All-in-Nation: What will America be?

I participated in several webinars for PolicyLink’s release of the book All-in-Nation last fall.

There is a lot to recommend about it, including the essays by prominent activists and thinkers across the spectrum of the social problem landscape, as well as the application of these ideas to policy–one of the webinars I attended was specifically for local policymakers and advocates looking at municipality and county policy as an avenue for addressing injustice–but the point that I think deserves the most attention, and makes the most significant contribution, is this:

We cannot assume that changing demographics will somehow naturally translate into greater power for people of color, or for those who have traditionally been disadvantaged in our economy.

Instead, we must recognize that, instead of being destined to shake up the power imbalances inherent in our status quo, the growing prominence of today’s racial and ethnic minorities should remind us of the imperative to build new economic models, so that the economy doesn’t tilt even more heavily toward hardship.

An introductory essay to the book raises this alarm specifically in the context of mass incarceration and the societal impossibility of imagining a true democracy if rates of incarceration of young men of color continue unchecked, as their presence in the population grows. What strikes me the most is the subtitle here, questioning what America will be and questioning the ongoing viability of ‘the American experiment’.

Because there’s nothing inevitable about our perpetuation, of course.

We face, today, crises of identity similar to those that we have confronted in our history, and that makes all the more urgent the task of recognizing them and building policy structures up to the challenge of confronting them.

We need more equitable education funding, then, not just because it’s the ‘right thing to do’, but because, without it, a growing number of children will enter adulthood ill-equipped to be part of a world that needs them.

We need better job opportunities, including for those performing lower-skilled roles in our economy, or we will be stuck with an economy weighted down by too many low-income workers.

We need to address health disparities because otherwise the math just doesn’t work: how can we accommodate so many people in such ill health?

I realize that this lens presents the need to reduce inequality as rather self-interested–for ‘us’, as much as for ‘them’.

But I see that from two angles: first, the very real need to understand our self-interest in the equation, because otherwise we’re unlikely to generate sufficient political will to change; and, two, a need, instead, to redefine ‘us’ and ‘them’, drawing a wider circle.

To me, shifting demographics should galvanize a wake-up call, making all the more urgent these questions about fostering greater equality.

It’s not an academic exercise or, again, even one of moral obligation.

It’s an economic and social imperative, at the heart of who we are and who we will become.

We must go ‘all-in’.

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