THE BLOG
12/29/2014 06:55 pm ET Updated Feb 28, 2015

The Fierce Urgency of Now

While reading and grading term papers in the undergraduate course that I teach at the University of San Francisco, "From Slavery to Obama," I found myself watching the televised funeral of one the New York City police officers recently assassinated as they sat in their patrol car, by an apparently deranged African-American man motivated by hatred for cops. As it happens, I'm also reading Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics Are Remaking America by William H. Frey and The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson. The coincidence prompted me to reflect on the moral and political challenges confronting our nation as we commence the new year of 2015.

I thought about the keynote speech that President Obama delivered at the 2004 Democratic Party National Convention in Boston while still an Illinois state senator. Among other things he said:

[T]here are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative-ad peddlers who embrace the politics of "anything goes."

Well, I say to them tonight: There's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America.

There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America. ...

We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America. ...

Do we participate in a politics of cynicism, or do we participate in a politics of hope?

In the presidential election four years later, America chose to participate in a politics of hope, electing Barack Obama, then a U.S. senator, as the 44th (and first African-American) president of the United States.

Major domestic and foreign-policy issues command us to ask ourselves just what kind of nation we want to be. I believe it is appropriate and timely for us to once again ask ourselves, "Do we participate in a politics of cynicism, or do we participate in a politics of hope?"

There are challenges confronting our nation's political leadership, whose solutions or resolutions will define the soul of our nation and the direction of its moral compass, not just for the presidential election of 2016 but for several years to come. The factors referenced in my opening paragraph suggest that our leadership must do the following:

  1. Urgently address the rising income inequality and continuing wage stagnation among substantial segments of our population (notwithstanding the unprecedented rise in the Dow Jones Industrial Average to the 18,000 level two days before Christmas). They kindle long-smoldering embers of discontent that could ignite prairie fires of despair and ungovernable cynicism. In his recent article "Inequality and the American Child" Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics, wrote:

    About 14.5% of the American population as a whole is poor, but 19.9% of children -- some 15 million individuals -- live in poverty. ... [M]ore than 38% of black children, and 30% of Hispanic children, are poor.

  2. Urgently address the long-term consequences of continued mass incarnation. In their recent Wall Street Journal op-ed "The Steep Cost of America's High Incarceration Rate," former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin and Nicholas Turner, President and Director of the Vera Institute of Justice, noted:

    The U.S. rate of incarceration, with nearly one of every 100 adults in prison or jail, is five to 10 times higher than the rates in Western Europe and other democracies, according to a groundbreaking, 464-page report released this year by the National Academy of Sciences. ...

    The costs of incarceration extend across generations. Nearly three million American children have a parent in prison or jail. ... Research by Pew shows that children with fathers who have been incarcerated are nearly six times more likely to be expelled or suspended from school. Incarceration therefore helps perpetuate the cycle of family poverty and increases the potential for next generation criminal activity.

  3. Urgently address the growing distrust of police, and the increasing cynicism about the likelihood that black people will receive equal treatment under the law, among African Americans and a significant segment of white youth nationwide, unleashed by the police killings of Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri; 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio; and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York. Unless it's substantively and forthrightly addressed, this spreading distrust of police authorities, like growing income inequality, threatens the ability of our federal and state governments to effectively and peacefully govern.
  4. Reconsider our foreign policy in the Middle East, ultimately reviewing the question of why we need to continue to station our military personnel in several Middle Eastern countries.
  5. Address the consequential impact of virtually unlimited money infused in our state, congressional and presidential elections.
  6. Restore voting rights and protect them against the widespread effort to restrict their exercise following the Supreme Court's decision in Shelby v. Holder, which gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 5 had required that several states with histories of efforts to restrict opportunities for African-Americans to register and vote first get "preclearance" from the U.S. Department of Justice before enacting any changes to voting laws.
  7. Engage in a top-to-bottom review and revision of public education of our children from prekindergarten to 12th grade. If a business produced a good for public consumption that was found to be defective, it would not tolerate finding that there had been no quality controls in the production of that good. Sadly, in the case of public education, the "defective product" is the many students who attend our public schools and fail to graduate from high school, or who graduate ill-equipped for college or the job market.
  8. Substantively address the findings of the Senate committee report on the use of torture by the CIA. What does it say about our core values as a nation, as enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, when a poll finds that a majority of Americans approve of the unlawful treatment and torture of persons suspected of terrorism or of having knowledge of terrorists' activities following the 9/11 attacks?
  9. Address the reluctance or outright refusal of white political and business leaders to face the inexorable demographic changes of the coming decades. William H. Frey writes in The Diversity Explosion:

    America reached an important milestone in 2011. That occurred when, for the first time in the history of the country, more minority babies than white babies were born in a year. Soon, most children will be racial minorities. ... [I]n about three decades, whites will constitute a minority of all Americans....

    The reluctance of whites in power to face these realities can be seen in their opposition to President Obama's constructive executive efforts to address major domestic issues arising from the presence of millions of undocumented immigrants in our country.

These are just some of the challenges facing our country that I thought about after reading the books, grading the term papers, and watching the televised funeral of the assassinated NYPD officer referenced in my opening paragraph.

Happy new year!