Published first in Overland:
Grey’s Anatomy actor Isaiah Washington was onto something when he called for African Americans to lay down their economic tools a few months back. His solution to the issues of police brutality and poor race relations was a Black boycott of the American economy, or a #blackout as some named it: no work, no school, no shopping.
More recently, New York Daily writer and civil rights activist Shaun King picked up the banner with the more rigorously thought out ‘Injustice Boycott’, set to begin on 5 December. His recent article lays out a nine point plan for how the boycott will work, which is expected to last for months, even years. Since Trump’s election win, King’s Twitter feed has served as a ‘clearing house’ for the rising incidence of race-related hate crime in the US, and his call for an economic boycott is timely amid current fears that civil rights movements, particularly Black Lives Matter, will be muzzled.
An economic boycott such as the one proposed could prove a powerful move. It is a recognition of the elephant in the room when it comes to talking about race in the US: capitalism, whose survival globally has long been dependent on the economic exploitation of people of colour.
Modern racism came about as a way of legitimising the use and abuse of particular groups of people for economic purposes. The reason American capitalism has looked so ‘successful’ for so long is because it was built on African slave labour and the acquisition of Indigenous American lands. The majority of America’s working poor are Black and Latino. A large function of racism has been to keep black people out of particular jobs and industries, allowing them only low-end jobs and worse-paying positions. Colonisation, slavery, forced labour, pay gaps and outsourcing have all been used to prop up predominantly white, capitalist industries and to subjugate the already marginalised.
There is always an impetus to dehumanise in capitalism. Keeping a large oppressed group ‘in their place’, and at the disposal of a profit-driven economy, can only be done by promoting and maintaining racism, prejudice, discrimination and sexism. In a market where ownership is valued over and above access, and competition is always a virtue, what better way to run this system than by making an entire group ‘noncompetitive’ because of the colour of their skin? Dangle a few ‘American dreams’ in front of people’s faces and provide little welfare, and you have not only cut out a big proportion of your competition, but you can then hire the same people at a dismal minimum wage, and in turn maximise your profits.
For a mind-blowing current example of this model in practice, look no further than the US’s massive prison industrial complex. Inmates across America earn between 7 cents and $1.25 an hour and companies that hire inmates can receive tax credits in excess of $2400, per inmate, annually. We all know some of the staggering incarceration figures and sentencing practices that the US is famous for. We also know that people of colour make up 60 per cent of the prison population. Perhaps this is the only way that neoliberal economists can see fit to compete with offshore labour costs: prison ‘insourcing’ is becoming the new outsourcing. (Outsourcing is of course the reason for the giant slump in US manufacturing that has seen many workers to put their hopes in the likes of Donald Trump.)
Thinking about Trump’s slogan ‘Make America Great Again’, in this context, is ever more laughable when you consider that most things labelled ‘Made in America’ are produced in US prisons. Nike was recently asked to cut its production in Indonesia and bring it to Oregon, where they would be offered competitive labour and no transportation costs. Some of the companies that use prison labour are amongst the most profitable in the world – McDonalds, Dell, IBM, Target, Verizon. These are companies that the boycott may plan to target.
Though predominantly white in its first inception, the Occupy Movement of 2011 recognised the fundamental role that racial discrimination plays in shaping the economy. John Bryson, Occupy activist and public servant, said, ‘The black community for 400 years have always been the 99 per cent’. The movement highlighted many flaws in the capitalist system, the most glaring being unequal wealth distribution.
How an entire economic system such as the US’s could have so few decent indicators of real economic health was another issue brought to light by Occupy. Millions of people in the US are without enough food or shelter; or healthcare; roads and bridges and schools are falling apart; the environment and other species are being annihilated. Yet broadly speaking, none of this is taken as a sign that the economic system itself is failing.
Of course King’s and Washington’s current call to boycott is to bring attention to the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement and to see changes to the law regarding police brutality. It’s about social justice, not economic justice, but the links are clear: the US’s reliance on the ‘free market’, and the belief that economics is some kind of ‘science’, sees a blasé social fatalism prosper. This allows the market to hum onward, fed by mistreatment and mismanagement on a grand scale. The call to boycott is a stop sign held up to that comfortable hum.
In North America, the possibility of around 15 per cent of the population not using, going, spending, or doing is big. Where your money is spent is often more powerful than who you vote for. And as Black Lives Matter said in their post-election statement, ‘our lives don’t revolve around election cycles’. The fact that Shaun King chose 5 December as the date to start the boycott is a homage to the Martin Luther King-led Montgomery Bus Boycott, which started on that date in 1955. Although not a national boycott, the year-long boycott brought down an entire bus company, helped put an end to the Jim Crow laws and accelerated citizenship for African Americans in the US.
What Washington and King realise, as Occupy did, is the economic power of the masses. And although Black Americans and people of colour in general make up the majority of the poor and the powerless, they are, as much as white people like to forget it, the global majority. And that is powerful.