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Times Front Page Tells Two Tales of Inequality

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A pair of stories on the front page of Wednesday's New York Times together tell a tale that ought to serve as an epitaph for one era in our national life and the prologue to its successor.

The first report documented how middle-class Americans are falling behind their counterparts economically in other developed countries. It summarized the findings of a worldwide household income study by LIS, an academic research group that maintains the Luxembourg Income Study Database.

In brief, the study highlights how 30-plus years of policies advertised as promoting prosperity have worked mostly to benefit a small -- and already prosperous -- slice of the population.

Among other things, the researchers concluded that American companies "distribute a smaller share of their bounty to the middle class and poor than similar companies elsewhere" and that "governments in Canada and western Europe take more aggressive steps to raise the take-home pay of low- and middle-income households by redistributing income."

"Top executives make substantially more money in the United States than in other wealthy countries. The minimum wage is lower. Labor unions are weaker," the Times reported. And because rich Americans pay lower taxes than the rich in much of the rest of the developed world, "inequality in disposable income is sharply higher in the United States than elsewhere."

The researchers also found troubling evidence that inequality in the U.S. is likely to worsen. While Americans over 55 "have literacy, numeracy and technology skills that are above average" compared to their contemporaries in other industrialized nations, "younger Americans... are not keeping pace. Those 16-24 rank near the bottom among rich countries," the Times noted.

My own experience as an elected official and leader of two nonprofit groups dedicated to advancing political and economic equality tells me that these trends are no accident. Rather, they're the result of economic policies that have helped a very small group of people -- call it the 1 percent -- amass great wealth while most of us struggle to keep our heads above water.

The second of Wednesday's stories of note was about another kind of inequality. It reported on the Supreme Court's 6-2 ruling that Americans no longer need to take special steps to address our shameful history of racial discrimination.

The case involved a challenge to a Michigan constitutional amendment barring the state's public colleges from considering race in deciding which students to admit. The majority concluded that it's up to voters and state legislators -- not the courts -- to set college admission policies, so long as those policies do not discriminate against minority groups.

The Michigan case reminds us that for Americans, race is the issue that never goes away.

People of good will surely hope for a time when, to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we'll all be judged by the content of our character rather than the color of our skin. But if we're even halfway honest, we know that today, as Justice Sonia Sotomayor observed in her dissent to the Michigan ruling, we must approach racial matters "with eyes wide open to the effects of centuries of racial discrimination."

The good news, unstated in both these stories but increasingly evident nonetheless, is that Americans are awakening to our deepening inequality and that our sense of fair play remains alive and well. That sense has always served us well; we're going to need every bit of it in the months and years to come.