'We Need Both Equity and Rights': Felicia Wong of the Roosevelt Institute on how to reclaim FDR's vision for America.

AuthorStockwell, Norman

Felicia Wong is the president and chief executive officer of the Roosevelt Institute, a New York-based think tank and campus network, and the co-author of The Hidden Rules of Race: Barriers to an Inclusive Economy (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

The Roosevelt Institute, founded in 1939 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, is the nonprofit partner of the Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, New York, the first U.S. presidential library. The institute today is a think tank for progressive economic policy ideas and runs the nation's largest student policy network on college campuses.

Wong grew up in California and says her politics were shaped in part by her parents' lives and experiences. Her father, Ed Wong, grew up in Augusta, Georgia, in the Jim Crow South. At that time, Chinese Americans lived on the black side of the railroad tracks, but were considered "honorary white" for the purposes of schooling.

Wong's mother, artist and poet Flo Oy Wong, grew up in Oakland's Chinatown. Her mother's mixed-media assemblages have addressed the experiences of Chinese immigrants entering the country through California's Angel Island, and the often buried history of Japanese Americans in U.S. internment camps during World War II.

We spoke by telephone in early March, before the full effects of the coronavirus pandemic were being felt, and continued our conversation via email later in the month.

Q: Let's start by talking about Franklin Roosevelt's Economic Bill of Rights, which he delivered in the State of the Union Address in January 1944. Bernie Sanders has called it one of the most important speeches ever made by a President.

Wong: I think it's really important that the Economic Bill of Rights is coming back into our politics. I think Sanders is not the only person invoking the idea that we need both equity and rights, and those rights must be more than civil, more than social. They also must be economic, and in fact all those three things go together.

Q: How did we get away from that notion of government as the provider of economic rights to its citizens?

Wong: In a word, neoliberalism. We got away from this notion of true freedom including economic freedom, and the neoliberal turn in our politics was a very big part of that. Neoliberalism is this idea that only the market can bring freedom, and only the market and not government can provide choice. So you must therefore get government "out of the way" in order to let the market function properly.

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