In August 2013 I received a fellowship to study the Nordic model of social welfare, and spent three weeks in Scandinavia visiting Norway Sweden and Denmark. During this trip I had the pleasure of meeting with academics, government officials, researchers, public employees and citizens to gain as broad a perspective as possible. I returned in May 2014 leading a class of 18 undergraduate and graduate students to introduce them to the Nordic model.
Based upon these two visits, and subsequent study, I have gained a deeper appreciation of the role of government in providing for the welfare of its citizens. It was most gratifying for me to be a part of the students’ process as they were exposed to other ways of doing things that help to make life more satisfying and their incredulity and understanding of how we limit the role of government and allow people to succeed or fail and them blame them if they fail.
Visiting these Nordic countries and learning about how they approach social welfare, criminal justice, gender equality and the role of the individual further cemented my belief that there are better ways of approaching these than we have done traditionally in the United States. I plan to discuss these in future blogs and show how there is a central role for government to provide for the welfare of its citizens and therefore provide an acceptable quality of life for all citizens, where they have the opportunity to develop to their fullest potential. (to be continued…)
That was the beginning of the blog post that I started to write, but my mind kept going back to the Michael Brown shooting and the situation in Ferguson. As I thought more about it, the thought that kept coming up is “where is the white outrage.” Where are the white politicians, clergy, community leaders and other white folk? This is not just a black issue, this is an issue of social justice for all, and one that should concern everyone involved in the social sector. If we truly believe in equality and social justice, then every time an unarmed black male is shot by police it should impact our entire society. Every time another black man is sentenced to jail our entire society is impacted.
As I looked into this further, I was stunned by what I found. In a national study by the Pew Research Center, conducted after the Michael Brown shooting, white and black respondents were asked questions about the impact of race and police actions in Ferguson. The results seemed to corroborate the experience of many black Americans that we are living in two different countries., one white and privileged, and one inhabited by people of color. Eighty per cent of blacks polled felt that the events in Ferguson raised important questions about race, while only 37% of whites felt this way.
This racial split was consistent throughout the polling. When asked if race is getting “more attention that it deserves,” a mere 18% of blacks polled disagreed but almost half – 47% - of white respondents agreed with this statement. When asked about the police response, 65% of blacks polled felt that the police had gone too far, while only 33% of whites agreed with this statement. In contrast, 32% of the white respondents felt that the police response has been correct.
Fifty years after the civil rights act and 150 years after the emancipation proclamation, African-Americans as a demographic trail their white counterparts on all socio-economic indicators. While much improvement was seen in the decades following the civil rights and voting rights acts of the 1960’s, that progress has been slow and much ground has been lost as a result of the recent recession. That we live in two different countries is further illustrated by how blacks and whites are faring economically.
In the pre-civil rights era black unemployment in 1963 was twice that of whites, at 10.9% and 5% respectively. Half a century after the civil rights act, the ratio has not changed, with black unemployment in 2011 at 12.6% and that of whites 6.6%. While all demographic groups have been affected by the recession and the concentration of wealth at the top of the income ladder, blacks and other people of color have been disproportionately impacted. This is further illustrated by the disparity in earnings. In 1963 blacks earned fifty-five cents for every dollar earned by whites, in 2011 the number increased to a mere sixty-six cents per dollar earned by whites. Unfortunately some people will see this a progress and caution that change takes time, just be patient. Patience is a luxury that can be enjoyed by those that have resources while they advise those without to wait, “we are moving in the right direction.”
What do you do when that carrot is held out in front of you, and no matter how hard you try, it always remains just out of reach. Or to put it more eloquently “what happens to a dream deferred?” How long can we ask a people to be patient while they see their young men imprisoned or singled out by police, while their income and life choices are limited through no fault of their own? What do people do when there is no legitimate avenue for them to air grievances and ensure that their children will have opportunities that were closed to them? How can you be patient and wait for things to change, when your daily experiences tell you that things are not really changing. The facts support that change is not happening for the typical African-American family. In 1959 black poverty at 55.1% was three times that of whites, today, while it has been reduced to 27.6%, it still remains three times the white poverty rate.
While the collective myth is that if blacks would only work harder and play the game then they would succeed, because we live in a post-racial America. Like so many other fantasies of those who deny reality and are not impeded by facts, this stereotype is not held up. Black college graduates have an unemployment rate of 12.1%, higher than the 11.4% unemployment of white high school dropouts. Overall, black median income has fallen 10.9% since 2000 while white median income has fallen 3.6% during this period. Even with a black man in the white house, the economic and social status of black Americans has not improved.
These figures demonstrate quite clearly that legislation alone is not enough to erase racial discrimination and its impact. Yes, laws such as the civil rights and voting rights acts, affirmative action and nondiscrimination laws have had a positive impact. Not only has progress been slow but we are in a period of retreat as we move further from equality, rather than continuing to make progress. The reaction of everyday people in Ferguson clearly shows that anger and frustration can only be contained for so long. How many more young black men must die, how many more expressions of pent up anger and frustration must happen before we face up to the fact that blacks and whites in our society have two different lived experiences; one of white skin privilege, and the other of daily frustrations and indignities because of their skin color.
If you want to see how little things have changed, and the ever present threat that African-Americans live with, take a few minutes to view this video above, The Awful Truth, by Michael Moore produced in 2007.
As so many recent events and the economic statistics cited above demonstrate, we cannot rely on government to right centuries of wrongs. Laws may require people to act in a certain way but laws do not change attitudes. Until African Americans and other people of color accomplish something that they cannot control – being treated as fully equal citizens – we will continue to see more Fergusons. This is where the social sector can play a crucial role. Through services and programs we can begin to break down the separation and mistrust that grows out of residential, educational and employment segregation. Local nonprofits can work to bring people together across race and class lines to address common issues and to socialize. Working at the grassroots we can begin to change and increase understanding and empathy for others.
Local groups can work with police departments to increase understanding and decrease mistrust and fear. Diverse parent committees can work to improve local schools and decrease drop out rates. The list is endless of what can be accomplished if there is a vehicle for bringing communities together. That vehicle is already in place; all that is needed is the fuel to get it going. One thing is abundantly clear, we cannot continue down the path that we are on. We must break down the separation and prejudice that keeps us as two countries with two different lived experiences. Contrary to much popular belief, and as Ferguson has graphically illustrated, we do not live in a “post racial America – merely because we have elected a black man as president.
The choice is ours, and the social sector is uniquely positioned to address this very pressing need. Will we take the challenge?