Jim Hill is the first person of color to be elected to statewide office in Oregon. He was elected State Treasurer in 1992, where he served two terms. He previously served as Assistant Attorney General of Oregon and in both the Oregon State Senate and the Oregon House of Representatives. He received both an MBA and law degree from Indiana University.
An attorney and financial consultant, Hill published his book, “The New ‘N’ Word: The White Middle Class,” earlier this year . He conducted a reading at The Book Bin to a standing-room-only crowd in June.
Income inequality, campaign finance reform, the segregated South, student loans – Hill covered a wide range of topics when he sat down with us last week. Here is some of what he said.
SW: What caused you to write a book that claims that middle-class whites are the new “n” word in America?
Hill: I would have to say i t was the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath. I guess I never thought people could do that much damage to other people’s lives. We lost 8 million jobs and the middle class is still suffering.
I wrote the book because I felt I had to do something about it . When I was State Treasurer, I had a particular understanding of what banks do. If I had done to state finances what the banks did to the country’s finances, I’d be running for my life. This irresponsibility hurt so many people and ruined millions of people’s lives.
I grew up in Georgia under racial segregation and discrimination where, by law, we were second-class. I know what it means to be treated second class. So it was to my amazement that the people hurt worse by the 2008 financial crisis were white middle class people. Many of the same things are happening to the white middle class now that were happening to black people back then.
Part of the problem with the white middle class being exploited in this way they are is they don’t have a history of being discriminated against. It’s hard for them to believe discrimination is not based on race , but on money and power.
Under segregation we had a foot on our necks and still we always felt our children would have a better life than we had. When you now see white people saying that they don’t feel their children are going to have a better life – something is terribly wrong.
SW: Why is the middle class so important?
HILL: You really can’t have a strong country without a prosperous middle class; the more money that most people make, the more they spend it, and that grows the economy.
When you look at so-called ‘developing countries’ such as China, what they point to as proof of their success is the growth of their middle class – and, meanwhile, ours is shrinking.
This is a recent development ; after World War 2, after our soldiers saved the world, they also successfully saved this country by converting it from a wartime to peacetime economy. That happened because of the GI Bill, which invested in soldier’s education, housing and training. Soldiers took advantage of that , joined the middle class and made us the richest country in the world.
Now – just the opposite is happening. We’re losing middle class positions because the financial crisis killed so many jobs. This meant that people with higher educations had to take lower and lower paid positions. And the people who had those jobs got pushed down to even lower positions. At some point, somebody just gets pushed down out of the workforce altogether .
Right now we have to invest in small and medium-sized businesses and encourage entrepreneurship, because it’s going to be the middle class that leads us out of this recession.
SW: How can the middle class lead us?
HILL: First, by getting educated. One of the most important things that will get us out of this recession , is to educate the middle class. As you go back – during the time of slavery it was against the law to teach a slave to read and write, because knowledge is power. Down the road, growing up in the south under racial segregation, I saw that one of the many things they did to keep us down was to see we were as poorly educated as possible.
If you want to keep people down, keep them ignorant and keep them stressed.
Despite these conditions, my mother told me, ‘you’re going to collage . ’ That’s because we all understood that education was the thing that would improve our lives. Sometimes you understand the value of what you’re deprived of more than if you take it for granted.
But these days, it is more and more expensive to go to school. And now there is a trillion dollars of student loan debt in the U.S.
Because they own the government, our tax dollars were used to bailout the biggest banks in the country. But when we came out of the financial crisis the banks destroyed the economy. So there were not jobs for students and that’s why student debt is so high.
SW: How did the banks get so much power?
Hill: I believe Bernie Sanders was so successful and Donald Trump got nominated because people feel the political establishment has sold them out. And they are right.
The establishment is what allowed so many corporations to pay no income tax.
We are supposed to be a democracy and we have turned into a plutocracy , where people with money and power have control of our government. They’ve bought it. It’s all money.
We have to insist on campaign finance reform. The very first activity in Washington D.C. is raising money – and I mean first , even above doing the people’s business. Elected officials go into these little room s and sit there and make calls and beg for money , for hours at a time. They’re always thinking about those campaign contributions.
These days if you don’t have money it’s like going into war without a bullet. People like the Koch Brothers say they might spend $900 million on a presidential race. They give politicians what they want – money to get reelected – and ignore us, the middle class on down.
SW: Do regular citizens have any recourse?
HILL: One way the segregated South used to keep us powerless was to keep us from voting. The greatest expression of American freedom is voting.
Voting changes things; in the segregated South, during election time, if you turned on the radio, the Number One issue candidates would brag about was who hated the n—s worse. That was the whole message. People fought and died just to vote; in the South there was intimidation and murder.
But, after the Voting Rights Act came, all of a sudden those same politicians on the radio were addressing blacks, and saying, ‘ hey, I am one of you.’
Now, though a number of states have recently passed laws to suppress voting, I am more optimistic about this country than I have ever been in my life. We have the power to change things because we have the vote. Blacks know how precious the vote is because it changed everything for us.
And white people better wake up and vote, too, or they’ll be picking cotton, because they’re getting poorer and poorer.
SW: Final thoughts?
Hill: In terms everyone understands, the concept of the American Dream means having the freedom, fairness and opportunity to make a better life for yourself. When I was growing up under segregation, the whole idea was to make us doubt the dream was attainable for us – but we still believed in it, and we still made it come true.
I’m optimistic now, because we can take charge of this ourselves. We can vote for people who will represent us and invest in education to make sure everyone has an opportunity.
All we have to do is care enough to vote and hold our public officials accountable. Or, if people don’t like what’s out there, they can look in the mirror and run for office themselves.
“The New ‘N’ Word; the White Middle Class” by Jim Hill is available online, at The Book Bin in Salem, by streaming and at Amazon.com.