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April 2, 2010

Towards a More Just Society?

(Photo by Robin Holland)

This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with social justice advocates Bryan Stevenson and Michelle Alexander about the persistence of systemic racial inequalities in American society and Dr. Martin Luther King's vision of a more just society.

Michelle Alexander described her view of a criminal justice system that she sees as discriminatory against minority groups:

"Individual black achievement today masks a disturbing underlying racial reality. To a significant extent, affirmative action - seeing African Americans go to Harvard and Yale and become CEOs and corporate lawyers - causes us all to marvel what a long way we have come. But much of the data indicates that African Americans today as a group are not much better off than they were back in 1968... Just a couple of decades after the collapse of the old Jim Crow system, a new system of racial control emerged in the United States. Today, people of color are targeted by law enforcement for relatively minor, nonviolent, often drug-related offenses - the types of crimes that occur all the time on college campuses, where drug use is open and notorious, that occur in middle class suburban communities without much notice... [They are] arrested, branded felons, and then ushered into a parallel social universe in which they can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in many of the ways in which African Americans were discriminated against during the Jim Crow era."

Bryan Stevenson argued that mass incarceration disproportionately impacts vulnerable populations and is fundamentally incompatible with the core American value of equal justice:

"There are structures and systems that have created poverty and have made that poverty so permanent that, until we think in a more just way about how to deal with poverty in this country, we're never going to make the progress that Dr. King envisioned... We have a criminal justice system that's very wealth-sensitive. Our system treats you better if you're rich and guilty than if you're poor and innocent... If we keep ignoring the poor, I think we not only undermine Dr. King's vision, but we corrupt our values. The observant said you judge the character of a society not by how you treat the rich and the privileged and the celebrated. You judge the character of a society by how you treat the poor, the condemned, the incarcerated... We've got to find ways to inspire people, to challenge people, to confront people to recognize that a commitment to justice cannot be reconciled with a commitment to mass incarceration. A commitment to fairness cannot be reconciled with the conditions and demographics that we now see in poor and urban communities."

African American economist Thomas Sowell has suggested that some groups are more likely to have values that are conducive to success in American society than others and, thus, that a level playing field conflicts with the desire for all groups to achieve roughly equal outcomes. In a recent column, he argued that society lacks the ability to compel different groups to achieve the same results:

"Most of us want to be fair, in the sense of treating everyone equally. We want laws to be applied the same to everyone... Whether any human being has ever had the omniscience to determine and undo the many differences among people born into different families and cultures -- with different priorities, attitudes and behavior -- is a very big question. And to concentrate the vast amount of power needed to carry out that sweeping agenda is a dangerous gamble... There is no question that the accident of birth is a huge factor in the fate of people. What is a very serious question is how much anyone can do about that without creating other, and often worse, problems. Providing free public education, scholarships to colleges and other opportunities for achievement are fine as far as they go, but there should be no illusion that they can undo all the differences in priorities, attitudes and efforts among different individuals and groups."

What do you think?

  • Michelle Alexander compares today's struggle to the Jim Crow era. Do you agree? How do you think the quest for a more economically and racially just society has changed over time?

  • In your view, what would constitute a just society? What measures could move the country in that direction?

  • How are you mobilizing to work towards a more just America?


  • June 13, 2008

    The American Dream In Reverse?

    (Photos by Robin Holland)

    Are we living in a second gilded age? Yes, according to historian Steven Fraser, one of Bill Moyers’ guests on the JOURNAL this week.

    “Basically, we left the financial marketplace largely unregulated – a tendency which had begun under Reagan and continued at an accelerated pace all through the years since Reagan, including under the Clinton administration... When push comes to shove, businessmen and their financial enablers may talk the talk about the free market. But when times get tough, they turn to the government to bail them out... That is this close, almost incestuous relationship between business and government.”

    Bill Moyers also spoke with columnist Holly Sklar about the difficulties many workers face in trying to earn a living wage. She said:

    “We’ve been living the American dream in reverse... Adjusting for inflation, average wages are lower than they were in the 1970s. Our minimum wage, adjusting for inflation, is lower than it was in the 1950s. One of the things going on is that income and wealth inequality have gone back to the 1920s. We are back at levels that we saw right before the Great Depression.”

    On the ground in Los Angeles, the JOURNAL introduced Jaron Quetel, a young union member struggling to make ends meet. He said:

    “Working the best job I’ve ever had in my whole life, I’m still a breath away from drowning. I’m $20 away from being on the street. I am one car payment away from being re-poed. I’m barely surviving. I’m leading a substandard lifestyle because I make substandard wages... If I wasn’t trying, if I was a screw-up, if I was taking advantage of things, I couldn’t complain. But what more can I do at this point?”

  • Are you feeling pinched by today’s economy? Are people in your community?
  • What economic policies would you like to see put into place? Do you expect politicians to enact any of them?

    [Please note we have provided a list of sites related to clean elections and you can find sites and research related to economic disparity and the work of Holly Sklar.]


  • April 11, 2008

    Guest Blogger: "A Chance to Help Those Who Need It Most" by David Beckmann

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    We'd like to thank Rev. Beckmann of Bread for the World for his additional thoughts on aiding America's hungry and his hopes for new farm bill legislation.

    Please note that the views and opinions expressed by Rev. Beckmann are not necessarily the views and opinions held by Bill Moyers or BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.


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    A Chance to Help Those Who Need It Most

    Rev. David Beckmann
    President, Bread for the World

    I have been reflecting on the increasing challenges our nation’s low-income families face in their struggle to have enough to eat each day, especially in light of the negotiations going on in Congress for a new farm bill.

    Continue reading "Guest Blogger: "A Chance to Help Those Who Need It Most" by David Beckmann" »


    Supporting Your Local Food Bank

    We'd like to thank the Food Bank For New York City/FoodChange for tips on how to support your local food bank.

    Click here for a map to find your local food bank, and check out Carol's checklist below.

    Please note that the views and opinions expressed by Food Bank For New York City/FoodChange are not necessarily the views and opinions held by Bill Moyers or BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.
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    Continue reading "Supporting Your Local Food Bank" »


    Is Congress Capable of Making Farm Subsidies Fair?

    This week, BILL MOYERS JOURNAL collaborated with EXPOSÉ: AMERICA'S INVESTIGATIVE REPORTS to examine wasteful and unnecessary spending in farm subsidies.

    EXPOSÉ reports:

    "[In 1996] the Republican controlled Congress -- critical of what it termed 'big government' -- wanted to wean farmers off subsidies and to encourage them to grow whatever the market demanded. But to get votes, the reformers had to make trade-offs with farm state congressional Democrats and Republicans bent on maintaining payments to their farmers. The result was a classic Washington compromise: one kind of subsidy was ended but, in exchange, a new subsidy was created, one that paid farmers not for the crops they grew but for the land they owned. That compromise now costs taxpayers billions."

    What do you think?

  • Given that Congress is made up of lawmakers who represent individual districts and states, is it capable of creating a sensible and fiscally prudent national policy for farm subsidies?


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