Thursday, May 19, 2011

Social Equity in a Multi-racial Society

The Equality Trust, which was featured in Tuesday’s blog post, has published a PowerPoint presentation compiling information on how the United States compares to other wealthy countries in terms of a number of social problems.  According to the information they have compiled, the USA has the highest rate of homicide, teen pregnancy, infant mortality and imprisonment of any of the 32 developed countries they looked at. 

The countries with the lowest of these problems are Japan, Finland, Norway and Sweden.  These countries are also the most equal in terms of income.  I have presented these slides several times and every time people are shocked by how bad the USA compares to other nations, but then immediately say, “Well, these other countries are very homogeneous,” as though we have nothing to learn from countries that are not like us. 

But it was not until I read a column by Ross Douthat of the New York Times, that I realized one of the implications of “we are not like Norway and so cannot have the quality of life that they have.”   In his April 17 column entitled, “The Middle-Class Tax Trap,” Douthat says, “Historically, the most successful welfare states (think Scandinavia) have depended on ethnic solidarity to sustain their tax-and-transfer programs. But the working-age America of the future will be far more diverse than the retired cohort it’s laboring to support. Asking a population that’s increasingly brown and beige to accept punishing tax rates while white seniors receive roughly $3 in Medicare benefits for every dollar they paid in promises to polarize the country along racial as well as generational lines.”

Joan Walsh, writing in Salon.com about Douthat’s comments, says, “Douthat seems to be saying we can't have a real social compact in a multiracial society; it only works in monochromatic Nordic societies. I think it would be the ultimate example of American exceptionalism to prove him wrong.”

Reading all this I remembered a trip I made to a poor county in Eastern Kentucky when I was working in Appalachia in the 1980’s.  I was visiting with a wonderful progressive organization and we started talking about racism.  To my surprise, the Executive Director said, “We don’t have racism here in this county because we have never had any Black people live here.  This has always been an all white county.  When Blacks were leaving the south, they passed right through here because we had no jobs, and we still have no jobs.”

I asked him, “Do you mean racism only exists with the presence of people of color?”  He thought a moment and said, “I never thought of it that way.  No, I don’t mean that.”  We went on to have a very interesting conversation about how to address racism in an all white environment where the rate of poverty was almost 50% and one in seven households had no electricity or running water. 

There is a certain fatalism on the part of people who reject the idea that the United States can be both multi-racial and have rough social equity.  I don’t think the people who say, “We cannot be like Norway” are racist – some are anti-racist activists – but the implications of what they are saying has racial overtones and must be addressed.  The presence of people of color is not what causes social problems.  What if we thought instead that the struggles we are engaged in to end racism give us the insight we need to build a society with the same quality of life for everyone here as is experienced in Scandinavia?  That, in fact, we will be called on to teach Scandinavians some lessons about incorporating immigrants into the fabric of our social compact, something that has been difficult particularly in Denmark and Holland?  Until and unless we imagine our diversity as an extraordinary gift and asset, we condemn the majority of us to lives of increasing deprivation and a tiny handful of us to lives of excess and consumption.  We can do better than that.

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