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The Agenda We Left Behind

Patricia McGuire – President, Trinity Washington University Posted: 9/15/11 12:00 AM ET

Among the many consequences of September 11, our nation suffers a certain degree of collective amnesia about the still-urgent domestic agenda of social justice, especially the corrosive effects of poverty and racism. Many commentators have noted the changes in America’s commitments and character as a consequence of terrorism. Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker calls out America’s “moral panic” in the wake of September 11. George F. Will identifies the problem of America’s “self-inflicted wounds” following the attacks.

Our quest for vengeance against the “evildoers” sapped our energy, leaving little appetite for debates about equal opportunity. After September 11, who could dare speak of the need to reinvigorate the War on Poverty, what with the War on Terrorism consuming most of our fiscal and emotional resources. “Justice” became a word associated with hunting down Osama bin Laden, rather than ending discrimination. Fear of people who don’t look like us became fashionable rather than objectionable. The need to feel safe trumped our reverence for liberty.

This retreat from this nation’s earlier hard-won gains in social and economic opportunity for all people is a real threat to our long-term domestic peace and prosperity.

Consider the conditions that continue to afflict citizens, especially children, in the District of Columbia.

In the years before September 11, 2001, the Brookings Institution drew a bright line down 16th Street and named the problem “A Region Divided” in a 1999 landmark study of the economic, racial and social conditions of the nation’s capital. That report painted a very stark picture: “The eastern portion of this region bears the burden of poverty,” declared the report, while “The western part of the region enjoys most of the fruits of prosperity.” The study went on to point out that the region remained deeply divided by race, that poverty afflicted Black and Hispanic residents in the eastern half of the region in far greater proportions than residents of the western half.

Local leaders rushed to offer pledges to do something useful in response to the conditions revealed by the Brookings report. But after September 11, 2001, our sense of urgency over the region divided dissipated in the avalanche of meetings and briefings and plans for emergency preparedness in Washington. We got flashlights but little illumination.

A decade later, the region remains divided, unconscionably so. We have a brand new baseball stadium and a middling team to play there, and some lagging urban redevelopment along the Anacostia waterfront. Gentrification in the city’s core has simply displaced impoverished citizens out to the edges. The land “east of the river” remains an unknown territory to most of the denizens of upper northwest quadrant of the nation’s capital.

Two articles in the New York Times on Saturday, August 27, 2011 provided an unexpectedly sharp focus on the great divide in the Washington region.

In one column, Charles M. Blow wrote about the problem of hunger among children in the United States. He cited a report from the ConAgra Foods Foundation on “The States of Child Hunger” that cited the rate of “food insecurity” among children. Guess which jurisdiction was at the top of the list for having the highest rate of hungry children? The District of Columbia is #1, a place where 32.3% of the children live in “food insecure” households.

But, wait, turn the page — in that same newspaper there was another article, “Why Washington Really Likes Itself” by Catherine Rampell. In this article we learn that Washington is the most “economically confident” jurisdiction in the nation according to a recent Gallup Poll that found that 60% of the residents of our city have a very optimistic outlook on the economy, many points higher than any other jurisdiction. On the Gallup “Economic Confidence Index” D.C. is the only place that scores in positive territory — a +11 compared to the next highest economic confidence score of -13 for North Dakota.

While 32.3% of children go to bed hungry in this wealthy capital of the free world, other children sit at tables laden with immense privilege and opportunity. Not surprisingly, these conditions of poverty and hunger, privilege and economic confidence also track the levels of parental education. Washington boasts the highest percentage of advanced degrees of any major metropolitan area, and one of the most appalling levels of adult illiteracy in the nation.

Of course, we always have school reform as evidence that we’re trying to do something to close the great divide. Indeed, we approach school reform with the fervor of the emergency preparedness movement — and with similar effect. We wield flashlights against the encroaching darkness.

Too many school reform advocates dismiss as irrelevant the conditions of life that plague children who are far from the level playing fields of their own experience. Most obtusely, the reformers dismiss the reality of poverty as “just an excuse” and even condemn as “racist” those who insist that school reform must include a real agenda to improve the conditions of families and neighborhoods. Just fire the teachers, forget about the fractured families.

The great divide will never be closed so long as the people on one side pile up their goodies while calling out to the people on the other side, “Just try harder to leap across.” Maybe the people with all the goodies should be the ones doing the leaping to the other side, not as saviors but as servants to the real needs of communities.

Ten years after the atrocious acts of murderous madmen changed our agenda in forceful and worrisome ways, the time has come for renewed attention to the still-urgent agenda of poverty and racial inequity in economic and educational opportunity. We can start right here in the nation’s capital, where all of the redundant rings of national security will not stop the turmoil that will inevitably arise from the unresolved conditions of social inequality.

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