What is the Color of the New Economy? And Why it Matters

October 12-18, 2013 is the first New Economy Week, sponsored by the New Economy Coalition. These seven days celebrate efforts to build “an economy that is restorative to people, place, and the planet.” Post-Occupy, there has been a growing buzz about what kind of economy we need to address wealth inequality, environmental unsustainability, and lack of democracy. Perhaps this buzz around a “New Economy” will grow into a powerful social movement — one that we desperately need. But whether it does so or not will depend critically on its color (or lack thereof).[1]


Race has posed core challenges for many progressive movements. In Betita Martinez’s 2000 essay analyzing the anti-globalization movement’s battle against the World Trade Organization in Seattle, she asked how could there be so few people of color “when the WTO’s main victims around the world are people of color?” In a 2011 commentary on Occupy, Rinku Sen answered the question “is Occupy Wall Street diverse enough” by asking a different question: “How can a racial analysis, and its consequent agenda, be woven into the fabric of the movement?”

For those who are inspired by the call for a New Economy, the same questions around race must be asked. Despite the fact that some New Economy leaders are trying to diversify their organizations and working with communities of color, a quick look at the faces of the New Economy reveals that it is still overwhelmingly white. And a further examination reveals an often privileged class perspective that assumes (white) people can just opt out because they have the resources to create new alternatives out of scratch. As the U.S. heads towards a white minority future, there is nothing new about the predominantly white leadership of key New Economy organizations.

So far, the movement appears to be made up of and appealing most to those who are discontented — those who want to and can choose a new economy. But for such a movement to succeed, it must also be led by the dispossessed[2] — those for whom the mainstream economy has never worked, those who need a new economy to meet basic needs.

Greetings from the New Economy poster FULL SIZE

Before dismissing this article as another rant against lack of diversity, let’s address the real question: just why is color important? With Obama in the White House, aren’t we supposed to be post-racial? Doesn’t raising the issue of race just further divide us? Aren’t we all supposed to see ourselves as the 99% now?

On a surface level, image matters. If people of color (not to mention poor and working class whites) cannot see themselves reflected in the New Economy movement, they will not pay much attention, much less be inspired to engage with ideas about transforming the economy. If the movement is perceived as white, then it will be challenged to build a broad multi-racial and multi-class identity.

On a deeper level, race matters because the current economy is deeply racialized. Race and racism are central to how the economy functions, whom it serves, and who pays the costs of obscene wealth accumulation and environmental unsustainability. Race and class in the U.S. are inextricably intertwined, beginning with slavery and Native American genocide and continuing to this day with the struggle of immigrants. In short, how we live in and experience the economy differs drastically depending on our race and class.

Examples of how deeply embedded race is in the economy are not hard to find. Even before the Great Recession white families held about four times as much wealth as nonwhite but that gap widened to six times by 2010.[3] The subprime mortgage and foreclosure crisis caused the largest loss of wealth for people of color in U.S. history.[4]

People of color also suffer from historic and ongoing environmental inequalities. Nationally, neighborhoods that host commercial hazardous waste facilities are made up of 56% people of color, almost twice the percentage compared to neighborhoods that do not host these facilities.[5] Even in a liberal “blue” state like Massachusetts, studies show that 24 of the 30 most environmentally overburdened communities in the state are communities of color (there are only 34 communities of color in Massachusetts).[6]

A world where race does not matter may be a noble aspiration, but in a racialized society, race blindness is turning a blind eye on actual conditions and problems of those most affected. Without directly addressing race and the economy, the New Economy movement will be hampered by the same Achilles heel that threatened other progressive movements. The labor and environmental movements, to name just two, had not only racial blind spots and but also outright racist practices.

Historically, many labor unions explicitly excluded all but whites. Even today, there are unions where it remains difficult for people of color to become members. With unionization at its lowest levels since peaking in the 1970s, one of the biggest challenges for labor is whether and how to organize the growing ranks of low-skilled, low wage service jobs – whose ranks are disproportionately people of color and immigrants. Workers who have historically been excluded by labor law (e.g. farmworkers, domestic workers) have come together into a United Workers Congress. These struggles over who is part of the movement and what its goals should be are not just matters of diversity, but fundamentally about the identity of the movement and its basis of unity.

In the environmental movement, an eerily similar story can be told. There were early days where conservation groups were almost exclusively the reserve of privileged whites. It took a new movement, the environmental justice movement, with its now famous letter to the Big 10 green groups in 1990, to call out the movement’s complicity with “solutions” that exacerbated environmental racism and its lack of diversity at all levels. The Sierra Club has struggled over the past several decades with attempts by anti-immigrant “environmentalists” to take over its national board, based on the premise that immigration fuels overpopulation.

While progress has arguably been made on some fronts within both the labor and environmental movements on race, there are still those that cling to race-blind perspectives. In a recent post by Richard Wolff on why the labor movement has declined and making important arguments for workplace democracy and worker cooperatives, there is not a single mention of the role of race and racism.

Nationally, we must remember that the Republican-corporate-conservative ascendancy to power over the last 30+ years was built on a Southern strategy in which poor and working class whites were pulled away from building a class identity with poor people of color. In a May 17, 1970 interview with the New York Times, Kevin Phillips (then Nixon’s political strategist), said “The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are.” Reagan’s 1982 declaration of war on drugs continued the “strategy of using racially coded political appeals on issues of crime and welfare to attract poor and working class white voters who were resentful of, and threatened by, desegregation, busing, and affirmative action.”[7] Progressive movements cannot succeed if we remain subject to these divide and conquer tactics.

So, what color should the New Economy movement be? It would be nice to see the rainbow. But it’s about more than just symbolic representation and inclusion. Addressing race in the New Economy means broadening our perspectives on who are economic change agents and developing strategies that will work for our increasingly racially and class segregated society. Just calling for change to something new is not enough. How it serves the diversity within the 99% must be more clearly defined.

Here in the U.S., we have much to learn much from Solidarity Economy movements, particularly in South America. These movements descend from decades of explicit struggle against neoliberalism and globalization. They have achieved some state power, most notably in Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Venezuela.

In the U.S., the U.S. Solidarity Economy Network was born out of discussions at the 2007 U.S. Social Forum. The network defines core principles of Solidarity Economy that include “equity in all dimensions: race/ethnicity/nationality, class, gender, LGBTQ” along with solidarity, people over profits, sustainability, democracy, and pluralism. What Solidarity Economy makes explicit is its basis of unity.

If the New Economy movement is to grow, it must build a broad base and account for the actual racial and class differences among the 99%, not just our commonalities. We must acknowledge the long history of tension and conflict, instead of pretending that we’ve all been on the same side all along. If New Economy does not address these divides, then there may be solutions for the more wealthy and white segments of the population, but not for the rest of us.

Fortunately, we don’t have to look hard to find examples of communities of color both now and in the past that have advanced economic principles of fairness, sustainability, and democracy. In the latter 19th century, Blacks, as part of the Knights of Labor as well as their own organizations, were part of developing cooperatives both rural and urban.[8] Civil rights icon Ella Baker spent her early organizing career in the 1930s with the Young Negros Cooperative League, supporting Black communities to develop cooperatives and self help groups. A group of Black women founded the Freedom Quilting Bee cooperative in 1966 in Alabama, selling quilts and then acquiring land for a sewing plant and for sharecropping families that had lost their land because of civil rights activism. At its height, the cooperative was the largest employer of 150 in Alberta Alabama. In 1985, Cooperative Home Care Associates was formed in the Bronx as a worker-owned cooperative made up of primarily Latina and Black women home care workers. It now has over 2000 employees and has become a certified B Corporation.

Today, the green jobs movement is being led by prominent leaders of color, like Van Jones and Majora Carter. Green Workers Cooperatives, led by Omar Freilla in the South Bronx, incubates worker owned green businesses. Also in the Bronx is the Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative which brings together community base-building organizations, community development corporations, and labor to develop strategies for the regional economy based on the Mondragon model of cooperatives in Spain. In Mississippi, the Jackson Plan, led by the Malcom X Grassroots Movement and the Jackson People’s Assembly, has goals “to deepen democracy in Mississippi and to build a vibrant, people centered solidarity economy in Jackson and throughout the state of Mississippi that empowers Black and other oppressed peoples in the state.”

In Boston, Black and Latino workers came together recently to launch CERO – Cooperative Energy, Recycling, and Organics. These workers, who were already involved in informal scrap metal collection and a vegetable oil processing microenterprise, were brought together by two community groups – Boston Workers Alliance and Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health. After completing a coop academy, the workers developed their own plan for a recycling services company serving the businesses in their own neighborhoods. They are currently raising start-up funds and exploring strategies for developing an eco-energy park in Boston based on processing organic waste into energy and fertilizer.

These examples show that a different economy is being created by people of all colors. Whether it is “new” is not really as important as whether it is inspiring the dreams (think of King’s “I Have a Dream”) that can motivate mass social movements and demonstrate in practice the principles that it preaches. Race is fundamental to understanding how to build this economy. (And with race comes class inextricably intertwined.)

If we move forward race-blind, we remain vulnerable to divide and conquer strategies. We must address our differences in order to build on our commonalities. So, during the first New Economy week, let us remember history and its lessons:

  1. Any progressive movement must build multi-racial and multi-class alliances in order to achieve significant power.
  2. Racial justice must be a core to the analysis of the old economy and strategies for economic transformation. The Right to the City Alliance is just one of the formations rooted in communities of color that is beginning to articulate such an analysis.
  3. We need to open our eyes and see that leadership and initiatives for economic transformation already exist in communities of color. They may not explicitly embrace the New Economy label, and they may not take on some of the more conventional forms. But they are there, and they need to be acknowledged and supported.
  4. Movement leadership needs to actively diversify their institutions and share power and resources.

If the color of our new economy is based on solidarity, it will not be white. What color it becomes depends on how we incorporate a racial justice analysis and build a multiracial leadership and movement.

Penn Loh is Lecturer and Director of the Masters in Public Policy Program and Community Practice at Tufts University’s Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, where he directs the Practical Visionaries Workshop. From 1996 to 2009, he served in various roles, including Executive Director since 1999, at Alternatives for Community & Environment, a Roxbury-based environmental justice group. For critical feedback on drafts of this piece, he thanks James Jennings, Nene Igietseme, Jonathon Feinberg, Cyndi Suarez, Marcy Ostberg, Becca Tumposky, Boone Shear, and Jackie Cefola.

[1] While this article focuses on the racial dimension, there are a number of factors beyond race that will also critically affect how the New Economy movement progresses, not the least of which is how it challenges the power of neoliberal capitalism.

[2] For more discussion of the differences among the 99%, see Peter Marcuse’s blog: http://pmarcuse.wordpress.com/2012/08/02/blog-17-991-the-slogan-and-the-reality-2/.

[3] Annie Lowrey. “Wealth Gap Among Races Has Widened Since Recession,” New York Times, April 28, 2013. Accessed 10/5/13 at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/29/business/racial-wealth-gap-widened-during-recession.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[4] A Rivera. “Foreclosed: State of the Dream 2008.” Boston: United for a Fair Economy, 2008. Available at http://www.faireconomy.org/files/StateOfDream_01_16_08_Web.pdf

[5] Robert Bullard, Paul Mohai, Robin Saha, and Beverly Wright. February 2007. “Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty 1987-2007.” United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries. Available at: http://www.ejrc.cau.edu/2007%20UCC%20Executive%20Summary.pdf

[6] Daniel Faber and Eric Krieg. October 2005. “Unequal Exposure to Ecological Hazards 2005: Environmental Injustices in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Executive Summary.” Philanthropy and Environmental Justice Research Project of Northeastern University, pp. iii-vi, 1-11. Available at: http://nuweb9.neu.edu/nejrc/wp-content/uploads/executive_summary_2005.pdf

[7] Michelle Alexander. 3/8/10. “The New Jim Crow: How the War on Drugs Gave Birth to a Permanent American Undercaste,” Huffington Post. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michelle-alexander/the-new-jim-crow-how-the_b_490386.html.

[8] See Jessica Gordon Nembhard, Collective Courage: A history of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice. State College, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, forthcoming 2014.

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Distinguished Senior Lecturer and Director of Master of Public Policy and Community Practice, Tufts University Department of Urban & Environmental Policy and Planning

5 thoughts on “What is the Color of the New Economy? And Why it Matters

  1. If having Obama in office meant that we are ‘post racial’ than every progressive or conservative shred of a thought would not constantly reference his race. We all be post racial when the color of our leadership is an after thought that has nothing to do with her or his campaign, platform, reason for election, or support or opposition once elected.

  2. Penn, Thanks for this great peace. Movement Generation: Justice and Ecology Project is very active in the new economy space – bringing race, class and social justice into the center of the frame. The truth is that People of Color organizing is very much at the forefront of new economy, but it not made visible or named. I did a talk with Rob Hopkins of the Transition Towns movement last week and we have very similar stories to tell – though the stories I told centered on race and grassroots organizing, and began with the frames that matter to our folks, in that way.

    Right now, we are working to highlight the racial justice and true grassroots, community based leadership in new economy that is needed.

    The Climate Justice Alliance and the Our Power Campaign, which is centered on Just Transition from the Banks and Tanks economy (fed by fossil fuels) to local, living economies in which communities have the right to define their economies and govern their communities is another great expression of the true colors of the Next Economy.

  3. We will need agendas and percentage thresholds in order to see and make progress towards a racially inclusive and diverse New Economy sector. Whether we use quotas or adapt the Rooney Rule, we need quantifiable goals to see how much/little progress is being made. Numbers for number of leaders, investments made, board seats, percentage controlled, etc of the means of production going into the social enterprises and nonprofit organizations that compose the New Economy.
    Without math, we have no sense whether it the steps taken are itsy bitsy or enormous.

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