The Simplicity & Complexity of Inequality
Have you noticed that the word “inequality” is making a resurgence in the American lexicon? For better or worse, it was on the tip of every tongue during the civil rights movements of the 60s and 70s, but essentially took a 30 year hiatus since the 80s. Now, educators, philanthropists, advocates and even U.S. presidential candidates are building their policy agendas and tactical plans around this word. Inequality.
In order to better understand it, let’s start at its meaning. According to Dictionary.com, inequality means “the condition for being unequal, lack of equality, disparity, injustice and instance of unevenness.”
How Inequality Plays Out in Public Schools
Back in June of 2015, The Atlantic wrote a stunning piece about the inequity in American public schools. Casey Quinlan underscores this argument in her ThinkProgress post in March 2016. Quinlan found that many kids of color are less likely to be tracked to take advanced placement or gifted and talented courses even though their academic records indicate they are more than qualified to participate. The lack of access to sports and recreational programs in low-income, public schools is also a big challenge. Without extracurricular activities, young people don’t have the opportunity to learn new skills, blow off steam and understand the importance of team work and accountability. Inequality.
Last fall, Al Jazeera America reported on the deplorable and shocking conditions inside Philadelphia’s public schools. Philly is not alone. Many urban school districts across the country mirror the City of Brotherly Love’s unjust school environments. More recently, school teachers in Detroit held a sick-out protesting the conditions of their schools — many of which have gross violations of federal OSHA laws (infestations of rodents and roaches, mold growth and lead paint, for example). It was also made clear from these news stories that none of these despicable conditions were found in nearby, mostly white suburban schools. Inequality.
Philanthropy, Politics and Courage
Some in the philanthropic community have taken up the banner on inequality and its various forms. Institutions like the Ford Foundation, Kellogg, Schott, Wallace and Heinz are bringing to light these delicate issues and forcing a global, national and local dialogue about certain disparities.
Through Darren Walker’s vision, the Ford Foundation is slaying the conversation on inequality through its social media campaign #InequalityIs. I am particularly fond of Xavier DeSousa Briggs’ reflections regarding his participation at the World Economic Summit held in Davos, Switzerland in January. The Ford Foundation executive shared that income inequality stalls the production of goods and services at every level. This essentially means that if folks don’t have disposable incomes to buy certain commodities, the production of these items will either decrease dramatically or cease, putting the economic health of the nation at risk. Inequality.
In this same piece, Briggs quotes an International Monetary Fund director who simply states that business leaders need to implement practices that are more humane. The bottom line can no longer be just about profits, but a need to help people in the communities where businesses live and thrive, “it’s not just morally and politically correct, but it is just good economics.”
As much as I agree with the Monetary Fund representative, her comments on business investments aren’t enough. Disparities in America won’t come without a huge paradigm shift. Until there is equal access to and/or power is shared, inequality will continue to thrive in America.
Let’s take a quick look at the U.S presidential election. I scanned the web pages of the top two candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Trump only mentions five platform topics and there is nothing on his site that addresses inequality (although his rhetoric is clearly vitriolic when he talks about immigration). Clinton highlights 28 issues and one could argue that at least five of those topics could be aligned with disparities. However, both candidates’ platforms fall short on what real inequality looks like. I realize most Americans are uncomfortable with talking about this issue, but as presidential candidates, having “topical” conversations or none at all about disparities that impact nearly 40% of the U.S. population is insincere and disappointing. Inequality.
It takes a heavy dose of courage to talk about the biases many groups face in this country, because history demonstrates that when one speaks truth to power or dares to live outside of the confined and appointed social structure, it can harmful, if not fatal. Just look at MLK, Cesar Chavez, Chief Big Foot and the women and children of the Sioux Nation, Gary Webb, Nikola Tesla and Malcolm X...Inequality.
Every unequal thing in America begins with slavery; from the way police precincts were formed, wealth, class, land and home ownership, stolen culture, social security wages, legal slavery under the penal system, lopsided education outcomes, tipping and gratuities, unequal health systems, stereotypical images of people of color and more.
Chattel slavery, this “peculiar institution” deeply impacts everything in America — many of our systems and social “norms” are connected to it. So, let’s have a more robust and honest discourse with presidential candidates, government officials, the media, youth, business owners and members of our communities about the roots of inequality and its impact in America. Only then can we build a solid foundation for which American values can stand. I know this won’t be easy, but it is that simple. Inequality.
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