Nicholas Kristof Just Doesn’t Get It

The grand-jury decision in the Michael Brown Jr. case has been followed by some unrest, much peaceful protest, and horrifically similar cases in other parts of the country. It has also been followed by revelations that make the grand jury’s refusal to indict appear indefensible. Darren Wilson’s testimony was a farrago of racial stereotypes and comic-book action sequences. Likewise, as Lawrence O’Donnell showed, the prosecutors failed to represent the law on police shootings accurately, giving the grand jury the false impression that it was legal for police to fire at a suspect just because s/he attempted to flee the scene.

Amidst this series of travesties, many in the media have claimed to find the answers to Ferguson’s (and America’s) problems. The New York Times is good at claiming to have the answers and that’s especially true of columnist Nicholas Kristof. Kristof’s series, “When Whites Just Don’t Get It,” presents important facts about racial disparities in America. But when it comes to the economic problems at work in Ferguson, he is as ignorant as those he criticizes.

Kristof’s starting point was the Pew Foundation survey that showed that 80% of African Americans agreed that the Michael Brown case “raises important issues about race,” while only 37% of whites agreed. Kristof then listed statistics showing that easy assurances about racial progress are misguided. Here are two grim facts he discussed:

Because of the catastrophic experiment in mass incarceration, black men in their 20s without a high school diploma are more likely to be incarcerated today than employed, according to a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research. Nearly 70 percent of middle-aged black men who never graduated from high school have been imprisoned.

The writer also focused on education, noting that “the best escalator to opportunity may be education, but that escalator is broken for black boys growing up in neighborhoods with broken schools.” “We fail those boys before they fail us,” he added.

Decent jobs are also “escalators,” and St. Louis used to have more such jobs. In fact, that city was once a manufacturing center, until corporations and their wealthy stockholders decided that good wages and benefits took too big a cut out of their profits. The country’s owners moved manufacturing jobs from places like St. Louis to impoverished countries where they could get away with paying only pennies an hour. That job exodus was a key factor in the massive transfer of wealth from workers to the already rich.

What did the already rich do with that boon? For starters, they hid a bunch of the take from the IRS. According to a 2012 study by Tax Justice Network, the world’s rich are concealing $21 trillion—equal to the value of the U.S. economy plus that of Japan—in tax hideouts.

The wealthy also went on an unusual spending spree, buying politicians who slashed the taxes the rich paid on whatever money they couldn’t hide. There went the tax money needed for education.

And there went the tax money needed to support municipal government in general. Jurisdictions like Ferguson supplement their revenues with fees and fines, many of them related to minor traffic infractions. As this National Public Radio report showed, such levies are Ferguson’s second largest source of revenue, bringing $2.6 million into city coffers last year. And let’s not forget that Darren Wilson’s confrontation with Michael Brown Jr. began as a jaywalking stop.

When you look at the racial environment in Ferguson, you cannot separate it from the economic environment. And you cannot separate the economic environment from the global sweatshop system and maldistribution of wealth in general.

What does Nicholas Kristof have to say about that? Well, he addressed the issue of sweatshops in an NYT column published shortly before President Obama’s first inauguration. Obama had promised to revise trade agreements in order to improve terms for workers and consumers. The president did not keep his promise, but, when it looked like he might, Kristof wrote:

Before Barack Obama and his team act on their talk about ‘labor standards,’ I’d like to offer them a tour of the vast garbage dump here in Phnom Penh [Cambodia]. . . while it shocks Americans to hear it, the central challenge in the poorest countries is not that sweatshops exploit too many people, but that they don’t exploit enough.

You see, Kristof dislikes labor standards because they “add to production costs, so some factories have closed because of the global economic crisis and the difficulty of competing internationally.” And that would mean fewer sweatshops for the people who want to keep them open—not the owners, silly, the children. Think of the children! In Phnom Penh, Kristof spoke to a woman named Vath Sam Oeun who was trying to earn money by picking saleable items out of the garbage. The columnist wrote that Oeun “hopes her 10-year-old boy, scavenging beside her, grows up to get a factory job.” “A sweatshop job by comparison would be far more pleasant and less dangerous,” wrote Kristof.

He might want to test that assertion by interviewing the families of the 1,129 workers who died in 2013 when an industrial complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed. As for Kristof’s larger argument, it is an exercise in question-begging. What if we rejected Kristof’s advice and barred companies that don’t meet labor standards from exporting goods to North America and Europe? Then the companies that do meet standards would no longer have to face unfair competition from rivals that violate basic rules. Wouldn’t it be better to make the incentives work in favor of safe conditions and living wages?

Likewise, if we taxed the elite’s hoard of wealth and used legislation to raise wages for workers around the globe, we would have a healthier economy and a means of funding economic development, education, and housing in places like Phnom Penh. And Ferguson. But none of those possibilities seem to have occurred to Kristof.

Such hypocrisy is all too common among leading pundits. We working-class people must recognize that rich, white liberals love to act gung-ho on racial justice in order to distract us from their class privileges and their support for class bigotry. This is the real message of Kristof et al:

“Look, we could argue all day about why my friends and I are rich, while others have nothing but debt. So let’s focus as narrowly as possible on race. Above all, let’s ignore the fact that my favorite trade policies destroy economic opportunity and undermine workplace safety for millions of African American workers, as well as other workers.”

Ferguson is a hotspot of economic exploitation and it didn’t get that way solely because of prejudiced whites in the general populace. We must also blame the elite’s war on the livelihoods of working people—especially, but not exclusively, African Americans. Nicholas Kristof is one of the chief apologists for that war.

Kristof is right to worry about racial disparities in America. But regarding the economic causes of suffering in Ferguson and communities like it, the only thing he “gets” is his dividend statement.