Sam Cooke, the famous American soul singer, sang a rendition of A Change Gunna Come that reflected much of the uncertainty and optimism of the US Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.
It’s been too hard living / but I’m afraid to die
Cause I don’t know what’s up there beyond the sky
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It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will
His soulful voice echoed the sentiments of many people of his generation who were struggling for a new moral vision for their country, while never knowing what post-Civil Rights America would hold for their collective futures.
The Ferguson riots have forced us to take stock of how well the Civil Rights movement actually advanced economic opportunity for African Americans. Decades after the movement, data from the US Census offers us a sobering picture of uneven fortunes: the median household net worth for whites was $110,729 in 2010 versus $4,995 for blacks. This income gap widened during the recession.
Further, employment statistics indicate that African Americans are nowhere near to closing the household wealth gap. Since the Civil Rights era, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has shownthat the African American unemployment rate remains twice that of whites.
For some, the Ferguson riots recall Civil Rights-era demonstrations against the exploitation and oppression of millions of people by an unyielding state power. But the riots have not struck the same romantic tone: gone are the well-dressed marchers, arm in arm, singing gospel songs to thwart a local sheriff’s posse. In contrast, Ferguson seems to consist of urban street fighters staring down the armored vehicles and machine guns of a totalitarian state.
In a post-Civil Rights America, are the Ferguson riots the result of the killing of yet another black youth by a white police officer? Alternatively, are they symptomatic of broader trends of social instability around the world? In 2013, at a meeting in Davos, Switzerland, the World Economic Forum made a startling revelation based on a report by Oxfam, an organization that conducts policy research on global poverty. The report concluded that the widening gap between rich and poor is an increasing threat to social stability around the world. The report offered some startling facts:
- Just 1% of the population owns almost half of the world’s wealth
- In the US, the wealthiest one percent captured 95% of post-financial crisis growth after 2009, while the bottom 90% became poorer
In a recent article in Foreign Affairs called “New World Order: Labor, Capital, and Ideas in the Power Law Economy”, MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson, Andrew McAfee and Michael Spence argue that labor-replacing technology is at the heart of the global wealth gap. On one hand, it is making industries more productive and some people wealthier. On the other, it is creating fewer jobs.
In the US, we have seen the effects of technology on industries and jobs in cities such as Detroit and throughout the Rust Belt. Butrobots are replacing people everywhere. Most sources estimate robot use is growing by 12% a year and affecting job opportunity for youth all around the world. The Economist published its findings in Generation Jobless, an article on youth unemployment that estimated almost 300 million of the world’s 15- to 24-year-olds are not working.
The Ferguson riots should be viewed as part of a broader youth revolt, that is global in scale. It began in 2011 with the Arab Spring in Egypt. Although the causes there were different, it is clear that a generation is rejecting a predetermined future of meager economic opportunity and state-backed concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands.
It is time for policy makers and global leaders to listen to the collective voices of a generation and find a path for the future that includes youth. If they do not, they only invite further rioting and violence. Change is hard when the outcomes are uncertain. We never know what lies beyond the sky. But, every day, a generation is sending a message on YouTube to the world: It’s been a long time coming. Change is gonna come. Oh yes it will.