Intolerable Gulf: How Can We Permit Such Inequalities?
This is the text of a talk delivered a week ago at the N.C. Editorial Writers Conference in Chapel Hill.
How radically the world has changed.
A $700 billion bank buyout -- with more to come, much more. A huge Detroit relief package -- that now looks like chicken feed. A separate $800 billion stimulus program. French-made, tax-subsidized corporate jets. Billions of dollars in bonuses. Lindsey Graham saying we ought to nationalize the banks. The new cover of Newsweek saying, "We're All Socialists Now."
Where's Andy of Mayberry when we need him?
I know we're in an emergency. You know we're in an emergency. We're facing risks that, for so many of us, we have decided are unacceptable. So we're acting. And act we should -- even if it entails stepping a bit out into the dark -- because when your children's future is at stake, you act. Better to partially misstep, in courage and dedication to their welfare, than to sit back and let the darkness descend.
I know this. I don't dispute it. That's not my point. We rightly regard these perils as unacceptable. But I want to spend just a few minutes on the other side of that coin -- the side of the coin that for 20 years or more we have believed to be acceptable. That we have been willing to accept, to adjust ourselves to.
I was thinking about this a couple of weeks ago on Martin Luther King's birthday. I remembered that Dr. King described himself as chronically unsatisfied, as maladjusted.
"I never did intend to adjust myself," he wrote, "to economic conditions that take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few." So, he said, "I call upon all persons of good will to be maladjusted." And I think he would have said to us, even before these difficulties, in the salad days of the last two decades: How could you have been satisfied?
How can we be satisfied when, in North Carolina, one of the strongest and most idealistic communities in the wealthiest nation on earth, the wealthiest nation in human history, almost 15 percent of our citizens -- more than 1.3 million -- live in stark, unrelenting poverty? These are figures far worse than other advanced Western democracies allow.
It's a poverty skewed by race -- between 25 and 35 percent for blacks, Latinos and Native Americans. It's a poverty skewed by geography, with 23 of our counties having very high poverty rates -- all of them rural, and 18 of the 23 in the Coastal Plain. And it's a poverty skewed, to our shame, by age, with our youngest and most vulnerable the poorest among us: one in five North Carolina children, one in three black kids, four of 10 Hispanics. As if any theory of justice or virtue could explain the exclusion of innocent children from the American dream.
How could we be satisfied when, despite our claims of equal opportunity, and dignity, and that we're all in this together, the top 1 percent, nationally, has more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined? And our income gap between rich and poor now is greater than at any time since records started being kept over four decades ago -- and is now documented to be the highest in the industrial world. Almost 40 million Americans don't have enough to eat -- a figure that will be worse when reported next year.
"A growing body of evidence suggests that the merit ideal is in trouble in America," The Economist magazine, hardly a leftist rag, wrote recently. "Income inequality is growing to levels not seen since the gilded age. ... But social mobility is not increasing. Everywhere you look in modern America, you see elites mastering the art of perpetuating themselves, increasingly looking like imperial Britain."
How dare they say that? How dare it be true?
Millions Lack Health Care
How can we be satisfied when nationally, more than 46 million of us -- more than 1.4 million North Carolinians -- have no health-care coverage of any kind. That leaves us alone among the industrial nations in failing to provide some form of universal coverage, even though, as Dr. King argued, "inequality in access to health is the most pernicious discrimination of all."
Among the major industrials, we rank first in wealth, first in military expenditures, first in gross domestic product, first in millionaires, first in billionaires, first in health technology spending, yet we manage only 12th in standard of living for the poorest fifth of our society, 14th in efforts to lift children out of poverty, 16th in number of low-birth-weight babies. Amazingly, we rank 23rd of 25 in infant mortality, and to our shame, 25th in children killed by gun violence.
How can we have been satisfied, when across so much of North Carolina, and all of Virginia, and much of the nation, we allow rich and poor public schools? Not just private schools, mind you, but rich and poor public schools, leading us to worry that the term "at risk" will become a description of a child's fate, rather than his starting point and circumstance -- as if it was thought acceptable to treat some of our children as second- or third-class citizens.
Our religions teach that all children are equal in the eyes of God. We often operate our schools as if we didn't believe it. How can we be satisfied when, in higher education, the vineyard in which I work, a study two years ago concluded that universities are more economically polarized today than at any time in the past three decades?
If you come from a family making more than $90,000 a year, your chances of getting a college degree by age 24 are better than one in two. If your family makes $35,000 or less, the odds are one in 17. The Education Testing Service found, in surveying the student cohort at our 146 most selective universities, that fewer than 3 percent of the students came from families in the bottom economic quartile, and a whopping 75 percent come from the top economic quarter -- as if wisdom, drive, ambition and worth were somehow hereditary.
Legal Help Rationed
In our legal system, the nation's poor, who most need assistance, remain the least likely to get it. Jimmy Carter said a quarter-century ago, when I hoped it was exaggeration, "We have the heaviest concentration of lawyers on earth but 90 percent of [them] serve 10 percent of our people. We're overlawyered and underrepresented."
Study after study, across the nation, across the South, across North Carolina, indicates at least 80 percent of the legal need of the poor is unmet, fencing out millions on some of the most crucial issues of life and ignoring what we have declared for four decades to be the cornerstone of our constitutional law: "that there can be no justice when the kind of trial a person gets depends on the amount of money he has." This makes a mockery of the phrase "equal justice under law," etched into our courthouse walls in every state, and every county, and every city of this country.
Even in our politics, most foundational of all, it still seems that you have to pay in order to play. We're the only people in the world who believe that our elected officials can walk up to total strangers, ask for thousands -- or now, hundreds of thousands -- of dollars, get it, and be completely unaffected by it, achieving a state of perfect ingratitude.
A system of government in which those who seek certain policies are allowed to give unlimited amounts of money to those who make the policies can be called many things. But it can't be called democratic. And it can't be called fair.
Finally, how have we been satisfied when, decade after decade, in cultural arena after cultural arena, in election after election, including even this historic presidential race, these debilitating disparities are barely even discussed? In law, in politics, in philosophy, in the academy, even in our pulpits, we turn our gaze away from those locked at the bottom of American life, coming to think of a regime of economic apartheid as unassailable and unavoidable and untroubling.
Lincoln argued that the central purpose of America was that the weak should gradually be made stronger and that ultimately all would have an equal chance. But what was central for Lincoln has become foreign for us.
The frank truth is, if the exclusions and indignities of American poverty are right, then the Constitution is wrong. If the debilitations of those locked at the bottom are acceptable, then our Scriptures are wrong. If these denials of equal citizenship and humanity are permissible, then we pledge allegiance to a cynical illusion, not a founding creed.
I hope as we set about meeting our challenges -- through efforts in the public sector and the private one -- we'll keep in mind that some have been in peril since well before the crashes of 2008 and 2009, that we have been satisfied with exclusions and barriers and denials of opportunity and dignity that we should not have countenanced.
Not if we are who we say we are. Not if we believe what we say we believe. Not if we are the people we have assumed ourselves to be.
So I hope that as we try to bail ourselves out, we'll look to a little broader calling as well, to a higher calling of citizenship as well -- one recalling that we're all in this together.
One Nation Under God
We enlist because somewhere we read, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." And somewhere we read that we are "one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." And somewhere we read that "history will judge us on the extent to which we have used our gifts to lighten and enrich the lives of our fellows."
And somewhere we read that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." And somewhere we read, "We have to believe the things we teach our children" -- believe them and make them real. And somewhere we read that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." And somewhere we read that "whenever you did these things for the least of these, you did them for me."
And somewhere we read, "You reap what you sow." And somewhere we read that the pursuit of justice and the pursuit of happiness can be as one. They march not in opposite directions, but hand in hand. And somewhere we read, "No, we are not satisfied -- and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."
Gene Nichol, former dean of the law school at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and former president of the College of William and Mary in Virginia, now teaches law at UNC.
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