For the past few years in this country, the debate about taxes and budgets has been more heated than any time in recent memory. For a while conservatives controlled the debate, thanks in large part to the Tea Party, and wouldn't even entertain the idea of raising taxes to increase revenue. More recently progressives have started to take control of the argument, boosted by the Occupy movement, and are putting forth all sorts of ideas to raise taxes and increase revenue. As one organizer told me recently, "We don't have a spending problem in this country, we have a revenue problem. Spending cuts need to be off the table." While I agree in principle for the need to raise revenue through fairer taxation, I think the argument is more nuanced than that.
When Governor Quinn released the 2013 Illinois Budget, as expected, there were major cuts to areas such as education, Medicaid, human services, and other programs vital to middle and low-income residents in Illinois. In conjunction with cuts at the state level, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is also planning to close 17 Chicago public schools and six mental health facilities. (Big shout out to Southsiders Together Organizing for Power or STOP for defending the rights of mental health workers and their patients, one of the most stigmatized groups in society.) However, in the midst of all these proposed cuts to vital programs I saw a silver lining. Governor Quinn also announced the state would be reducing spending on public safety by about $100 million by closing prisons, juvenile detention facilities, and reducing some of the services that the state police perform. My problem with the current strategy of progressives to fight for increased taxes and revenue without engaging in a real debate about the parts of government that need to be eliminated or reduced, is that it totally ignores one of the most pressing problems facing communities of color: criminalization.
In the State of Illinois, according to the ACLU, blacks and Latinos are more likely to be stopped by police while driving than white drivers. Blacks are twice as likely and Latinos four times as likely to be asked to have their vehicles searched than white drivers. But even though white drivers are searched less, evidence shows that they are more likely to have contraband in their possession than blacks and Latinos. Blacks and Latinos are less than a third of the overall population in Illinois, but nearly three-quarters of the prison population. When you add up the amount of money spent on prisons, plus the money spent by municipal, county and state police departments, it looks to me like billions of dollars are spent each year in Illinois to racially profile, criminalize and incarcerate black and brown people.
While I am terrified of cities and states cutting the budgets of programs that help low-income families and families of color, I'm equally afraid of efforts to increase taxes and revenues to city and state governments that will use the money to continue criminalizing communities of color. I'm all for making the corporations and the rich pay their fair share as long as there's a guarantee the money goes to such things as job creation or preventing the closing of public schools and mental health facilities. What I don't want is for an increase in taxes and revenue to pay for more $10,000 police cameras to be placed in black and Latino communities like we're living in a totalitarian state. Or for the Chicago Police to get new equipment that will be used to beat and violate the constitutional rights of peaceful protestors of the NATO Summit. Or to build more prisons like the one that's being proposed in Crete, Illinois, which will more than likely be used to imprison our immigrant brothers and sisters (the prison in Crete will be run by a private corporation, but taxpayers will be responsible providing the money to house all the inmates.)
The time has come for progressives to step up and fully debate conservatives about the role of government and ultimately the type of society we want. That MUST include which parts of government need to be cut. Do we want to have the most sophisticated military ever, that leaves the footprint of colonization in countries around the globe; or do we want a public educational system that allows our children to reach their full human potential? Do we want a society that provides opportunities for economic and social upward mobility for everyone regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, religion, citizenship status, or sexual orientation; or do we want a society that disproportionately criminalizes people of color? Increasing revenue and making sure everyone pays their fair share are extremely important, but we need to make sure that the money is used for programs and services that invest in human needs, redress inequalities and expand opportunities for everyone.