Time International - 02.03.2020

(Jacob Rumans) #1
Time March 2–9, 2020


remains at the federal level of $7.25 an hour. An older black
man said, “You need two or three jobs just to afford hous-
ing.” A mother said that even though she earned her bach-
elor’s degree, she still struggled to find work, pay her rent
and afford insurance. “We need more resources,” she said.
“Not for a handout, but a help-up.”
Many black workers outside the middle class make up
what is known as the gig economy, taking on jobs that treat
them like independent contractors even though they work
them like employees. In more traditional service jobs, like
cashier or waitress, the hustle is created by the rise of on-
demand scheduling. Technology lets employers change
employee schedules quickly, which makes it difficult for
workers to plan their complex lives. The hustle is espe-
cially hard on black women, who bear the brunt of child-
care, elder care and mutual-aid relationships with friends
and neighbors. It also makes it nearly impossible to predict
one’s wages from paycheck to paycheck. Because the pay
is so spiky and the work so unpredictable, many dabble in
a stream of “network opportunities,” like selling diet pills
or travel vouchers.
While we do not think of the middle-class pitch and the
low-wage hustle as the same thing, they are responding to
the same reality. For black Americans, achieving upward
mobility, even in thriving cities that compete for tech jobs,
private capital and national recognition, is as complicated
as it was in 1963. In that economy, black Americans hus-
tled in the face of legal racial segregation and social stigma
that cordoned us off from opportunities reserved for white
Americans. In 2020, black Americans can legally access the
major on-ramps to opportunity—colleges, workplaces,
public schools, neighborhoods, transportation, electoral
politics—but despite hustling like everyone else, they do
not have much to show for it.

While the hustle is often valorized, black Americans
have long known that it’s a raw deal. The 1963 March on
Washington for Jobs and Freedom is remembered for the
soaring speeches and massive turnout, but its organizing
platform had a laser focus on the particular forms of hustle
prescribed to black Americans at the time. The most im-
portant period of economic expansion in the 20th century
took place after World War II, and black workers had been
deliberately excluded—they were routinely denied low-
interest loans, housing in certain neighborhoods, GI Bill
benefits and access to higher education. Racial segregation
turned the massive public spending and economic invest-
ment into what academics have called “affirmative action
for white Americans.” Forced to hustle amid largesse, black
Americans built their own social institutions to substitute
for inherited wealth. They hustled in underground econo-
mies like local lotteries, but they also hustled with multiple
jobs, multigenerational households and mutual- aid societ-
ies. That is why the day’s most regaled speaker, Martin Lu-
ther King Jr., framed his dream in terms of a check written
to black Americans that we could not cash.
The March galvanized what we now perhaps too blithely
think of as the Civil Rights Act. The landmark legislation

not only enshrined full black citizenship
in the nation’s governance, it also rerouted
black hustle into mainstream paths of
economic inclusion. Affirmative- action
policies opened up lucrative public-
sector jobs that transformed the black
middle class. Equal access to school fund-
ing and military benefits injected new
capital into historically black colleges.
Combined with integrated K-12 schools,
those institutions set about remedying
centuries of deliberately under utilized
black educational capacity. By the 1970s,
there was every reason to hope that black
people could trade the hustle for actual
Achievement, measured by increases
not just in economic fortunes but also
the good housing and health afforded
by those fortunes, should make the hus-
tle unnecessary. Hustle is for surviving
a rigged game. Achievement is for strat-
egizing in a fair competition with clear
rules, applied equally. But by the time I
attended the Black Wall Street event in
Durham, there was overwhelming evi-
dence that the hustle is alive and well.
Black workers are left to do precisely
what they were doing on the eve of the
March on Washington: piece together
their own economic survival.
This is happening almost 60 years
later for two reasons. First is the retrench-
ment of white people’s privileged access
to the means of economic mobility, like
the ability to pay for high- quality col-
lege or connections to certain social net-
works. And second is an economy that
has built a fire wall against the March’s
demands by investing heavily in the pri-
vate sector and shrinking the public sec-
tor. By the 1980s it had become clear that
a better job alone would not anchor black
freedom. Policies that had once been ex-
plicitly about targeting poverty through
massive public investment instead fa-
vored private- sector schemes. The pri-
vate sector, in turn, was more commit-
ted to profits than to social well-being.
It also operates, to a large degree, be-
yond the indirect control of voters and
their elected representatives. The result
is a national safety net that gets weaker
every year, with rising health costs, gut-
ted food- subsidy programs, no paid pa-
rental leave, affordable-housing shortages
and starved civic infrastructures that
now struggle to provide entire cities



march in Chicago
for a $15-per-hour
minimum wage on
May 23, 2017



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