Ever since the mass protests of the civil rights movement, when the war in Vietnam and the injustices against African Americans brought out the activist in many Americans, there has been a absence of large-scale people's movements. But with Occupy Wall Street and Cornel West and Tavis Smiley's Poverty Tour shaking things up recently, I'm hopeful to see that Americans haven't forgotten the meaning of the word democracy.
Despite the recent protests, there is still quite a bit of ignorance, and more than a spattering of apathy when it comes to politics in this country. In fact, most Americans vastly underestimate the degree of economic disparity in the U.S. A recent study showed an alarming majority of participants believed the distribution of wealth here more closely resembles that of Sweden.
The study also showed that both Democrats and Republicans -- 93% and 90.5% respectively -- preferred it that way. So why is it that the top one percent of the U.S. population holds 40% of the wealth? And why do the top 20% of Americans control 84% of the wealth, leaving the bottom 80% to split the remaining 16%?
And why is it that, in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the great depression , rampant unemployment, and 15% of the U.S. -- or 46.2 million people -- living in poverty , the richest Americans are still getting richer?
To compound the problem, rates of joblessness for minorities is much higher than for the general population. Black unemployment is double that of white unemployment. And while white unemployment levels are decreasing, black unemployment is still going up--widening the already deep divide.
Even college-educated blacks have a higher unemployment rate than whites -- 7.8 versus 4.4% respectively.
In Newark, NJ, which is 88% minority, the unemployment rate is 14.4%. In my opinion, our inner cities are not dissimilar from that of Tottenham, London, where this past August a peaceful protest ended in rioting, violence, and over a thousand arrests.
The issue, sociologists say, is not that youth are unemployed. It's that they're unoccupied -- and therefore more likely to loiter on the streets and in shopping centers, and to get wrapped up in the madness of rebellion.
The unresolved concerns of the late '50s and '60s lead to an aching resentment in urban communities, with peaceful protests giving way to unrest and violence in the urban riots that followed. If we are not careful, and the recent frustrations expressed by the people are not heeded by the powers that be, I think it would be naïve to assume that the violence that erupted in London could not occur here.
Times have changed since the 1960s, and the issues and nature of today's people's movements are quite different. Instead of legalized, institutionalized racism, we have a system that quietly allows desperate inequality -- a system that allows the rich to get richer while the rest of us barely hold on.
It's promising to see people take advantage of their right to protest -- it's promising, but it's not enough. If the system doesn't respond to the democratic wishes being expressed, we may see an escalation of the voices now vying to be heard. I just hope the change we seek happens peacefully -- the people have spoken. Now, we wait.