the end of the day, it is individuals who change the system.

Darrick Hamilton is Executive Director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University. He’ll be participating in a panel on “Re-thinking the Poverty Narrative” on Thursday June 11 sponsored by Poverty Solutions at the University Michigan. Other panelists will include Spotlight’s Bill Nichols, vice president at Freedman Consulting, LLC.

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