On Sun., Aug. 19, eight people from diverse class backgrounds gathered at the main branch of Seattle Public Library to discuss Chuck Collins’s new book “99 to 1: How Wealth Inequality is Wrecking the World and What We Can Do About It.” The gathering launched “Real Change Reads,” a semi-annual program that will convene small groups to discuss a book related to economic justice. I left the meeting energized, convinced that small groups of people from diverse racial and economic backgrounds can act as profound vehicles for social change.
Three of the eight members in our group were Real Change vendors. Others were, or until recently had been, solidly middle class. I represented the more privileged end of the spectrum. We quickly launched into our first question: “Does the 99-to-1 frame disregard race and poverty?”
It’s easy to brush off the question, but our group took it seriously. One of the vendors, in fact, pointed out this telling line from the book: “The rules of the economy [after wwii] were organized to promote the expansion of the middle class, particularly among white households.” Those last four words almost feel like an afterthought to the core message of the passage, which is if we reversed inequality once, we can do it again.
But this participant drew our attention to the author’s qualifier: “particularly among white households.” He said: “What happened after World War II isn’t good enough. If we rebuild our economy, this time it has to include people of color and the very poor.” He’s right. It was middle-class white males who most benefitted from postwar era policy changes: the g.i. Bill that facilitated access to a college education and the Federal Housing Administration lending packages that stimulated home ownership.
Another low-income member pointed out that if the rigged economy Collins describes has an upside, it’s that many middle class people have abandoned their magical thinking that someday they will be super rich. “This is leading to less looking up and identifying with the 1 percent and more solidarity with the poor,” she said. One after another, group members spoke passionately about how any recovery must include low-income people and communities of color.
I’ve known this intellectually for years, yet I internalized it far more deeply through hearing the personal testimonies that came out during this group.
Others had their own epiphanies. A middle-class member confessed that until the reading group, “the question of whether or not the ’99-to-1’ frame disregarded race and poverty had literally never occurred to me.” It’s a pretty fair guess that if this group had been solely made up of white, middle-class liberals, the discussion would have gone in a different direction.
Our dialogue covered the book’s first seven chapters, focusing on the causes of extreme inequality. In two weeks, we’ll reconvene to discuss the last chapters, which focus on solutions. rc Reads happens throughout the city, and several groups start in September. You can still join in. Visit realchangenews.org to register or email firstname.lastname@example.org.