04/25/2012 11:24 am ET Updated Jun 25, 2012

Missed Opportunities

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:

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.