Friday, November 5, 2010

No Time for Compromise; It’s Time to Fight

In the words of President Obama, the Democrat Party took a "shellacking" on Election Day. Congressional Republicans picked up at least 60 seats in the House, regaining control of the chamber. They took at least six seats in the Senate, though not enough to take control from the Democrats.

I eagerly anticipated the President's first press conference. I wanted to hear his take on the election and to hear what he had to say about how Democrats with the help of their progressive allies would move forward. I was hoping that he would stand up, dust himself off, and recommit to the vision he had when he won the White House.

I was wrong.

Instead, Obama was somber and sounded beaten rather than emboldened by the Republican's triumphant return to power. Rather than say he was ready to fight, the President said that he had been humbled by the election results. He sounded contrite, almost apologetic for the past two years. He even agreed with a claim made by Tea Party activists that he is out of touch with the American people, saying it was a consequence of living in the "White House bubble."

During the press conference, the President expressed his desire to sit down with Republican leaders in the House and Senate, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, and their Democratic counterparts to figure out a way to work together. "I have been willing to compromise in the past and I am willing to compromise going forward," he said.

Meanwhile at a press conference at the Capital, the future Speaker of the House did not sound like a man ready to find common ground with the President. Regarding the President's signature program, Boehner said, "The American people have concerns about government takeover of healthcare. I think it's important for us to lay the groundwork before we begin to repeal this monstrosity."

My fear is that the President and much of the Democratic leadership in the Congress will interpret this election as a rebuke and move that Party even further to the right away from Progressives like myself in an attempt to "reclaim the center."

Senator–Elect, Richard Blumenthal, of one of the nation's bluest of blue states, Connecticut, summed up my worst nightmare in his first press conference: "People in Connecticut and across the country want their representatives to reach across the aisle and find common ground,'' said Blumenthal. "There are no Democratic or Republican solutions to these economic problems, there are simply good, common-sense pragmatic solutions,'' he added.

Hey Senator-Elect, what are you talking about? With only one exception, the entire Connecticut Congressional delegation is held by the Democrats (the Independent Senator caucuses with the Democrats). The Governor-Elect is a Democrat. The Democrats hold a majority in the state legislature. All of the state-wide elected officials are Democrats.

Of course, the Republicans in Congress and their Tea Party allies do not share Blumenthal's enthusiasm for bipartisanship.

A quick glance into the past should give us a glimpse of what the future may hold for President Obama and Democrats in Congress.

After winning control of Congress in 1994, the Republicans impeached President Bill Clinton, refused to confirm many of his judges, shut down the government, refused to listen to him on climate change, blocked his efforts to save Social Security, and pushed draconian welfare reform and crime bills through Congress.

The incoming Congressional Republican leadership is even more partisan, more mean-spirited, and more extreme than the Republican leadership that took the House in 1994.

Part of the problem is that they are beholden to a base that has some really wacky ideas about the President. According to a Gallup poll taken earlier this year, the hatred of Obama runs deep among the rank-and-file Republican voters: 67 percent of Republicans believe that Obama is a socialist; 57 percent of Republicans believe that Obama is a Muslim; 45 percent of Republicans agree with the Birthers in their belief that Obama was "not born in the United States and so is not eligible to be president;" 38 percent of Republicans say that Obama is "doing many of the things that Hitler did;" and most frightening, 24 percent of Republicans say that Obama "may be the Antichrist."

Yeah, that is not a typo; roughly a quarter of Republicans think the President of the United States may be the Antichrist?

Republican leaders are not bashful about their disdain for Obama and his policies nor are they bashful about their desire to run him out of office. In an interview with National Journal magazine last month, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said that his party's top priority in the new Congress would be to make sure that Obama is a one-term president.

With each passing day, McConnell has become even more emboldened about evicting the Obama's from the "big white house" at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. In a speech before the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington-based think tank, he said, "If our primary legislative goals are to repeal and replace the health spending bill, to end the bailouts, cut spending and shrink the size and scope of government, the only way to do all these things it is to put someone in the White House who won't veto any of these things."

Clearly, Congressional Republicans have little or no interest in compromising with the President or reaching consensus with their Democratic colleagues across the aisle.

America deserves an alternative to the neo-liberal policies of the Congressional Republican Party and the pathological hatred of the President by their Tea Party allies.

Congressional Democrats need to step up to the plate. They need to mobilize their base to fight for progressive alternatives to the Congressional Republican agenda.

I have been reading Chantal Mouffe's book "On the Political (Thinking in Action)." She provides an important insight about politics and voting that Democrats and their allies need to understand:

"Mobilization requires politicization, but politicization cannot exist without the production of a conflictual representation of the world, with opposed camps with which people can identify. ... what moves people to vote is much more than simply the defense of their interests. ... Political discourse needs to offer not only policies but also identities which can help people make sense of what they are experiencing as well as giving them hope for the future."

The Tea Party gave people an identity and a cause. Democrats and their progressive allies need to give people a reason to vote so that their passions can be mobilized for politics.

Enough with this post-political vision, a refusal to acknowledge that Congressional Republicans and their Tea Party allies have declared war on everything Democrats and progressive have been fighting for during the past two years.

Congressional Democrats need to heed the words of Jim Hightower, "there's nothing is in the middle of the road but dead Armadillos."

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Culture versus Structure: The Never Ending Debate About The Causes Of Black Poverty

Ever since the publication of then, assistant secretary of labor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan's report entitled, "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action," there has been a fierce debate in both popular and scholarly literature about the causes of black poverty and racial and ethnic inequality in American society more generally.

In what became known as "the Moynihan report," the future U.S. Senator from New York created a firestorm of controversy with his contention that cultural pathologies, including the breakdown of the black family, were the leading causes of black poverty. Many conservatives and some liberals praised Moynihan's work. Critics, on the other hand, responded that Moynihan did not focus enough on structural factors, such as discrimination in the labor market, to explain racial inequality and that his emphasis on cultural factors amounted to simply blaming the victim.

In the decades since the publication of Moynihan's study, the scholarship of Harvard Sociologist, William J. Wilson, has become the focal point of the popular and scholarly disputes about race and poverty. Like Moynihan, Wilson's work has been both widely praised and forcefully condemned in social science and policy circles.

In his most recent book, More Than Just Race: Being Black And Poor In The Inner City, Wilson once again tackles the culture versus structure debate raging about the causes of poverty in black inner-city communities.

For people who are familiar with Wilson's earlier work – see, for example, The Declining Significance of Race, When Work Disappears, and The Truly Disadvantaged – there are few surprises. Wilson has not deviated much from his core contention that in order to understand urban poverty and persistent racial and ethnic inequality, one must take seriously both culture and structure as explanatory factors.

In spite of the familiarity of the arguments, two things make More Than Just Race worth exploring. One is the clarity of Wilson's writing, especially, the way he lays out his theoretical framework. His review of literature on culture and social structure is as thorough as any you are likely to see in the academic literature on the subjects.

The other reason to read the book is because of the overall "accessibility" of the text. With this book, it is clear that Wilson is trying to reach a broader audience. Of course, and perhaps, unavoidably, there are some areas of the book loaded with your typical academic jargon, but, for the most part, More Than Just Race is quite readable.

For years, Wilson has criticized liberals for not taking cultural explanations of black poverty seriously. In More Than Just Race, Wilson focuses more explicitly on culture than he did in any of his previous works. Culture, Wilson writes, "refers to the sharing of outlooks and modes of behavior among individuals who face similar space-based circumstances … or have the same social networks." As such, people develop cultural repertoires (that is, values, belief systems, orientations, habits, particular skills, worldviews, linguistic patterns, and styles of acting and self-presentation) to make sense of and give meaning to the world they live in.

In other words, when someone acts "their culture," they are simply following "inclinations developed from their exposure to the particular traditions, practices, and beliefs among those who live and interact" in the same community. Importantly, once these repertoires of actions and beliefs are formed, they "display a degree of autonomy in the regulation of behavior."

Wilson suggests that while the cultural repertoires people adopt are imaginative and perhaps, even sensible given their live circumstances (such as living in a poor segregated neighborhood), they may also hinder social mobility, and thus reinforce structural conditions that produce racial and ethnic inequalities.

For conservatives, a deficient culture and individual character flaws that ensue (for example, aggressive and violent behavior, sexual promiscuity, indifference to educational opportunities, and a tendency to try to "get over" without working hard) are the driving forces behind persistent black poverty. This view that essentially blames the black poor for their own poverty shapes much of the discourse about the causes and solutions to racial inequality in America.

Wilson does not object to these kinds of characterizations of the black poor.

I do.

For example, one reason that I object to these characterizations is because many poor blacks have the same key problems that debt-ridden middle-class Americans have, the disease of materialism, an inability to defer gratification, and a tendency to live above one's means.

A 2009 report, The Plastic Safety Net, by Demos, a non-partisan public policy research and advocacy organization, sheds a light on just how deeply in debt Americans are:

During the height of the housing bubble, from 2001 to 2006, homeowners cashed out $1.2 trillion (2006 dollars) in home equity and households accumulated nearly $900 billion in credit card debt. As households tapped their savings and spent nearly all of their incomes, the nation's personal saving rate dropped to 0.4 percent of disposable income by 2006.

Due to the "Great Depression," current household debt is probably worse today than what Demos reported last year. Certainly, the explosion in credit card debt and cash-out financing is being fueled by the fact that millions of households experience trouble covering their day-to-day expenses due to declining and stagnant wages, job loss, and rising health care costs. But, the growing debt problem is also being fueled by the fact that Americans overstretch their household budgets with too much consumption.

Overconsumption is part of an addictive illness sometimes called Affluenza, "an epidemic of stress, overwork, waste and indebtedness caused by dogged pursuit of the American Dream."

For example, the homes we live in and the cars we drive are bigger, much more luxurious, and technologically advanced than the ones our parents and grandparents purchased. In fact, many three car garages that are attached to McMansions built during the housing bubble in developments in exurbia are larger than homes built during the 1950s. Of course, McMansions are not the norm, but homes built today dwarf ones built a century ago when families were typically larger and needed the space. Indeed, since 1970, the typical American house has doubled in size.

What do we do with all that unused space? We fill it up with "Stuff." Americans spend three to four times as many hours shopping as our counterparts in Europe do. If the rest of the world consumed at U.S. rates, we would need 3 to 5 planets.

Unfortunately, for the rest of the people we share this planet with, America's consumer culture is being exported around the globe.

To Wilson's credit, however, when it comes to delineating the main forces that shape black poverty, he is very clear: "structure trumps culture."

Wilson's discussion of the structural causes of poverty is enlightening and masterfully constructed, making a significant contribution to the literature on race and poverty.

According to Wilson, social structure "refers to the way social positions, social roles, and networks of social relationships are arranged in our institutions, such as the economy, polity, education, and organizations of the family." As an example, a social structure could be the criminal justice system that both threatens and utilizes sanctions in order to compel people to obey the law.

There are two types of structural forces that contribute directly to racial and ethnic inequality, especially in the areas of poverty and employment. One factor is social acts, "the behavior of individuals within society." Some examples of social acts that he gives include: stereo-typing; discrimination in hiring, job promotions, housing, and admission to educational institutions and; exclusion from unions, employers' associations, and clubs.

A second factor is social processes, which "refers to the 'machinery' of society that exists to promote ongoing relations among members of the larger group." Social processes include such things as laws, policies, and institutional practices that produce inequitable racial and ethnic outcomes (for example, Jim Crow segregation laws; voter suppression tactics; felon disenfranchisement laws; racial profiling by law enforcement officers and; redlining by banks and other lending institutions).

While much attention has been paid to the structural forces that directly contribute to racial and ethnic inequality, little attention has been paid to those political and economic forces that indirectly produce group disparities.

Wilson's discussion of how political actions and impersonal economic forces – which are not the result of actions, processes, or ideologies that reflect racial bias – affect life in urban America should be read by anyone seriously committed to combating the problems of racial and ethnic inequality.

Indirect structural forces that have profoundly affected the life choices and opportunities of poor blacks living in inner-city communities include: "the decreased relative demand for low-skilled labor caused by the technological revolution and the growing internationalization of economic activity; the relocation of urban industries first to suburbs and then to points overseas for a sharp decline in the central-city manufacturing sector; and urban sprawl that reduces inner-city residents access to economic opportunities and exacerbates the 'spatial mismatch' between poor black neighborhoods and jobs that pay well."

Significantly, blacks have been disproportionately impacted by the decline in manufacturing jobs, especially those related to the auto industry. Since World War II, the manufacturing sector, with its unionized and better-paying jobs, had been a significant source of employment opportunities for the black community. At the same time, the collapse of the low-skilled urban labor markets has created jobless black ghettos across America.

Wilson's book makes it very clear, policy-makers seriously committed to addressing the problems of race and poverty must confront structural forces that create and reinforce racial inequality.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

U.S. Government Sponsored Ghoulish Experiments On People Of Color Are Being Brought To Light

Another reprehensible chapter in the dark history of medical experimentation on people of color by the U.S. government was recently brought to light. Between 1946 and 1948, American scientists intentionally infected prisoners and patients in a Guatemalan mental hospital with syphilis and gonorrhea.

The recently unearthed National Institutes of Health (NIH) experiment, which was conducted over 60 years ago, prompted President Barack Obama and Secretary of State, Hilary Rodham Clinton, to call the president of Guatemala, Alvaro Colomto, to officially apologize.

"We are outraged that such reprehensible research could have occurred under the guise of public health," said Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

The NIH-funded experiment to test what was at the time a relatively new drug, penicillin, was discovered by a Wellesley College medical historian. The purpose of the study was to see if penicillin could prevent some sexually transmitted diseases. The research was a bust; it produced no useful clinical knowledge and was buried by the government for decades.

Amazingly, Guatemalan officials had no idea that the experiment even took place until they were contacted by Clinton.

The only reason we know anything about this appalling instance of medical research is because Wellesley College historian Susan Reverby discovered it while going through the research notes of a U.S. government funded "madman" named Dr. John Cutler.

Cutler is the same researcher who was responsible for the infamous Tuskegee experiment. The particulars of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study are well known: between 1932 and 1972, Cutler and his staff, tracked 600 Black men who had syphilis, never offering them treatment for their illness.

Of course, using people of color as guinea pigs for medical research is not new nor should it come as a surprise. Blacks have frequently been mistreated by the medical establishment dating all the way back to the colonial period. Harriet A. Washington in her book, Medical Apartheid, explores several important themes about the use of blacks for medical experimentation:

These include the selection of blacks for the riskiest studies; their disproportionate selection for nontherapeutic experimentation; the myth of medical distinctiveness (which held that syphilis was manifested differently in blacks); and the myth of hypersexed blacks as "incorrigible" vectors of sexual disease and dysfunction.

But, the Guatemala research was even more ghoulish than the Tuskegee Syphilis Study: although at the time Guatemalan government officials sanctioned the study, a total of 969 unwilling and unwitting subjects – both men and women – were exposed to syphilis and in some instances gonorrhea. The exposure was done through jail visits by prostitutes or, in some cases, by deliberately inoculating them.

Unlike the men in the Tuskegee study, however, the Guatemalan subjects were given penicillin. Nonetheless, it is not clear just how many were successfully treated for the diseases.

Because so little is known about the Guatemalan Syphilis Study, two independent investigations have been ordered by the U.S. government to uncover the truth.

Whatever the outcome of the investigation, the United States government, on behalf of the American people, owes the people of Guatemala more than just a phone call for this medical nightmare. They deserve a formal apology and reparations for the families of the survivors. This would send an important message to the rest of the world that this kind of conduct is not acceptable, even if it happened 60 years ago.

On May 16, 1997, President Bill Clinton formally apologized for the Tuskegee experiment to the surviving eight men and their families:

To the survivors, to the wives and family members, the children and the grandchildren, I say what you know: No power on earth can give you back the lives lost, the pain suffered, the years of internal torment and anguish. What was done cannot be undone. But we can end the silence. We can stop turning our heads away. We can look at you in the eye and finally say on behalf of the American people, what the United States government did was shameful, and I am sorry…. To Macon County, to Tuskegee, to the doctors who have been wrongly associated with the events there, you have our apology, as well. To our African American citizens, I am sorry that your federal government orchestrated a study so clearly racist. That can never be allowed to happen again.

The Tuskegee and Guatemala Syphilis Study's were not anomalies. According to the Director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins, the U.S. government conducted more than 40 deliberate-infection studies in the U.S. during the time the Tuskegee and Guatemala experiments were going on.

Moreover, the truth is that what happened in Guatemala more than likely occurred in other countries. All the records of our nation's dark history of medical research around the world must be made public.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Poverty Figures Are Bad; They Could Be Much Worse

The latest figures measuring poverty in America are quite horrifying. According to data recently released by the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of Americans living below the poverty line has reached its highest level in 51 years.

About 14.3 percent of Americans live below the poverty threshold (absurdly defined as $22,050 for a family of four) according to Census Bureau data for 2009. The official poverty rate is the highest it has been since 1994.

The economic crisis, dubbed "The Great Recession," has pushed a record number of Americans into poverty. With 44 million poor – an increase of 4 million over the previous year – the number of people in poverty has not been this high since 1959, the first year that poverty estimates were made available by the Census.

Not surprisingly, people of color are disproportionately represented in those numbers. Nearly one-quarter of blacks and Hispanics live below the poverty line. Between 2008 and 2009, the black poverty rate rose from 24.7 percent to 25.8 percent. For Hispanics, the poverty rate rose from 23.2 percent 25.3 percent. Poverty rates for non-Hispanic whites stands at 9.4 percent, up from 8.6 percent.

However, as stunning as these new figures are, the Census is dramatically underestimating the "true" poverty rate. The problem is that the method the Census uses to measure poverty is outdated.

The Census Bureau measures poverty based on a cost of living metric developed in 1955 – that's right, a metric developed 55 years ago. The Census do not take into consideration such factors as the increased cost of medical care, child care, education, transportation, and many other basic costs of living. Nor do they factor into their calculation differences in the cost of living between regions of the country – for example, living in New England is much more expensive than living in the South.

Another way in which the "true" poverty rate is underestimated is that it does not take into consideration the number of Americans who are getting by only because of government assistance. More than 20 million people received unemployment benefits at some point last year. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, unemployment benefits probably kept about 3.3 million people from slipping into poverty. Likewise, about 2.3 million people were kept from slipping into poverty because of food stamp benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

In general, large numbers of Americans are becoming increasingly dependent on government anti-poverty programs because of the recent downturn in the economy. More than 50 million Americans are on Medicaid - that's up at least 17% since the recession began in December 2007. More than 40 million people get food stamps – that's up nearly 50% since the start of the economic downturn. Close to 10 million receive unemployment insurance – that's about four times the number from three years ago. An additional 4.4 million people are on welfare – up 18% since the recession began.

For decades, conservatives have demonized our nation's social welfare system. For tens of millions of Americans, however, the social safety net is the only thing that stands between them and complete economic ruin.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Shirley Sherrod Walked into a Live Minefield: Conservative Myths About Race and Racism in America

The Shirley Sherrod affair made me think a lot about some powerful myths – historical and contemporary – about race and racism in America.

What has been abundantly clear to me about the whole sordid Sherrod affair is just how deeply ingrained in the American psyche is the conservative narrative about race and racism in America.

During the last several decades, books and articles written by conservative writers – many of them housed in conservative think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute, the Manhattan Institute, the Heritage Foundation and the Hoover Institute at Stanford, University – have defined much of our racial discourse.

Some of their books have become best-sellers. There is not enough space to list them all, but two of the most well-known and successful books are:

What is striking about both of these books is that they promote some of the oldest and most familiar racist myths, including the idea that black people are violent, intellectually inferior, lazy, and prone to dependency on welfare and other government handouts.

As an example, in his 700 page book, The End of Racism, D'Souza unloaded this zinger, which managed to offend several black conservatives enough that they resigned from the American Enterprise Institute in protest of its promotion of the book:

Most African American scholars simply refuse to acknowledge the pathology of violence in the black underclass, apparently convinced that black criminals as well as their targets are both victims: the real culprit is societal racism. Activists recommend federal jobs programs and recruitment into the private sector. Yet it seems unrealistic, bordering on the surreal, to imagine underclass blacks with their gold chains, limping walk, obscene language, and arsenal of weapons doing nine-to-five jobs at Procter and Gamble or the State Department.

While social science surveys suggest that most whites no longer hold these crude racists views, the success of the Bell Curve and The End of Racism should give us all a reason to question the validity of the survey data about racial attitudes.

A number of black writers have done their part to promote conservative myths about race and racism:

These black authors often couch their arguments in language about morality, self-help, and personal discipline. Ignoring or minimizing the brutal impact of structural forces that shape options and opportunities for a significant number of blacks trapped in ghetto neighborhoods, a particularly striking theme that runs throughout their books is the idea that the problems faced by the black poor and working class stem primarily from their lack of personal responsibility.

It should come as no surprise that many of these black authors – as do many conservatives in general – promote the myth that most whites are color-blind and pay little or no attention to race. According to this myth, the only people paying attention to race today are civil rights activists, white liberals, and a few radicals in the academy.

The Sherrod affair brought to the surface one of the newest myths being perpetuated by conservatives, that in the post-civil rights era, white people have become the main, if not the sole, victims of racial discrimination.

For decades, conservatives (see, for example, Frederick R. Lynch: Invisible Victims: White Males and the Crisis of Affirmative Action) have been arguing that, so-called, preferential treatment for blacks and other people of color, causes racial unrest, and unfairly limits white's access to jobs and educational opportunities.

Shirley Sherrod unwittingly and unintentionally stepped into that minefield when she gave her NAACP address. Because white victimhood has become such a dominant theme in the racial discourse of today, even being adopted by centrist and progressives, it should not have come as a surprise that so many people fell into the trap cast by conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart and Fox News.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Jobless Recovery for the Unskilled and Less Educated

For the last several months, the Obama Administration has been talking a lot about "a jobless economic recovery." The Administration points to statistics showing that the unemployment rate has dropped to about 9.5 percent, down from a peak of 10.1 percent last October, to justify its policies to stimulate the economy.

For the millions of Americans who are unemployed, underemployed, or have abandoned the job market out of frustration, however, the talk out of Washington about "a jobless economic recovery" is utter nonsense.

In particular, for the long-term unemployed, talk of a jobless recovery must sound like a cruel joke. Let's get real. The proportion of the work force that has been out of work for more than six months is an astonishing 4.4 percent.

The more than 46 percent of the unemployed out of work for more than 6 months is twice the previous post-war high set in 1983. Although the long-term unemployment rate was obviously higher during the Great Depression, the figure has never approached this level since the government started collecting data in 1948.

It should come as no surprise that the Great Recession has hit unskilled workers and workers of color the hardest. For example, not only are blacks more likely to have lost their job, those who are not laid off have been more likely to see their pay and hours cut. According to data from June, the black unemployment rate (15.4 percent) is nearly twice as high as the white unemployment rate (8.6 percent).

(That black people, drinking from the Obama elixir, remain upbeat about the economy and think that a recovery is around the corner, despite being hit the hardest by the economic downturn is a topic for a future post).

Because of the boom-bust cycles of capitalism, most economists predict – though it may take years – the U.S. economy will recover from the Great Recession.

Unfortunately, due to structural changes in the U.S. economy that began decades ago, for the millions of unskilled and less educated workers who have lost their jobs during the Great Recession, this economic recovery will likely be a jobless one.

It has been noted in both scholarly and popular literature, that by the early 1970s, the American capitalist system was undergoing profound structural changes. Most significantly, the decades-long trend of manufacturing industries moving out of central cities and into the suburbs or rural areas of the south was intensifying.

The economy was also shifting from goods-producing to service-producing industries. One consequence of this shift has been the increasing polarization of the labor market into low-wage and high-wage sectors.

Generally speaking, the service sector covers a wide range of jobs that provide services for individuals, businesses and government. People working in the service industries have jobs ranging from selling real estate and providing financial services to people working in a store or restaurant.

Workers toiling away in the low end of the service sector – i.e., workers with little training and limited skills – are often forced to scrape by on minimum wages from a part-time job, for example, at a restaurant. (It should be noted that the struggles of low-skilled workers are compounded by the fact that many of the jobs they hold do not provide adequate health insurance or retirement benefits.)

Jobs at the high end of the service sector (e.g., doctors, lawyers, university professors, accountants, bookkeepers, bank tellers) compared to jobs at the low end (e.g., cashiers, waitresses) require years of education, specialized training, or college credentials, and most importantly, pay much higher wages.

Coupled with technological innovations in the manufacturing process, low skilled, poorly educated, technologically untrained workers have become increasingly obsolete.

Workers in the low-end sector of the economy have been hit the hardest during the Great Recession.

As the U.S. capitalist system continues to evolve, one devastating effect of the Great Recession is that it has accelerated the disappearance of the sorts of jobs that low-skilled workers depend on to support themselves and their families.

An obvious reason for the disappearance of low-skilled jobs and the increasing immiseration of the poor is globalization. Because of the hyper-mobility of capital, there is decreased demand for less-skilled workers. Many corporations have chosen to move low-skilled jobs out the country – taking advantage of U.S. tax laws that reward relocating production facilities abroad, and a nonunionized workforce and lax environmental regulations in developing and underdeveloped countries.

As a result, America's less-skilled workers fortunate enough to have a job once the economy picks up must compete with workers from underdeveloped or developing nations, which drive down wages in the U.S.

Given the bifurcation of the U.S. economy into high-end and low-end sectors, we may no longer be able to expect an expanding economy or even near-full employment to raise people out of poverty. For today's less-skilled workers toiling away in low-end service sector jobs, even full-time employment does not guarantee an escape from poverty. The implications of this are frightening.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

From Plantations to Ghettos: The Plight of the Black Poor

What does the face of racial inequality look like? Rather than list a bunch of boring statistics, this depiction by The Alameda County Public Health Department of the differing life opportunities for black and white children born in Oakland, California, in a report titled, Life and Death from Unnatural Causes: Health and Social Inequity in Alameda County, says it all:

"Compared with a White child in the Oakland Hills, an African American born in West Oakland is 1.5 times more likely to be born premature or low birth weight, seven times more likely to be born into poverty, twice as likely to live in a home that is rented, and four times more likely to have parents with only a high school education or less. As a toddler, this child is 2.5 times more likely to be behind in vaccinations. By fourth grade, this child is four times less likely to read at grade level and is likely to live in a neighborhood with twice the concentration of liquor stores and more fast food outlets. Ultimately, this adolescent is 5.6 times more likely to drop out of school and less likely to attend a four year college than a White adolescent. As an adult, he will be five times more likely to be hospitalized for diabetes, twice as likely to be hospitalized for and to die of heart disease, three times more likely to die of stroke, and twice as likely to die of cancer. Born in West Oakland, this person can expect to die almost 15 years earlier than a White person born in the Oakland Hills."

Over the years, billions of dollars have been invested in trying to eradicate poverty and racial and economic inequality in America, yet, black ghetto communities remain degrading places, characterized by concentrated poverty, high levels of racial and ethnic isolation, joblessness, family dysfunction, exposure to violence, drugs use and crime, stress, poor transportation infrastructure, dilapidated housing, and failing schools.

While many blacks, such as me, have been able to flee the ghetto, many remain trapped, concentrated and increasingly isolated. America's black ghettos did not occur by accident. They are the outcome of decades of intentional actions taken by national, state and local governments along with the private sector.

In 1860s, the vast majority of blacks – 92 percent – lived in the South. Fifty years later, most blacks continued to live south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

That so few black left the South after the abolition of slavery may come as a surprise, especially given the amount of racial terror blacks faced in the South and since the country had experienced rapid industrial growth in the North during the decades that followed the Civil War.

Al least three factors account for the lack of a black exodus from the South. First of all, because both white workers (especially white ethnic immigrants) and their bosses generally opposed hiring blacks, most blacks found it very difficult to find work in the North.

Second, southern leaders also opposed black migration, assuming that cotton would once again boom and that there would be a need for a supply of cheap black laborers.

The power of the government was employed to assure this outcome. For example, many southern cities and states passed laws which made it difficult or impossible for labor agents to recruit local blacks. As another example, blacks waiting to board northbound ships or trains were arrested for vagrancy to halt the outward flow.

The Federal government was even employed to keep blacks as a cheap labor force in the rural South. For instance, the Freedman's Bureau – established in the War Department in 1865 to supervise all relief and educational activities relating to the former slaves – encouraged blacks to sign labor contracts with plantation owners and discouraged them from moving north.

A third factor was that most blacks were poor and lived in isolated rural areas with little contact with the outside world.

Beginning shortly after the start of World War I, millions of blacks left the rural South and moved to urban areas of the South and the industrial areas of the North and West.

Four factors contributed to The Great Black Migration. The first factor was the drop in the flow of white ethnics emigrating from Europe. Because the fighting was largely concentrated in Europe, immigration to the United States dropped sharply at the start of World War I. Later, total annual immigration was reduced significantly after passage of the 1924 National Origins Quota Act – a highly discriminatory act aimed at reducing Eastern and Southern European immigration.

A second factor was changes in the demand for black labor. Starved for labor, for the first time, northern employers turned to the South and the pool of black laborers they had long ignored.

Soil depletion, the collapse of cotton, and the mechanization of Southern agriculture also contributed to the Great Black Migration. Specifically, foreign competition led to crumbling prices, boll weevils destroyed cotton crops, and the mechanization of agriculture (tractors, mechanical harvesters, and similar equipment) decreased the need for black labor in southern agriculture.

Finally, white racism played its part. Increasing racial violence and the expansion of Jim Crow caused millions of rural blacks to move to urban areas of the North and South. Violence and the threat of violence were often used to intimidate blacks and keep them their place. An estimated 2,060 blacks were lynched between 1882 and 1903. Lynchings were routine events not only in the South but also as far north and west as Oklahoma, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and even Wyoming.

The North, however, was not the "Promised Land." Black migrants faced discrimination wherever they settled: they were the last hired and the first fired; they were kept in the most menial jobs due to discrimination by both employers and less progressive labor unions; restaurants and stores refused to serve them; banks typically refused them loans; many dentists, doctors, and hospitals refused to take them on as patients and; due to housing discrimination, blacks were forced to live in dilapidated, overcrowded housing

This is how the black ghetto was created. How do we fix the problem?

It is tempting to believe that all one has to do is "fix the ghetto," by, for example, improving the schools, luring jobs back to the ghetto, and strengthening local law enforcement to fight crime.

These strategies have been tried, but, with very limited success.

We may be well beyond simply "fixing the ghetto." It may be the case that the only way to end the vicious cycle that transmits poverty and racial inequality from one generation to the next is to help people move out of the ghetto into neighborhoods with jobs and better educational opportunities.

Putting that plan into action, of course, is when all hell will break out.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Closing The Achievement Gap Won’t Be Easy; And Charter Schools Will Not Be The Answer

The U.S. is becoming an increasingly diverse society. Nowhere is this more evident than in the nation's public schools. According to a new report, The Condition in Education 2010, by the U.S. Department of Education National Center for Educational Statistics, between 1988 and 2008, the percentage of white students in the nation's public schools dropped from 68 to 55 percent.

During the time period covered in the report, white enrollment decreased in every region of the country, while Hispanic enrollment increased. In fact, Hispanic students experienced the most growth. Between 1988 and 2008, the percentage of students who are Hispanic increased from 11 to 22 percent. Black student enrollment remained stable, while Asian student enrollment increased in the Northeast and Midwest and remained stable in other regions of the country.

Even though the nation's student population is becoming increasingly diverse, racial and ethnic isolation in the schools is nearly as bad as it was more than 40 years ago.

According to research conducted by The Civil Rights Project at UCLA, white, black and Hispanic students typically attend schools in which less than half the students are from races other than their own. Although white students tend to be the most racially isolated (they attend schools, on average, where only 20 percent of students are from a different racial or ethnic group), a growing percentage of black and Hispanic students attend schools with a high percentage of students of color. Nearly three of four black and Hispanic students attend schools where more than half of students are students of color. Almost four of ten black and Hispanic students attend racially isolated schools in which less than ten percent of students are white.

The problem with these schools is that they are not only segregated by race and ethnicity, they also tend to be segregated by class.

Students who attend racially and ethnically isolated and socioeconomically segregated schools also tend to do worse on measures of academic achievement than their white peers. Black and Hispanic students currently score lower than white students on vocabulary, reading, and math tests, as well as on tests designed to measure scholastic aptitude and intelligence. Not surprisingly, the achievement gap also shows up in grades, course selection, and college completion rates.

How do you close this achievement gap? Many people believe that the answer is to open up a charter school – usually, in a predominantly black or Hispanic neighborhood – and let the school work its magic.

I think that they are wrong.

A charter schools is a school that provides free public education to students under a specific charter granted by the state legislature or other appropriate authority. Even though they are only a fraction of all schools, the charter school movement is growing. Between 1999 and 2008, the number of charter schools in the U.S. increased from 1,500 to 4,400. They are being enthusiastically embraced in many central cities where public schools are more likely to be failing. In 2008, more than half (55 percent) of all charter schools were in cities.

According to Susan Eaton (research director at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute at Harvard Law School) in an article recently published in The Nation, since President Obama took office, "charter schools have enjoyed enthusiastic rhetorical support… and increasing monetary support." She quotes from a March 2009 speech given by the President before the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in which he said: "I call on states to reform their charter rules and lift caps on the number of allowable charter schools wherever such caps are in place."

Don't believe the hype.

Eaton writes that charter schools "demonstrate no evidence of sustained, large-scale success and tend to compound racial and economic segregation." As an example, she cites a recent report by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA which shows that 70 percent of black students enrolled in charter schools attend schools that have student of color populations between 90 and 100 percent.

Other research shows that a higher percentage of charter schools are high-poverty schools than low-poverty schools. Between 1999 and 2008, the percentage of charter schools that were high-poverty increased from 13 to 23 percent, while the percentage of charter schools that were low-poverty declined from 37 to 21 percent.

Although, according to Eaton, charter schools reinforce rather than "upset the stratified structure of public education," they have boisterous and energetic supporters of all ideological persuasions. But, she writes, "the notion that high poverty racially segregated schools are equal to middle-class school has been consistently disproved by a half-century of research."

Closing the achievement gap will not be easy. It starts before children enter kindergarten and continues into adulthood. It has persisted despite decades of school reform efforts and the investment of billions of dollars into K-12 public education across the nation.

While a few widely-publicized and wildly-celebrated all-black or all-Latino charter schools "beat the odds" and succeed, that is the exception not than the rule. Let us not be fooled. "Loudly heralding the relative few that 'beat the odds' (typically not for more than two years) obscures the harsh reality of the odds themselves, which remain low for kids who attend high-poverty segregated schools," writes Eaton.

The "real" way to close the achievement gap is to combat concentrated poverty and reduce racial and ethnic isolation and socioeconomic segregation in the schools. Charter schools do neither particularly well.

It's time to move on.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

No Surprise Here: Growing Socioeconomic Segregation and Racial and Ethnic Isolation In the Schools.

The U.S. Department of Education National Center for Educational Statistics recently released its annual Condition of Education report. This year's report includes a special section that focuses on high-poverty schools in America, examining the types and locations of schools, the characteristics of the students and their teachers and principals; and student achievement.

According to the report, The Condition in Education 2010 , socioeconomic segregation in the nation's public elementary and secondary schools is on the rise, leading to a wide and persistent gap in educational achievement between racial and ethnic groups. Between the 1999-2000 and 2007-2008 school year, the percentage of students who attended high-poverty schools (schools in which 76-100 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch (FRPL)) increased from 12 percent to 17 percent – a 42 percent jump. Just about 20 percent of elementary school students and 6 percent of secondary school students attend high-poverty schools

It should come as no surprise that an overwhelming majority of the students who attend schools with high concentrated poverty are students of color. In 2007-2008, whites made up only about 14 percent of students in high-poverty schools, whereas, some 34 percent of students were black, 46 percent were Hispanic, 4 percent were Asian/Pacific Islander, and 2 percent were American Indian/Alaska Native.

Regardless of the type of school being considered, students of color make up a large percentage of socioeconomically segregated students. In 2007-2008, only 14 percent of students attending high-poverty elementary schools were white, while 34 percent were black, and 46 percent were Hispanic. Similarly, about 11 percent of students in high-poverty secondary school were White, while 38 percent were black, and 44 percent were Hispanic.

These patterns – black and Hispanic students making up a very large percentage of students of color that are socioeconomically isolated – hold especially for cities and suburbs. For example, Hispanics made up a large percentage of students in high-poverty elementary schools in both cities (48 percent) and suburbs (55 percent), followed by blacks (37 and 29 percent) and whites (10 and 12 percent). Likewise, Hispanics made up a larger percentage of student in high-poverty secondary schools in both cities (47 percent) and suburbs (56 percent), followed by blacks (40 and 27 percent) and whites (7 and 11 percent). Only in towns and rural areas do the percentage of whites attending socioeconomically isolated schools approach the percentages reached by black and Hispanic students.

Generally speaking, students of color are much more likely than white students to attend a school that is socioeconomically segregated. For example, because most students in the lower grades attend neighborhood schools, greater percentages of students of color are enrolled in schools in which a majority of the students are poor. Roughly 70 percent of Hispanic, 69 percent of Black, 60 percent of Indian/Alaska Native, and 34 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander students were enrolled in elementary schools that at least half the students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch compared with just 25 percent of whites.

Students of color who attend extremely impoverished schools are at a severe disadvantage compared to their peers:

  • For both elementary and secondary schools, a smaller percentage of teachers working in high-poverty schools have earned at least a master's degree and professional certification than teachers working in low-poverty schools (0 to 24 percent FRPL).
  • On each National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) assessment given between 2000 and 2009, average reading and math scores for 4th- and 8th- grade students from high poverty schools were lower than the scores for students from low-poverty schools.
  • Students from schools with high concentrated poverty are less likely to graduate from high school; in 2007-2008, on average, 68 percent of 12th grade students in high-poverty schools graduated with a diploma, compared to 91 percent at low-poverty schools. The graduation rate for students in high-poverty schools has dropped significantly since the 1999-2000 school year, when 86 percent of students graduated.
  • Students from schools with high concentrated poverty are less likely to attend college. Only 28 percent of students from high-poverty schools enrolled in a four-year institution after graduation, compared to 52 percent of graduates from low poverty schools.

In order to fully understand why so many students of color are socioeconomically segregated, one must examine the role federal and state governments, exclusionary zoning legislation, and private discrimination has played in bringing about and perpetuating residential segregation. For example, at the federal level, the government promoted housing discrimination through a variety of public policies, including the location of public housing in ghetto communities, urban renewal programs that destabilized black neighborhoods, and the practice of "red-lining" by the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) in their home mortgage guarantee program. The problem of residential segregation has been exacerbated by "white flight," the continuous outmigration of jobs and industries out of central cities, and the flow of working-and middle-class blacks and Hispanics out of cities and into the suburbs. The point is that segregated housing in America's urban centers developed both slowly and quite intentionally.

Efforts to "fix" high-poverty schools have not worked well. It has been very difficult to overcome the many challenges these schools face, including low parental involvement and low-expectations of the students. It appears that the only real solution is to break these schools up. However, because of racially segregated housing patterns, reducing the number of schools with high concentrated poverty will not be easy. Giving students the opportunity to attend racially, ethnically and socioeconomically balanced schools may be their only hope for an economically secure future.

Monday, June 7, 2010

I Earned My Bachelor’s Degree Without A Ton Of Debt; But That Was a While Ago, When A College Education Was Affordable

It's hard for me to believe that I graduated from high school nearly 26 years ago. I was only 17 when I enrolled in Eastern Michigan University (I turned 18 in October of my freshman year) in 1984. It's even harder for me to believe that I earned my bachelor's degree without burying myself in debt.

Looking back on it all, it was highly improbable that I would attend college; it was even more improbable that I would go on to earn a Ph.D. eleven years later. The odds, it seemed were stacked against me. First of all, I grew up in a welfare-dependent household. Second, neither my mother nor my father had earned a high school diploma. And last, even though two of my siblings had attended college, neither had successfully completed their degree.

That I enrolled in college was pure luck. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't a terrible student, but, at the same time, I wasn't a great student either. And although my parents had not attended college, they stressed that all their kids get an education. At the same time, I hadn't harbored a lifelong dream to become, for example, a university professor. As a matter of fact, I had no idea what it took to become a professor; I had never even heard of a Ph.D. Outside of school, I had no consistent exposure to college educated people. As far as I knew, doctors were physicians. Aside from medical doctors, I knew a little bit about a few other professions, including lawyers, social workers, and, of course, preachers. But, I had no idea what it took to become any of these.

Like many high school seniors, I didn't have a clue about what to do after graduation. In the middle of my senior year, I walked into the career service office desperately looking for help. I needed help; and I needed it quickly. As I sat there, talking for the first time with anyone seriously about life after high school, I remember staring at brochures for the army and thinking to myself, "no way." After retrieving a copy of my high school transcripts for the counselor, she quickly asked me why I hadn't thought about attending college.

The counselor handed me a stack of applications. I rushed home to fill them out. Sitting alone at the kitchen table, one of the first things I noticed was that most of them required an application fee. Several of the schools had a fee as high as $40 dollars. I knew that there was no way that my mother could afford such a cost and did not bother to ask her. I applied to two schools; they were the only ones in the stack that did not require an application fee.

It was one of the most exciting days in my life when I received letters of acceptance from the two schools that I applied to. The first letter of acceptance came from Johnson C. Smith University, a historically black university in Charlotte, North Carolina. A short time later, a letter from Eastern Michigan University came in the mail. After my mother and I talked it over, we decided that EMU was the best choice. The next question I faced was how to pay tuition and room and board.

After contacting EMU about my decision, the admission counselor advised me to fill out the application for federal financial aid. Since my family was poor, I was eligible for full assistance. However, there was a problem; because I had applied so late for financial aid, I was ineligible for a full Pell Grant and needed to take out a loan for $2,500 to help pay for my first year of college. Fortunately, I borrowed that year the bulk of the money that I needed to borrow over the next three years to finance my education. Largely through a combination of Pell Grants, work study jobs, and some borrowing – Perkins and Stafford loans, but not a lot – I was able to fund my undergraduate education.

Things have changed a lot since I started college. According to the College Board's Trends in Student Aid study, "too many students are borrowing more than they are likely able to manage." Based on an analysis of data from 2007-08, the researchers found that about one out of every four students graduated with at least $24,600 in debt, and one out of every ten students graduated with at least $39,300.

The authors point is not that every student is borrowing too much; rather, the challenge many students face finding good paying jobs and their overall lack of understanding about the financial impact of loans, means that many of them are taking on too much debt to manage.

Given the lower socioeconomic standing of blacks in American society, it may come as no surprise that the College Board finds that black students are far more likely than Asians, whites, and Hispanics students to graduate from college with high debt. Only 19 percent of black students graduated with no debt. By comparison, the percentage of debt-free Hispanic (33 percent) and Asian (40 percent) graduates was much higher. Roughly one in four black students completed college with at least $30,500 in student-loan debt, compared to debt levels ranging from 9 percent to 16 percent for other groups.

With more low-income students of color than ever attending college, the debt problem will only grow worse. For these students, financing an education with manageable debt like I did is practically impossible to do. Too much debt can contribute to future financial insecurity.

What can be done? The recent passage of The Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, which was included in the health care reconciliation bill that passed earlier this year, was an important first step. But much more needs to be done to increase Pell Grants and access to other forms of need-based aid (more grants, not more loans).

More also needs to be done to improve the financial literacy of admitted students and their families. But, a big challenge is that many universities are more interested in enrolling students – especially private and for-profit universities – than giving them and their family sound financial advice. As a recent NY Times article points out, in spite of having knowledge of the financial aid system and knowledge of the student and their families' financial situation, most universities feel no real obligation to counsel some of their students about the financial grave they are digging for themselves.

A potential reason this is so is because tuition-driven universities do not want to suffer the likely consequence of encouraging students – particularly middle-income students – to go elsewhere. Unless the university is able to persuade more wealthy students to attend, it runs the risk of having to attract financially needy students to reach enrollment goals. This is a huge problem for many private universities.

According to the results of a recent survey by the National Association of College and University Business Officers, private universities are spending more than ever on student financial aid. The authors of the survey contend that the tuition-discount rate – the difference between what students actually pay to attend and what it actually cost to attend the university without financial support – which now stands at roughly 42 percent, is exacting a heavy toll on many private universities. Many institutions have "had to implement salary freezes, hiring freezes, staff reductions, and other cost-cutting measures in order to increase their spending on institutional grants."

For the foreseeable future, loans will continue to play a key role in providing access and increasing affordability for low and moderate-income students. More than ever, students need access to low-cost loans to supplement grants and scholarships. The Perkins Loan program helped me fund my education. Created in 1958, Perkins provides low-interest loans to financially needy students. Unfortunately, Perkins is set to expire in 2012. President Obama has proposed overhauling and expanding the program. Congress needs to act now, both renewing the program and giving it an infusion of money to keep providing aid at needed levels.

Whenever I talk to my students about the value of an education, I remind them that it is the great equalizer in our society. It has been the main tool used by millions of Americans – particularly people of color – to achieve social mobility. Realizing the growing importance of a college degree to achieve middle-class status, more students than ever, are pursuing a postsecondary education. At the same time, students are drowning in debt to finance their education because colleges, even public ones, are not as affordable as they use to be. Making college affordable once again needs to be a national priority.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

It is Time to End the Insanity of our Nation’s Drug Laws

Back in the early 80s, when I was still in high school, I was asked if I wanted to sell drugs by two kids I knew who lived in the Brewster-Douglass Homes public housing projects. It was not the first time – nor would it be the last time – I was asked about getting into the drug game.

It would have been easy to become a drug dealer. I lived only two blocks from the Brewster-Douglass Homes, at the time, the largest, and one of the most dangerous, housing projects in the city of Detroit, a place where out-in-the-open drug dealing was easy to find and easy to get involved in.

Brewster-Douglass was actually two housing projects. The Brewster Homes, the nation's first federally funded public housing development for blacks, were completed in 1941. The Fredrick Douglass Homes were built between 1942 and 1952. The combined housing projects were five city blocks long and three city blocks wide. At their peak, somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 people lived in them.

During the 1970s, when I was growing up, the Brewster's as we called them, was one of the worst areas of concentrated poverty in the city of Detroit. Joblessness, single-parented households, welfare dependency, drug abuse, crime, and gun violence were major problems.

By the 1980s, when the crack epidemic hit the city of Detroit, the problems in the "projects" got even worse. But, crack seemed to be different from other drugs I had seen in the neighborhood such as heroin. Crack was cheaper, the high was very intense, and it seemed to be everywhere, wrecking the lives of individuals and their families, destroying the very fabric of the entire community with a force unseen before.

Few families, including my own, were untouched by crack.

Although I never sold drugs (and though I have seen people get high, I have never tried crack), I must admit: I was tempted to hustle!

Selling crack was a way to make quick money, and lots of it. I saw young men that I grew up with become, what I called at the time, "ghetto superstars." They drove fancy cars, wore thick gold chains and expensive leather sneakers (we call them gym shoes back in the "D"), and sported fur lined Max Julian coats. And, they had, I envied the most, all the "pretty" ladies.

It should come as no surprise that for many young black males growing up in the extreme poverty of the Brewster-Douglass projects, the lure of the drug trade was powerful and too hard to resist. With all the money to be made and women to be had, it is easy to see why so many young men become "street entrepreneurs."

Drug dealing was certainly glamorous; but, drug dealing was also extremely dangerous, generating unparalleled levels of gun violence and death.

Hence, on the one hand, the demand for crack was phenomenal and the profits from selling drugs were through the ceiling. On the other hand, as rival drug crews – such as, "Young Boy Incorporated," "Best Friends", "Pony Down", "Black Mafia Family" and "The Chambers Brothers" – fought over territory, the body count increased all over the motor-city, especially in the Brewster projects.

By the mid-1980s, widely exaggerated claims about the extreme potency of crack cocaine versus powder cocaine and violent turf battles over drug markets in America's inner-cities caught the attention of then President Ronald Regan and members of Congress. A "War on Drugs" was declared and Congress passed the notorious 100 to 1 sentencing quantity disparity between crack and powder cocaine.

Sentencing policies, as a consequence of the war on drugs, resulted in a dramatic increase in the prison population.

For the last several decades, criminal justice and prison reform advocates have been pushing members of Congress to treat powder and crack cocaine the same. Under current federal law, 5 grams of crack cocaine will get you a 5 year minimum sentence. With powder cocaine, you need 100 times that amount to trigger a similar sentence.

As most people know, the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity has had a major impact on people of color. Excessive and harsh, current drug laws have generated huge racial disparities in the U.S. prison population.

General speaking, the nation's prisons are bursting at the seams. According to The Sentencing Project, America leads the world in incarceration, with about 2.3 million people in prison and jail. The racial dimensions of the U.S. prison population are staggering. They report that about 6 out of 10 prisoners are people of color. Astonishingly, one in ten (10.4%) black males aged 25-29 was in prison or jail in 2008, as were 1 in 26 (3.8%) Latino males, compared to 1 in 63 (1.6%) white males, in the same age group.

As a result of the so-called "war on drugs, roughly three out of four people in prison for a drug offense are a racial or ethnic minority. For black males, one out of eight is in prison or jail on any given day.

Congress enacted these drug laws during the height of the so-called crack epidemic of the 1980s. Widely embraced by both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, over the years, efforts to change this outrageously insane 100 to 1 ratio have received stiff opposition, until now.

At last, a bit of sanity is emerging in the nation's Capital. On March 17, members of the Senate passed the Fairness in Sentencing Act of 2010, a bill that will change the punishment for crack cocaine to 18 to 1.

Although the Senate bill is a step in the right direction, it does not go far enough to eliminate the racial disparities that have been created by the nation's failed drug policies. The Senate bill still maintains a disparity between powder cocaine and crack cocaine.

In order to become law, this bill must be reconciled with a House bill that made it out of committee last year. The bills are different. The House Judiciary committee version of the Fairness in Sentencing Act completely eliminates the sentencing disparity.

It is time to end the insanity of our nation's drug laws. There is no reason to treat powder and crack cocaine differently. They are the same drug! Please call your members of the Senate and encourage them to support the House's version of the Fairness in Sentencing Act.

Monday, March 15, 2010


Ever since the publication in 1966 of sociologist James S. Coleman report Equality of Educational Opportunity, there has been a raging debate about how to close the racial gap in educational achievement.

Coleman's report ignited a firestorm of controversy. Using data from over 600,000 students and teachers across the country, Coleman and his team of researchers concluded that academic success was related more to the social composition of the school, the student's sense of control of his environment and future, the verbal skills of teachers, and the student's family background, than to the quality of the student's school.

The researcher's most controversial finding, and the one that most policy makers and the media focused on, was that Black students do better in racially integrated setting.

By the mid-1970s, however, after a decade of intense opposition to busing by White parents and White flight to the suburbs to avoid school integration, Coleman concluded in another report that school integration had failed, and that the window of opportunity to achieve quality integrated education had closed.

Coleman's change of heart angered many of his former supporters, especially in the progressive community. Though they were unsuccessful, some members of the American Sociological Association even tried to expel him (he later was elected president of the association in 1991).

By the 1980s, a new education reform movement emerged. Shaped largely by conservative free-market ideas, this movement has held sway since – well, at least until now.

Diane Ravitch, a preeminent education historian, former assistant secretary of education under the first President Bush, and one of the leading voices for the right-wing educational establishment, has done the unimaginable. Ravitch has reversed positions on issues she has held for decades, such as standardized testing, vouchers, privatization, and the No Child Left Behind Act.

Why the change of heart? She has finally accepted a growing body of social scientific research that shows that market-based reforms are not raising student achievement. What they are doing, she now argues, is harming public education.

Ravitch now calls much of the right's educational agenda – which, it should be noted, has been largely kept in place by the Obama Administration – a fad.

"School reform today is like a freight train, and I'm out on the tracks saying. 'You're going the wrong way!'" Ravitch said in a recent interview for the New York Times.

Ravitch's shift, however, comes much too late to save what appears to be a casualty of the right-wing educational reform movement, the Kansas City, Missouri, school system and its poor, mainly black and brown, student population.

In a stunning development, just before the start of classes in the fall, the Kansas City school district plans to shut down nearly half its schools. The moribund school system has seen student enrollments drop by nearly half over the last decade, largely as a result of students leaving for publicly funded charter schools, private and parochial schools, and the suburbs.

What the Kansas City school system plans to do in just a few short months is absolutely mind boggling. In a desperate effort to close a $50 million deficit and belatedly respond to years of declining student enrollments, the district will cut hundreds of jobs (roughly 700 of 3,000 employees) and shuffle thousands of students. The reorganization plan calls for closing 29 of 61 facilities, including 26 traditional schools and three leased buildings that house early childhood programs.

The implosion of the Kansas City school system is, undoubtedly, a dream come true for right-wing educational reformers. For decades, they have been arguing that government controlled schools are obsolete and that certain administrative and structural changes – including choice, charters, merit pay and accountability – are necessary to fix the nation's ailing public schools.

Because you can always point to a few success stories, many will continue to cling to these fads. One outcome of the Kansas City fiasco, though, is not in doubt: thousands of poor, mainly black and brown students – casualties of market-based reforms – are being left behind to suffer.

So, how do we "really" close the educational gap?

On the one hand, I am a staunch believer that equality of opportunity is strongly correlated with equality of schools' resources, such as the number and quality of textbooks, teachers, facilities, and so on. Likewise, raising expectations and improving parental involvement are keys to improving educational achievement of Black and Latino schoolchildren.

However, higher expectations, more participation by parents, and more money for schools will not solve the problem – as an example, the Kansas City school district received more than $2 billion as part of a landmark school desegregation case.

I am convinced that efforts to close the racial gap in educational achievement will continue to fail until the nation deals with the problem of pervasive, concentrated urban poverty.

Over the years, I have become increasingly convinced of the validity of William J. Wilson's thesis about the devastating effects of concentrated poverty in America's central cities, disproportionately inhabited by black and brown people.

Wilson's argument is that since the 1960s, poor ghetto neighborhoods, occupied primarily by blacks and Hispanics, have experienced increasing rates of socioeconomic isolation, dislocation and disorganization, problems "created by the constraints and opportunities that the residents of the inner-city neighborhoods face in terms of access to jobs and job networks, involvement in quality schools, availability of marriageable partners, and exposure to conventional role models (the quote is from Wilson's book, The Truly Disadvantage)."

According to Wilson, as a consequence, poor ghetto neighborhoods have become increasingly characterized by inner-city joblessness, teenage pregnancies, out-of-wedlock births, female-headed families, welfare dependency, serious crime and feelings of low self-efficacy.

This is the social context that far too many black and brown children are growing up in (Kansas City, Newark, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Flint, Hartford, Bridgeport, Charlotte, Memphis, Little Rock, New Orleans, Houston, Dallas, Miami, Liberty City, and on, and on, and on).

James Coleman got it right back in 1966: the social context in which an education takes place matters.

Our children are being set up to fail. It should come as no surprise to any of us when they do.