A regular coffee drinker at my favorite lunch counter was trying to tell his friend that some kind of government rule he couldn't remember had forced companies to hire people who weren't qualified.
He saw me, a familiar face, and asked me if I knew what it was. "You may be referring to affirmative action," I ventured, "but ... "
"Yup, that's it," he said, turning to his friend with the new ammunition. "They had to take guys who didn't know from nothing over guys who deserved it. But they ended it a few years ago."
I listened with my head in my soup. My dejection wasn't aimed at him. It was the reminder that the war on poverty and the determination to right the wrongs against blacks and native Americans exist mostly as fragments of memory, consigned to a far distant past.
Recent official figures paint a bleak picture of poverty, and things are getting worse. More and more people straddle the line between bare economic survival and hunger pains. Unemployment and homelessness are frighteningly common.
Yet I suspect that for most affluent Americans, the specter of this suffering continues to recede into invisibility. Out of sight, out of mind.
To cite just one small example, I teach college students most of whom grew up in wealthy suburbs. Most have grown up without seeing, let alone knowing, anyone outside their class. They will pass through an educational system designed for them, graduate, and enter a corporate or professional realm made up of people like them. They are among those who fall into the "likely to vote" category in the future. They will largely determine policies that shape the lives of the poor without ever having walked in their neighborhood, let alone their shoes.
They are smart, decent young people who didn't decide the forces that would shape them. They are symptoms of a kind of isolation that ordinarily spurs alienation.
That it doesn't appear to do much of that probably owes to the continuing power of the American dream that attributes success to individualism and failure to personal faults. Blame yourself, not the system. It's not Wall Street that destroyed the private lives of so many, it's that despicable bailout plan that spared even greater disasters. It's the same basic bill of goods -- shifting the blame -- that works so long as people who so desperately need a healthy regard for the common good don't endorse it themselves.
The "dream's" distortions help keep us from social unrest and mobilization for the poor and of the poor. What would it take to restore a war on poverty and a further commitment to civil rights? The last time it took the Great Depression and then only with a genius political mind in the White House.