Ilhan Omar: Capitalism Cannot Deliver Social Justice
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the Somali-American representative is a member of “The Squad” that has taken Capitol Hill by storm.
By Nick Fouriezos
Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota sat for a revealing interview with OZY’s CEO and co-founder on the latest episode of The Carlos Watson Show. The following are some of the best cuts from the full conversation — which you can find on our podcast feed — edited for clarity and length.
On leaving Somalia for the United States
Ilhan Omar: So when we first came to the U.S., I was 12. It’s extremely challenging to come to a country in a time when you’re coming of age, dealing with adolescence. And transitioning into middle school, I had been out of school for four years living in a refugee camp in Kenya. And I didn’t speak English. The only words I knew in English were “hello” and “shut up.” And as you could imagine, they don’t make you the best of friends in middle school.
My family was led by my father and grandfather. I lost my mother when I was very young. And my dad and grandfather were born in an era where Somalia was colonized and lived through its independence and had a short time with democracy, the ability to vote. And they lost that. A majority of the years when I lived there and in their lifetime, it was ruled by a dictator.
And so coming to the United States was their first opportunity to fulfill that need to participate in a democracy. And when we moved to Minnesota, we connected to my grandfather, who had also resettled in Iowa and moved to Minnesota because of us as well. And he wanted to participate. In Minnesota, we have something called caucuses. And I took him at the age of 14 to his first caucus as his cultural and language translator.
I fell in love with the process. It is a very grassroots, democratic process that sort of invites neighbors to have robust debates about what’s at stake for them and for their community and for their country. And I was really taken aback by the fact that this was a man who was my guide in life. And I leaned on him to teach me things. And now here I was giving him access to something he knew more about than I did. And so I stayed with that process in making it more accessible and restoring dignity for elders like him.
Minnesota now has the highest immigrant participants in the election process. The Somali Americans in Minnesota vote at something like 90 to 95 percent.
On Minnesota as a progressive capital
Carlos Watson: We’re used to thinking of Minnesota, at least folks I know, as a very progressive place. We think of it as Prince’s state. We think of it as, if you’re old enough to remember, people like Walter Mondale and Hubert Humphrey, and even going further back, as a very progressive place. And so to see it aflame, to see the officers do what they did, even to see people stand around and see that, how should we think about Minnesota and where it is, and where it’s going? Is it no longer the progressive capital that I always thought of it as?
Omar: It is, and that’s the piece in Minnesota where we say things get interesting. For everyone that is not Black or brown, Minnesota is great when it comes to education attainment, when it comes to access to health care, when it comes to walkable cities. Every measure, we are the best. We rank one, two or three.
Now, when it comes to Black folk, we are the worst, or we rank [in] the bottom three consistently every single year. And just to put that in context for you, 15 percent of Black Minnesotans are unemployed or underemployed. Fifty percent of [Black] Minnesotans are uninsured or underinsured when it comes to health care. We are in so many ways progressive — except finding policies to address the racial equity gaps that exist in our communities.
On her legislative priorities
Omar: My priorities have been in sort of pockets. It’s addressing the economic distress that I’ve seen growing up in very disenfranchised neighborhoods in Minneapolis. Which means that we fight to increase the living wage. We fight for housing policies that guarantee homes to everyone. And we fight for things like an affordable education and access to meals, whether it is healthy foods or meals for our children. Because I believe you can’t feed the brain unless you feed the belly.
Thinking about immigration and fighting for a humane immigration policy. One that understands seeking asylum is a human right, an internationally recognized human right. And that there is a role and responsibility of every country to look after folks who are forcefully being displaced or are being displaced by natural disasters. And lastly, thinking about how our foreign policy and a focus on creating conflict … has made us unsafe, domestically. Has made us prioritize putting resources there. And we collect the resources that should have been devoted to domestic policies.
Watson: Do you think capitalism can deliver social justice?
Omar: No. No. Not in the ways in which it’s currently designed. We see over and over again that there is a redistribution of wealth, and it is just upward.
Watson: How hopeful are you that there would be [meaningful] change in a Biden-Harris administration?
Omar: It’s fascinating to me that we have a tendency to talk about incremental change being the things that are possible when it comes to addressing economic and social neglect, but we don’t do that when we’re talking about corporate giveaways and tax cuts that create disenfranchisement for all of us.
We don’t talk about that when we’re talking about the looming Pentagon budget; we don’t say, “Where are the incremental changes?” We go for the real investment. And so for me, what I’m looking forward to is that a Biden-Harris administration will have an equitable lens in ways in which they are using their lived experiences to guide their policymaking in ways in which they have never used it before.
I hope that that is the way in which they operate, that we are going to see a freeing of 45 million people from the shackles of student debt, that there will be a host guarantee policy that ends homelessness and addresses millions of people in this country who are unhoused or housing insecure, that we will see the implementation of serious criminal and justice reforms, and that we will get an opportunity to have humane immigration policy and, finally, an ability to address our climate crisis.