When you teach about racial inequality for a living, as I do, you have a before-and-after story. The story broadly goes that before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, racial inequality was legal and normative. After the Civil Rights Act, racial inequality is illegal but normative. It is a linear story for a decidedly circular history, where advances thanks to the March on Washington in 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Lyndon Johnson’s Executive Order 11246 in 1965 (or “affirmative action”) and the election of President Barack Obama in 2008 have been met with resistance. We move forward, then get pushed back, forward, back.
Today it is harder than it was 60 years ago to get a bead on racial inequality because, well, it looks so much like everything else. It looks like the gentrification that displaces black people, yes, but also poor people generally. It feels like low wages when most workers’ wages are stagnating. It looks like debt and tainted water and poor air quality and hustling to make ends meet when almost everyone is reckoning with financial crises, climate disaster and economic insecurity. What can be said about racial inequality in the 21st century that isn’t just the story of every American? The answer is not in the nature of the problem but in the nature of the response: everyone is hustling, but everyone cannot hustle the same.
The hustle is an idea, a discourse and a survival strategy often glorified as economic opportunity. It is an ode to a type of capitalism that cannot secure the futures of anyone but the wealthiest. But its popularity lies in how hustling can feel like an equal-opportunity strategy. You see it espoused by the mostly black and Latino “squeegee kids” who jump into action to clean your car window. It is also the rallying cry for many of the black people who have earned a college degree but earn less than white workers doing similar jobs. The term originated as a code for illegal activities, but according to Lester Spence, author of Knocking the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics, today we have all been turned into hustlers, trying to monetize our “human capital” for economic advancement.
But black Americans have to hustle more. A white family of four living at the poverty line has about $18,000 in wealth. A black family at that threshold has negligible wealth. Everyone is hustling, but poor black Americans are literally hustling from zero. For middle-class black people, the trends aren’t much better. Again, it’s not just income but also wealth that reproduces racial inequalities, so being “middle class” when you are black is not nearly as secure a position as it is for other racial groups. The black middle class takes on more debt for education, earns less for their educational achievements and struggles more to repay their student loans than their white peers.
It’s a hard story to tell because the images are fuzzier than they once were. The legal nature of racism before the 1960s made for material pictures of inequality: whites-only signs. Red lines on neighborhood maps. Sharecroppers. Today racial inequality leaves more of an impression, albeit one deeply felt by black Americans, than it does a concrete picture of oppression and extraction. But the story of how we hustle, how hard we hustle and how differently we hustle adds form to the impression. Economic injustice isn’t fairer because nearly everyone is hustling. The hustle itself is a site of racial inequality.
What hustling looks like in 2020 depends on who you are. To hustle, if you are working class, is to piece together multiple jobs. If you are middle class or upper class, it is discussed as “multiple revenue streams.” But the goal is the same: pull together a patchwork of income in order to get ahead.
On an autumn day in 2018, I drove to Durham, N.C., for a conference celebrating black capitalism. A quintessentially Southern city, marked by racial histories and racist inequalities, Durham struggled in the early 1990s to find both an identity and an economic base. By the 2000s, a renaissance was taking place, one that looked a lot like the ones in similarly situated midsize urban areas across the country. The cult of quirky regional identity is remarkable for its sameness. In Durham; Pittsburgh; Louisville, Ky.; Indianapolis; or Boise, Idaho, you can find craft breweries, dog parks, clubs where you throw axes at a wall, and farm-to-table everything but especially food trucks.
The conference name, Black Wall Street: Homecoming, was a callback to the district in downtown Durham known as Black Wall Street in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one of several economic corridors in the U.S. where black wealth was consolidated during segregation. Black-owned businesses served black customers whom white businesses either would not serve or did not serve equitably. Black Wall Street in Durham was decimated the way many such corridors were in the mid–20th century. Urban planners used federal funding for the cross-national highway system, forcibly displacing black residents and business owners. The government built a freeway through Black Wall Street.
The audience at the conference was full of enthusiastic black men and women, mostly in their 30s, 40s and 50s, who identified as entrepreneurs. Programming was organized by the kinds of buzzwords that animate the digital economy. One does not advertise, he brands. A woman with an online marketing company does not tweet or post; she creates content. Mostly, participants wanted to get better at pitching. One conference organizer explained while infrastructure was essential to the “old way” of doing business, the new era of entrepreneurship is about developing processes and selling disruption. To help them thrive in this model of personal economic uplift, the conference encouraged black entrepreneurs to hustle in a way that white capital and consumers could understand. This was the art of the pitch.
Just over a year later, in December 2019, a North Carolina chapter of Fight for $15—a national campaign advocating a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage—held a forum called “Working in Durham: A People’s Hearing.” The event brought together low-wage workers, many of them black, to talk about unsafe working conditions, wage theft and the need for unions in the workplace. Person after person shared stories of working in service-sector jobs, some of the only jobs available in the area to those without a college degree. Although workers in other states have seen their paychecks go up because of state and local increases in the minimum wage, in Durham the rate remains at the federal level of $7.25 an hour. An older black man said, “You need two or three jobs just to afford housing.” A mother said that even though she earned her bachelor’s degree, she still struggled to find work, pay her rent and afford insurance. “We need more resources,” she said. “Not for a handout, but a help up.”
Many black workers outside the middle class make up what is known as the gig economy, taking on jobs that treat them like independent contractors even though they work them like employees. In more traditional service jobs, like cashier or waitress, the hustle is created by the rise of on-demand scheduling. Technology lets employers change employee schedules quickly, which makes it difficult for workers to plan their complex lives. The hustle is especially hard on black women, who bear the brunt of childcare, elder care and mutual-aid relationships with friends and neighbors. It also makes it nearly impossible to predict one’s wages from paycheck to paycheck. Because the pay is so spiky and the work so unpredictable, many dabble in a stream of “network opportunities,” like selling diet pills or travel vouchers.
While we do not think of the middle-class pitch and the low-wage hustle as the same thing, they are responding to the same reality. For black Americans, achieving upward mobility, even in thriving cities that compete for tech jobs, private capital and national recognition, is as complicated as it was in 1963. In that economy, black Americans hustled in the face of legal racial segregation and social stigma that cordoned us off from opportunities reserved for white Americans. In 2020, black Americans can legally access the major on-ramps to opportunity—colleges, workplaces, public schools, neighborhoods, transportation, electoral politics—but despite hustling like everyone else, they do not have much to show for it.
While the hustle is often valorized, black Americans have long known that it’s a raw deal. The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is remembered for the soaring speeches and massive turnout, but its organizing platform had a laser focus on the particular forms of hustle prescribed to black Americans at the time. The most important period of economic expansion in the 20th century took place after World War II, and black workers had been deliberately excluded—they were routinely denied low-interest loans, housing in certain neighborhoods, GI Bill benefits and access to higher education. Racial segregation turned the massive public spending and economic investment into what academics have called “affirmative action for white Americans.” Forced to hustle amid largesse, black Americans built their own social institutions to substitute for inherited wealth. They hustled in underground economies like local lotteries, but they also hustled with multiple jobs, multigenerational households and mutual-aid societies. That is why the day’s most regaled speaker, Martin Luther King Jr., framed his dream in terms of a check written to black Americans that we could not cash.
The March galvanized what we now perhaps too blithely think of as the Civil Rights Act. The landmark legislation not only enshrined full black citizenship in the nation’s governance, it also rerouted black hustle into mainstream paths of economic inclusion. Affirmative action policies opened up lucrative public-sector jobs that transformed the black middle class. Equal access to school funding and military benefits injected new capital into historically black colleges. Combined with integrated K-12 schools, those institutions set about remedying centuries of deliberately under-utilized black educational capacity. By the 1970s, there was every reason to hope that black people could trade the hustle for actual achievement.
Achievement, measured by increases not just in economic fortunes but also the good housing and health afforded by those fortunes, should make the hustle unnecessary. Hustle is for surviving a rigged game. Achievement is for strategizing in a fair competition with clear rules, applied equally. But by the time I attended the Black Wall Street event in Durham, there was overwhelming evidence that the hustle is alive and well. Black workers are left to do precisely what they were doing on the eve of the March on Washington: piece together their own economic survival.
This is happening almost 60 years later for two reasons. First is the retrenchment of white people’s privileged access to the means of economic mobility, like the ability to pay for high-quality college or connections to certain social networks. And second is an economy that has built a fire wall against the March’s demands by investing heavily in the private sector and shrinking the public sector. By the 1980s it had become clear that a better job alone would not anchor black freedom. Policies that had once been explicitly about targeting poverty through massive public investment instead favored private-sector schemes. The private sector, in turn, was more committed to profits than to social well-being. It also operates, to a large degree, beyond the indirect control of voters and their elected representatives. The result is a national safety net that gets weaker every year, with rising health costs, gutted food subsidy programs, no paid parental leave, affordable housing shortages and starved civic infrastructures that now struggle to provide entire cities with clean water and clean air. At every hole in the safety net, black Americans are more likely to fall through.
For the black middle-class entrepreneurs, the hustle is about the fragility of their position. The public sector still matters to black economic stability and mobility, and its erosion means black workers must increasingly look to a hostile private sector. There, jobs have shifted from production and manufacturing to professional services, and the highest-paying ones can be some of the most resistant to the kind of training that college affords black Americans. One does not train for a job in, say, consulting the way one does for engineering. The soft-skills jobs that trade in relationships are difficult ones for black workers to break into. That makes entrepreneurship attractive to professional-class black people like those at the Black Wall Street event. Pitching feels more democratic than being born into the right family. But being born into the right family is still the single most important qualification for the digital economy’s highest-status jobs. As a study of contemporary inequality from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce put it, “To succeed in America, it’s better to be born rich than smart.”
If there is any good news, it’s that collective action still works. Fight for $15 has demonstrated that a multi-racial movement for economic justice can raise the minimum wage for service and care workers, two sectors where black workers are overrepresented. In Durham, spurred by the ongoing efforts of organizers and unions, the mayor and city council established a Workers’ Rights Commission in 2019 tasked with writing a workers’ bill of rights that could raise the minimum wage and abolish the ban on collective bargaining for public employees. It is a significant win for a Southern city.
The middle-class hustle is a tougher nut to crack. While the black workers who come out to protest with Fight for $15 have drawn explicit connections between historical struggle and their everyday experiences of racial inequality, the Black Wall Street entrepreneurs seemed to have a lot of language but little critical engagement with the past. Though the conference was staged in the country’s “Research Triangle,” an area packed with colleges and universities, there wasn’t much discussion of the economic justice issues facing the black adults who will graduate into this new economy. I did not observe any panels on raising capital when you are managing historically high student loan debt, for instance, and a tour of the city’s historical Black Wall Street district largely neglected the eminent domain and gentrification that destroyed the area’s black economic base. Some panelists also took pains to distance themselves from ideas of black collectivity. As one conferencegoer said, “We can’t just be about black people. This is a diverse city.”
Civil rights organizers were explicit that the fates of all black Americans are linked through equal access to jobs, education and public life, but if middle-class black workers are as willing to embrace an agnostic reclamation of the Black Wall Street ethos as they appeared, they will have a hard time connecting their pitch to the hustle. And if they cannot make that connection, they are unlikely to see their hustle as linked to the larger one.
All is not lost. Both hustles are embedded in a history of not only survival but overcoming. The before-and-after story of U.S. racism turns on a significant victory. The March on Washington won. Whether what they won endures or is defended or built upon, the fact is it won. Collective organizing created meaningful social change. We know how to win. When we hustle alone, we hustle hard. When we hustle together, we can end the hustle for all.
McMillan Cottom, an associate professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University, is the author of Thick: And Other Essays, a finalist for the National Book Award
This article is part of a special project about equality in America today. Read more about The March, TIME’s virtual reality re-creation of the 1963 March on Washington and sign up for TIME’s history newsletter for updates.