Race isn't the problem -- economic inequality is

Shirley Sherrod says the social war is about money, not race.
Shirley Sherrod says the social war is about money, not race. (Associated Press)
By Michelle Singletary
Sunday, July 25, 2010

Instead of focusing on the politics behind the firing and subsequent redemption of Agriculture Department employee Shirley Sherrod, we should consider what she was trying to tell us when she addressed the NAACP.

Sherrod became the latest hot-topic story after a conservative blogger posted a video that was edited to make it appear she went out of her way to not offer help to a white farmer when she worked for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund decades ago. Sherrod was summarily asked to resign and then, in a New York minute, was vindicated when the full video of her speech revealed she had been instrumental in saving the man's farm.

Given her work and experience, we need to hear Sherrod out.

There is a disturbing and widening gulf between the rich and the poor in America. And it would be even wider except for the fact that so many middle-income families have borrowed their way to a comfortable lifestyle. They are just a paycheck, a divorce or a heath crisis away from financial ruin.

Sherrod said that while working with the white farmer, she realized that the social war we've been having isn't about race but economic inequity.

"Y'all, it's about poor versus those who have," Sherrod said in her speech. "It's really about those who have versus those who don't, you know. And they could be black; and they could be white; they could be Hispanic. And it made me realize then that I needed to work to help poor people -- those who don't have access the way others have."

Over the past several decades, more and more Americans have come to this realization. The number of people who believe they are among the have-nots has doubled from 17 percent in 1988 to 34 percent in 2007, according to a report by the Pew Research Center. The economic data back up this perception. Income gains over the past few decades have been heavily concentrated at the very top of the economic ladder.

A 2007 report by the Institute for Policy Studies and United for a Fair Economy found that the top 20 private-equity and hedge fund managers made more in 10 minutes than average-paid U.S. workers earned in a year. Top executives at hedge funds averaged $12.6 million a week, or $210,700 an hour based on a 60-hour week, compared with the $29,500 the average worker made in 2006, according to researchers.

Move forward to today and the wake of the financial crisis, and the public still sees the economic schism getting wider. In a Pew poll conducted this month, an overwhelming majority of respondents said recent government policies to boost the economy have largely helped big banks and companies and the wealthy, while providing little or no help for the poor, the middle class or small businesses.

Between 1979 and 2007, the wealthiest households saw a substantial jump in after-tax income compared with middle- and lower-income households, according to the liberal-oriented Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which summarized data from the Congressional Budget Office.

The average income for the top 1 percent of earners rose 281 percent after adjusting for inflation, or $973,100 per household. The less wealthy saw increases too, but not in the triple digits. The middle fifth of households saw an increase of 25 percent, or $11,200. The bottom fifth saw their incomes increase 16 percent, or $2,400 per household.

"There is no difference between us," Sherrod told the NAACP audience. "The only difference is that the folks with money want to stay in power and whether it's health care or whatever it is, they'll do what they need to do to keep that power, you know. It's always about money, y'all."

Fifty-five percent of all working adults said that since the recession began in 2007, they have experienced a period of unemployment or a drop in pay, or been forced to work part-time, according to a report released last month by the Pew Research Center's Social and Demographic Trends Project.

As President Obama noted in his inaugural address: "The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on the ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart -- not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good."

So when will we stop the verbal warfare, race-baiting and character assassinations, and concentrate on finding the right mix of public policy and personal responsibility to close the income gap?

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

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