The "Repair" of "Broken Societies"

Begins at Home

by Paul Street

Dissident Voice

July 19, 2003


So, will United States military forces be deployed on the streets of America, enforcing the deep social repair and reconstruction advocated by black slaves and ex-slaves and their allies during and after the Civil War? I ask this impertinent question because I recently looked at an interesting report titled Iraq: The Day After, issued by the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations. Published just before the U.S. invasion, this document embraces American involvement in "nation-building interventions." It contains a fascinating comment from James F. Dobbins, who is Director of Rand Corporation Center for International Security and Defense Policy, a former special White House envoy during US interventions in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, and a member of the task force that produced the CFR report. "The partisan debate" within the US, "is over," Dobbins proclaims. "Administrations of both parties are clearly prepared to use American military forces to reform rogue states and repair broken societies" (p. 48).


Forget for a second that the predominant majority of the politically conscious human race views the United States as the world's chief rogue state (with good reason). Forget also that the US owes Iraq not so much "repair" as reparation - for the million plus Iraqis who have died because of American policies, including our murderous encouragement of Iraqi war with Iran in the 1980s, Dessert Storm, Dessert Fox and the deadly sanctions campaign of the 1990s.


Put all that aside, if you can, and consider the degree of aristocratic indifference to homeland realities readily visible in the nation's ghetto-ridden capital (where at least a third of children live in poverty) required to claim that the US is in a position to "repair broken societies." Even prior to the passage of George W. Bush's harshly regressive 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, the US was by far and away the most wealth-top-heavy and unequal of all industrialized societies. The richest 10 percent of the population own more than 70 percent of the nation's wealth. The richest 5 percent of families receive as much income as the bottom 50 percent, leaving more than 9 in 10 US citizens to fight it out for the second half of the American pie.


It would be one thing if this gross inequality were not accompanied by massive and increasing poverty at the bottom of the pyramid. But serious poverty is deeply, widely, and increasingly evident across the United States. Last year, America's Second Harvest, the nation's leading food-bank network, reported that 23 million Americans relied on their agencies in 2001. The year before that, the United States Department of Agriculture reported that the number of Americans who were food insecure or hungry or at the risk of hunger was 34 million. Last summer, the United States Census Bureau reported that the proportion of Americans living in poverty had risen during the previous year to 33 million and from 11.3 to 11.7 percent of the population. More than 12 million or 17 percent of US children live in poverty, including more than 4 million under the age of six and the US child poverty rate is substantially higher than that of other industrialized nations. More than one in three US children live in or near poverty and more than 8 million people, including 3 million children live in homes that frequently skip meals or eat too little.


Meanwhile, more than 42 million Americans, more than 16 percent of the population, including more than 8 million children lack health insurance. Americans have the longest working hours in the industrial world, exacerbating widespread job dissatisfaction and a deepening crisis of civic-(dis-) engagement among the U.S. population. The nation that proclaims itself the homeland and headquarters of world freedom comprises 5 percent of the world's population but houses more than 25 percent of the world's prisoners. The "land of liberty" quietly possesses the highest incarceration rate (699 per 100,000, up from roughly 100 per 100,000 in 1970) anywhere on the planet. There are more than 25,000 gun-related deaths in the U.S. - over 75 such fatalities (more than half of them suicides and nearly 40 percent suicides) each day. Firearms killed 3,365 children and teens age 19 and under in 1999.


These are just a small portion of the terrible statistics that could be cited to show that the United States is itself in deep need of repair. It is a broken society that produces pathological liars and sneering executioners like George W. Bush, crypto-fascist Al Capone admirers likes Donald Rumsfeld, terrorists like Timothy McVeigh, and twisted mass murderers like Dylan Kliebold, Eric Harris, Allen Muhammed, John Lee Malvo, and most recently, Doug Williams. Three weeks ago, Williams fatally shot four black co-workers and white one co-worker with a 12-guage shotgun and a semiautomatic rifle before killing himself at a Lockheed Martin plant in Marion, Mississippi. "Co-workers," MSNBC reports, "described Williams as a 'racist'" who reportedly "complained about blacks" (specific complaints did not merit itemization) and said he was "capable of killing" - as is his employer, a military contractor of epic scale, responsible for an untold number of violent deaths across the planet.


As throughout its history, the burden of American societal fracturing falls with special weight on the shoulders of those who trace their American origins to the Middle Passage. More than three and a half decades after the historic victories of the black Civil Rights Movement, contrary to the conventional wisdom of a white population that believes that all the racial "corrections" (no incarceration-related puns intended - see below) have been made, equality remains a highly elusive goal for African-Americans. In a nation that possesses the highest poverty rate, and the largest gaps between rich and poor, in the industrialized world, blacks are considerably poorer than whites and other racial and ethnic groups. Economic inequality correlates closely with race and black America exists as peripheral Third World nation within the hidden core of the world system's hegemonic superpower. African-Americans are three times as likely to be unemployed as whites. The poverty rate for blacks is more than three times the rate for whites. Median black household income ($29,000) is less than two thirds of median white household income and black families' median household net worth is less than 10 percent that of whites. On average they live in neighborhoods with median incomes roughly 70 percent as high as whites. Blacks are much less likely to own their own homes than whites. Nearly three-fourths of white families but less than half of black families own their homes. Thanks to the gaps in white-black employment, income, and wealth, few blacks can expect to receive the crucial financial support whites commonly receive at critical moments in their lives, such as attending college, getting married, and purchasing a home.


Sadly, young black males are more likely to go to prison than college in a broken society that gives most of its breaks to whites. Beyond its sheer magnitude, the most striking aspect of America's prison and broader criminal supervision boom is its heavily racialized nature. As the penal population has risen, it has become significantly less Caucasian: non-Hispanic whites accounted for 42% of state prison inmates in 1979 but less than a third by the end of the 20th century. But let us be clear about the group that is most especially targeted: Blacks are 12.3 percent of US population, but they comprise roughly half of the roughly 2 million Americans currently behind bars. Between 1980 and 2000, the number of black men in jail or prison grew fivefold (500 percent), to the point where, as the Justice Policy Institute (2002) recently reported, there were more black men behind bars than enrolled in colleges or universities in the US. On any given day, Chaiken reported, 30 percent of African-American males ages 20 to 29 are under correctional supervision - either in jail or prison or on probation or parole.


In my home state of Illinois, there are nearly 20,000 more black males in the Illinois state prison system than in the state's public universities. To house its rising number of predominantly black prisoners, Illinois has built 20 adult prisons since 1980. All are located "downstate," where incarceration provides employment, census count, and tax dollars for thousands in predominantly white prison towns that welcome mass incarceration as the solution to local unemployment produced by the closing of factories, mines, mills, and farms.


"Corrections," indeed: as the racially skewed demographics of the American "correctional" system suggest, the US in the age of mass incarceration is giving a darkly colored twist to the noble Christian notion that we are "our brother's [today 'our brothers'] keeper."


Such is the tragic legacy of black chattel slavery, a savage 250-year regime whose devastating impact on African-Americans and American society is alive and well. Yet while US "elites" claim to embrace the "liberation" of Iraqis from "oppression," to the tune of more than $40 billion so far, they can't advance so much as an official apology, much less pay reparations, to black America, for the crime and consequences of the slave system. It actually became acceptable in the 1990s for certain US intellectuals to claim to the white America did blacks a favor by enslaving them -- thereby rescuing them from the supposedly inevitable horrors of modern Africa (which are divorced from any meaningful relationship to western imperialism) -- and that disproportionate black poverty reflects black genetic inferiority.


Last April, the Children's Defense Fund (CDF) reported that more than one million African-American children live in "deep poverty," in households with incomes less than half the US government's notoriously inadequate poverty level. This is up dramatically from early 2000, when "only" 686,000 black children were that poor - an accomplishment certain to be deleted from George W. Bush's re-election resume, along with the loss of 1.7 millions American jobs since he took office. The story of this report received a short burst of attention, meriting mention in the New York Times (Sam Dillon, "Report Finds Number of Black Children in Deep Poverty Rising," April 30, 2003) and other mainstream venues before it quickly faded.


The coverage given to this story was easily eclipsed by that given just a few days later to the revelation that leading right-wing moral-crusader, Republican political strategist, and educational and "virtue" magnate William J. Bennett was a serious problem gambler. According to various reports, Bennett, a onetime Secretary of Education, and past Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, was a casino-owners' dream who "lost more than $ 8 million" playing Las Vegas slot machines during the last decade alone. Too bad Bennett and his reactionary Republican ilk don't see the need to cycle a few more million (or better yet billion) dollars worth of enrichment through the bodies and minds of America's growing number of "deeply" poor black children. The latter are now proclaimed even more irrelevant than usual in the face of America's supposedly virtuous effort to "liberate" Iraq, to the great "collateral" advantage of Haliburton, Bechtel, and other needy subjects lining for their share of the general welfare.


Too bad, also, that that the mainstream discussion of Bennett's curious little habit was discussed in complete isolation from facts like those reported by CDF. The commentators were stuck at the Charles Dickens level, arguing in good bourgeois-moralist terms about the propriety of a rich man's behavior. They had nothing to say about the deeper immorality involved in the creation and maintenance of a social structure whereby one such man can afford to entertain himself by dropping in machines a sum greater than the lifetime earnings of most of more than 9 in 10 of his fellow citizens.


But that's how things go in a "broken society," fractured along savagely unequal and related lines of class and race.


Do US policy intellectuals like James Dobbins really want to see the causes and consequences of a "broken society?" They can skip their next trip to Baghdad and come to the very predominantly black and savagely de-industrialized town Benton Harbor, Michigan, more than half of children and 40 percent of families lived in official poverty even at the end of the heralded 1990s economic boom. Median household income in Benton Harbor was $17, 471, less than two-thirds of the minimum basic family budget (the real cost of being poor, as meticulously calculated by The Economic Policy Institute) for one single parent and two children living there: $28, 422. Things have certainly gotten much worse there since the onset of the disastrous Bush administration, enabled by the scandalous, under-publicized, and indiscriminate purging of blacks from the voting rolls that occurred under the supervision of Jeb Bush in Florida. According to one local minister, less than one in every three adult males in Benton Harbor is currently employed.


Two weeks ago, Benton Harbor hosted the second significant racial disturbance to occur in the United States since the September 2001 terror attacks supposedly united all freedom-loving Americans in opposition to the nation's terrorist enemies. For two nights following the death of popular local black motorcyclist Terrence Shurn in a police chase - only the latest black casualty in a string of deadly white-dominated criminal-justice antics in and around Benton Harbor - hundreds of local residents roamed an eight-block area, some setting fires and attacking passers-by. As the New York Times reported in a front page story, "rioters were chanting, 'no justice, no peace,' as they overturned vehicles, tossed small firebombs into houses, and shattered windows with bottles and rocks, injuring 12 people." "The rioting was so intense," the Chicago Tribune reported, "that fire trucks and squad cars were peppered by several shotgun blasts, and were pelted with bricks before they retreated. Benton Harbor police said they fired several shots into the crowd, but no one was struck." This is an episode from a "broken society" with a little "rogue-state" action thrown in.


Let the policy intellectuals come to Chicago, well, to the South and West Sides of that city, where 20 percent of the population lived in poverty and ten percent lived in deep poverty at the turn of the millennium. In the city's ten most African-American zip codes, each more than 90 percent black, 17 percent or more than one in six people lives in deep poverty. In 15 of the city's 77 officially designated Community Areas, moreover, more than 25 percent of the kids are growing up in deep poverty. All but one of these 15 neighborhoods are located in predominantly black stretches of Chicago's South and West Sides. There are six heavily black neighborhoods where more than 40 percent of the children are deeply poor and one (Riverdale) where more than half the children are that incredibly poor.


Let the great thinkers of the Beltway step outside their air-conditioned offices and into the nearby slums of the nation's capital, a practically bankrupt city with the world's highest


The deception-addicts in the White House pretend to care about these miserable dilemmas in the "world's most prosperous nation." In reality, they are guided by the skin-crawling "free-market" racism of leading right-wing political strategist Grover Norquist, whose explicitly stated "goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub." Of course, Norquist and his allies target some parts of "government" for downsizing a little more energetically than others. They are most concerned to dismantle the parts of the public sector that serve the social and democratic needs of the non-affluent majority of the American populace. The parts that provide free service and welfare to the privileged and opulent minority and dole out punishment and misery to the poor are magically saved from the budgetary guillotine by the neo-Reaganite Republican Robespierres of regression and their cowardly Democratic enablers. In the age of the neo-liberal garrison state, the successful American policymakers' notion of a noble public work is to build yet another prison, to attack and occupy a harmless but oil-rich nation halfway across the world, to build another expensive, military base in yet another distant non-white corner of the planet, to pour yet more depleted uranium into the polluted streams and fields of Iraq and the blood streams of their mostly working-class and disproportionately black soldiers, or to advance another initiative to monitor and manipulate their domestic population. Their public sector is "broke" when it comes to social democracy for the people but its cup runs over in powerful ways when it comes to meeting the needs of wealth, repression, racial disparity and empire.


It is interesting to hear their desire to fix "broken societies" when they broke long ago with the founding founders' sense of duty to maintain an elementary integrity of the societal whole and with the founders' related belief that there is more to life and society than the endless pursuit of individual wealth and advantage. The current White House and its allies within and beyond government are at once agents and reflections of a broken society.


It is only superficially paradoxical that Robbins and his ilk aspire or claim to aspire to repair such societies and "build nations" abroad while ignoring, indeed exacerbating, the horrific fracturing of their own supposed national "homeland." There's a lot more money to be made and control to be gained by the interlocked centers of corporate, financial, and political power in foreign than in domestic "nation-building." At the same time, it is a standard cornerstone of great white (not just contemporary) US political strategy past and present that saber-ratting against foreign Evil Others is a serviceable antidote to the domestic population's growing unrest over issues of socioeconomic homeland insecurity and related deep inequality. As James Madison noted in 1799, "the fetters imposed on liberty at home have ever been forged out of the weapons provided for defense against real, pretended, or imaginary dangers from abroad."


As the left has long argued, domestic contradictions and the desire of the imperial nation's domestic power structure to escape their dangerous consequences are the source of empire. While the institutional and ideological configurations of modern imperialism have changed significantly since the days of early 20-century British writer J.A. Hobson, those contradictions still function as what Hobson called the "taproot of imperialism." That imperialism continues to manifest a strong, if increasingly hidden and covert racial dimension, being conducted primarily by whites (with all due respect to Powell and Rice) and imposed primarily on non-whites across the world.


Empires, which often break the societies of subject states - India in the 18th and 19th century and Iraq in the 1990s, for example - come from their own broken societal homes. To be real and lasting, repair and reparations abroad must be combined with reparations and repair at home.


Paul Street is an urban social policy and civil rights researcher in Chicago, Illinois. He can be reached at: pstreet@cul-chicago.org. This article first appeared in ZNET (www.zmag.org/weluser.htm)  





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