Saturday, August 16, 2014

Two Americas

Bethesda, Maryland is, apparently, a long way from Ferguson, Missouri.  We don’t have military style police departments.  We don’t have gaping racial divides.   We don’t have any visible signs of poverty.   And sadly, we don’t have a clue about what’s going on throughout much of our country.
Bethesda is not a gated community.  Depending on whether you include North Bethesda (where I live) or just the southern part of the town, it has anywhere from 60,000-100,000 people -- far too many to wall off from the rest of the society.   Yet even though there’s no physical barrier setting Bethesda apart, there’s no doubting its exceptional status.  For one thing, over 83 percent of its adult residents have at least one college degree.   The median household income exceeds $140,000 (it would surely be more if you didn’t count retirees) and the median value of a detached house is over $900,000.  Bethesda is the home of the famous Congressional Country Club, a frequent stop on the PGA tour, not to mention the National Institutes of Health.   It’s a place where highly educated and highly affluent people sleep, eat at fancy restaurants, play golf, and talk about noblesse oblige.   If you don’t know what that means, you obviously don’t live here.

The scenes from Ferguson, Missouri are surely viewed as appalling to residents of Bethesda.  We’re used to seeing pictures of police states, but not from our own country.  The idea that local police departments in America commonly possess assault weapons wouldn’t surprise the locals; we recognize that not every American town is as squeaky clean as ours.  But what wasn’t widely known before this week was that local cops have been wielding grenade launchers, body armor, armored vehicles, and night vision lenses.  You just don’t need that stuff when you’re patrolling Old Georgetown Road and Democracy Boulevard.

I have been too busy lately obsessing about Israel and Palestine to devote enough attention to Ferguson.   And let’s face it – like the 96% of Bethesdians over 25 who are not unemployed, I’ve been too busy at work to give the news the full attention it deserves.  But I’m guessing that this episode in Ferguson has caught a fair amount of attention in my hometown, and I attribute that primarily to the fact that it is reminiscent of a Hollywood flick.  Yes, no matter how rich and educated you are, you’re still captivated by the sight of mean, not-too-lean, and all-too-anonymous cops,  protesters who are “mad as hell and [are] not going to take this anymore,” a martyred  teenager, and all sorts of racial overtones.  You can go online right now, pluck down a mere 16 bucks, and see a movie with those elements at the Regal Bethesda Theater.

I don’t mean to disrespect the entertainment value of the Ferguson story, but folks, popcorn and a Coke won’t do this story justice.   Yes, this raises issues about the militarization of American police forces.   Yes, this raises issues about racism in what many Fox News watchers call a “post-race” America.   But what it really raises most for me is the fact that America is no longer a nation defined by its middle-class.   It’s a land of “haves” and “have-nots.”   

The “haves” not only enjoy more wealth but hold disproportionate power over the political system.   Members of their social class dominate both houses of the U.S. Congress and the various state houses.   How do you think most of them got elected in the first place – money!  Then, once they come to power, they can enact regressive tax laws, like the one ensuring that regular income is taxed at a higher rate than capital gains.   Moreover, if you are affluent, you tend to live in a secure environment.   When you see a policeman, it’s likely because someone’s cat got caught in a tree.   Life is good in towns like Bethesda.  That’s why folks are so shocked when they are reminded of towns like Ferguson.

In present-day America, the rich get richer and the poor get incarcerated.   That’s especially the case when you are poor, black and male.   According to the NAACP, current trends suggest that one in three black males born today can expect to serve a prison sentence.   That number goes up even higher if you exclude relatively affluent families.  An article in Vox reports that when you compare prison sentences for similar crimes, black men serve for 20 times longer than white men.   I have no idea if those figures are accurate, but I don't doubt that there is a big, big problem here.  The upshot of all this is that we’re dealing with entire communities that have no political power, are being disrupted by lengthy prison stints, and are understandably alienated from the country that has been so good to people like me.

According to the great American myth, with a little “luck and pluck” any American can rise from rags to riches.  But I’ve read some of those Horatio Alger stories.   They don’t say anything about growing up in a place where your male role models have already been hauled off to prison, your schools are underfunded and dilapidated, and the authority figures put a target on your head simply because of your skin color and gender.  When I was growing up in – where else? – Bethesda, I could be pretty mischievous.  So were most of my friends.   As I put myself in the situation of someone who grows up in present-day Ferguson, Watts or Hunts Point, I somehow don’t picture ending up in Stanford or Harvard Law School.   

In the last couple of decades, only one Presidential candidate made much of a mention about the social-economic divide that is destroying this country.  He turned out to be a huckster.   When John “two Americas” Edwards built for himself a 28,000 square foot house, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.   Edwards became the perfect symbol of American hypocrisy.   We are a nation run by really rich people who act like they don’t care about the poor, and really rich people who act like they do.  And I do mean “act.”  As for those who truly are poor, they never get to see Pennsylvania Avenue or Capitol Hill from the inside; instead, they get to see places like Lompoc, Beaumont, and Leavenworth. 

Something must change, folks.  It’s time to have a national conversation about poverty, race, and gender.  And this time, the “gender” I have in mind is my own.   We need to take a very close look at the way poor black males live in this country.   Are we giving them the chances that the Declaration of Independence says are guaranteed to all “men”?   That beautiful document was written by a hero of mine who, unfortunately, was truly blind when it comes to skin color.  Nearly 2 ½ centuries have elapsed since he talked about the “unalienable rights … to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” but it should be obvious to anyone that we’re still nearly as color "blind" now as we were then.  

America is on notice of the problem – much as we’re on notice of so many other societal and environmental scourges.  The question is, will we address it, or will this crisis fade from our collective consciousness once the protests in Ferguson have stopped?   I have my guess.   Hopefully, I’m wrong.

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