It has now been more than two years since George Floyd’s murder sparked the historic 2020 summer uprisings for racial justice. Since then, the debate about race in the US has remained center stage. Racial justice movement leaders and organizers continue to demand a reckoning with the nation’s history of racial exclusion and oppression. At the same time, a white nationalist, anti-democratic, and increasingly violent faction has gained prominence.
A central question is how to advance racial and economic justice while US democracy continues to backslide. Significant challenges remain: public opinion on issues of race continues to waver amid weaponized racist backlash; Republican-led state legislatures are passing sweeping voter suppression measures; and a reactionary Supreme Court is rolling back civil rights and freedoms. Meanwhile, Democrats are divided over strategy, vision, and goals.
While the path ahead is unclear, it is coming into view. The Black Lives Matter movement has already shown that millions of people can be activated into an anti-racist politics rooted in multiracial solidarity—even if temporarily. Now, the task ahead is to better understand how to translate movement ideas and values more broadly: to advance a new vision for freedom and liberation, and to reach Americans who are disengaged but might respond to that positive, race-forward vision. To do that, we must understand the forces that brought us to this moment.
The Failures of Neoliberalism and Racial Liberalism
As I noted in NPQ earlier this year, two dominant worldviews of the past half century–racial liberalism and neoliberalism–have shaped US politics with respect to the role of race and the economy. Neoliberalism held that so-called “free markets” would bring both economic prosperity and political freedom, and that policymaking and politics should therefore privilege individual private choice and profit-driven, private-sector companies. Racial liberalism developed within this market-based framework, largely promoting a “colorblind” approach of equal access and opportunity for people of color to the existing system.
Of course, the past few decades of neoliberal, trickle-down economics have failed to deliver on the promise of shared prosperity and political equality for working people across all races. Certain advances of racial liberalism, like fairer representation of people of color in positions of power, remain important. But equal access to leadership inside of an economic and political system that largely fails Americans of all backgrounds is insufficient. What is needed now is a transformative vision that moves beyond the status quo and delivers on the promise of a multiracial democracy and economy that works for everyone.
A Transformative Vision for Racial and Economic Justice
Today, a new generation of activists and organizers are part of a multiracial, intersectional movement. They are making the connections between intersecting challenges—economic and racial inequality exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and rising authoritarianism—and coalescing around an emergent worldview for racial justice—one that goes beyond symbolic representation and moves toward a redistribution of power and resources. They are demanding transformative change at every level—federal, state, and local—and are focused on policy, institutions, and grassroots power.
The movement today is diverse and versatile. It includes decentralized mass movements like Black Lives Matter, a network of activists and movement chapters throughout the country; youth-led organizations like Black Youth Project 100, which focuses on confronting anti-Black racism and building Black political power; community leaders from Sister Song fighting for reproductive and gender justice; youth organizers from United We Dream and Mijente demanding immigrant justice; Indigenous leaders from NDN Collective building power through organizing and narrative change; and climate activists from the Green New Deal Network advancing bold agendas for environmental justice. Others are also making change happen through scholarship, with prominent scholars of color like Ta-Nehesi Coates, Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor, and Nikole Hannah-Jones using culture and literature to elevate newfound understandings of the nation’s racialized political and economic system. Collectively, this dynamic, multiracial movement is building cross-issue solidarity and creating the conditions for new beginnings and possibilities.
At the heart of the movement is a struggle for freedom and liberation that builds on a deep tradition of organizing in the abolitionist, civil rights, and women’s liberation movements. This is not a co-opted concept of freedom in service of market power and the economy, but a deeper sense of freedom—freedom from domination, freedom from systems of oppression, freedom from harm, and the ability to truly thrive.
Michelle Alexander, legal scholar and author of The New Jim Crow, has written about the importance of solidarity as key to liberation. “Growing numbers of people are beginning to see how the politics of white supremacy have resurfaced again and again, leading to the creation and maintenance of new systems of racial and social control. A politics of deep solidarity is beginning to emerge—the only form of politics that holds any hope for our collective liberation.”
Incremental policy approaches will not be enough to build genuine multiracial solidarity and dismantle systems of racial and economic oppression. The post-neoliberal vision of freedom and liberation requires more: repair and redress, and material equity.
- Repair and redress: an honest reckoning with America’s legacy of white supremacy and violence, followed by concrete, reparative action to redress those harms.
- Material equity: an equitable distribution of resources and decision-making power, and improved material outcomes in health, wealth, safety, and all other domains.
While today’s movement is broad in scope and at times tactically divergent, these values—repair and redress and material equity—might serve as building blocks for a shared narrative that illuminates a path toward a more liberatory future. These values move beyond the failures of an individualistic, market-based neoliberalism. They overlap and reinforce one another—material wealth inequality is the result of historical injustices, and equity policies rooted in redress are necessary for racial and economic justice.
Repair and Redress: Why History Matters
The post-neoliberal vision of repair and redress calls for an honest reckoning with the US legacy of white supremacy and racialized violence. A truthful accounting of the nation’s racial legacy helps us to better understand the gravity of past and ongoing harms perpetuated against communities of color, and the ongoing nature of exclusion, injustice, and oppression. It makes central the idea that both an understanding of the past and affirmative actions to repair past wrongs are necessary for accountability and justice.
The galvanizing success of literary works like The 1619 Project, “The Case For Reparations,” and Caste suggest that there is popular demand for a deeper understanding of America’s legacy of slavery and structural racism. This re-examination of American history reaching the mainstream is crucial to the push for a more inclusive, multiracial democracy. But today’s racial justice movement and efforts to reckon with US history have been met with fierce resistance and often anti-democratic action.
In NPQ, Shanelle Matthews, Communications Director of the Movement for Black Lives, cautions that “During my time with Movement for Black Lives and BLM, I have watched a lot of people’s commitment—to the Black Lives Matter movement in particular—ebb and flow.” Matthews adds pointedly that, as of February 2022, the movement polled lower than it did before Floyd’s death.
Matthews reminds us that these contradictions are to be expected: “People want to be a part of the change, but they also have these allegiances to the systems that allow for racism to exist. Classism, for example. I have empathy because people are often torn between those allegiances—desiring to be part of this reckoning around racial justice and anti-Black racism while also belonging to a class or caste that behaves in ways that are incongruent with pro-Black values.” Moving beyond neoliberalism, in short, is not just a slogan. Coming to terms with class and the economy is central to liberation.
Organizers and scholars alike are calling for redress in the form of structural and economic policy interventions that are race-forward, intersectional, and focused broadly on shifting power. Their policy solutions are wide-ranging and reparative—reparations, direct payments, a worker’s bill of rights, divestment from systems of incarceration and surveillance, comprehensive immigration reform, accountability for predatory lending, student debt cancellation, housing and health care for all, funds for community land trusts, and cooperative enterprises. Many are also thinking about policy design and implementation, and how to take programs and initiatives to scale.
Actualizing a visionary agenda aligned with values of repair and redress will not be easy, especially given intense backlash over basic discussions about American history. But shying away from these discussions is not an option in the fight for racial justice and the struggle for a more inclusive, multiracial democracy. Racial justice advocates can make the case that ignoring or denying America’s history comes at the expense of a more liberatory future. Acknowledgement, repair, and redress will not erase past harms. But it can help us move toward healing some of the harms that continue to shape all our communities today.
Material Equity: Wealth, Power, and Collective Action
The concept of repair and redress makes the historical connection to today’s inequities and the need for material equity. Just as the late civil rights movement shifted towards an increased push for multiracial economic solidarity, racial justice leaders today understand that race and the economy are interlinked. Racism shapes economic rules and institutions, and those rules and institutions drive racist outcomes. Without economic equity, racial inequality will continue to persist. Addressing racism head on through repair and redress is vital to building economic equity. Material equity thus ties together the connections between race, the economy, and democratic power.
Moving beyond a vision of racial justice that focuses primarily on equal access and opportunity, today’s movement pursues equitable outcomes—in wealth, income, health, education, and more—and centers racial equity. Material equity provides a pathway for an economic system where public policy can play an affirmative role in facilitating a more equitable distribution of resources and services to communities, and for those communities to have more decision-making power and control.
As Demos President Taifa Butler noted in a recent interview, building stronger models of collective governance can provide a pathway toward power and control for marginalized communities. “We think democracy is just access to the ballot, but it is not. It is actually being able to influence and control the forces that shape our lives every day.” She goes on to state, “As we reshape the current systems of our economy and our democracy, we want people, all people—and Black and Brown people in particular—who have been most harmed by the system to be able to have a say.”
Those demanding material equity ask about material conditions, understanding material conditions on the ground impacts the types of interventions and policies that are necessary for achieving equity and building community power. Persistently unequal outcomes are not the result of individual failings or a lack of hard work. Systemic inequality is the result of an economic system tilted to favor the wealthy and well-connected, while leaving most Americans behind.
Material equity brings attention to staggering levels of income and wealth inequality and the need for public policy interventions to address persistent gaps in outcomes. Jeremie Greer, co-director of Liberation in a Generation, has called on policymakers to grapple with the extractive nature of the economy and the historical roots of racism and wealth inequality. Visionary proposals abound, including guaranteed income, an unconditional, recurring, direct cash payments program that has been piloted in more than 20 cities; a federal job guarantee, which has been endorsed by Duke economist William “Sandy” Darity Jr. and introduced into Congress as legislation by Representative Ayanna Presley (D-MA); and “baby bonds,” a form of capital for young people that The New School economist Darrick Hamilton, among others, has championed to address the racial wealth gap.
There is also broader movement in the field afoot. For instance, food co-op consultant Darnell Adams explains that “many BIPOC communities are creating their own paths for liberation and healing by focusing on the solidarity economy in its many forms” and that food co-op organizing in Black communities in particular “is experiencing something of a renaissance.”
From renewed labor movements to tenant organizing, community leaders are working together in multiracial coalitions to push agendas that deliver concrete change at the local level. Robust investments in universal pre-K and childcare, tuition-free college, and a more equitable tax code are also examples of policy proposals that would help strengthen and advance economic security. All these policies focus on the material results of the economy for communities, especially for people of color and those with less wealth.
The Pursuit of Freedom and Liberation
The policy agenda for racial justice will continue to evolve as the movement grows and circumstances change. But the values that underpin the movement are centered on reckoning with historical wrongs, redistributing resources, and fundamentally shifting power.
Repair and redress and material equity are the building blocks toward actualizing a vision of post-neoliberal freedom and liberation. This is a race-forward, positive vision for justice that centers power. It counters the false promise of a “colorblind” populism that ignores or revises history and promises opportunity within a broken system.
A multiracial governing coalition will be vital to translating values into action, driving change, and leading the way. This will ultimately require building power across race and place—organizing communities, creating new centers of democratic practice, and redistributing resources.
A broad-based movement for freedom and liberation can provide the space for people from all backgrounds coming together for multiracial solidarity. And here, it is important not to be squishy. In the context of US racism, multiracial solidarity means an explicit commitment to being pro-Black. As social impact consultant Dax Devlon-Ross indicates, a pro-Black space is “not just a place where Black folks can thrive and be. It’s a place where all folks can thrive and be. Because in my understanding, and how I have referenced and thought about history, whenever Blackness is centered, everybody wins.”
This is hard work, because it means deep cultural change. It means, Devlon-Ross writes, to stop being “polite rather than kind, nice rather than truthful, passive-aggressive rather than accountable, fear-based rather than trust-based, competitive rather than cooperative, tight-fisted rather than generous, rigid rather than adaptive, and impersonal rather than loving.”
Achieving freedom and liberation demands a break from past systems; it demands interventions that shift power and resources to those traditionally left behind. As we approach the 2040s, when the United States is expected to become majority people of color, two increasingly clear and divergent paths are being illuminated: white minority authoritarian rule or a new economy and multiracial democracy, one that is people-centered and focused on the wellbeing of entire communities.
Demographics are not destiny—but they are shaping the steps forward and the reactionary forces fighting progress. Absent a developed counter-vision for addressing the effects of the failures of neoliberalism, the United States is vulnerable to a politics promising a return to a false era of prosperity that remains appealing to a large swath of the electorate.
It is critical that those advancing the path towards racial justice articulate a vision of multiracial democracy that diagnoses the failures of the past and confronts the scourge of racism and persistent economic inequality. Movement leaders across the country are already showing us the way.