Combating racism is pointless unless the economic injustice that underlies it is also dealt with, activist and attorney Jennifer Jones-Austin said.
She spoke during the recent town hall segment of the Progressive National Baptist Convention’s 61st annual session in Orlando, Fla.
Racism exists and persists “not because people are racist. It’s to perpetuate an unjust capitalist society where some will have, and others will not,” said Jones-Austin, executive director of the Federal Protestant Welfare Agency. “You can fight racism all you want. But if you don’t understand why racism exists in the first place — to uphold these structural injustices — you’re just going to keep chasing your own tail.”
The Aug. 11 town hall discussion was followed by an announcement that the predominantly Black denomination and the AFL-CIO are joining forces to advance racial and economic justice initiatives and to wage voter engagement campaigns ahead of the coming midterm elections.
PNBC President David R. Peoples said the alliance recognizes the connection between democracy and economic justice.
“We are committed to advancing racial and economic justice and the preservation of our democracy,” Peoples said. “This is a great partnership. This is history here this day, but we have work to do. Democracy is at stake.”
Martin Luther King Jr. also saw the connection between racism and economic oppression, AFL-CIO Treasurer Fred Redmond said during the town hall session.
“Dr. King knew all too well that you could not have racial justice without economic justice. That’s why Dr. King worked so hard to bring the Civil Rights movement and the labor movement together,” he said. “Dr. King knew that social and racial equality depend on economic security. And that remains true today.”
PNBC and AFL-CIO must collaborate now to resist surging voter suppression efforts and other existential threats, Redmond said. The denomination, to which King belonged, and the labor giant joined to promote the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1964.
“We need to respond by showing the power of labor and faith pulling in the same direction.”
“The two movements are committed to shared progressive ideas. And that commitment, that unified front, is unrelenting, and we have the potential to form an alliance that can be a great success and is needed in today’s economy,” Redmond asserted. “We need to respond by showing the power of labor and faith pulling in the same direction.”
The physical well-being of African Americans depends on such cooperative efforts, said Frederick D. Haynes III, senior pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas.
“In this country, racism is part of the public health crisis for Black people. In this nation, your ‘skin becomes your sin’ — I think that’s Ice Cube,” Haynes quipped. “Systemic issues create ill health for Black people. So, it’s not just what we eat, but our food options. It’s not just a lack of exercise, but the fact we don’t have access to recreational facilities in our communities.”
The political crisis posed by the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol signaled that pre-existing economic and health injustices will exacerbate racism unless people of faith take unified action, Haynes said. “Jan. 6 said this nation is unhinged. Democracy is in intensive care. When you look at a community that is unprotected and unhealthy in a nation that is unhinged, what happens to us if Jan. 6 becomes a reality? What happens to Black folk if Jan. 6 becomes a reality?
“Jan. 6 said this nation is unhinged.”
Black denominations must get on the same page to push back against these trends, Haynes said.
“There are a lot of Black gatherings going on in this country this summer, and if we are not discussing the fact that we are unhealthy and unprotected in a country that is unhinged, what are we shouting, fellowshipping and meeting for? We’re basically having a praise party on the Titanic.”
Democracy needs not only to be protected but also re-invented because African Americans have been denied the political, social and economic freedom provided for many others, Jones-Austin added. “Even if we want to claim we live in a democracy, it has never truly been a democracy for all people.”
White supremacist theology also has propped up economic injustice and racism in a nation where “the white man is most like God and you order your society accordingly,” she said. “White man on top. Black man on bottom. Black women are the least, and God has ordained it so.”
‘We are Cain’: Owning up to the reality of racism in America | Opinion by Robert P. Jones