There is a direct connection between global free trade and our growing prison population. 

When Race and Free Trade Collide

It was immensely significant for black America that the last major public demonstration in the U.S. in the 20th century was a protest over global economics and trade. More than 40,000 people gathered in Seattle to oppose the policies of the World Trade Organization, which since 1995 has functioned like an international cabal in league with powerful corporate and financial interests. Labor activists went to Seattle to force the WTO to enact trade sanctions against nations that use child labor, prohibit labor unions and that pay slave wages to their workers.

Environmental activists were in Seattle to pressure the WTO to ensure environmental safeguards would be part of any global trade agreements. What motivated both labor and environmentalists is the political recognition that issues like human rights, employment and health care cannot be addressed individually as separate issues. Nor can they be effectively discussed only in the context of a single nation-state. Capital is now truly global, and any analysis of specific socioeconomic problems that may exist in our country must be viewed from an international perspective.

The WTO was set up to be the global headquarters for drafting and enforcing trading rules. When one member country challenges another's trading practices, disputes are settled secretly by panels of trade experts. Elaine Bernard, director of Harvard's Trade Union Program, explains that the WTO's rules are based on privatization, free trade and few regulations on the environment. Bernard states the WTO's rules "value corporate power and commercial interests over labor and human rights, environmental and health concerns, and diversity. They increase inequality and stunt democracy. The WTO version of globalization is not a rising tide lifting all boats, as free traders insist, but a dangerous race to the bottom."

What kinds of "dangerous" priorities are we talking about? Consider that the WTO's rules that deny Third World nations the right to have automatic licensing on patented but absolutely essential medicines. So, for example, even when African nations currently ravaged by diseases such as AIDS acquire the scientific and technical means to manufacture drugs to save millions of lives, the WTO's first concern is the protection of the patents and profits of powerful drug companies.

The WTO defines itself as a "trade" organization, which is incapable of pursuing social goals, such as extending the rights to freedom of collective bargaining to Third World and poor workers. Thus when an authoritarian regime markets clothing and athletic shoes that were produced by child labor under sweatshop conditions, the WTO claims that there is nothing it can do.

The demonstrations in Seattle, however, showed that growing numbers of Americans are recognizing that all of these issues — Third World sweatshops, the destruction of unions, deteriorating living standards, the dismantling of social programs inside the U.S. are actually interconnected. "Globalization" is not some abstraction, but a destructive social force that has practical consequences on how we live, work and eat. There is a direct connection between the elimination of millions of jobs that can sustain families here in the U.S. and the exportation of jobs into countries without unions, environmental and safety standards. As real jobs disappear for millions of U.S. workers, and as welfare programs are eliminated, the only alternative is to use the prisons as the chief means of regulating mass unemployment. Thus in the 1990s in the U.S., a period of so-called unprecedented capitalist expansion, the number of prisoners in federal, state and local correctional facilities roughly doubled. Between 1995 and 1997, according to the National Jobs for All Coalition, the average incomes of the poorest 20 percent of female-headed families fell. In 1998, 163 cities and 670 counties had unemployment rates that were more than 50 percent higher than the national average. These deep pockets of joblessness and hunger are not accidental: They represent the logical economic consequences of a nation that builds one hundred new prison cells a day and sanctions the exportation of millions of jobs.

Black Americans therefore should be in the forefront of the debates about international trade, but we must do so by recalling the activist slogan of the '60s: "Think Globally, Act Locally." There is an inescapable connection between Seattle and Sing Sing Prison, between global inequality and the brutalization of Third World labor and what's happening to black, brown and working people here in the U.S. As globalized capitalism destroys democracy, unions and the environment abroad, it is carrying out a similar agenda in our own backyards. For these reasons, we must create new organizations and a new political language that can unify international groups into collective protest action. We are challenged to build new political networks and information sharing across the boundaries of race, gender, class and nation. We must make the connections in the fight for democracy in the 21st century.

Manning Marable, Ph.D. is an scholar, author, and founder of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University in new York City.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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