Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Has the Democratic Party Lost Its Vision?

Over the past few days, facebook friends have posted several dozen Martin Luther King Jr. quotes—they’re all great—but you get to wondering after a while—what relevance do all these quotations have to our current situation?

The evil of legislated segregation has been over for decades, thanks to the work of Dr. King and so many others. Today, people are celebrating the fact that our (biracial) black (/white) president is still heading the nation, a symbol of how far we’ve come and a role model to inspire young African Americans. And people are talking about how there’s still work to be done, but we can press on in hope toward Dr. King’s vision and dream.

 But how are we going to get there unless we start talking about the problems facing black communities today? I am purposely using the term “black communities” rather than “black community,” even though I think there is value in talking about “the black community” in some contexts—because another reality is, there are huge differences between, say, the middle-class suburbs where some black people live and were raised, versus the crime riddled urban wastelands where others struggle to survive.

Although our president is part of “the black community,” he did not grow up in gang-controlled territory. Though he had to deal with the kind of racism that one of only three black kids in an elite private school might face, he had nothing like the experience of adolescent (or even pre-adolescent) boys struggling with the dilemma of whether to join a gang, or else refuse and risk bodily injury or death—and bleak economic prospects. Our black (/white) president did not have to attend an abysmally failing, dangerous public school. Can there be any doubt but that he benefitted immensely from the privileges of his white-American heritage?

Just because we have a black president does not mean he understands or is an advocate for solutions to the worst problems African Americans are facing in this country. I am, frankly, disappointed that his inaugural speech ended up sounding like the same old Democratic hobby horse riding of which I’ve been getting sicker and sicker since the beginning of last year’s campaign. People keep complaining that it offered no vision of a way forward in partnership with Republicans, but I was even more disheartened that it was such a small bundle of hopes limited to issues I consider of only secondary importance.

 Isn’t the Democratic Party supposed to be looking out for the interests of the poor and marginalized? “Struggling middle class families” do not count in my mind. Neither do women or gays. Okay, sure I'm phrasing it that way for shock value, and it's true that there are a few ways public policy could be changed to improve things for certain subsets of those groups—but this is not the same kind of high priority issue as it is to rescue children from criminally bad public schools, or to reduce the incarceration and homicide rates for young people, particularly black and Hispanic males. I'm not saying we should pit the interests of the less-marginalized against those of the substantially oppressed—I mean that if the party is only talking about issues on the scale of "keeping entitlements the way they've always been" and vague aspirations of closing the income gap between men and women (how exactly do you legislate that?) ... they've lost sight of the bigger issues.

I don’t understand why Democrats are so afraid to admit that probably the single worst cause of continued racial inequality in this country is the war on drugs. Gang activity centers around the underground drug economy. Young men who made poor choices during their youth, usually because there were no good choices available, become second-class citizens with felonies on their permanent records. This is one of few instances where public policy (and not just public policy, but federal legislation) is oppressing the poor on a massive scale.

In spite of being black, our (also white) president seems to have no appreciation for the importance of ending the inestimably destructive (and unjust) war on drugs. Instead, he’s gotten lost in politicking, and is not able to lead his party, much less the nation, out of its blindness and hypocrisy.

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