By Michael B. Hancock, The Root
As citizens, we deserve election seasons that are seesawing, back-and-forth spectacles of clashing ideas. Instead we find ourselves often immersed in the frantic pace of the horse race. Campaigns devolve into poll-watching parades, focused more on opposing personalities than on issues of great consequence. Issues get lost.
This is one of those elections. The general ignorance of important challenges that we face as Americans has become infectious. It’s especially a greater problem for those historically burdened and marginalized, still holding on at the seams for some hint of the American dream. To many, something in the air suggests it’s not all quite right: In the RealClearPolitics average of frequent “direction of country” tracking surveys, a clearly jaded 69 percent of the public believes that our nation is on “the wrong track.”
Maybe it’s not a feeling that we’re on a wrong track. Maybe it’s the absence of a great American conversation on what keeps societies glued together. We can easily focus—and how can we not?—on those tragedies and transgressions ripping us apart. Yet a deeper national dive reveals a need to revisit essential quality-of-life issues: from the fight to defeat poverty and homelessness to a concerted community effort for affordable housing and better schools. It’s about creating wages we can live on and maintaining robust infrastructure that provides us with clean water and safe bridges. It’s the transportation and energy grids that give us the fuel we need for economic growth.
We desperately need a return to that conversation, and we must do it now in a way that intersects with a compassionate and thoughtful debate on race, racism and our ability to help flourishing societies, particularly cities, adapt to dramatic population changes.
Because societies can’t flourish without clean, drinkable water. Flint, Mich., knows that, and we here in places such as Denver, deep in the arid West, understand that, because water is so precious and scarce. Societies can’t flourish without functional schools and K-12 classrooms that raise the next generation of scholars and innovators. Societies, obviously, can’t persist without paved roads, safe bridges and solid rail to move people and commerce from home to job to businesses that create more jobs.
Societies can’t expect to thrive if families are living from paycheck to paycheck barely able to make rent each month because housing prices skyrocket. There’s no access to what is now the essential utility known as the internet if there is no electricity. And cities, as we move into a future filled with digital wonder, won’t grow if large pockets of residents can’t get to work because of a lack of reliable mass-transit options.
As proud as I am to say that Denver has one of the hottest economies to watch in the country (with an unemployment rate that’s below 4 percent), I’m also realistic about the stagnating wages and unaffordable housing that hold back way too many of our good people. Rents in the Mile High City have risen 35 percent since 2010, and home values are rising at twice the national rate.
That’s not something to celebrate when people get left behind, especially black and brown people who are bombarded with a disproportionate barrage of social and economic displacement. Denver grows, “But for who?” we keep asking ourselves.
All cities are faced with this existential dilemma. We watch the rapid rise in pockets of poverty as neighborhoods continue to gentrify. We witness the rapid loss of neighborhoods where the racial composition changes overnight from majority minority to majority white. Displacement can’t be progress. Progress can’t be summed up by the disintegrating aspirations of those losing homes.
Unfortunately, we take these pillar issues for granted. Caught up in the routine of our lives, from the grind of daily commutes to the adventures of raising families, we pay little attention to the foundational building blocks of sustainable, healthy and growing communities. Yet these are the places where we live and co-exist. We can’t expect a cozy, habitable house if we let it crack into disrepair from neglect. We can’t expect the cities where we live to prosper if, for so many of our fellow neighbors, the benefits of a strong economy remain out of reach, and too many neighborhoods remain overlooked and underserved.
Nor can we expect to have meaningful conversations on race and the ugly manifestation of racism until we address the disparities holding us back. A conversation on race is not the full measure of racial progress—and it is not the measure of our progress as a nation. Conversations must transition quickly into frameworks for undoing rampant inequality in education, wealth, housing and mobility. Even as we work toward building better relationships between law enforcement and the communities it serves, it’s not enough if those communities are continually disrupted by crime, unemployment, low wages, bad schools and inaccessibility to reliable transportation options.
These pillar issues must be resolved because the very survival of where we live depends on it. We must understand that troubled communities don’t happen in vacuums—a loose thread in one part of the quilt can quickly become the hole in a dangerously unraveling fabric. As President Franklin Roosevelt once said, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have little.” Our collective frustration at the brutality and violence inflicted on people of color should be channeled into a collective energy for social good and economic growth. We need a paradigm shift from systemic inequality to systematic equality.
Systematic equality is what helps communities, neighborhoods, cities and societies become engines of concentrated resources, talent and affirmation. That is the true “test of our progress”: When we become agents of shared prosperity. When we understand that jobs are just jobs unless people have an opportunity to grow. When we put an end to the stagnant wages and concentration of wealth that threaten our great republic. When we recognize that children can’t live without a home, and families can’t be strong without an affordable home. When we realize the virtue of a criminal-justice system that provides a second chance. When we finally embrace the indispensable need for mobility through mass transit. When we grasp the true meaning of a quality education for all rather than an exclusive education for some.
Opportunity is the right of everyone. Progress doesn’t leave anyone behind—its mission is to bring everyone along. When we show up for that, we keep our communities resilient. We keep our houses strong. We keep our people moving forward.