This speech was delivered at Fulfilling the Dream for Racial Justice Concert held at the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles on January 12, 2020.
Thank you for having me Pastor Laura, Judge Ward and all the other senior leadership members of the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles. Thank you for inviting me.
My name is Camille Gear Rich. I am a Professor of Law and Sociology at the USC Gould School of Law. I am also the Associate Provost for Student and Faculty Initiatives in the Social Sciences, and I am the Director of PRYSM, USC’s Initiative for the Study of Race, Gender, Sexuality and the Law. In my various roles at USC, I run programs that bring academics, policy makers and community members together to discuss diversity, and to explore how we achieve equality and social justice. So it is wonderful to be here today to celebrate the birthday of Civil Rights Icon Martin Luther King Jr. and, in particular, to have a chance to reflect on his commitment to economic justice.
Often people concentrate on MLK’s dreams of racial justice; they place less emphasis on the economic justice side of his work, but it was such a core part of Martin Luther King’s dream that it must be emphasized. As he said when he gave his speech on the American Dream in 1961, “As long as there is poverty in this world, no man can be totally rich, even if he has a billion dollars.”
So my remarks today are about this essential truth MLK presented. My remarks are about the poverty created in our hearts and minds ---and communities by tolerating economic injustice and what we can do about this problem. How do we turn our empathy perspective to a productive concrete strategy for economic justice? The need is great. The need is clear. We know that wealth inequality and income inequality is growing; so what can we do about these twin forces of pain?
By one measure, U.S. income inequality is the highest it’s been since 1928. 10% of families ranked by household wealth (with at least $1.2 million in net worth) own 77% of the American wealth “pie.” The bottom half of families ranked by household wealth (with $97,000 or less in net worth) own only 1% of the pie. The race effects of economic inequality are equally clear: In 2016, the typical white family had about 10 times the wealth of the typical black family and about 7.5 times the wealth of the typical Hispanic family.
Beyond cold facts and figures, what can we do about this economic unfairness on the ground? What can we do in our everyday lives? How do we share in the burdens and challenges in a meaningful way?
I see this struggle as traveling a path to understanding. I will ask you to travel on that path with me today. I will start with an inspiring feel good story about an Uber driver and ride sharing. I will raise some questions about the story, and what it would mean to truly rideshare as we travel on the path to economic justice. I believe that if we learn how to rideshare, this approach can take us down the path of economic fairness, and economic equality if we are willing to be brave and truly take the ride and understand each other’s struggles and pain. And then I will share the story of Courtney Mykytyn – a person that can teach us all about how to rideshare, how to share in challenging struggles and engage with grace, generosity and understanding.
My first Uber rideshare story concerns a 43-year-old single mom, Latonya Young, who was making ends meet as a hair stylist during the day and an Uber driver in the evenings. She also was a college student majoring in criminal justice at Georgia State University, but she dropped out after she was unable to pay off a $700 balance due to family obligations.
She happened to offer an Uber ride to Kevin Esch; she ferried him home after a sporting event and during his ride in her car, Kevin heard her story. In response, Kevin called Georgia State and paid off Latonya’s tuition bill, allowing her to return to school and earn her associate's degree.
Imagine his generosity – Kevin seems to capture King’s spirit – his message. The story reflects Kevin’s understanding that when one of us is poor, all of us is poor. He reached out to address unfairness and pain, but my question is did Kevin really rideshare on the path to economic justice? He offered a momentary salve for her troubles – but did he really rideshare – did he really take the time to understand the larger political and social forces that put Latonya in this precarious position with little hope of solving her problems.
Stories of economic kindness are nice; it is one of the reasons they are so popular on Facebook. But these stories of episodic economic kindness also break my heart. I have had one too many Uber drivers tell me a heartbreaking story that I know I can “economically fix” with a simple call, without too much strain. And my Uber drivers all know this. So they are in the horrifying position of ferrying the financially comfortable around in the hopes of hitting the lottery – of giving a ride to someone who hears their stories — and decides the reality of wealth inequality is too much to bear that day — and offers them financial assistance.
In this sense, Kevin is not realizing King’s dream. Kevin and Latonya’s story is not a feel-good story. Rather their story explains why we need free college education in the US; why we need to guarantee workers a living wage.
Kevin got a psychological lift playing fairy god mother for a moment, for coming to Latonya’s rescue. However, in order to truly rideshare he would have had to reflect on the economic conditions that gave him the power to help her. He would notice that he is part of a dynamic that allows him to decide who is the “deserving” poor and should get help, and who is not. And he would recognize that poverty should not force the working class to rely on episodic middle class kindness and sympathy to make ends meet. This is the kind of reflection is what is truly required to rideshare – to share the road and take the trip together to economic justice.
When you rideshare it means -- you are not just buying candy bars from children in the parking lot raising money for underfunded city schools. True ridesharing is looking at these children’s economic needs and becoming political about school zoning and school funding. It means attending community school board meetings and looking at tax allocations differently.
True ridesharing requires that you do more than just donate money during an anti-homelessness drive, or provide change to someone living on the streets. True ridesharing and economic justice is getting political, getting involved in funding initiatives for free mental health care, or funding initiatives for affordable housing. Ridesharing means intervening and attacking those systemic structural causes of deeply human pain. Rideshare warriors look at causes, and we attack the causes of economic problems, we are not merely trying to make the pain of those suffering momentarily lessen.
What happens when you rideshare? When you take on King’s perspective? He taught us that none of us is rich while others are poor. He taught us that the moral universe looks different when you truly rideshare. You are here today, and it is clear you want that ticket to ride. You already feel his call - the moral imperative every time you step over or past or look beyond a homeless person. You feel it when you encounter a clerk in a store who cannot read well or struggles with math.
You know that you are poor when you encounter people that work two and three jobs without hope to make ends meet, and they give you a forced smile as they ferry you in their Uber cars to yet another comfortable happy engagement while they suffer.
We must remember that we teach our children not by just what we say but what we do and force them to do as we walk the streets or drive the roads of this city. They are learning to ignore pain, to ignore the pain of brown bodies, and to see these bodies as threats rather than fellow citizens.
You know the imperative – and this talk inspires us all to put aside our episodic empathy, our casual engagements with poverty and begin the struggle to address the structural causes of economic problems. The results are transformative, but I do not mean to suggest that the ride will be easy.
For an inspiring example of what happens when we truly take that ride, when we adopt a new perspective, we only have to look at Courtney Everts Mykytyn.
Mykytyn was a Los Angeles mom who worked to foster racial integration in schools by encouraging white parents to send their children to predominantly nonwhite, working class schools. She was different because she engaged in the struggle for economic justice in way that forced her to put “skin in the game,” in a way that showed her understanding that we all share in this struggle and we rise or fall together.
Specifically Mykytyn started an organization called Integrated Schools, which now has 20 chapters around the country and a podcast. The organization encourages parents to fight an educational system that allows wealthy and white parents to send their children to what are often perceived as “good schools” (meaning majority white schools) while poor and nonwhite students are relegated to schools with far fewer resources.
She called on her fellow members to engage in concrete action to change personal behavior. She asked parents to take a “two tour pledge,” promising to visit at least two schools they might have otherwise dismissed as unacceptable before making enrollment decisions for their children. As she explained, “You’re either contributing to school segregation and concentrations of whiteness and privilege, or you’re making a choice to not have that as a priority.”
I admire Mykytyn because she engaged in the struggle in a way that emphasizes how our path to the future will be forged by all people working together. To be clear – she was a leader because she invested her time, energy and passion in majority minority schools in working class communities; she became a part of these communities rather than making judgments from afar.
She is also a role model for economic justice warriors because she kept evolving; she kept an open mind about what economic justice means. “She concluded that it was not enough for parents to send kids to nonwhite schools but that they also needed to be mindful about how they interacted with the rest of the community”
In short she was fearful of developing a white savior attitude; fearful of developing a colonizer attitude. She understood that there was a danger that privileged white parents might try to turn an urban, minority school into exactly what they expect suburban white schools to be. She refused that trap and challenged people to imagine a better collectively imagined future. This openness to change – this willing to listen to voices of the marginalized is so important in the struggle for racial justice and economic justice. She knew that persons that have experience intergenerational poverty might have key insights into what children need to learn in order to prevent this problem from developing in the next generation and they should be given opportunities to shape the school to their needs. This understanding opens the door to a progressive future, but she helped us understand that this progressive future does not always look exactly like one imagined.
Comments on her story on the Internet were sometimes cruel, unfriendly, and defensive, but I am here to say that as an economic justice warrior she represents some of the best about the human spirit.
So I’m asking you to think about your Uber engagements, to think about what it truly means to share the ride, to let others drive the car, and to provide support as we travel on the this path to economic justice together. You will encounter multiple opportunities today a to think about structural change, and as you think about causes and opportunities and interventions be particularly mindful of those that may require you to shift your expectations and needs.
Ridesharing is the only way to economic justice. The ride will be powerful. The ride will expand opportunity. The ride will be inspiring. But rest assured, the ride will continue. And the ride will be powered by the moral rightness of our cause rather than episodic guilt that distracts us from making real change.