Ideas & Insights / All Perspectives / Ideas & Insights

Darrick Hamilton on the Moral Agenda for Economic Rights

Editor’s note: Born and raised in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, Darrick Hamilton is a university professor, Henry Cohen Professor of Economics and Urban Policy, and founding director of the Institute on Race, Power and Political Economy at The New School.

Considered one of the nation’s foremost public intellectuals, he has been profiled in the New York Times, Mother Jones, and the Wall Street Journal. In 2017, he was featured in Politico’s 50 Ideas Shaping American Politics and the People Behind Them issue. In 2020, Hamilton was named in the Marguerite Casey Foundation and the Group Health Foundation’s inaugural class of Freedom Scholars. 

Hamilton was a Bellagio Center Resident in July 2022, working on a project to combat white supremacy through an inclusive and moral agenda for economic rights.

He examines social stratification and political economy in order to move policy and practice in fundamentally new directions that promote economic inclusion, social equity, and civic engagement.

How is your work helping to build a more racially and economically just society?

There are three elements that have never been separable—politics, economics, and identity group stratification. If we’re not concerned with those three elements as input and output, we will never get it right. We will always be vulnerable to trends away from any type of justice – economic, racial, or otherwise – without those concepts.

From a just standpoint, one’s human existence should entitle them to belonging and deservedness. Here’s a lesson learned from the past: if we don’t have a concept of anti-racism, anti-sexism, and proactive inclusion, the default will be economic rights that are, by design management and implementation, exclusionary.

Today, given our tendencies towards division, one has to be affirmatively inclusive. So, we embarked on the development of research, the implementation of policy, and the codification of relationships around this concept of inclusive economic rights.

Any notion of human rights without economic rights is inauthentic, inaccurate, and worse, oppressive. Because saying that you have a right to vote, a right to civil protest and civil inclusion, in a context without resources, shifts the public responsibility onto the individual. My Bellagio Center residency project seeks to do exactly this, build an integrated framework for a rights-based moral political economy.

What breakthroughs do you envision needing to happen by 2050 for us to arrive at the racially and economically just society that you envision? 

At the Institute on Race, Power and Political Economy at The New School, we begin with a foundation of values.  Every scholarly endeavor begins with some set of norms and values. We need to own up to ours in an unapologetic way. 

And then we are truth-seekers. But that’s not enough. We need to translate that scholarship or that research into action. We need proactive structural interventions to fulfill the values of our society. Why don’t we proactively go out and detect discrimination? Develop structures that audit employers or audit the government?

Along with that realm of intervention, we need an Economic Bill of Rights. We need to fiscally score projects because we’re concerned about budgetary implications. If we value gender and race inclusion, why don’t we fiscally score interventions as to how well we expect them to do in those domains, and then later evaluate them as to how well they did?

What keeps you up at night and what makes you feel optimistic about the future? 

The dysfunctional levels of inequality suggest to me that the system is going be hard to simply do a marginal change, but it’s primed towards something dramatic. The fear in this is that we can go toward fascism. However, it’s also a scenario by which we can trend towards justice. 

The first act in President Biden’s administration was an executive order that asked all agencies in the federal government to consider race in their vision plan, and put forth measures and mechanisms by which to achieve racial equality. Previous administrations didn’t–wouldn’t–think of that. In the pandemic, we’ve seen the might of government in ways that people would’ve said is impossible in the past. Like being able to literally use the IRS treasury to send checks to Americans so as to not fall into a deep depression and maintain their livelihood.

I think our job is to make sure that we’re building the narrative, the movement, and the policies to be ready for that Overton moment. And we also are trying to forge it as well. We’re strategically investing in it.

So that question I keep getting is, asking “can we achieve it tomorrow?” The answer is, I don’t know and neither do you. But that’s almost irrelevant. The point is to commit to justice, because it’s the right thing to do, and be ready when that opportunity presents itself.

Learn More: Read Darrick’s book on addressing racial inequality, and follow him on Twitter

Back to

Bellagio Perspectives: Racial and Economic Justice

In this issue, we dive into the work of Amara Enyia, Cecille Blondet, Erica Smiley, Darrick Hamilton, Rick Banks, Rebecca Dixon, and Ai-jen Poo—all leading groundbreaking work to address racial and economic inequality.