Some weeks ago I wrote of the Newark riots that exploded before my eyes some forty years ago. It wasn’t a very optimistic posting. “Corey Booker”, I wrote, “has promised to be a different kind of leader. I have no way of knowing if he will be up to the challenge, much less whether the Newark that is, and has always been, will let him. Most of what led up to the riot remains in place; a ghettoized city, a culture of corruption, inadequate jobs and the like.” Now Booker, as a NY Times article suggested, faces his first real crisis. Of course there is nothing new about kids dying in Newark, but Booker had set reducing crime as a primary objective of his administration. I’m sure he was sincere and also was under no illusions about the magnitude of the job or how long it would take to turn things around. But hopeful rhetoric heard by the very desperate isn’t given much slack, and Booker faces calls for his ouster. They will probably abate.
Barack Obama, who had worked there among the poor as a community organizer, devoted a speech in Chicago to the problem of violence in our cities. Bob Herbert has written numerous thoughtful columns to the subject. To me, what happened in Newark and what is happening across the country shows not so much that government hasn’t done enough (which certainly is the case) but more so the limits of what can be accomplished by a single mayor or any government official. On the most elemental level, virtually all office holders find themselves conflicted if not compromised. Of course mayors lack sufficient resources but more importantly office holders in general are simply torn in many directions from special interests to perceived or real constituent priorities. It is paralyzing. Nothing demonstrates that better than the case of Carl Levin. As the seasoned Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, no one better understands how high energy consumption threatens our national security. Nonetheless Levin, bowing to his Michigan constituency, led the charge against raising CAFE standards. One would expect more from this distinguished Senator, but such is the real world of politics and governance.
In looking at our deteriorating international situation, we like to cite desperate conditions on the Arab Street, to the poverty, lack of self-esteem and general sense of hopelessness. But we need look no further than our own cities to see the very same thing. Perhaps poverty in urban and rural America doesn’t match that found in places like Africa, but in relative terms it isn’t that different. As the poor watch the gentrification of their neighborhoods in New York where even the middleclass is being priced out of the market, make no mistake, deep-seated resentment is steadily building. Your kids and mine may be employed and are doing more or less as well as they would like, but they and we live in a bubble. Corey Booker’s problem is no longer simply generational decline and urban decay in a single troubled city, it is symptomatic of a larger society where the “classes” are moving further apart every day. It isn’t populist rhetoric to ask how we can justify that one human being works twenty hours a day at two jobs at back breaking labor and is unable to pay his or her basic expenses and another can make a few telephone calls and take home millions.
Newark isn’t getting better not because Corey Booker isn’t doing his job, but because things out there in the real world are getting worse. Those CAFE standards that Carl Levin doesn’t want to reduce are making it hard for the average worker to afford getting to that low paying job or the rural farmer to run his tractor. When Mitt Romney implies that his five sons working for his campaign have the moral equivalency to the sacrifices being made by other sons and daughters fighting in Iraq, many of them there because it was the best paying job they could get, one has to wonder not so much about the man and his candidacy but about all of us. Our idea of sacrifice is not being able to eat an ice cream Sunday because it may elevate our cholesterol or widen our waistline. Children are dying in playgrounds in neighborhoods that we avoid in conditions and problems from which we have averted our eyes. We can’t lay that on a mayor, senator or even on George W. Bush, but must look to ourselves, to the priorities we have set, the conditions to which we have acquiesced and to the responsibilities we have neglected.
I hate the term Homeland Security which bespeaks an insular attitude, a flag in the lapel kind of thinkng. But if we are really serious about our internal security, not to mention the peace of the world, we had better start looking more closely at the growing chasm between those who have too much and those who don’t have enough to subsist. The former may be erecting McMansions but their domain, as a percentage of the population, is shrinking. At the same time, the tent of underclass is growing larger every day entered increasingly by those who in a past generation considered themselves reasonably well off. We complain about not producing enough scientists, but ordinary folks can’t even afford the tuition it will take to make their kids marketable in the information age. Carl Levin can’t vote for reduced CAFE standards because he knows second and third generation auto workers in Michigan can’t afford seeing Ford or General Motors going under. You may think it a stretch to say so, but in a very profound way, that’s a big piece of why four black kids were gunned down in Newark, New Jersey. Would that we only understood they were our kids.