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A Discussion of Race Worth Having
March 18, 2008
Much has been made around the edges of this campaign about the issue of race. Sadly, nothing has been made of the public policy exigencies that arise because of the urgent racial disparities that continue to exist in our country.
Just last week, the United Nations criticized the United States, again, for its failure to address the issues arising from the rights, particularly the right of return, of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita survivors. Author Bill Quigley writes in "The Cleansing of New Orleans," that half of the working poor, elderly, and disabled of New Orleans have not been able to return. Two weeks ago, United Nations experts on housing and minority rights called for an immediate end of public housing demolitions in New Orleans. Now, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, ratified by the U.S. in 1994, further observes that the U.S. must do more to protect and support the African American community.
In 2006, the United Nations Human Rights Commission "noted its concern that while African Americans constitute just 12% of the population, they represent 50% of homeless people, and the government is required to take 'adequate and adequately implemented' measures to remedy this human rights violation."
In short, the United Nations has issued reports squarely calling for the United States to do more to eliminate racial discrimination-and this discrimination is a human rights violation.
I am deeply offended that in the middle of a Presidential campaign, remarks--be they from a pastor or a communications mogul, or a former Vice Presidential nominee--are the cause of a focus on race, and not the deep racial disparities that communities are forced to endure on a daily basis in this country.
Myriad reports and studies that have been done all come up with the same basic conclusion: in order to resolve deep and persisting racial disparities in this country, a public policy initiative is urgently needed. A real discussion of race, in the context of a Presidential election, ought to include a discussion of the various public policy initiatives offered by the various candidates to eliminate all forms and vestiges of racial discrimination, including the racial disparities that cloud the hopes, dreams, and futures of millions of Americans.
For example, every year on the anniversary of the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. United for a Fair Economy publishes a study of the true state of people of color in America called the "State of the Dream Report." And it was their 2004 report that noted that without public policy intervention, it would take 1,664 years to close the racial gap in home ownership in this country. And that on some indices, for example, infant mortality, the racial disparities were worse at the time of the report than at the time of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In their 2005 report, entitled, "Disowned," United for a Fair Economy explored the disparate impact of Bush's "Ownership Society" economic program that saw Black and Latino lives shattered as unemployment, income, home ownership, business ownership, and stock ownership plummeted even in the face of Administration economists trumpeting the phenomenal "growth" of the U.S. economy as a result of their policies.
In 2006, United for a Fair Economy focused on the devastating and embarrassing effect of government inaction before, during, and after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. They focused on something as simple as car ownership and the relationship between vehicle ownership and race. In the case of New Orleans, car ownership literally meant the difference between losing or saving one's life.
In 2007, United for a Fair Economy explored the Black voters' attachment to the Democratic Party, and in a piece entitled, "Voting Blue, but Staying in the Red," they explored goals that the Democratic Party should have put at the top of its agenda for its first 100 hours in the majority. While noting that the Democrats didn't even mention Katrina in their agenda, United for a Fair Economy concluded that Blacks and Latinos voted in the November 2006 elections in the blue, but due to a failure of public policy that pays attention to their needs, they continue to live in the red.
In their 2008 report, United for a Fair Economy explores the sub-prime mortgage crisis and note that the largest loss of wealth in U.S. history is being experienced by the Black and Latino communities with an estimated $92 billion being lost by Blacks and an estimated $98 billion being lost by Latinos. And while families are losing their life savings and the only major investment that they own, policy makers are asking them to tighten their belts. But the predator banks' CEOs are walking away with record remuneration. And our policy makers are notable for their inaction: first on the predatory lending that disproportionately affects Blacks and Latinos, and then on offering relief so that homeowners remain homeowners, including in the midst of this crisis.
Sadly, United for a Fair Economy isn't the only research organization to find glaring and intolerable disparities in our society by race and no appropriate public policies enacted to address them. Hull House did a study that found that it would take 200 years to close the gap in the quality of life experienced by black Chicagoans and white Chicagoans. There has been no public policy initiative taken up by the mayor or the governor of Illinois to begin closing that gap.
Several years ago, the New York Times published a finding that nearly half the men between the ages of 16 and 64 in New York City were unemployed. There was no initiative by the mayor or the governor of New York to begin addressing such pain.
Every year, the National Urban League publishes a study, "The State of Black America," in which the ills and disparities that persist in this country are catalogued. Every year, the story is basically the same. The United States has a way to go that only public policy can address. However, when Harvard University/The Kaiser Family Foundation did a study on White attitudes about race several years ago, it found that Whites have little appreciation for the reality of Black life in America, from police harassment and intimidation, to imprisonment, to family income, unemployment, housing, and health care. But without an appreciation of the reality faced by many of our fellow Americans, the necessary public policy initiatives to change those realities will find difficulty gaining acceptance in the public discourse.
Additionally, compounding the problem, there is little public discourse because the corporate press refuse to cover the deep implications of the results of all these studies. I am convinced that if the American people knew the truth of the conditions, change would surely follow. I believe that to be the case because of the impact of the images of "Bloody Sunday" on the passage of the Voting Rights Act. I believe that to be the case because of the impact of the images of the Vietnam War on the turn of the tide of public opinion against that War.
This moment sheds light on a much-needed discussion: on race and the legacies of race and slavery and the continuing problems associated with our failure to treat racism as a curable American disease.
I am glad that candidate Obama mentioned the existing racial disparities in education, income, wealth, jobs, government services, imprisonment, and opportunity. Now it is time to address the public policies necessary to resolve these disparities. Now it is time to have the discussion on how we are going to come together and put policies in effect that will provide real hope and real opportunity to all in this country.
To narrow the gap between the ideals of our founding fathers and the realities faced by too many in our country today: That must be the role of public policy at this critical moment in our country today.
I welcome a real discussion of race in this country and a resolve to end the long-standing disparities that continue to spoil the greatness of our country. I welcome a real discussion of all the issues that face our country today and the real public policy options that exist to resolve them. That must be the measure of this campaign season. For many voters, this important discussion has been too vague or completely non-existent. Now is the time to talk about the concrete measures that will move our country forward: on race, war, climate change, the economy, health care, and education. Our votes and our political engagement must be about ensuring that fairness truly for all is embodied in "liberty and justice for all."