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A Deepening Economic Divide

The Tragic New Normal in American Cities

by JESSE JACKSON

What is the plan for our nation’s cities? Are they simply to simmer with a growing divide between the affluent financial district and the impoverished slums? Will another generation be lost while we wait for the inevitable explosions? The gulf between the realities of our cities and the foolishness of our politics has seldom been wider.

Consider gun violence. Over the Fourth of July weekend, Chicago surpassed 200 homicide deaths for the year. On that weekend alone, 10 people were killed and several dozen wounded in gun violence, including 5- and 7-year-old boys. The only grim salvation in the savage toll is that the city’s year-to-date homicide rate is rising at a somewhat slower rate than last year.

While this goes on, the Illinois state Legislature is gearing up to overturn the state’s ban on carrying concealed weapons. The last of its kind, the concealed-weapons ban was ruled unconstitutional by a federal appeals court. Somehow, the conservative justices concluded that the Second Amendment, which provided constitutional protection for state militias, now prohibits citizens from deciding to ban concealed weapons as part of cracking down on gun violence. The gulf between the reality on the ground and the crackpot ideology of the right-wing activist judges could not be greater.

Consider the economy. The youth unemployment rate in the U.S. is the highest it’s been since World War II. The Center for Labor Market Studies reports that 72 percent of Illinois teenagers —ages 16-19 — are unemployed. The Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that less than 16 percent of black teenagers are employed. The official unemployment rate for African-American teenagers — which doesn’t count those forced to take part-time jobs or who have given up — stood at 43.6 percent in June, according to the BLS.

This is a human and national calamity. An entire generation of young people is coming out of school and ending up on the streets or on a couch in their parents’ home.

Yet at the national level, Washington and Wall Street are telling us that this calamity — a deep and enduring depression in our urban areas — is the “new normal.” The Congress is cutting jobs, not taking action to create them. In Illinois, those on unemployment are suffering a 16.8 percent cut in benefits. The gulf between the elite politics in Washington and the realities facing young people in our urban areas could not be greater.

None of this is inevitable. None of it is an act of God. These realities are the result of policy choices, of values and power expressed in policy. This cannot continue without a reckoning. If we choose not to invest in the young, we will pay dearly as they grow older. If we choose to starve the schools of poor children of color, we will suffer when they become adults without skills. If we choose to let companies stash profits abroad without taxes, we will lack the resources we need to build a strong economy at home.

What is clear is that Wall Street, Washington and the conservative judges feel that they can embrace this new normal without paying any price. These policies will not be changed by those who profit from them. They will only be changed if those who are victimized by them make it clear that they will not “adjust and accept.” The young, the unemployed, the poor, the abandoned urban communities must make their voices heard. Change will come only if they force the elites to face reality, not ignore it.

Jesse Jackson is the founder of Rainbow PUSH.