Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Segregation 2.0 and income inequality

"While outright race-based segregation in schools was banned, in reality, educational segregation has worsened in recent decades, as Gary Orfield and other scholars have documented." Joseph Stiglitz, How Dr. King Shaped My Work in Economics New York Times 08/27/2013

The end of officially-sponsored school segregation in the South was a milestone in the dismantling of the Segregation 1.0 (Jim Crow) system. Formally racially segregated schools were official institutions promoting, teaching and literally embodying the separation of the races. It was the Brown v. Board of Education decision on segregated public schools that put Segregation 1.0 into its long, final defensive phase. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was more central, because denial of the vote to African-American citizens was the real political core of the segregation system. But the end of school segregation forced whites in the South, and somewhat later in other sections of the country, to confront the changed realities in their lived experience in a new way.

I'm modest about my ability to declare new eras as having begun. But whether Segregation 2.0 is beginning, impending or already a well-established reality, it's here for the United States. The Segregation Five of the Roberts Supreme Court have gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. The Republicans are escalating rapidly on voter suppression measures. Some of the rulings of the Supreme Court in recent years have may have effectively eliminated the practical force of the Brown decision. And, as Stiglitz points out, de facto racial segregation of schools in on the rise.

As he and others have been careful to point out, the famous "I Have A Dream" march whose anniversary we've been celebrating was called the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." Martin Luther King was intensely aware that class injustice was intimately connected with racial discrimination and put that reality at the center of his message.

Stiglitz in his piece talks about how his involvement in the civil rights movement lead him to become an economist and to specialize in problems of distribution:

It was because I hoped that something could be done about these and the other problems I had seen so vividly growing up in Gary, Ind. — poverty, episodic and persistent unemployment, unending discrimination against African-Americans — that I decided to become an economist, veering away from my earlier intention to go into theoretical physics. I soon discovered I had joined a strange tribe. While there were a few scholars (including several of my teachers) who cared deeply about the issues that had led me to the field, most were unconcerned about inequality; the dominant school worshiped at the feet of (a misunderstood) Adam Smith, at the miracle of the efficiency of the market economy. I thought that if this was the best of all possible worlds, I wanted to construct and live in another world.

In that odd world of economics, unemployment (if it existed) was the fault of workers. One Chicago School economist, the Nobel Prize winner Robert E. Lucas Jr., would later write: "Of the tendencies that are harmful to sound economics, the most seductive, and in my opinion the most poisonous, is to focus on questions of distribution." Another Nobel laureate of the Chicago School, Gary S. Becker, would attempt to show how in truly competitive labor markets discrimination couldn’t exist. While I and others wrote multiple papers explaining the sophistry in the argument, his was an argument that fell on receptive ears.

Like so many looking back over the past 50 years, I cannot but be struck by the gap between our aspirations then and what we have accomplished.
Rick Perlstein has been quoted several places I've seen for his perceptive comment on the neutralizing of King's image by turning him into a plastic saint: "Frankly, Martin Luther King had to be forgotten before he could be remembered." (See Joan Walsh, The right's outrageous MLK ignorance Salon 08/28/2013)

Fortunately, like with other leaders that played an important role in pushing democracy forward, trying to redefine them into harmless, vaguely inspirational figures is a tricky business. Some people growing up hearing their conservative families and the political leaders they follow talk about King's "content of their character" speech with the present-day conservative spin will actually look one of these days to understand more of what King was about. They will be surprised to see what the plaster saint of conservative mythology who was opposed to any and all laws to prevent racial discrimination actually had to say!

But the world doesn't stand still. And Segregation 2.0 is just as much a plague against democracy as the 1.0 Jim Crow version was.

Joan Walsh has a moment of liberal guilt about comparing Obama as President to King as civil rights leader. But then she goes ahead and does it anyway:

I admit, during this commemorative week, I've come to think it's wrong for white people in particular to deploy King as a weapon against our first black president. It simplifies the context in which both men have had to struggle, against staggering odds. It cheapens them, and us – especially on this day. History will no doubt compare them, but historians will have more information and more wisdom than we have today. Obama is the president, of everyone, charged with advancing liberty and justice as well as keeping us safe. He has disappointed me, profoundly at times, but I will not find him wanting, at least not today.

Still, were he alive, I have no doubt but that King would still be marching. He got a holiday after he was silenced; had he never been silenced, I'm not so sure he'd have gotten a holiday, because he would have kept pushing us, all of us, to live up to our highest ideals.
I actually think the comparison between the two Nobel Peace Prize winners is especially relevant right now. The living one is getting ready to launch an act of undeclared war against Syria, a country that has not attacked the United States. The long-decreased one was a very sharp critic of American militarism in general and its Vietnam War manifestation in particular.

Here's the living Nobel Peace Prize winner on Wednesday, Obama at March Anniversary: Goals of Economic Opportunity Have Fallen Short 08/28/2013:

Here is the other Nobel Peace Prize winner talking about the Vietnam War, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. - April 4, 1967 - Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break Silence [Full Speech]:

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