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Stephen Gottlieb: Racial Solidarity Helps All

Too many whites lack the security of a livable wage because so many resist letting African-Americans have it. Somehow whites think they’ll do better if Blacks don’t. That’s a mistake. White craftsmen and laborers became abolitionists because competing with slave labor dragged their earnings down. The American labor movement understood the importance of unity. Arthur J. Goldberg, then General Counsel of the Congress of Industrial Organizations or CIO, filed a brief supporting integration in Brown v. Board of Education on behalf of the union, which shortly merged to form the AFL-CIO. Full disclosure, at law school, I argued in moot court in front of then Justice Goldberg and learned at close range the power of his mind and instincts.

A congenital liberal, I never lost my support for unions. I don’t ignore their faults – whether denying a client her retirement, which turned out to be peanuts anyway; or unions’ right-or-wrong defense of police who kill. But the absence of unions means that the working class consistently gets screwed and has for half a century. So no, I’m not a liberal who looks only at his own welfare and ignores the injury to others. I’ve lived in West Virginia, knew coal miners and their kids and I do grieve for what’s happened to them and to factory workers, even while wanting to put them into safer, better jobs that are more consistent with the welfare of the whole country. Their problems have many sources, including government’s failure to restrain capitalism, and conservative support for policies like globalization. But their complaints are real.

It wasn’t until Nixon and Reagan started to split the labor movement on the anvil of race that the power of working people in America began to decline. Real wages have barely changed since Reagan. The plight of American workers will not improve until they relearn the message of unity.

How about the economy? America became an economic powerhouse because the Founders created a single continental market, allowing us all to buy, sell, hire and work with and for each other. Taking any group of us down diminishes that market. Jackie Robinson didn’t destroy baseball by playing with the Dodgers – he grew the market for players and fans, just as Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, and others did. I hardly think Toni Morrison destroyed the market for literature!

I’ve been asked if I never lost a job to an African-American? Absolutely and vice versa, plus it’s nonsense to think being born with light skin diminished my life chances. One of my fellow students at law school was Drew Days, who became the first African-American head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and later Solicitor General of the United States. Jealous? Get real. We cheered, Go Drew Go, get all you can do done! I’m sure his classmates at Hamilton felt the same way. We all mourned his recent passing.

We benefit from each other’s economic activity, whether ethnic restaurants, major digital or scientific developments, or a unified labor movement. Welcoming each other to full participation in the economy benefits us all. I want real progress for the working classes but they are legendary for surrendering their own interests to rich capitalists, who have often blocked their progress on an anvil of racial prejudice, and they are doing it again.

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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