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How Racism and Wealth-Hoarding Led Us to the Financial Brink

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The out CEO of Equality Illinois has written an indictment of America's unequal economy in his new book, Our Fair Share. Read an exclusive excerpt here.

A video shows Ben Chin standing on a Lewiston street corner, wearing an orange fleece jacket over a blue-and-white-checkered shirt. His wife, Nicola is due to give birth to their first child in a week. There is a sad weariness in both their eyes. They are smiling, but Nicola's smile in particular is uncharacteristically fragile. Her lips quiver slightly at the edges. But her eyes are locked onto Ben, fiercely and warmly.

A few hours earlier on this Monday in October 2015, Ben's phone and email started blowing up. Overnight, posters had popped up throughout town urging residents, "Don't Vote for Ho Chi Chin." The poster's background was red with a hammer and sickle repeating across the top border. A caricature of an Asian face loomed large and menacing next to the admonition. This specter of the old "yellow peril" stereotype descended two weeks before the 2015 mayoral election in Lewiston, Maine's second-largest city.

"Next week, we are expecting to bring our first baby into the world," Ben tells the crowd, "and that child is going to have the same last name that was up on that sign today."

Pivoting to the central message of his campaign, Ben says, "As hard as this day has been for us, it is harder to live in a building that doesn't have heat. It is harder to work for twelve hours a day and go home tired, wanting to take a hot shower but you can't, because someone has denied you hot water. We are not going to back off an inch to build a city where every single child--no matter the shape of their eye, no matter their income--[can] grow up . . . having what every human being deserves."

I was curious. What was it about Ben's inspiring and inclusive message that invoked such a vile reaction?

Ben, a thirty-year-old Asian American activist, was not the typical candidate for mayor in predominantly white working-class Lewiston. In most years, "people take out their [candidacy] papers a couple of weeks before Labor Day and no campaigning starts until September. We launched in March."

Ben focused on getting to the doors and talking to the voters. And what he heard was heartbreaking. Some residents of Lewiston had their heat cut off in the dead of Maine's brutal winters. Others lived in housing with black mold or had bedbugs so bad, "some kids would be covered in bites the way someone would be covered with chicken pox." Landlords allowed pipes to burst and abandoned buildings to decay after taking months of rent.

Heading into the home stretch, Ben's campaign shattered a state fundraising record. His message was breaking through. He was succeeding at crafting a narrative for Lewiston grounded in shared values. "Lewiston may not be Maine's richest city, but we can be the city where every child grows up with a real shot at the American dream," he told voters.

And then the posters came up. Fifteen days later, Ben lost the election by fewer than six hundred votes.

A landlord named Joe Dunne put the posters up in Lewiston. He wanted to protect his right to hoard wealth, and he knew the posters would have an impact. For much of the past century, Lewiston has been a town struggling with transition. It boomed as a textile mill town after the Civil War but declined after World War I. By 1970, the remaining three textile mills employed roughly 10 percent of the city's working population.

All this economic change took a toll. As mills closed and government programs encouraged homeownership, people left downtown Lewiston. By 2014, the Lewiston area had one of the biggest "gaps between the rich and poor in the US."

Racial and ethnic transitions have run parallel to these economic shifts. An influx of immigrants since 2000, led by Somali refugees, has stepped into the vacuum of downtown Lewiston. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of white residents of Lewiston decreased by almost 10 percent, while the number of Black residents increased nearly tenfold.

Joe Dunne's posters capitalized on the fear such social transformations had incited. What happened in Lewiston in the 2015 election was racism, pure and simple, but it's worthwhile to dig more deeply, unearthing the economic story that made such appeals resonate with some voters.

We have created--in Lewiston and across our country--an economy that rewards the income-hoarding, cost-cutting behavior of the Lewistonian landlord. We have held down the wages and wealth of most Americans while permitting the richest to thrive. People feel these injustices on a visceral level but aren't sure whom to blame. So when we throw the match of demographic changes onto the woodpile, the fires of nativism burn out of control.

Like me, Ben doesn't have simplistic views about our failings as a country. "America was born in a tragedy of racism," he says. We were "a white settler movement that initiated multiple genocides on multiple Native peoples to claim a continent's worth of land, powered initially by slavery."

"But," Ben goes on, "I think within that tragedy that birthed the country, there was this rhetoric that could sow the seeds for the undoing [of these national sins]." In order to pull off this historic revolution, "people had to talk about freedom, and equality, and democracy. . . . For all the contradictions that are in America [at our founding], this idea of equality was real and alive" in a way it wasn't elsewhere in the world.

Our founding documents are not perfect. They were not handed to us on a mountain top, etched in stone. They were written by broken men in broken times and incorporated the racism and xenophobia and misogyny of their day. But as Ben points out, buried within these documents were the tools for us to become better than we were. These tools forged a nation whose existence was justified not by common tongue or homeland or church but by a shared commitment to our values and one another, no matter our differences. But as the Lewiston mayor's race shows us, an economy that pulls us apart cannot coexist with a democracy that requires us to stand together.

Excerpted from Our Fair Share: How One Small Change Can Create a More Equitable American Economy by Brian C. Johnson, courtesy Broadleaf Books.

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Brian C. Johnson