“Our destinies are inextricably linked."

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

I hope you’ve had chance to read my story, what has become our collective story, all of the inextricable links between my own fate and the challenges facing America today. If 100 years was swallowed up by Jim Crow, now it feels like 50 years has been swallowed since the triumphs of the civil rights movement and the birth of Black Power.

There’s no denying that some things have gotten better—and not to acknowledge that fact is a profound insult to all those who fought and gave of themselves during those turbulent years—but a lot of things have remained the same, while others have gotten far worse.

Unfortunately, right now our country is polarized to the point of paralysis. It feels as if we’ve metastasized into two warring factions, our differences seeming as unresolvable as those of North and South prior to the Civil War. Whereas the slave economy created the great divide in antebellum America, today we are divided by innumerable issues that are viewed through the prism of two dramatically different world views.

A sizeable portion of our population believes they live in the shadow of “white privilege”—the conviction that our society endows white people with countless advantages and generations of entitlement that they are taken for granted. In the meantime, people of color, especially African Americans, feel like the deck is stacked against them from the moment they’re born. Trying to convince them they’re wrong, including the inevitable implication that they don’t have what it takes to compete, only makes things worse. We need to acknowledge these people have good reasons for feeling as they do, and the sooner we address their grievances the better off we’ll be.

Many white people are not only oblivious to white privilege, but as good as dumb, deaf and blind to the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, and haven’t the slightest interest or motivation to educate themselves.  Many of these same white people have the audacity to think the mass incarceration of black men is justified, and are completely ignorant of the gross inequities of our legal system.  I don’t know how black people make it through the day without striking out in fury.  How much longer can we expect these people to wait for justice and equality in a country that promises but fails to deliver?

Although it’s undeniable that many of our problems stem from slavery’s legacy and white America’s nearly pathological fear of the “other,” we can’t blame all our problems on the racial divide.  Just as many people of color believe they are treated like second-class citizens, a sizeable number of whites feel they are being unjustly taken advantage of by a nebulous group of “elites,” whom they accuse of looking down on them and aiming to destroy their values and culture.  Once again, it’s pointless to tell them they’re wrong, that their anger and resentment are misplaced; if that’s how they feel, perhaps the rest of us need to take a good hard look at what brought us to this point.

There is reason to think a good deal of their anger and resentment for the “other” is driven by fear that an increasingly multi-cultural, multi-racial society is leaving them behind. They are convinced that African Americans, Latinos, and other people of color are used by the elites to marginalize and supplant them, and when they try to defend themselves they are accused of racism.  Sadly, these people no longer feel at home in their own country—and they want it back!   No matter if their nostalgic version of America never existed, or was a terrible place to live if you counted yourself among the “other.” Suffice to say, they are desperate to “make America great again.”

 

In the meantime, thanks to globalization, automation, and technology, many working people, no matter their skin color, are struggling to maintain a “middle class” existence. Specializations suited to world markets are globalization’s winners, while manufacturers that must compete with lower foreign labor costs are its losers. Not surprisingly, specialized, high-skilled workers generally benefit from globalization, while the less skilled are its victims.

This new economy’s losers are falling further and further behind, with no hope of catching up. They are bitter and angry, and once again it’s pointless to tell them they have no right to feel that way. Some vent their frustration by hating the “other,” while others express it through self-hatred; resulting in a rising suicide rate and the opioid epidemic ravaging America’s heartland.

Why should working people believe the elites, who possess the education and skills to prosper in the new, knowledge-based economy, especially if what passes for technological progress in a globalized world only serves to make things worse for them? They view America’s educated professionals as adversaries leaving them behind in a new globalized, information-based world.

Many people aren’t making as much money as they used to, and a substantial number are working two and three jobs just to make ends meet. These unfortunate victims of the new economy are led to believe that in time their circumstances will improve, but globalization is long-since out of the bag, and even if it wasn’t, automation and technology are far greater culprits. And just when African Americans and other people of color felt like things were finally beginning to change in their favor, they’re forced to compete in a global economy hell-bent on relegating them to menial, low-paying jobs with no hope of a better future.

Working people, whether white or of color, are fighting over an ever-shrinking pie.  One group, even for just a second in the scope of human history, lived “the American dream” and wants it back. The other group has always been denied that dream, doesn’t care if it’s increasingly unobtainable for everyone, and has long since run out of patience to be granted the justice and equality America promises.

To make things worse, the increasing divide between globalizations winners and losers helps increase the already alarming income inequality in our society, what is very possibly the biggest problem we have, and the greatest contributor to our polarization. Having grown up in the plantation economy of the antebellum South, I saw the evils of extreme income inequality firsthand, and I would hate to see this country lose its middle class to a new aristocracy reminiscent of the planter class. If you read my website and my blog, you’ll see that I talk a lot about the “Cotton Kingdom,” and how it was the root of all evil. The Cotton Kingdom is simply a deviation of “King Cotton,” the powerful slave economy that dominated the Southern states prior to the Civil War.

Please understand—no matter how much I rail against the antebellum South and the Confederacy, the object of my hostility was never the Southern people or the vast majority of soldiers, many of them poor yeoman farmers, who honestly believed they went off to fight for THEIR country and defend it from the Yankee invaders. No, the object of my disdain is the greedy, insatiably power-hungry, slave-holding Cotton Kingdom that sent those soldiers to be slaughtered on its behalf.

We can thank God the Cotton Kingdom was banished from the earth, but today we have an all-powerful equivalent in the top 1%, including Wall Street, the big banks and our largest corporations—the people who own most of our country and pull the strings in Washington. In other words, when I talk about the evils of the Cotton Kingdom, you can bet I’m making reference to capitalism run amuck and out of control to the detriment of the majority of Americans.

Is it any wonder we’re as polarized as we are? The tension, however, isn’t so much between rich and poor, but increasingly between poor and poor, with the new, Twenty-First Century Cotton Kingdom fueling a rigged system to its own benefit. We should not forget that in April of 1967, a year to the day before his assassination, in a speech expressing his strong opposition to the Vietnam War, Dr. King made it clear that he considered economic justice essential to racial equality. Right now we have neither economic justice nor racial equality in America. Dr. King would not only be disheartened by the state of race relations in our country today, he would no doubt be aghast at the rise of economic inequality, the decimation of the middle class, and the diminishing of the American dream that should be available to all.

Perhaps you remember the speech delivered by one Southern senator a few years before the Civil War broke out in 1861: ” … you dare not make war on cotton.  No power on earth dares to make war upon it.  Cotton is King.”  So much for that.

We can make America what it must become.

-James Baldwin