Monday, January 18, 2010

The Road to King's "Other" Dream

On March 18, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech to striking sanitation workers in Memphis, TN. He emphasized the importance of low-skilled labor. Famous for his "I Have A Dream" speech, King was no less passionate about economic justice.

So often we overlook the worth and significance of those who are not in professional jobs, or those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But let me say to you tonight, that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity, and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth. One day our society must come to see this. One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive. For the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician. All labor has worth.
At the time, these were the only jobs blacks could get. Times have changed, and as racism has become an unacceptable attitude among all but the most embittered populace, opportunities have opened up for blacks in every economic sector. Yet large gaps in achievement continue to haunt us, breaking down as they do along familiar racial lines. Simply removing racism is not enough when generational poverty provides a structural barrier to equal opportunity.

King spoke of a future in which the least-valued jobs are recognized as worthy of dignified pay. And yet today, in 2010, that future still seems a long way off. Union membership is at an all-time low, but even then there are broad segments of the workforce that will always be difficult to unionize.

Many people are finally realizing that education is the key to social justice. However many still don't realize how the structural issues involved in poverty undermine our best efforts at creating quality schools.

As an education graduate student, the mantra was always - "every child can learn", with the ultimate goal of "every child going to college". But this is somewhat of an absurd proposition. One only has to ask: "Who will clean the toilets? Who will operate the registers? Who will pump the gas?"

There are just too many areas of our economy that require relatively low-skilled service. And in a market system, where wages are relative, devalued labor results in low pay. Thus an underclass is born. Housing concentrates by income and ghettos appear, society stratifies. Wealth becomes cyclical as generations conglomerate around habits of position, influenced by family and peer group behavior.

Education can break this cycle, essentially by implanting the child into an artificially designed and coordinated environment conducive to success. The fact that this so rarely actually accomplished is testament to the enormity of the task, given its myriad components that all must be coordinated with perfect and sustained simultaneity in cities and states across the nation.

Of course one of the main barriers to this endeavor is finding the political will among the populace. This is what King was up against. Because it is fundamentally a narrative of inequality, it will always be an asymmetrical proposition: the haves must sacrifice for the have-nots.

And yet this concept is in direct opposition to the classic American narrative of individualist opportunity. Even as we know that children who grow up in poverty - more specifically, with a sufficiently harmful set of risk-factors - are categorically at a disadvantage and will reliably be much less successful, we still promote the idea that they are just as able as their advantaged peers to be successful. Our policies reflect this incongruity in thinking.

And so the ball is well towards the bottom of the hill. I suppose that the problem of who to clean the floors is a "good" problem to have if every child has the option to go to college. But we certainly aren't there yet. Until then, King's words on economic justice seem as distantly in the past as they do the future. Yet through his memory we continue the conversation.

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