By Lee A. Daniels
On Saturday August 24 and Wednesday, August 28, tens of thousands of Americans gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to honor the 1963 March on Washington and the Movement that brought America into the modern age.
Speaker after speaker — including three American presidents who declared they owed their presidencies to the societal changes the Movement made possible – urged America to heed the substantial work that remains to be done.
It surely must have been the work of divine intervention, then, that three events which broke into the news Tuesday, the 27th, Wednesday, the 28th, and Thursday, the 29th, would underscore why the 1963 March “for Jobs and Freedom” was necessary then – and why the pursuit of those twin goals still remains an urgent matter today.
The first event occurred on Wednesday. Merrill Lynch, the financial-services giant, settled a class-action racial discrimination suit involving 700 Blacks who worked as brokers or were in training to become brokers for the firm since 2001. The $160 million the company will pay out to those involved in the suit makes it the largest such settlement ever against an American company.
What’s more important were the facts which brought the case to settlement: The 700 Black brokers were just a token number of the firm’s worldwide total number of 14,000; and they endured the common “techniques” of corporate racial discrimination – isolated from the flow of information about the business; denied good assignments and lucrative accounts; subjected to harassment from some of their co-workers; and given substandard performance reviews by their managers.
The Merrill Lynch suit, first filed in 2005, spotlights how blatant acts of discrimination in the workplace wreck not only the careers of individuals but produce harsh, long-lasting effects on the economic standing of black Americans as a group.
The following day, August 29, thousands of fast-food workers across the country – most of whom are paid the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour – staged their second one-day job action in a month to dramatize their demand that the national minimum wage be raised to $15.00 an hour.
The job actions, which occurred in dozens of cities, not only underscored that nearly 40 percent of fast-food workers are older than 25 – and many have families to support. It also underscored that even if they work a 40-hour week, they earn only about $15,000 a year. That is far below the formal federal poverty line income level of $23,283.00 for a family of four.
The efforts of the fast-food workers exemplify how the global and national transformation of the workplace can produce harmful economic effects that intensify both a general inequality and the racial inequality that stems from the nation’s once-pervasive acceptance of racism.
The third event involved an article in Fast Company, a business magazine that focuses on innovative thinking about technology and design, that purported to identify “25 of the smartest women” in business whose use of twitter show them to be “most valuable thought leaders” who “enrich discussions related to top business trends.”
But the article named only White women to the list.
Reaction, particularly from the Black twitterverse, was swift in coming about the “unintended racism” the article put on display. Many of those comments showed they understood that being on such a list in a magazine of Fast Company’s influence was likely to bring new business contacts and new business dollars to those on it. Such comments showed, again, how the seemingly “unthinking” exclusion of blacks and other people of color from mainstream institutions, companies, events and activities has always been an important component of stamping a “whites-only” sign in front of vast pathways to advancement in America.
What does each of these events have in common, then?
Money, of course. Money is not simply as legal tender to buy things; but money as a marker of an individual’s value in the labor market and in the larger society. Money as the means by which an individual can forge a measure of comfort and security for his or her family and provide a solid financial foundation for the family’s next generation. And money that can circulate in one’s own community to help build and maintain the resources that make that community a viable place to live.
That is what Martin Luther King, Jr. and A. Philip Randolph and the other organizers and participants of the 1963 March on Washington understood: That economic fairness – a decent, liveable wage in exchange for good work – was as much a foundation of a just society as were laws that barred discrimination and promoted opportunity.
That’s why they called that iconic event “The March for Jobs and Freedom.”
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.