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The Deeper Issues in Ferguson

Eugene Robinson has an important op-ed in this morning’s Washington Post. He looks at the deeper reasons for the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri and hits upon a theme that runs through our political life but one which is often ignored. The Civil Rights movement worked, but in working, it left many people behind.

After noting the undeniable progress on racial issues – the President, the Attorney General and the police captain from the highway patrol, Captain Ron Johnson are all African-Americans – Robinson notes that this fact seems to make no impression on the troublemakers in the crowd of otherwise peaceful protesters, the looters and the Molotov-cocktail throwers. Robinson then comes to the key sentences in his piece which are these:

“Why not [does racial progress make a difference]? Because the tremendous gains achieved by some African Americans have not just left some others behind but made their situation more desperate and hopeless than it was 50 years ago.”

Before the Civil Rights movement, most black Americans lived apart in self-contained communities with their own authority figures, their own neighborhood mores, their own rules of the road. It was a ghetto which, like all ghettos, provided a degree of protection to its inhabitants, just as the Catholic ghettos had. The Civil Rights movement led to many blacks leaving the ghetto, taking advantage of new opportunities, going to colleges that had previously been barred to them, becoming leaders in their chosen fields. One African American even became President of the United States.

Not everyone was able to take advantage of the new opportunities. Many traditionally black communities were fractured, with those able to enter the mainstream leaving the ghetto, and getting ahead. My own neighborhood once was a white working class town and today the nicer homes, with the nicer yards, and the nicer cars parked in the driveway, have been purchased and fixed up by affluent black doctors and lawyers. But, the neighborhoods they left in downtown DC are a shambles. The Civil Rights movement was followed by the demise of good paying blue collar jobs. Social capital left with the aspiring doctors and lawyers. Failing schools were unable to provide the tools needed for their students to flourish. Families, now threatened by poverty unchecked by a vibrant community life, broke under a combination of economic and social pressures. Hopelessness grew in the ghetto while dreams were made in the suburbs.

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No one should wish to go back to the good old days of cohesive black ghettos. Those old days were not good at all. But, the problem must be acknowledged or it will continue to fester: Millions of black children are being raised in circumstances of limited opportunity, crushing poverty and a lack of socialization. I do not defend anyone who throws a Molotov cocktail or loots a store, but I can understand why people who discern no reasonable options turn to such violence. The human heart wants hope. It needs hope. And, in its absence, in its repeated, apparently insurmountable absence, despair sets in.

The same trajectory applies to discussions about the war on poverty – and overlaps greatly with the story of Civil Rights achievements. The war on poverty worked if by worked you mean that millions were lifted out of poverty and those who were not are no longer afflicted with additional burdens such as malnutrition. Food stamps, now known as SNAP, have been a huge success. Some cities are engaged in serious efforts to provide affordable housing, and to make such provision in ways that integrate those who need it with a wider community, not segregating them into a public housing ghetto. But, for those left behind, the prospects of a decent education leading to a decent job leading to a decent livelihood, the prospects are fewer, and there are no role models left to look up to for guidance, and the families that have been crushed by the burdens they face are incapable of breaking the cycle of despair.

The same trajectory applies to globalization. It is true that pro-market reforms have lifted millions out of poverty in China and India but it is also true that those same pro-market reforms have been catastrophic for other countries. The flight of children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala is rooted in U.S. trade policies that eviscerated local economies. With no alternatives, drug cartels became the sole, or at least the most prominent, employer. Gangs provide their own, sick, distorted version of social capital.

There is a lesson in all this for the Republicans and those who champion the market. The market creates winners and losers, but the system must be altered so that the winners do not win so big and the losers do not lose everything. Growing income inequality, both at home and abroad, is not only an affront to justice on its face, but a cancer that destroys local economies, closes the normal channels of human achievement, creates powerful incentives for those who succeed to leave the system alone, and over the long-term threatens the security of our society. Madame Defarge understands the rage of those kids throwing Molotov cocktails in Ferguson.

There is a lesson in all this for Democrats too, actually two lessons. First, even when government initiatives succeed, there will be unintended consequences. Programs designed to alleviate poverty, diminish income inequality, and create opportunity must be nimble, adapt to changing circumstances and constantly be re-examining their effects. Second, locally administered programs are more likely to be nimble, adaptable and capable of constantly re-examining their effects. Subsidiarity is not an excuse to remove the federal government, and its funding power, from the task of meeting the needs of society. Subsidiarity is a word with a meaning and the Latin root is subsidium, or help. The federal government must find creative ways to help local communities help themselves, mindful of the fact that a local government is as likely to be corrupt as the federal one, maybe even more so, but nonetheless committed to devising programs so that the decision-making process is as close as possible to the people the program is designed to help. I would add in this regard that the ugliest and most unfair criticism of Cong. Paul Ryan’s anti-poverty proposal was that Ryan was aiming to micro-manage the lives of poor people when, in fact, Ryan came to see the need for not just local but individualized assistance to the poor, relying on case workers to bring the range of federal programs together to tailor a plan for the individual person. He should have been applauded for that, not chastised. There are other parts of his proposal for which he should be chastised.

Finally, there is a lesson for us all. Even our society’s achievements, and the Civil Rights movement and the war on poverty achieved a great deal, even these achievements have a downside. It is human nature. It is original sin. Sin is not just a bad thing this person does or a good thing that person omits. Sin is not always privatized. Sin is the human condition. Original sin is what we call the brokenness of our situations, the downside to our good deeds, the paradoxical outcomes the simultaneously breed success and failure. No matter how effective our government or our economy, no matter how cohesive our neighborhoods, no matter how socially mobile our society, there will never be a time when we do not still need a savior.   

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