An American Dream
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World's capital cities and their mayors (2020)
Rising awareness of
injustice and inequality
October 2020: It seems that America has once again reached a point where the nation’s consciousness is waking up, or owning up, to what Americans experiencing discrimination are saying. If more Americans, especially white Americans, are “woke”, or alert, to economic and social inequality and injustice - and the inseparability of race from inequality - it is because the politics of awareness has changed. American cities and the mayors who lead them are at the forefront of the changing moral awareness.
Ideologies have to prove
their worth in the real world
Perhaps all societies must expand their awareness of inequality and the suffering born of it in order to survive, as psychologist Ashis Nandy has noted. The United States is no exception. Injustices which were once outside the span of awareness - child labor, unequal pay for the same job, environmental destruction, unsafe workplaces - are no longer so, and it is quite likely that the present awareness of economic and social injustices will someday be found wanting and change. A lesson of American history is that what once seemed natural and legitimate can become an instance of cruelty and sadism.
Another lesson of American history is that problems are solved when they are seen as local problems that demand personal solutions. Ideologies from the political right, left, and center may provoke people and cause them to take sides and dig in, but, inevitably, ideologies are expected to prove their worth in the real world. The streets of American cities are where ideologies are tested to see if they are capable of solving everyday problems. And mayors play a significant role in raising awareness of the most promising solutions.
Mayors raise awareness of discrimination
“George Floyd died in our America so that we may make sense of our future,” said Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles after thousands of protestors gathered outside his home to demand changes to policing and other municipal services. Los Angeles, like hundreds of American cities, experienced civic unrest after the death of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, while being restrained by police.
Confusion about the future sets in because injustice, ultimately, is a matter of definition. Racial discrimination was legal in the US barely 50 years ago; today, awareness is expanded, and discrimination is widely condemned as injustice. The so-called gig economy was widely considered enviable just five years ago; today, cities across the US are enacting curbs on Uber, Airbnb, and similar businesses to protect workers.
Historically, the act of defining or redefining momentous economic and social issues in the US - and thus raise awareness - has involved contentious, often violent, actions and reactions. The various interests hear a call to arms and argue the righteousness of their views to win others to their side. Despite the rise of social media and online communities, the act of definition and redefinition and “awakening” remains an intensely local process, contested in city streets, city neighborhoods, and city halls. It remains a person-to-person process of believers convincing those who hesitate or disagree. Proponents and opponents may have incubated their ideology and influence online, but the ultimate test of credibility is the ability to solve problems in Miami, Minneapolis, Louisville, Ferguson, Kenosha, Salt Lake City, and all other cities, big and small.
“Mayors set the tone for their cities,” said former Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson in a discussion of race in America with City Mayors, and this mayoral leadership quality assumes a heightened importance in uncertain times. Mayors are depended upon to shift mindsets and create safe environments for opposing viewpoints.
Mayor Marty Walsh of Boston recently signed a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis in his city. He said he reached the decision after listening to Black people in the community, including members of the Black Lives Matter movement, who shared with him "how racism shapes lives and hurts communities." He subsequently announced a racial equity fund and an equity cabinet office to dismantle systemic racism in the city. “This change needs to be led by all of us… by the community,” said Walsh.
American mayors’ increasingly are expected to take specific actions to raise awareness in their cities, including surrounding themselves with people who understand what racism (and sexism and other forms of discrimination) means; listening to and respecting the insights of people who are marginalized or not like them; putting people from underserved communities in positions of power in their administrations; and allocating resources equitably.
In response to the recent civil unrest, several US cities have established municipal equity offices. While the responsibilities of the offices may vary, common activities include training city staff on racial bias and engaging the community in equity-related discussions that enlighten rather than inflame. Honest and open communication is thus essential. “Words matter," former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu told CNN in a discussion of how to build unity in cities wracked by unrest. "If you continue to demonize, dehumanize, individuals based on race, creed, color, sexual orientation, you're going to get the fruits of the poisonous tree which is hateful actions."
Words and definitions are the tools of engagement and communications. The mayors of Ypsilanti, Michigan, and Carbon Hill, Alabama, were forced to resign in recent months because of racist remarks they made. Several mayors, including the mayors of South Bend, Indiana and Melrose, Massachusetts have apologized for their insensitive comments related to race. Words matter in the US perhaps more than in the past because an explicit awareness is emerging that discrimination starts small. It manifests itself in small ways in one’s everyday life, beginning with communications: body language, tone, and what one says.
Most American mayors have been circumspect, even eloquent, in their words and actions. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta told protestors in her city, “You’re not going to outconcern me or outcare me about where we are in America,” at once demonstrating sympathy and a determination to lead. Mayor Frank Scott, Jr. of Little Rock, Arkansas, like other American mayors, walked the streets of his city with protesters against police brutality.
When thousands of protestors recently gathered outside the home of Mayor Garzetti of Los Angeles, he said, “I hear you that this isn’t just about the criminal justice system. This is also about society and where we put out resources.”
On another level, there’s a growing awareness among Americans, especially white Americans, that the allocation of resources matters, that inequality is the result of political and economic choices, and there is an emerging recognition that we are unlikely to close income and wealth gaps unless we can close all opportunity gaps.
Economic inequality is increasing
and threatening the fabric of America
Economic problems in the US are always framed in terms of scarce resources and how best to allocate these limited resources among competing needs. This is not a new ideology, but it has been brought to a high level of theoretical and analytical refinement over the past four decades - specifically, since the Reagan presidency in the 1980s. It now represents a framework for understanding the behavior of individuals well beyond economics, and is commonly applied to marriage, divorce, family dynamics, crime, law, politics, religion, philanthropy, the production and consumption of the arts, and other areas of human interaction.
Essentially, the model ensures that one person’s gain is another person’s loss, that one city or metro area’s gain is another’s loss. Over the past 40 years the focus on scarcity and competition has too often led to diminishing returns for all but a small minority of American workers and a diminishing number of cities and regions and thus to entrenched economic and social inequality.
A current reality is that over 40 percent of jobs in America are now low-paying, and this is the fastest growing segment of the employment market. As Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan says, “Now, long-term jobs are giving way to gig work. Real wages have barely budged for workers. For many Americans, owning a home is out of reach.”
It is fair to say that most Americans are acquainted with someone in the so-called “gig” economy, a self-employed parcel delivery driver or a home care worker for elderly people, for example. The driver often must provide her own delivery van and must carry a scanner that tracks her every move. If she takes time off, she is penalized. The home care worker is paid only per visit and has to cover the cost of travel to clients; he is paid for the 20 minutes he spends with an elderly patient but not for the 40 minutes he spends travelling to his next appointment at his own cost.
Many occupations are now considered “essential”: delivery couriers, care workers, cleaners, shelf-stackers, food servers, cashiers, and the like. And there is a heightened awareness that the importance of these workers clashes with economic reality: four decades of economic polarization in the US have forced people to accept short-term contracts, erratic work schedules, and unpredictable earnings. People working in such positions in the US have few employment rights, and there is little chance of advancement to a more skilled, better paying position.
At the end of the day, a large and growing number of Americans do not earn enough money to buy a home or support their families.
There is also a new awareness that people of color comprise a disproportionate share of these workers.
In barely four decades, the income and wealth gaps have widened enormously in the United States between rich and poor, between workers of different educational levels, between families of different races, and between urban and rural areas.
Mayor Durkin of Seattle says “The transition is threatening the fabric of our country. We need to change course.”
In fact, new ideas and theories are gaining traction among academics, economists, politicians, and citizens and challenging many of the ideas underpinning the American economy. New economic theories suggest that extraordinary amounts of public debt can be managed; indeed, can lead to increases in productivity and equity if the newly-printed money is invested properly. There seems to be a convergence of thought that the economic pie can be made bigger in order to improve the conditions in which Americans lead their everyday lives. More and more policymakers and citizens are calling for greater investment in institutions that build strong, healthy societies: families, education, communities, social and physical infrastructure.
Mayors are leading the way. Much of the media focus has been on calls by protestors to “defund” police by diverting money from local law enforcement to other social needs. Mayors have been understandably cautious about reallocating resources from public safety. But they have been relatively bold in other areas. Seattle is considering a law to mandate a minimum wage for Uber and Lyft drivers. Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City has proposed a “robot tax” on profits generated when jobs are automated. Revenues from the tax would be invested in job training and job placement in health care, green energy, early education, and other growing fields. Mayor Chokwe Lumumba of Jackson, Mississippi, is exploring a universal basic income for residents of his city. Other mayors are increasing funding for wealth-building affordable housing and exploring how to better leverage their cities’ purchasing power to address hiring disparities, expand opportunities, and invest in communities of color.
The overarching message from city mayors in the US is that economic and social inequality, in the words of Mayor de Blasio, “is not some inexorable economic force beyond our control.”
Black and white Americans feel the
social system is rigged against them
The most significant change in the past 40 years is that America is more diverse than ever. Almost half of Americans under 25 years of age are nonwhite compared to 18 percent of those 55 and older. Few Americans do not have a family member or friend of a different race or of a mix of races. An estimated 50 percent of Americans live in a community with at least one African-American elected official.
One result is that more Americans than ever do not want a future for themselves, their family, their friends, or their community that is controlled or preempted by an unjust system or by the experience of injustice.
There is also a growing awareness that, in addition to its politics and economics, America must work through the psychology of injustice.
Earlier this year, Mayor Jack Young of Baltimore signed the Trauma Responsive Care Act, designed, he said, “specifically to address trauma in Baltimore.”
Well-publicized studies quantify the traumatic and long-term physical and psychological effects of economic insecurity and racial injustice. Insecurity and injustice can lead directly to family and neighborhood violence, drug abuse, physical and emotional neglect, and suicide, and the negative impacts can span generations. Hundreds of thousands of annual deaths in America from opioid overdoses, alcoholism, and suicide, are increasingly recognized as “deaths of despair”, and the roots of the despair are identified as an economic and political system that no longer cares about large segments of society.
White Americans, especially, grew up believing that their basic needs for achievement, stability, and self-respect could be satisfied by working hard, being adaptable, and being psychologically healthy. They grew up believing there were no insurmountable systemic constraints for any Americans to meet their basic needs; all failures in this regard were actually failures of individuals, not of structures. Moreover, until recently, most debate around equity in America assumed that the impact of economic and social inequality was skin-deep and short-term; remove the inequality, the thinking went, and you will have healthy individuals and a healthy society.
Now, the awareness is beginning to change. Many white Americans have come to feel what people of color have long felt: that the economic and social system is rigged against them. They identify the barriers that inhibit them, not in personal failures, but in faulty institutions and goals, and they are receptive to change.
What is not clear is if Americans, especially white Americans, fully understand how the long-term psychological and social effects of violence, poverty, and injustice persist even when the overt discrimination is removed.
Psychologist Ashis Nandy and other scholars have written about the psychological effects of chronic trauma. Their work shows how continuous suffering, de facto and de jure deprivation of human respect and dignity, generations of poverty, and long experience of heavy-handed rule by police and social welfare agencies distort minds, values, and self-concepts. The distortion applies both to those who experience discrimination and to those who discriminate. Long-term discrimination is sustained by powerful justifications for the discrimination in the minds of those who discriminate and those who are discriminated against. All the useful modes of social adaptation, techniques for survival, and conceptions of the future, transmitted from generation to generation, are deeply influenced by the way in which large groups of Americans live, and are forced to live.
It is thus that systemic injustice has acquired its self-perpetuating quality in the US, and a huge reason why progress often seems frustratingly incremental and slow. It explains why, for nearly 300 years, it has been white persons in power evaluating the evidence, judging, and sentencing some, while acquitting others.
Redefining the American Dream
In 2017, the National League of Cities, a nonpartisan advocacy group in the US with 1,900 member cities, issued a report entitled Keeping the American Dream Alive. The report was created by a task force led by former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and included recommendations for “restoring the American Dream at a time of rapid economic and demographic change.”
Almost all Americans, the report suggests, continue to share a conception of a good life - the American Dream - as living well for working hard and taking care of one’s family, and also equal opportunity, which are impossible to achieve without peace and prosperity, the power of reason, the rule of law, and the use of rational dialogue. In other words, the American Dream links a simple vision of a decent personal life with a “grand” vision of a positive social life. The Dream thus holds within itself the possibility of partial, or even total, social and economic reconstruction.
The tension between the simple vision and the grand vision helps Americans reshape their awareness. It helps America recognize its imperfections and keeps the country in a constant struggle to alter or expand its collective awareness. The struggle is often exhausting. The US, as an imperfect society, produces imperfect remedies of its imperfections. Solutions too often tend to be products of the same social experience, the same awareness, that produced the problems. Vicious and tortured historical remedies which are now repudiated, even if their effects may linger, include Jim Crow laws (1), redlining (2), racial profiling, and mass incarceration, among other solutions to social problems which ended up legally demeaning and disempowering people of color, especially Blacks, for generations.
But sometimes a new awareness surfaces in unexpected ways. When Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington, DC authorized the phrase Black Lives Matter to be painted in 50-foot-high letters on a street leading to the White House, it captured the public imagination by synthesizing a new vision of America and was replicated in urban public spaces across the country.
The Broadway play Hamilton, to give another example, could not have had its success in another time or place than America of the second decade of the 21st century.
Hamilton strikes a chord partly because of the novelty (or outrageousness) of people of color acting the roles of America’s white “founding fathers”, most of whom were slave owners. But mostly Hamilton is deeply engaging because it reflects an attitude that allows Americans to work through their past and to critically accept, reject, or use that past to understand the context of the strengths and crises of the present way of life. And this cannot be underestimated.
Because the American Dream lives in the minds of Americans and because the needs lie in the present, the creative and destructive powers of the Dream are located mostly in the present.
Hamilton dramatizes how the dynamics of American history are not about great men, but what America represents. In other words, America’s potential is revealed not in terms of the past, but in the ways of thinking and in the social and economic choices available to Americans in present times. By refusing to chain the future to the past, Hamilton judges America not so much by what has been done in its name as by its willingness to engage in self-exploration and its ability to sanctify accountability.
Moreover, by casting a Puerto Rican actor as Alexander Hamilton and an African-American actor as Thomas Jefferson, it destroys the power of any theory of whiteness. If the story of Alexander Hamilton is still compelling whether the protagonists are black, brown, or white, it suggests a universalism which takes into account the experience of racism, including the immense suffering racism brings, and builds out of it a more mature, more contemporary, more self-critical version of American society, a society in which no group can maintain a sense of chosenness or moral superiority.
Once again, Americans, especially white Americans, seem to be at point of trying to apportion responsibility for the suffering caused by injustice and inequality. Americans are accepting ideas they once resisted and resisting ideas they once accepted, regarding social and economic inclusion. The politics of awareness is changing, and cities and mayors are playing a central role in the battle for attention.
It’s a tense, but promising, time in America. “If there was ever an opportunity to make changes in America, this is that moment,” says Mayor Randall Woodfin of Birmingham, Alabama.
(1) Jim Crow laws were a collection of state and local statutes that legalized racial segregation. Named after a Black minstrel show character, the laws - which existed for about 100 years, from the post-Civil War era until 1968 - were meant to marginalize African Americans by denying them the right to vote, hold jobs, get an education, or other opportunities. Those who attempted to defy Jim Crow laws often faced arrest, fines, jail sentences, violence, and death. (Source: History.com)
(2) “Redlining” is the name given to a federal government policy by which the Federal Housing Administration, established to provide mortgage insurance on loans made by FHA-approved lenders, furthered racial segregation by refusing to insure mortgages in and near African-American neighborhoods. At the same time, the FHA subsidized builders who were mass-producing entire subdivisions for whites, with the requirement that none of the homes be sold to African Americans. Redlining existed from 1934 until 1968. (Source: National Public Radio)
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