“How did we come to this?”: MLK Day speaker discusses inequality, class struggle in modern America

Bill Farmer took the stage at 12:30 to speak on economic inequality in America.

“How did we come to this?”

Bill Farmer sought to answer that one question in his presentation for WMU’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day Teach-In. “This” being ever growing levels of economic inequality and injustice that he has seen both throughout his own life and throughout history.

“This issue of inequality has been going on for millennia, especially since the advent of the written word. You see this struggle between serf and lord, between master and slave, it’s always been there,” Farmer said. “The history of human life is the history of this struggle.”

For Farmer, who is associated with the Southwest Michigan Democratic Socialists of America and Labor for Bernie, this struggle has manifested itself in contemporary America as the conflict between workers and the capitalist class. While this has been evident for a long time, Farmer said, the struggle has become particularly apparent since the 1970s. 

“The country moved to what is called the ‘better business climate.’ It’s also known as trickle-down economics, remember Reagan. It’s also known as neoliberalism,” Farmer said. 

Farmer used his experience negotiating collective labor contracts to illustrate his point.

“Everything historically was based on the levels of productivity in the year you were negotiating the contract. Up until the ‘70s that is. That doesn’t happen anymore,” he said. “If it did, the average worker would be making upwards of $70,000, but that’s not the case.”

Farmer noted that the United States has the highest rates of infant mortality and child poverty among developed countries. Moreover, while the U.S. has low unemployment, he said that underemployment is high among young people. He further cited an increase in the rate of natural disasters, a result of climate change, as one of the issues caused by economic injustice.

“If you have a political system centered around capital, this is what happens,” Farmer said.

He also lamented the lack of traditional pensions, saying that modern retirement plans subject workers to the unpredictability of the stock market. 

“It is so difficult to accumulate wealth,” Farmer said. “Workers across the board make less real income then they did in 1970. Wages and benefits are shrinking and for 90% of our population home ownership represents the largest accumulation of wealth possible. It’s the only kind of wealth that you can leave to your family for them to build on. But people can’t afford houses anymore.”

Farmer then said that the policies that have led to these conditions make up systemic racism.

“They affect everyone, but they really affect African Americans,” he said. “They are disproportionately affected by these decisions.”

Farmer said because of this, fighting economic injustice is an essential part of fighting racial injustice. As the presentation came to a close Farmer mentioned that before his death Martin Luther King Jr. had hoped to see the civil rights movement expand to become a campaign against economic and social injustice for all people. 

Two weeks before his assassination, King gave a speech in support of the sanitation workers strike. 

“If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she too will go to hell," King said in the speech.

As early as 1952, King identified himself as "more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic" in a letter to Coretta Scott, his future wife.

The Western Herald will be bringing continued coverage of WMU and the larger Kalamazoo community's Martin Luther King Jr. day events. A schedule of the teach-in is available here and a schedule of other events and service opportunities is available here.

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