Red for Ed! Victories we should heed

Teacher strikes show social movements the way forward

There have been growing calls for electoral participation in the wake of the Trump presidential victory and the horrendous political and social climate that have come in its wake. Most of these voices encourage a social movement strategy called “inside / outside” organizing which argues that protest, mobilizations, and disruptions are good, but that social movements also need “inside” political actors – elected officials – who are sympathetic to movement goals and can help push progressive agendas forward. Many call for supporting progressive democrats. Some favor breaking from democrats and creating a third party.

As logical as the “inside / outside” strategy is, it is a deeply flawed, and the movements of teachers and education workers in the “Red for Ed” movement show an improved way forward.

Arizona teachers just won a 20% pay increase after a week long strike that shut down the state’s schools. Like much of the country, teachers in Arizona faced miserable working conditions and underpay, a crisis that only got worse since the 2008 crisis. Their strike turned that around. In addition to a 20% pay increase, the state has put hundreds of millions of dollars forward for increased education spending, including fully funding the cuts from the 2008 crisis, providing tens of millions of building renovation and renewal, and millions for improved student mental health resources on campus.

What is most remarkable, they won in a deeply red state. The state governor, Doug Ducey, is an arch-conservative. His policies have included attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, to support keeping up confederate monuments (Arizona was not in the confederacy), and state wide austerity policies that led to 400 firings of state workers. The state legislature is dominated by some of the worst republican toads in the country, including senator Steven B. Yarbrough who as recently as 2015 argued for harsh cuts to the state budget, and JD Mesnard who worked to restrict voting access in his own district. Even with these republican conservatives dominating state politics, teachers have won tremendous policy transformations.

Why? Because political power is more than just who holds office – it is about building power with each other  – in the streets, for massive mobilizations and demonstrations – but in our jobs too. When we take workplace action like this, our schools, business, and the state governments cannot function. This is a tremendous source of power that “trumps” whoever may be in office.  As the late Howard Zinn wrote, “what matters most is not who is sitting in the White House, but “who is sitting-in” — and who is marching outside the White House, pushing for change.”

The Arizona teachers show this so clearly, as do those of Oklahoma, and West Virgina. So too for the students from Parkland Florida, who have transformed their republican governor’s stance on guns through their direct action.

Instead of “inside / outside” we need a movement strategy that builds organization and protest, an “outside & organizing” framework. When we fight this way, we win.


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The first official report on CEO-worker pay ratios shows an enormous 333-1 gap at Honeywell

The first official report on CEO-worker pay ratios shows an enormous 333-1 gap at Honeywell
Honeywell’s CEO-to-worker pay ratio is a sky-high 333-to-1. But expect even bigger numbers from other firms. (Dreamstime / TNS)

The first government-mandated disclosure of the ratio of CEO vs. average worker pay has surfaced, and as has been widely expected, it’s obscene. Technology company Honeywell, in a proxy statement dated Friday, disclosed that its CEO, Darius Adamczyk, was paid 333 times as much as a median Honeywell employee last year.

The raw figures are these: Adamczyk, $16.8 million. Median employee: $50,296.

Honeywell is the first major public corporation to make the disclosure, which was required by the Dodd-Frank financial reform act and is subject to rules implemented by the Securities and Exchange Commission starting this year. Its 333-to-1 ratio is in the neighborhood of what informal surveys have been projecting for public corporations in general.

This is a confirmation of research done up to now.

The labor-oriented Economic Policy Institute, for example, estimated that CEOs were making as much as 270 times that of their average workers in 2016. The Institute for Policy Studies, which tracks indicators of income and wealth inequality, estimates the 2016 ratio at 347-to-1.

“This is a confirmation of research done up to now,” Sam Pizzigati, a fellow at IPS, says of the Honeywell data. He expects some corporations to show much larger discrepancies. That could show up especially in the retail sector, where median earnings are likely to be well below the $50,000 level of Honeywell’s heavily professional workforce.

Walmart, for instance, says its average hourly pay for full-time workers was to reach $13.38, following a company-wide wage increase in 2016. That’s about $27,800. Its CEO, C. Douglas McMillon, was paid $22.4 million last year. That would create a ratio of about 805-to-1 based on hourly wages alone.

The pay ratio is important because it’s a powerful indicator of economic inequality. While average worker wages have been stagnant for decades, the top 1% of U.S. income earners have “more than doubled their share of the nation’s income” since the 1970s, the IPS observes. Corporate executives head about two-thirds of America’s households in the top 1%, the think tank adds.

Moreover, the ratio has been expanding rapidly. In 1980, the ratio was about 42-to-1. Even that was way out of line with the 20-to-1 that the great management guru, Peter Drucker, thought was appropriate. That’s “the limit beyond which they cannot go if they don’t want resentment and falling morale to hit their companies,” Drucker wrote, according to a comment on the CEO pay rule submitted to the SEC by the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University.

As I reported in 2013, when the SEC was taking comments on the Dodd-Frank mandate, Drucker’s standard seems positively quaint today. By 2012, the average CEO-to-worker pay ratio had reached about 350-to-1. The only thing that had held it back was the 2008 recession.

Public corporations fought fiercely against the SEC disclosure rule. It was obvious why: The disclosures are going to be telling, and massively embarrassing.

Keep up to date with Michael Hiltzik. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see his Facebook page, or email

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Twenty-First-Century Taylorism

Managers have been trying to control workers for well over a century. Amazon’s new employee-tracking wristbands are just the latest innovation.

The latest scandal to emerge from Amazon’s warehouses centers on the company’s newly patented wristband, which gives it the ability to track and record employees’ hands in real time. Some have described the technology as a “dystopian” form of surveillance. Amazon has countered that journalists are engaging in “misguided” speculation. To hear the retail giant tell it, all the device does is move its inventory-tracking equipment from workers’ hands to their wrists — what’s the big deal?Given the level of surveillance and regimentation already in place in Amazon warehouses, the company isn’t completely off base. Currently, warehouse workers called pickers carry a scanner that directs them from product to product. All shift they race the countdown clock, which shows them how many seconds they have to find the item, place it in their trolley, and scan the barcode.

A variation on this method exists in warehouses where robots bring the shelves to workers. There, workers stand in place as stacks of products present themselves one by one. For ten and a half hours, they must stoop and stretch to retrieve an item every nine seconds. The scanners control workers’ behavior by measuring it, preventing slowdowns and allowing managers to create new performance benchmarks. Quick workers raise the bar for everyone, while slow workers risk losing their job.

The wristbands introduce a wrinkle to this regimentation, monitoring not just the task but the worker herself. It’s a distinction managers first became obsessed with more than a century ago and crystallized in the “scientific management” movement of the period. Amazon’s peculiar culture notwithstanding, the wristbands in many ways don’t offer anything new, technologically or conceptually. What has changed is workers’ ability to challenge this kind of surveillance.

Who Watches the Watchmen?

The first workers required to mechanically record their location while working were the nineteenth-century watchmen. Hired to walk around plants at night, watchmen would look out for irregularities like fires, thieves, open windows, or bad odors. But employers had a problem: who would watch the watchmen?

In 1861, they received their answer when the German inventor John Bürk patented one of the first practicable time detectors — a huge watch with a strip of paper running around the casing’s interior. Employers would chain different keys in each room of their property. When watchmen entered a room, they would have to insert the key into the watch, making an indentation on the strip of paper hidden inside. Since each key had a unique pattern, and since the strip of paper was tied to the hands of the clock, the employer could come in the next morning, pull the strip out, and examine a record of when the watchman visited each room.

After Bürk’s invention, the watchman’s job description changed. Now, he was charged with carrying the time detector from key station to key station. He became an extension of the clock, helping the owners both control and accumulate capital.

As a portable surveillance technology, Bürk’s time detector was brilliant. But it couldn’t capture worker negligence as it happened. Banks, jewelry stores, and upper-class homes began demanding real-time tracking, pushing security and surveillance firms to further develop the technology.

Near-real-time tracking of watchmen started in the 1870s in New York. The American District Telegraph Company (now ADT) and others built on the work being done to develop telegraphic fire alarms. They replaced the watchman’s keys with electrical contacts connected to a central station. When the guard did his rounds, he would close the circuit, sending an electrical signal to the office, where the manager would receive it. No more waiting until morning.

A Win-Win Solution

In the 1880s, as business management was being formalized into a set of practices and a distinct field, an avant-garde cohort of engineers started trying to apply the experimental method to human labor. They developed what would come to be called “scientific management,” or “Taylorism” (after the famous early engineer Frederick W. Taylor).

Scientific management’s most radical conceit was that they were pioneers of a new science of human movement, with the “efficiency engineer” a new kind of scientist. These engineers would experiment with different object placements, motions, sightlines, tools, and body postures — all with the goal of finding “the one best way” for every task.

The “best way” was supposed to be not only faster, but more efficient. With pay bonuses pegged to productivity, workers would experience less strain and earn (somewhat) higher wages. Meanwhile, the manager got (a lot) more product. It was a win-win solution to class conflict.

It’s hard to overstate how far efficiency engineers went to measure and surveil workers’ bodies. They used stopwatches, photographed and filmed workers, and tied lightbulbs to workers’ fingers in order to trace hand movements across long-exposure photographs. One engineer, Frank Gilbreth, disaggregated each finger, shoulder, and foot, plotting individual movements in units of a thousandth of a minute. Workers were made to study the evidence of their own inadequacies and learn better methods. Those who could not meet the new standards were fired.

Decades before the video camera appeared in workplaces — let alone software to monitor computer-based work — this proselyting network of consultants and engineers brought together mechanical surveillance, iterative performance review, management by data, and individual monitoring in experiments and widely distributed tracts.

While the group fragmented due to internal differences, and its main institution — the Taylor Society — closed in 1936, it’s difficult to look at their archetypal patents and Amazon’s wristband technology and not see the connecting thread of scientific management.

Gilbreth patent, “Method and Apparatus for the Study and Correction of Motions,” 1916
Amazon patent, “Ultrasonic bracelet and receiver for detecting position in 2D plane,” 2018

Fretting About Resistance

At the turn of the century, a wide range of workers recognized that scientific management was a means to control the labor process, destroy their monopoly on specialized knowledge, and deskill high-paying jobs. But higher-skilled workers were better positioned to resist stopwatch-wielding consultants than less skilled workers.

The divergent experiences of machinists and shovelers were illustrative.

Machinists held secrets of the trade that made it hard for management to interfere with their work. They organized their own processes, allowing them to dictate how much they would produce and how much they would receive in exchange. When managers attempted to exert more control, artisans collectively resisted, taking such intrusions as insults to their (masculinized) honor. In 1916, they successfully pressured the government to ban stopwatches and time-and-motion studies in federal arsenals.

Shovelers — less organized and easier to replace — didn’t have the same capacity to combat creeping Taylorism. One influential study found that they ended up heaving 270 percent more tonnage than before efficiency experts arrived. While machinists could lean on their craft and their unions, shovelers were at the mercy of their employers.

Like shoveling, the work today’s Amazon warehouse workers perform is repetitive and deskilled, and rife with turnover — both of which weaken their bargaining position against management. To make matters worse, the gradual accretion of scientific management-style techniques has given their spread an air of inevitability. When Amazon’s wristbands came in for criticism recently, even the outrage seemed resigned: this is terrible, but it’s just the way things are. The idea that increasingly advanced worker monitoring technology would ever not be developed or deployed seemed positively utopian.

In the 1900s, the efficiency engineers tying lightbulbs to fingers at least fretted about worker resistance. Amazon, it appears, doesn’t even worry about it.

About the Author

Richard Salame is a New York–based writer and researcher with a background in social history of the late nineteenth century US and Middle East.

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Our Moloch – Wills on Gun Culture

Few crimes are more harshly forbidden in the Old Testament than sacrifice to the god Moloch (for which see Leviticus 18.21, 20.1-5). The sacrifice referred to was of living children consumed in the fires of offering to Moloch. Ever since then, worship of Moloch has been the sign of a deeply degraded culture. Ancient Romans justified the destruction of Carthage by noting that children were sacrificed to Moloch there. Milton represented Moloch as the first pagan god who joined Satan’s war on humankind:

First Moloch, horrid king, besmear’d with blood
Of human sacrifice, and parents’ tears,
Though for the noise of Drums and Timbrels loud
Their children’s cries unheard, that pass’d through fire
To his grim idol. (Paradise Lost 1.392-96)

Read again those lines, with recent images seared into our brains—“besmeared with blood” and “parents’ tears.” They give the real meaning of what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday morning. That horror cannot be blamed just on one unhinged person. It was the sacrifice we as a culture made, and continually make, to our demonic god. We guarantee that crazed man after crazed man will have a flood of killing power readily supplied him. We have to make that offering, out of devotion to our Moloch, our god. The gun is our Moloch. We sacrifice children to him daily—sometimes, as at Sandy Hook, by directly throwing them into the fire-hose of bullets from our protected private killing machines, sometimes by blighting our children’s lives by the death of a parent, a schoolmate, a teacher, a protector. Sometimes this is done by mass killings (eight this year), sometimes by private offerings to the god (thousands this year).

The gun is not a mere tool, a bit of technology, a political issue, a point of debate. It is an object of reverence. Devotion to it precludes interruption with the sacrifices it entails. Like most gods, it does what it will, and cannot be questioned. Its acolytes think it is capable only of good things. It guarantees life and safety and freedom. It even guarantees law. Law grows from it. Then how can law question it?

Its power to do good is matched by its incapacity to do anything wrong. It cannot kill. Thwarting the god is what kills. If it seems to kill, that is only because the god’s bottomless appetite for death has not been adequately fed. The answer to problems caused by guns is more guns, millions of guns, guns everywhere, carried openly, carried secretly, in bars, in churches, in offices, in government buildings. Only the lack of guns can be a curse, not their beneficent omnipresence.

Adoration of Moloch permeates the country, imposing a hushed silence as he works his will. One cannot question his rites, even as the blood is gushing through the idol’s teeth. The White House spokesman invokes the silence of traditional in religious ceremony. “It is not the time” to question Moloch. No time is right for showing disrespect for Moloch.

The fact that the gun is a reverenced god can be seen in its manifold and apparently resistless powers. How do we worship it? Let us count the ways:

1. It has the power to destroy the reasoning process. It forbids making logical connections. We are required to deny that there is any connection between the fact that we have the greatest number of guns in private hands and the greatest number of deaths from them. Denial on this scale always comes from or is protected by religious fundamentalism. Thus do we deny global warming, or evolution, or biblical errancy. Reason is helpless before such abject faith.

2. It has the power to turn all our politicians as a class into invertebrate and mute attendants at the shrine. None dare suggest that Moloch can in any way be reined in without being denounced by the pope of this religion, National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre, as trying to destroy Moloch, to take away all guns. They whimper and say they never entertained such heresy. Many flourish their guns while campaigning, or boast that they have themselves hunted “varmints.” Better that the children die or their lives be blasted than that a politician should risk an election against the dread sentence of NRA excommunication.

3. It has the power to distort our constitutional thinking. It says that the right to “bear arms,” a military term, gives anyone, anywhere in our country, the power to mow down civilians with military weapons. Even the Supreme Court has been cowed, reversing its own long history of recognizing that the Second Amendment applied to militias. Now the court feels bound to guarantee that any every madman can indulge his “religion” of slaughter. Moloch brooks no dissent, even from the highest court in the land.

Though LaPierre is the pope of this religion, its most successful Peter the Hermit, preaching the crusade for Moloch, was Charlton Heston, a symbol of the Americanism of loving guns. I have often thought that we should raise a statue of Heston at each of the many sites of multiple murders around our land. We would soon have armies of statues, whole droves of Heston acolytes standing sentry at the shrines of Moloch dotting the landscape. Molochism is the one religion that can never be separated from the state. The state itself bows down to Moloch, and protects the sacrifices made to him. So let us celebrate the falling bodies and rising statues as a demonstration of our fealty, our bondage, to the great god Gun.


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A Syrian Refugee, one story

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“Guerrillas of Desire” and the Revolutionary Potential of Everyday Struggle

Protesters gather outside the White House at the finish of the Women's March on Washington on January 21, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)Protesters gather outside the White House at the finish of the Women’s March on Washington on January 21, 2017, in Washington, DC. (Photo: Mario Tama / Getty Images)

A tension between political hunger and fruition runs throughout Kevin Van Meter’s new book on building contemporary revolutionary struggle, Guerrillas of Desire: Notes on Everyday Resistance and Organizing to Make a Revolution Possible, published this month by AK Press and the Institute for Anarchist Studies. Van Meter’s book is a welcome contribution to build meaningful revolutionary struggle and to revive the sorely needed tradition of autonomist Marxism. Indeed, in the era of Trump and neoliberalism, the urgency and the desire for a revolutionary transformation animates many on the left. But we often struggle to realize these desires.

Van Meter’s central metaphor in this book, “guerrillas of desire,” seeks to awaken us to the revolutionary potential already found in everyday popular struggle. Resistance and refusal, sabotage and obfuscation, Van Meter argues, all bring forward revolutionary potential, the ability to break with the structures of an exploitative society and begin to construct something new. These acts of refusal, in particular the “refusal of work,” are central features of the book. Those who fight back against capitalism in this way are guerrillas, fighters against an ongoing war by capital to impose work and seize commons. These are regular people, often lost to history, the slaves, peasants and workers who fight to retain some degree of autonomy of their lives and themselves through acts that include the “theft of time and materials, feigned illness, sabotage, arson, murder, [and] exodus.” Their acts also clear the space for alternative worlds, and hence Van Meter’s use of “desire.” Quoting Zapatista militant Subcomandante Marcos, for guerrillas, “in our dreams we have seen another world, an honest world, a world decidedly fairer than the one in which we now live.” A desire for a new world, with revolutionary tactics, make the metaphor: guerrillas of desire.

What the book does exceedingly well is engage and update autonomist Marxism, bringing ideas into 2017. Van Meter’s concepts of class struggle are especially refreshing and deserve wide circulation in both activist and academic circles. Using the autonomist notion of the “social factory,” he shows us that class struggle is greater than wage conflicts on the shop floor, or coal miner shootouts with Pinkertons. Instead, if the structure of society supports the process of profit accumulation, and all of society is a “social factory,” then resistance and contestation in schools, in the home, in the bedroom and in the streets, are part of the struggle against capital. Further, the contestants on the bottom, the oppressed and marginalized, whether employed or not, are part of the working class. Therefore, the myriad forms of everyday resistance are both part of working-class struggles and the building blocks for revolutionary emancipation from capital.

This framework is hindered, however, by some overly general formulations. One frustrating element of Guerrillas of Desire is that Van Meter tries to convince us that capitalism is defined by the “imposition of work,” rather than wages, profits and commodities, and that resistance therefore looks like the “refusal to work.” But defining “capitalism as the endless imposition of work” is too narrow; capital is engaged in bigger projects than this single act. Furthermore, work can, with different social relationships, become a fundamental and meaningful part of human expression. Resistance, therefore, should be defined as the refusal to work on the terms of capital, of exploited or unremunerated work not in our interests and from which we are alienated, and not from work in general; his rhetorical use of “work” is more confusing than revealing. So, too, with his use of “everyday” in the forms of resistance he highlights. For slaves, peasants and workers, the groups that compose the three central chapters of the book, Van Meter is quick to include arson and murder in the forms of everyday resistance. Including these unusual forms of resistance with more common forms, like stealing, confuses the meaning of “individual” with “commonplace.”

At stake here is the relationship between individual and collective resistance. Van Meter is excellent in convincing us that these forms of small, “everyday” methods of resistance are the beginnings of potentially revolutionary struggle; what is not clear, however, is how these forms can be “scaled up” to make social revolution possible. Van Meter hints at this idea but does not fully explore it in the chapter on slavery, in which individual acts, “exodus” or fleeing, assassination and tool-breaking take center stage. Citing George Rawick, Van Meter argues that during the American Civil War, enslaved people refused work on a massive scale, provoking a crisis for Confederate leadership. True enough, but the progenitor of that idea, W.E.B. Du Bois, called those actions a “general strike” and placed them at the center of both forcing emancipation and leading to the ultimate defeat of the confederacy. If ever there was a revolutionary moment in US history, this was it, formed in collective struggle. Du Bois’s argument makes Van Meter’s case for him: The acts of individuals, increasingly moving in concert, can form enough collective power to topple even the most brutal of systems.

Van Meter and Guerrillas of Desire shows us that revolutionary struggle is already happening all around us, and for many of us, is already a part of our daily practice. Were this enough, however, we’d have achieved “fully automated gay space luxury communism,” to paraphrase a favorite meme, long ago. We haven’t. And so, the question that confronts us from the book is where to go for struggle of this type; in the author’s phrasing, exactly how “to make a revolution possible.” That Guerrillas of Desire can so thoughtfully provoke this question means it deserves a wide audience indeed. Our task is to take up the call.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Michael Reagan

Michael Reagan is an organizer and historian based in Seattle. He has a forthcoming book with AK Press and the Institute for Anarchist Studies on class theory in the left tradition. Find him: @reaganrevoltion and

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The Racial Wealth Gap and the Problem of Historical Narration

The always cogent Destin Jenkins on racial wealth inequality, dispossession, and “war capitalism.”

The original can be found here:

From articles in the liberal press to histories of the “Frontiers of Wealth” during “America’s First Gilded Age,” the recent engagement with questions of inequality in the United States has broadened to include wealth alongside that of income disparities. Of course, scholars have long explored the relationship between the two: how income derived from ownership of bonds, stocks, and other assets can fortify and augment wealth and how intergenerational wealth offers a cushion to ease disruptions in household income. Nevertheless, the social, political, and economic consequences for middle class families whose homes were foreclosed following the 2007–2008 financial crisis, the subsequent dosages of austerity that compounded the woes of poor Americans, and the collection of rents of various sorts by the “billionaire class,” in the words of Senator Bernie Sanders, have elevated the wealth gap in political discussions about inequality.

There are two problems with much of this analysis, and the one feeds back on the other. The first is a debatable chronology of the wealth gap. Some, such as Sanders, identify the mid-1980s as the watershed for the “enormous transfer of wealth from the middle class and the poor to the wealthiest people in this country.” Taking in his sight wealth inequality in “rich countries,” the economist Thomas Piketty has identified the 1970s as the pivotal starting point. Both interpretations miss the earlier epochs in this history of distribution.

Relatedly, underlying these accounts are implicit archetypes of deracialized middle class and poor Americans getting the short end of the stick while a deracialized wealthy elite collects the spoils. Though strong on explaining the expanding wealth gap, their histories miss how changes over the last fifty years, whether under the guise of such metanarratives as neoliberalism, financialization, or post-industrialism, compounded the deeper history of racial disparities in wealth. Indeed, one wonders whether it is the growing wealth gap amongst white Americans that has forced pundits to engage with wealth disparities.

Exploring the racial wealth gap upsets this chronology. In a recent joint report, “The Asset Value of Whiteness,” researchers Amy Traub, Laura Sullivan, Tatjana Meschede, and Tom Shapiro took up the important task of centering the racial wealth gap and debunking popular narratives that marshal dubious causal explanations—lack of savings, more educational attainment, and the like—to either explain away or offer individualized solutions to racial disparities in wealth. The authors argue that policies associated with the New Deal welfare state are the historic underpinnings of the contemporary racial wealth gap. By setting the clock, so to speak, in the 1930s, they conclude that past policies such as Federal Housing Administration guarantees and the G.I. Bill continue to haunt black and Latino/a households and reward white Americans in the present.

However, this account misses much earlier chapters: those not explicitly centered on federal policy, but around dispossession through a compact between white settlers and capital backed by state power. A much longer story would necessarily engage with enslaved black bodies as wealth-generating assets and the incredibly violent history of expropriation and coercion; what historian Sven Beckert, obliquely building off the insights of W.E.B. Du Bois, Eric Williams, and Walter Rodney, has succinctly called, “war capitalism.” What follows instead is a short history of the racial wealth gap in the years between 1870 and 1930, during a moment of new forms of state-capital arrangements.

In addition to refining the chronology, I make a subtle, but consequential, analytical pivot.  Most analyses of the racial wealth gap focus primarily on disparities in the acquisition of wealth. Hence they use the language of amassing, inheriting, accumulating, references to “inherited poverty,” and claims that black people are “late comers” to acquiring wealth. But we should also think about the racial wealth gap in terms of racial disparities in the defense of wealth: the relative ability to defend wealth from expropriation, whether through violence, state-sanctioned seizure, and sometimes both. After all, what good is wealth if you can’t defend it? I suggest we think about the relation of the first (accumulation, amassing, and acquisition) to the second (the defense of wealth in the form of real property). How could the inability to defend wealth amassed lead to the widening of the gap?

From mortgage foreclosures to Indian removal, the mechanisms of indigenous dispossession were many. However, dispossession took on a different character during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Aiming to break apart reservations, the Dawes Act endowed the president with the power to “allot reservation lands to individual heads of families.” Lands would be “ineligible for sale” for 25 years. Theoretically, these rules governing the sale of land might prevent the further alienation of Indian lands. As Ronald Takaki has shown, though, “giving Indians what they already owned, their land, the Dawes Act also took lands away from them.” The federal government authorized the sale of “surplus” lands to white settlers such that in 1891, according to one estimate, Indian land reductions totaled more than 17.4 million acres.

Legislation passed in 1902 declared that upon the death of the owners of allotted lands, those lands had to be sold at a public auction by their heirs. One government official anticipated that, lacking the capital to repurchase land in a public auction whose bidding rules and norms were hardly obvious, “it will be but a few years before all the Indians’ land will have passed into the possession of the settlers.” Indeed, some 775,000 acres of “inherited land” was sold between 1902 and 1910. In effect, the heirs could not insulate their landed wealth from sale. Patterns of racial thinking that treated Indians as unproductive cultivators of land had become institutionalized in the form of racial differences in rules governing how inherited wealth was to be treated. Indian lands were somehow different from the wealth that elite Bostonians had passed down, and the Brahmins’ reliance on trustees to manage old wealth was not replicated elsewhere.

In 1913, California legislators passed the Alien Land Act, which restricted or prohibited aliens ineligible for U.S. citizenship from owning land. Washington State passed a similar law in 1921 and, as historian Mae Ngai has observed, so did seven other states.

The attempt to dispossess Japanese landowners in Washington precipitated all kinds of maneuvers to safeguard their wealth. Some landowners placed their land deeds in the names of Japanese-American adults with citizenship rights. Others placed the deeds in the names of their American-born children. If those children were not of age, still others placed the deed in trust with local lawyers. Those lacking “similar means of escaping the law,” as one journalist noted, “were stripped of their property rights.” Indeed, the number of Japanese farms in Washington fell from 699 in 1920 to 246 in 1925.

If wealth takes the form of real estate, the plundering of the African American commercial district during the Tulsa Race War of 1921 and destruction of black-owned theaters and cafés exemplifies the centrality of the destruction of black wealth to the makings of the racial wealth gap. Black women such as Mabel Little, who, with her husband, owned their home and rental properties, and who saw the destruction of her beauty salon. All told, the white mob torched more than 1,250 houses and damaged property to the tune of $1.5 million (roughly $18.7 in buying power in 2017).

African American J.B. Stradford had accumulated considerable wealth through the ownership of rental properties, among other sources. After the Tulsa Race War and upon witnessing the destruction of that wealth, he fled to Chicago where he tried to recover $65,000 in insurance from the American Central Insurance Company. The confluence of Stradford’s precarious legal standing in the court of law and the ability of insurers to rely on a “riot clause” to avoid paying insurance claims meant that despite amassing wealth, “none of the riot victims” were able to defend, much less recover, the loss from the destruction of wealth.

By way of conclusion, I want to offer a few analytical points about studying the history of the racial wealth gap. Though an important, perhaps essential part of the puzzle, this history cannot be reduced to a story of white settlers, white people, and white capital expropriating the wealth of black, brown, and indigenous people. As Alexandra Harmon has persuasively shown, during the 1890s, the “most aggressively acquisitive” tribal citizens “ran roughshod over friends and neighbors” and “proved highly capable of manipulating the allotment process and the state legal system to their economic advantage.” Intra-wealth inequality—not just racial disparities in wealth between indigenous and white people—mirrored larger trends during this period. Wealth “generated or acquired by members of the southern tribes was also collecting in a small number of large pools.”

Nor can this history be reduced to how black people have suffered disproportionately, a simple observation that elides the obvious economic achievements of many black people. It is not enough, though, to highlight the accumulation and dispossession of wealth by and from men like J.B. Stradford and Pleasant Porter, the latter of which “amassed wealth in business and in ranching on tribal lands.” Instead, we might ask how the larger political economy of racial capitalism in general, and the flourishing of segregated enclave economies in particular (Jim Crow), allowed for the amassing of wealth? What were the different techniques used by New York City’s bourgeoisie and the Boston Brahmins to defend their wealth? Did African Americans, Japanese, and indigenous people have similar techniques at their disposal, and what do those circumscribed options reveal about the makings of the racial wealth gap?

Engaging with these questions might allow for greater theorization about the relationship between the different epochs in the history of the racial wealth gap and the relationship between the first (“war capitalism”), the second described in this essay (state-capital dispossession), and the third (the racial welfare state).

Destin Jenkins is currently a postdoctoral fellow at The Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University. In 2018 he will begin a tenure-track position as the Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of History at the University of Chicago.

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