Tuesday, October 18, 2011

No, It’s Because Of Economics

By Renee Lewis Glover

Yes, every American should be gladdened by the unveiling of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial. The vision statement for the memorial proudly proclaims ”America’s potential for freedom, opportunity, and justice.”

But in the years since the March on Washington, we must look hard at those aspirations. Do we see freedom when poor, elderly and minority citizens face increasing obstacles to voting? Do we see justice when America has the highest incarceration rate in the world? Do we see justice when we see the ever-widening wealth gap between white and black Americans? And is it the lack of opportunity among so many Americans that has led to despair and civic disengagement – a point underscored by the frightening increase in disparity among the wealthy and the working class, while the middle class evaporates?

For 16 years, the Atlanta Housing Authority has been trying to address those problems. Housing projects had become prisons of poverty. They were incubators of young men destined to prison and young women destined to more generations in concentrated, grinding poverty

At first, we changed the housing environment--relocating families using Section 8 housing choice vouchers and facilitating the development of vibrant mixed-income communities by private sector developers. Former residents of housing projects found homes in many of the newly developed communities, or else moved to homes of their own choice in mainstream neighborhoods. We raised expectations of personal responsibility to signal that we believed in the unlimited human potential and invested tens of millions of dollars coaching families for successful lives filled with opportunity. We validated the conventional wisdom that to have healthy mixed-income communities, they must have equally successful schools – and true reform has blossomed at schools AHA and its development partners have fostered at a time when many of Atlanta’s schools have faltered.

More needs to be done, however. Lonnie King, the great Atlanta civil rights leader and a founder of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), first put the idea in my mind – what he called the “Third Wave” of the civil rights movement. In Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement, University of Virginia law Professor Tomiko Brown-Nagin credits Lonnie King, and describes the “third wave of community activists,” who “expanded the pantheon of heroic figures in the struggle for racial justice far beyond civil rights lawyers and famed student activists. After students no longer were the leading edge of the civil rights movement, a new group of dissenters – the low-income community members that SNCC had viewed as its primary constituency – stepped into the void.”

That concept brought into tight focus what we’ve been laboring so hard to achieve. Those who have led the struggle have been, first, the legal activists of the mid-20th Century, followed by the students, and then by those African-Americans who understood in painfully clear terms that they had been systemically deprived of equity in this society. Dr. King bridged all three waves, and at the end of his life, he was firmly embedded in the belief that racial equality was intrinsically linked to economic opportunity for those who had been denied that opportunity for centuries. That passion has been the mission for AHA.

There is still another way to depict the “Third Wave” of civil rights. I view the Civil War as the “First Wave,” the struggle that smashed the concept that any human being could be “property.” But, emancipation did not equate with legal equality. To achieve that required a “Second Wave,” the end to Jim Crow. That wave was capped with the Civil Rights and Voting Rights laws, school desegregation, and the end to the sophistry that separate could ever be equal.

Still, the fight hasn’t been won yet. Shirley Sherrod, who last year was forced to resign from the U.S. Department of Agriculture after an inflammatory and decidedly false charge of reverse racism was leveled at her, wrote in the March issue of The American Prospect: “[W]e watched with dismay as some of the president’s political opponents expressed their rage at the prospect of a non-white national leader with cartoons reminiscent of the days when Jim Crow laws and white-robed Klansmen ruled. Not even Obama’s masterful speech on racism in Philadelphia, his inspiring campaign, and a national democratic vote could banish hatred.”

Indeed, many in America are dismayed at the return of such overt racism, and as a society we must ask, “Why?” One answer, I suggest, is that when such great economic disparity exists between the races, the simple-minded who don’t know or understand history will conclude it’s because of race.

No, it’s because of economics.

Today – 150 years since the start of the Civil War and 48 years since MLK’s “I have a dream” speech – blacks in America on average have about 10 percent of the net worth of whites. And, as long as we allowed the horror of the concentrated poverty and low expectations of public housing to continue, we were fooling ourselves if we thought that equation would change significantly, in this city or in the nation.

That’s the importance of this “Third Wave”: investing people deprived of wealth with the opportunity to fully participate in and benefit from our great society. That is the mission that drives our work.

AHA’s contribution to this “Third Wave” is to provide structural access to opportunity through economically integrated living environments, high expectations and globally competitive public education opportunities. If we succeed in that, we will ensure that poor people, especially African-Americans, finally begin to achieve economic equity in America.

Renee Lewis Glover is the President and CEO of the Atlanta Housing Authority.

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