When I decided to start this blog, I wanted to give it a name that would reflect what I want to achieve: educating people about racial inequality, mass incarceration, the death penalty, education, and what has effectively become know as “the new Jim Crow.”
I read this article, called “The speech Obama should give in Chicago,” by the Chicago Reader’s Steve Bogira, and really appreciated what he wrote. I’ve included some excerpts of the article below.
Tomorrow afternoon, President Obama will address students, parents, community members, and public officials in the gymnasium of Hyde Park Academy. He’ll discuss “strengthening the economy for the middle class and those striving to get there,” the White House says. He’s also expected to talk about Chicago’s gun violence. Here’s what I wish he’d say.
Lethal violence in Chicago—and in Detroit, and Milwaukee, and Philadelphia, and Baltimore—is a symptom of something deeper, of something even more important for us to address.
And to address it, we have to think about our history.
Now, there are certain parts of our history we love to talk about: the spirit of the pilgrims; the wisdom of the founding fathers; the bravery of the soldiers at Valley Forge. We say that their enterprise and resolve is in our DNA. And it’s true.
But there are other parts of our history we’d just as soon not discuss—such as the fact that this nation’s great wealth was built on the backs of slaves. That, too, is in our DNA.
I did talk about this once, during my first campaign, in my speech on a more perfect union. I said then that while we did not need to recite the entire history of this country’s racial injustice, we did need to remind ourselves that so many of our racial disparities today could be directly traced to inequalities passed on from earlier generations that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and jim crow.
I said that segregated schools were and are inferior; that we still hadn’t fixed them, a half century after Brown v. Board of Education; and that the inferior education they provided helped explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students. I said this in 2008, and now, five years later, unfortunately I can say it again.
I said that discrimination against blacks prevented many of them from owning property or starting businesses, or joining unions, or being hired by police and fire departments. This meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to their children and grandchildren. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated poverty that persists in so many of today’s urban and rural communities.
I said that the lack of economic opportunity for black men, and the shame and frustration that come from not being able to provide for one’s family, contributed to the erosion of black families—which, along with the lack of basic services in urban black neighborhoods, helped create a cycle of violence, blight, and neglect that still haunts us.
I said that while some managed to beat the odds and claw their way to a piece of the American dream, there were many who didn’t make it—who were defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination. And that this legacy of defeat has been passed on to children and grandchildren—to the young men and increasingly young women whom we see on street corners or who are languishing in our prisons, without hope for the future.
I didn’t mention the special role played by residential segregation. But it’s been a pivotal role, so I’ll talk about it now.
Today, we know that when poverty is concentrated in a neighborhood, it leads to greater problems than when poverty is isolated: more joblessness, more single-parent families, more school dropouts, more drug addictions, greater health problems. And more violence and crime.
Concentrated poverty is the illness we need to treat.
We often like to pretend that being poor and committing crimes are choices freely made. That they’re mainly matters of personal responsibility. That children growing up in the midst of poverty can just shake it off and move on. We use the few who somehow manage to overcome as examples to indict the many who don’t.
And I must acknowledge that I myself at times have talked about the poor this way. It’s a popular sentiment, one that will never hurt someone politically. It’s popular because it points the finger away from most people.
But we ought to focus more on our collective responsibility. Only money and power can undo the longstanding patterns that have concentrated poverty in certain neighborhoods. And the residents of those neighborhoods have neither money nor power.
So how do we treat this illness?
We must not continue to ignore these connections, and we must work to break them.
I’d like to say, as I often do, “We can make this happen,” or, “We can fix this.” I know we can—but I really don’t know if we will. Do we have the determination? Do we have the compassion? Segregation makes it so easy for us to look the other way.
We must at least begin to raise our voices about this. The people suffering in these distressed neighborhoods deserve our honesty. They deserve our honesty. They deserve our simple honesty.
Although President Obama has yet to deliver a speech like this, I chose the name “our simple honesty” because that’s what we, as Americans living in this system, deserve. It is my hope to share the truth — at least what I know of it — with all of you here.