Precariat: A social class defined by the shared experience of precarity, a condition of existence without predictability or stability, particularly as pertains to employment and economic security
What the news media has euphemistically referred to as the “situation” in Ferguson, Missouri is driving home a point that too many of us have managed to miss before Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. The Black body count resulting from police actions against unarmed African Americans is mounting. To view the situation as merely tragic (if, indeed, one can rightly put “merely” and “tragic” together) is to downplay the broad scope of the crisis.
The condition of life for those who are Black and poor is such that #blacklivesmatter trended on twitter in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict precisely because we have not reached consensus regarding this simple fact.
The scope of the problem represented by what is going down in Ferguson can be particularly hard to discern for Asian Americans. Asian Americans as an aggregate are underrepresented in American prisons. Moreover, prosecution rates by race indicate that we fare pretty well in court relative to other people of color, particularly Blacks.
There are, of course, exceptions. Southeast Asian boys are often targeted by gang enforcement. South Asians and Middle Easterners certainly know what it is like to be criminally profiled as terrorists. And undocumented Asian immigrants, who number 1.3 million in the U.S., are vulnerable to arrest and deportation. But, in general, Asian Americans, at least where the criminal justice system is concerned, are profiled as a model minority.
However, in spite of being far less likely to be targeted by local law enforcement, Ferguson matters to Asian Americans as it matters to all of us. Why? Because the crisis of Ferguson is much more than a problem of racist cops and unresponsive, even racist, city government. As a wise man recently said in my presence, if all we come away from Ferguson with is the idea that “cops are racist” we will fail to prevent future Ferguson-like crises in a society that is actively laying the groundwork for many, many more.
But first, let’s not muddy the waters too much. It is, indeed, accurate and just to proclaim that anti-black racism and criminal profiling is driving what we’re witnessing in Ferguson. Let’s not lose sight of this fact.
The Huffington Post reports that 86 percent of traffic stops and 92 percent of vehicle searches in Ferguson in 2013 targeted Black people. And this in spite of the fact that whites were 12 percent more likely to be found with illegal contraband in the minority of cases in which they were stopped and searched. Whites comprise 29.3 percent of Ferguson residents. Yet 92.7 percent of arrests in Ferguson in 2013 involved Black suspects.
What’s more, Black residents of Ferguson live under de facto apartheid. Ferguson is a majority Black community governed by a white minority. And that white minority government is both repressive and parasitic, having created what amounts to a debt to prison pipeline that generates revenue via fines associated with minor violations that are much more likely to be committed by those who are poor, like driving with expired plates or broken tail lights.
In order to address the crisis that is represented by what’s going down in Ferguson, we need to center Black leadership and Black activism, because what will ultimately be necessary to push back against the violence and repression faced by Black communities is organized Black resistance. We must, and I mean must as a matter of self-interest, provide the resources and support necessary to Ferguson today, and to the Fergusons that are sure to come. But our collective self-interest is what this article is about, so read on.
While white minority rule and racist cops are a very important part of the story here, there’s more afoot. The crisis of Ferguson is also being driven by changing racial demographics and forced migration. And in these dynamics, Black people are just the canaries the mine shaft. What happens to them is a harbinger of what may happen to all of us.
A new wave of mostly white settlers are leaving American suburbs for gentrifying inner-city neighborhoods in order to avoid long commutes and indulge in cool urban lifestyles. These inner-city neighborhoods are ripe for the picking by developers because they’re often located near financial centers, but in areas where real estate values are depressed. Racism is often key to what is depressing those real estate values, so once the cheap prices are taken advantage of, profit depends on driving people of color out.
Those who are displaced too often end up in America’s Fergusons – decaying suburbs in the process of being abandoned by white residents who are either running away from Black migrants or toward gentrifying city centers; often the same city centers from which people of color have had to flee. On the down side of this dynamic, displaced Black and brown (and increasingly, Asian) migrants, already destabilized by having been made to move, are made more vulnerable because they’ve left behind community institutions like churches, voluntary associations, and social service providing agencies.
Putting a period on this point, Al Jazeera reports that whites were 73.8 percent of the Ferguson population in 1990. 25.1 percent were Black. By 2010, 29.3 percent of the population of Ferguson was white, and 67.4 percent were Black. St. Louis, just eight miles from Ferguson, is the 16th fastest gentrifying city in the country. The population there has gone from being 28.1 percent white in 2000, to being 49.2 percent white in 2010.
But there’s more. The story of Ferguson is also a story of private interests weakening government. Creeping neoliberalism (the philosophy of free trade, small government, privatization, and deregulation of capital) is pushing government onto the margins of life in America, especially at the local level. And lest your legitimate resentment of government get in the way of understanding what this means to us, keep in mind that government is supposed to serve the public interest, while “private” interests are just that, they’re private, which means they are, by nature, exclusive.
The deregulation of private, for-profit interests, and the related marginalization of local government has set the stage for rapid gentrification all over the country. Because deregulation allows for massive amounts of capital to be held in the hands of very few people, those privileged few can build whole neighborhoods from the ground-up, bringing in grocery stores and other businesses, and driving the development of public infrastructure like transit lines, the cost of which is borne by everyone. What’s worse, city governments often collude with developers in order to generate desperately needed revenue, leaving displaced residents with no advocate powerful enough to save them. At the intersection of these forces, whole communities can be displaced in just a few years.
So the sorry state of government in places like Ferguson isn’t just about incompetent or insensitive government employees. It’s also about governments struggling to deal with dwindling revenue. Depravation nearly always brings out that which is ugliest within us, and racial anxiety tops the list of such ills among many whites, particularly those who live in suburbs that were created by white flight in the first place. So government turns parasitic, feeding off it’s most vulnerable residents, and justifies it with racial profiling.
What this means is that the story of Ferguson isn’t just a story of white settlers in the 21st century. It is also a story about capital. Capital is driving migration, both at the local level within cities and municipalities, and nationally. But those who are being forced to migrate aren’t just poor. Wealth polarization is so great in the United States that the most desirable urban centers are becoming the exclusive playgrounds of the rich.
The average rent for a one-bedroom home within ten miles of San Francisco, CA as of August 2014 was $2,897 per month. In 2013, the Pew Research Center reported that the median household income for Asian Americans was $66,000. That number is inflated by two things: 1) Asian families include more earners, including fixed income retirees who often live with their children, and 2) Most Asian Americans live in high cost of living and high wage coastal cities like San Francisco.
$66,000 per year in income, minus taxes, leaves about $42,000 in take home pay. $2,897 per month of rent multiplied by twelve months equals almost $35,000. $42,000 minus $35,000 leaves about $7,000 for food, medical insurance, transportation, clothes, and utilities.
This is the precarious position that Asian American families are stuck in; precarity exaggerated by the fact that our per capita incomes aren’t nearly as high as is suggested by our median family incomes. And a version of this type of precarity is affecting all ordinary wage earning families, causing rising anxiety. In the case of white folks, it is part of what is driving up white racial anxiety.
If history is any indication, when white racial anxiety rises, Asian Americans suffer. But we should remember that white anxiety is on the rise because the situation of white people in the United States is increasingly perilous. Their anxiety and our precarity are related. For middle class Asian Americans, this fact of life in America today should be of great concern.
But if we stop at analyzing migration as an American problem, we’d be missing critical opportunities to build solidarity across race in response to Ferguson. We need to take another step back and view Ferguson through a global lens. Capital is not just driving migration patterns in the U.S. Deregulated capital is driving migration globally. Mexican migrants and the 1.3 million undocumented Asian immigrants in the U.S. weren’t just drawn here by the notion that the United States is a “land of opportunity,” they were pushed out of their home countries by trade policies that are causing capital to flow north, into countries like the United States, while leaving behind communities with no way to make a decent living.
Asian and Latino undocumented immigrants are following the money, and when we arrive in the U.S. our lack of legal status makes us highly exploitable, and therefore attractive as laborers since those who labor do so in order to generate profits for those who employ us. The less we cost, the more desirable we are. But the industries the most vulnerable among us have landed in have a history we should take note of. Before many of these industries employed us, they employed African Americans.
The Civil Rights Movement won African Americans inclusion in labor protections from which they were once excluded, just as undocumented immigrant workers are today. Inclusion in legal protections resulted in African Americans being excluded by industry. Many of us are, essentially, replacement workers in an economy founded in the exploitation of Black people. As we win legal protection, there’s no guarantee we won’t be the next group economically excluded, and economic exclusion is one of the drivers of law enforcement targeting of Black people. In the end, it’s all about containing the discontent of the surplus labor pool.
Make no mistake. Ferguson is an Asian American issue. The exclusion and abuse of Black people and immigrants in the United States goes hand in hand. Together, they represent a loophole in democracy through which the 1 percent are moving an agenda that is making us all precariats.