The Stock is Racist: Systems, Inequality, and Jubilee
Systems thinking can help us understand both how racism isn't just (or even primarily) about individual attitudes and behavior, and how most existing methods to address the racial wealth disparity won't get the job done.
Encountering these disconcerting realities forces us to pause and allow ourselves to be confronted by the clash between what is and what the ethics of the Kingdom of God would have them be.
Thankfully, it is always out of this sort of unsettling confrontation that we are provided with opportunities to actualize faithfulness to Jesus' shalom cultivating way.
The two most basic elements of a system are stocks and flows.
The stock represents how much of any dynamic quantity or quality exists at any one time -- the amount of water in a bathtub, the size of the population, the number of products "in stock" at a department store, or even a sense of wellbeing are all types of stocks.
The flow represents the sources bringing added levels into that stock or removing them from the stock -- the faucet and the drain, births and deaths, new shipments and purchases, or time with community and loneliness.
To these first features, we can add two more: feedback loops and delays.
Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics and my current intellectual crush, offers a light-hearted example of feedback loops with the example of chickens, eggs, and road crossings. The more chickens there are, the more eggs they have, the more chickens there are, and so on. This is called a "reinforcing feedback loop" (represented with an "R" in the diagram below). A change in one factor, in this type, leads to a corresponding change in the other -- if one goes up, the other also goes up (note the "+" and "-" signs in the diagram). This type of pattern can lead to exponential growth or a quick crash in the stock.
The other form is called a balancing feedback loop. The more chickens there are, the more chickens are crossing roads and turning into McNugget paste. As one factor goes up, there's an opposite change in the other factor. This helps keep stocks in a state of dynamic equilibrium. Like heartbeats per minute, while allowing some degree of variation, there are countervailing forces keeping the level around the same stable point all times.
Now, feedback loops happen over time -- hence the delay feature. Chickens have to grow up before they can have eggs and make more chickens. Same thing with wandering across roads.
Put these four simple factors together -- stocks, flows, feedback loops, and delays -- and you have the basic structures that drive many of the most diverse and unpredictable features of our world: from weather changes, to stock market dynamics, family relationships, and wild fish populations.
Systems and Racial Injustice
So let's imagine two stocks. One is white wealth. The other is Black wealth.
Wealth, to quickly get on the same page with our terms, is simply assets minus liabilities. The folks at the Institute for Policy Studies (who run Inequality.org) unpack that description a bit:
Assets can include everything from an owned personal residence and cash in savings accounts to investments in stocks and bonds, real estate, and retirement accounts. Liabilities cover what a household owes: a car loan, credit card balance, student loan, mortgage, or any other bill yet to be paid.
The chart below depicts the two stocks. If you line everyone up in a row in order of who has the most and who has the least, the person in the middle is the median. The white person standing there has $134,230 dollars to their name. The median Black person has more than ten times less with only $11,030.
Why are they so different? King sums it up in two minutes in this interview with NBC in 1967.
He makes a few key points:
- no other group has been a slave on America's soil
- the color of Black people became an ongoing stigma that excluded them from economic opportunity well beyond the period of slavery
- when slaves were freed, they were provided nothing, which mean being freed into poverty and famine without means of escape
- at the same time Black people were freed and given no land or other means of earning a living, white immigrants were given huge swaths of land across the midwest and west
Extending this argument into the twentieth century, Ta-Nehisi Coates's article making the case for reparations from a few years ago does a powerful job of exposing the ways that housing discrimination and other exclusionary tactics continued to ensure the inability of Black communities to build wealth.
It's noteworthy that both King and Coates make arguments that locate the problem in access to and ownership of land -- but a deep dive into that soil is fodder for another blog or blogs not too far off.
For our purposes, we need to notice the way that ownership of wealth within our capitalist economic system provides a reinforcing feedback loop. At the same time, White Supremacy made Blackness into a balancing feedback loop, ensuring that any gains were neutralized through a continually adaptive repertoire of techniques from lynching and Jim Crow segregation, to redlining and racial zoning covenants, to mass incarceration and evictions, to payday loans and school funding based on neighborhood tax revenue.
Let's dive a bit deeper into the reinforcing feedback loop generated by wealth possession.
Systems theorists have identified an "archetype" that often reoccurs when strong reinforcing feedback loops are in play. It's called the "Success to the Successful Trap." Raworth explains that it "kicks off when the winners in one round of a game reap rewards that raise their chances of winning again in the next round" (Doughnut Economics, 127).
Simply put: already having wealth is the most important factor in gaining more wealth.
Amplifying these dynamics over time (delays), we witness the stark divergence in outcomes between white wealth and black wealth. The first, with reinforcing vigor, curves exponentially upwards. The second, strongly balanced, remains flat.
The sobering conclusion is that even if all of us white people overcame our internalized racism, it wouldn't make for racial justice. It doesn't "solve racism" if you're not a racist. The stock is racist. And if the stock is racist, then from our basic review of systems, we know the system is racist. Until that changes, so is our society.
These outcomes aren't the result of differences in the work ethic between racial groups. They are the outcomes of racism. Our history is racist. And so the outcome, our present social and communal situation, is racist. So long as we white people start the game with a stacked hand (and each win increasingly stacks the next round further in our favor), the system itself will keep on perpetrating the violence racism.
The stock is racist.
Speaking that truth does not to exonerate us from or undermine the existence of the continued supremacy exercised by white people. It's not just the stock that's racist: so am I. That undoing and reshaping work is essential; it must continue, deepen, and expand.
The point is simply that without doing deep restructuration of the system -- and knowing what we actually mean by the word system -- we cannot create the world God desires and people of color deserve.
If We Are To Be Human Again
What systems allow us to do is to get our bearings on the sort of relationships within which we live our lives, practice our faith, and express our identity.
To the extent that we allow ourselves to be pacified by and inhabit stories that proclaim racist relationships (both interpersonal and structural) as natural or that place blame on the victims, we condemn ourselves to truncated and disfigured options for living into our own humanity. We are all born into legacies that separate neighbor from neighbor and attempt to destine all to violence: in its perpetration and/or its reception. This is the outcome of racially divided stocks of wealth and the racist ideologies that ensure their maintenance.
As people held by grace in the body of Jesus -- formed around a communion table that joins the radically different bodies of Jew and Greek, male and female, white and Brown and Black collectively into a New Creation -- it is integral feature of our journey of discipleship to reject, undo, and remake legacies of violence and exclusion into love for shalom.
All of this raises another question for Christians: What is the biblical response to inequitable stocks?
Traditional liberal tactics for addressing inequality fall into three general buckets:
- Progressive income taxes and transfers
- Labour market protections such as a minimum wage
- providing public services such as health, education, and social housing
(again, drawing this breakdown from Kate Raworth's Doughnut Economics)
But each of those approaches misses the stock and only addresses the flows: redistributing income not wealth.
If we are to be human again, we need the liberation unto community that comes from the ancient shalom-making practice of jubilee.
Richard Lowery, unpacking Leviticus 25, writes, "Jubilee addresses broad economic trends that undermine families over time. It critiques and seeks to correct fundamental flaws in the ancient royal political economy. Jubilee is economic revolution, not charity" (Sabbath and Jubilee, 68-69). The primary methods of jubilee are debt cancelation and the redistribution of land.
When Jesus begins his ministry, he opens the temple scroll to Isaiah and reads a Jubilee text:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
And when the Spirit of God comes upon the followers of Jesus, their reformulated community called church is rooted in an economic redistribution that opens new horizons for humanness within their community and beyond:
All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. (Acts 2:44-47)
Working this out in the practicalities of our political morasses isn't something I'm worried about for a blog. But people are doing careful work on it. The economist Michael Hudson's recent paper on jubilee practices across the ancient world and how they might be translated into much needed debt forgiveness programs today can help point the way forward. The international movement for sovereign debt forgiveness also holds many insights translatable to the racial inequality.
But, most likely, we need to look energetically at calls for reparations through the theological lens of jubilee. Strong resources for pursuing this project include:
- The Black Manifesto, by James Foreman and the Black Economic Development Conference
- The Movement for Black Lives - Reparations Platform
- The Economics of Reparations, by William Darity Jr. and Dania Frank
- Reparations: How Are We Doing It, by the Fund for Democratic Community
What I know is this.
Our communities are broken. They were broken intentionally through centuries of racism that spun the wheels of power until the systems that make up our civilization were optimized for oppression. If we are ever to experience the intimacy, healing, and friendship God means for his creatures to enjoy, we will have to declare jubilee over our racist stocks.