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Two sides of racist oppression: violence and economic policy

Commentary
May 5, 2021By Alejandro Queral

Words are insufficient to express our outrage and sadness over recent events in our country. Over the past months we have witnessed violent attacks against Asian Americans, including a doubling of reported hate crimes against Asian Americans in Oregon from January to February of this year. Nationally, these attacks culminated with the killing of eight people in Atlanta. Every week we learn about another Black or brown person shot and killed by police. Every day, immigrant and refugee families are torn apart for having dared to strive for a better life in this country.

We at the Oregon Center for Public Policy stand in solidarity with Black Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) communities and recognize that these violent acts reflect a system imbued with racism. Throughout the history of this country, people of color have experienced oppression, injustice, and violence – from the genocidal actions against Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans, to the Jim Crow lynching of countless numbers of Black Americans, to the terror endured by Mexican Americans at the hands of white Americans in the early 20th century.

Hand-in-hand with physical violence came economic oppression. Overworked and underpaid, Chinese laborers endured dangerous working conditions to build railroads in the second half of the 1800s. Under the bracero program of the mid-20th Century, Mexican seasonal farmworkers picked crops for meager wages and terrible living conditions that some describe as “close to slavery.” Farmworkers today continue to work for lower wages and under dangerous conditions; they enjoy few protections and are unlikely to qualify for safety net programs, including one of Oregon’s most robust programs to support low-income workers.

Unlike a history book, history itself doesn’t have a clear end-point. We’ve made progress as a nation in recognizing the humanity of all people, but we still have an immense distance to travel. Racist structures of the past remain, having taken new forms. The system of Jim Crow, for instance, gave way to the system of mass incarceration and voter suppression, maintaining the oppression of Black Americans. Blatant discrimination persists. Consider that in the early 2000s, banks steered Black and Latino borrowers to risker, more expensive subprime loans. The ensuing collapse of the housing market wiped out about half of all Black wealth.

The tax system subtly advantages white people and disadvantages many people of color. As Dorothy Brown makes clear in The Whiteness of Wealth, the tax system was designed with white families in mind, not Black families, and remains an effective tool of economic oppression. With wealth, homeownership, and business ownership disproportionately held by white families, tax policies that subsidize these assets exacerbate the economic racial divide.

Talking about taxes when communities face deadly violence may seem out of place, but it’s not. Economic issues are a matter of life and death when families must choose between paying for medicine or feeding their children, keeping a roof over their head or risking their health for a paycheck. While these are choices that families of all races — Black, brown, and white confront — the racism embedded in our economic system means that families of color are more likely to face these barriers.

We need policy solutions that address what ails our society. We must not only confront the violence targeting people of color, but also the underlying racist structures that continue to disadvantage BIPOC communities. We at the Center not only stand with BIPOC communities, but are committed to working with them to change laws and policies needed to dismantle racist systems.