The fight for $15 Now is getting more and more heated. This morning the Star Tribune ran this opinion piece by landlord and former city council member Steve Minn. In it he positions owning 1,000 units as being a small business owner which is hard to fathom as I sit at Maeves Coffee Shop, a true small business. More problematically Minn makes the following statement:
“There is no denying that increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour will have a major financial affect on businesses; some may have the ability to pass on higher costs to their customers, if needed. That’s not an option most business owners I know want to be forced to use, but the option exists for them. Affordable-housing landlords do not have the same option. We will have to consider cutting services if a $15 minimum wage is enacted as currently proposed.”
It is precisely this logic that hinders process and keeps Minneapolis far behind the curve when it comes to meeting the needs of all its residents, and the failure is entirely because of race and class.
There is a certain entitlement that comes with rich- white- liberal folks here in Minneapolis. Minn’s statement, and the larger pathway to 15 movement, are the embodiment of this toxic entitlement. They believe that because “they want a fair wage for everyone” or that they “share the belief that employees should be fairly compensated” that it excuses the privilege and violence in their actual position: if wages go up so do costs to protect profit.
Take Minn for example. He is the Vice President and Chief Financial Manager of a development firm that collects rent on 1,000 units. Hardly a position where you have to scrap to make ends meet. Still, he is not willing to even (potentially) have to sacrifice his excess so that others have the basics. On the contrary, he falls into condescending paternalism and saviorism:
Some permit residents to earn rent credit or wages as “maintenance assistants,” helping with repairs or around the grounds. Often these are residents who have minimal or no skills and are hoping to learn a trade. If the current proposal for a minimum wage is enacted, we would not be able to afford to pay these residents $15 an hour. Instead, contractors or skilled maintenance staff would be used. At the higher rates, we would likely have to provide less-frequent cleaning and maintenance and would lose the ability to help residents learn valuable skills for their future.
Putting aside the exploitation that is obvious in this statement, Minn is positioning himself as the only source of salvation for his residents who he believes need him to “learn valuable skills for their future.” This is a common rhetorical device used by wealthy liberals to justify their own privilege. It’s only a slight variation of the job maker trope rolled out by wealthy conservatives. It positions them as the apex and giver of all things good so we better not piss them off. They purposefully complicate the simple and mystify systems in hopes that folks defer to their supposed superior intelligence and understanding to advocate on their behalf.
The reality, though, is much more elementary. Their privilege and social circle has granted them access to a language that was purposefully kept foreign to the working class. So they discuss basic distribution of resources with economic jargon that doesn’t make any fucking sense, or they develop layers and layers of convoluted policy to pacify and placate the working class which understands the truth at the core of the matter in much more intimate and visceral ways than they ever could. That is what is happening here. These people want us to believe that our well-being depends on them maintaining their position in society. God forbid that they be displaced in the social hierarchy. Or, even more terrifying to these folks, that the social heirarchy be completely done away with. They truly can’t wrap their minds around reordering society in a way that doesn’t depend on them, and their charity, and their benevolence. This is where race comes into it.
Our society is ordered around the worldview of whiteness. While it is easy to identify the whiteness of the Klan and Donald Trump it can be hard to understand how whiteness drives Minn, and other wealthy white liberals like him. They cherish their position on top. They love to remind us that they are trying to do the right thing (which makes them different from conservatives, let them tell it), we just need to get out of their way. They never consider that they got their position through policies that were designed to favor whites. They never consider race. Any racial patterns or disparities must be naturally occurring and, once again, they are the ones to fill the “deficits,” or as Minn states, provide the skills necessary. The idea that they are not necessary, or that they are actually part of the problem is met with outrage. But, that is precisely what they are: part of the problem.
Let’s look closer at Minn for an example. Minn owns 1,000 affordable housing units. It is impossible to participate in the housing landscape without interacting with the legacy of redlining, restrictive covenants, and other racist policies that effectively barred people of color from owning homes. Without these policies Minn would literally not have a business, he is literally invested in whiteness. If he weren’t, if he were really about doing right by people, his business would be facilitating the turning over of his properties to his tenants, and he would be using his platform to point out the grotesque immorality behind a logic which places profit over people. Sadly, Minn does the exact opposite and attempts to gaslight the public.
The good news is we know that we can do business differently. Costco is a company that is setting a model for how to put people over profit. Costco caps its margin at 10.6%, pays an average of $21 an hour, provides insurance, 401K, and vacation time for all its employees. All of this has resulted in happier employees and unprecedented retail worker satisfaction. Jim Sinegal, Costco’s CEO, told the New York Times “I just think that if you’re going to try to run an organization that’s very cost-conscious, then you can’t have those disparities. Having an individual who is making 100 or 200 or 300 times more than the average person working on the floor is wrong.”
This is how capitalism and white supremacy work: Whiteness restricts resources to a certain segment of the population and capitalism assigns value and social standing to those with resources. They reinforce and feed off one another. There is no avoiding it. We have to stand up to it. Each of us, everyday. We can start with supporting the most obvious, $15 Now and rejecting the empty rhetoric of the wealthy desperate to maintain their position.