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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Racial Attitudes, Jobs and Infrastructure Upgrades

In the wake of the Baltimore riots, Dalia Sussman of The New York Times reports findings of a new CBS News/NYT study of race relations and racial attitudes in the U.S.:

Sixty-one percent of Americans now say race relations in this country are generally bad. That figure is up sharply from 44 percent after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown and the unrest that followed in Ferguson in August, and 43 percent in December. In a CBS News poll just two months ago, 38 percent said race relations were generally bad.
The negative sentiment is echoed by broad majorities of blacks and whites alike, a stark change from earlier this year, when 58 percent of blacks thought race relations were bad, but just 35 percent of whites agreed. In August, 48 percent of blacks and 41 percent of whites said they felt that way.
Looking ahead, 44 percent of Americans think race relations are worsening, up from 36 percent in December. Forty-one percent of blacks and 46 percent of whites think so. Pessimism among whites has increased 10 points since December.

As you might expect the poll shows substantial differences in racial attitudes towards police culpability. And there are differing opinions about the rioting that followed. “Most Americans, 61 percent, say the unrest after Mr. Gray’s death was not justified. That includes 64 percent of whites and 57 percent of blacks,” writes Sussman.
Of course “justified” is a loaded word, which can mean different things to different people, ranging from “understandable” to “morally right.” Unfortunately, the study did not probe possible solutions, other than 93 percent of both black and white respondents agreeing that police wearing body cameras is a good idea.
There are a range of constructive reforms to reduce police-community violence, which should have strong support. The body cameras are a slam dunk, and I suspect you would also find lots of agreement on the merits of more cities creating independent police review boards, better training in conflict-resolution and rules of engagement for police, and more African American and Latino police throughout department ranks, among others.
With respect to rioting, however, state and local governments rarely have adequate resources to address the underlying cause that contributes so powerfully to rioting — hopelessness. The overwhelming majority of impoverished people of Ferguson, MO and Baltimore are law-abiding citizens. But when large numbers of people feel that they have little reason to hope for a better future, or even a decent life, some are going to feel they have little to lose by rioting. It is more remarkable, considering the generations of grinding poverty and despair in America’s ghettos and barrios, that there has been so little rioting.
So how does a great democracy address poverty, despair and hopelessness? We have tried decades of neglect, and clearly that is not working. But there are points of consensus about possible solutions.
it is often noted for example, that there are more impoverished whites than people of color in the U.S. Add to their numbers the millions of citizens of all races working their tails off for incomes just a little above the poverty line, and you are talking about tens of millions of voters. It ought to be possible to build a majority for practical, corrective programs which can reduce hopelessness among impoverished and low-income families.
Paul Krugman writes in his NYT column, “Race, Class and Neglect,”

…At this point it should be obvious that middle-class values only flourish in an economy that offers middle-class jobs…The great sociologist William Julius Wilson argued long ago that widely-decried social changes among blacks, like the decline of traditional families, were actually caused by the disappearance of well-paying jobs in inner cities. His argument contained an implicit prediction: if other racial groups were to face a similar loss of job opportunity, their behavior would change in similar ways.
And so it has proved. Lagging wages — actually declining in real terms for half of working men — and work instability have been followed by sharp declines in marriage, rising births out of wedlock, and more.
As Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution writes: “Blacks have faced, and will continue to face, unique challenges. But when we look for the reasons why less skilled blacks are failing to marry and join the middle class, it is largely for the same reasons that marriage and a middle-class lifestyle is eluding a growing number of whites as well.”

So why not put millions of unemployed and underemployed Americans of all races to work at jobs that need doing? For many years progressive Democrats have argued for a major investment in improving America’s infrastructure, and with good reason.
Currently, 65% of U.S. roads are rated “in less than good condition,” while 25% of our bridges “require significant repair or can’t handle today’s traffic,” according to a report by the National Economic Council and the President’s Council of Economic Advisers. The report found that “the U.S. lags behind many of its overseas competitors in transportation infrastructure investment. In the most recent World Economic Forum rankings, the U.S. had in less than a decade fallen from 7th to 18th overall in the quality of our roads.” In addition, 45% of Americans lack access to transit. Our ability to compete in the world marketplace is being crippled by infrastructure neglect.
But there is wide support for major infrastructure investments. A 2013 Gallup Poll found that 91 percent of Democrats, 76 percent of Independents and 63 percent of Republicans supported “a federal government program that would put people to work on urgent infrastructure repairs.”
Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) have introduced The Rebuild America Act, legislation to “invest $1 trillion and create or maintain at least 13 million decent-paying jobs. The legislation “makes targeted investments in roads, bridges, transit, passenger and freight rail, water infrastructure, marine ports and inland waterways, national parks, broadband and the electric grid.”
We’ve also got to start thinking about education as a critical, make that central, component of our infrastructure and the most cost-effective investment we can make in America’s competitiveness, as well as for reducing hopelessness. In a CBS/Washington Post poll taken in January, 53 percent of respondents said they supported President Obama’s proposal “providing free tuition to attend community colleges at a cost to the federal government of sixty billion dollars over 10 years,” an impressive figure, considering there was no public education campaign before announcing the proposal. But Democrats will have to make a stronger, more unified case for investing in education than has thus far been the case.
We can no longer afford the luxury of substituting pious talk about bootstrap mobility for needed investment in America’s human and physical resources. As Krugman concludes,

The poor don’t need lectures on morality, they need more resources — which we can afford to provide — and better economic opportunities, which we can also afford to provide through everything from training and subsidies to higher minimum wages. Baltimore, and America, don’t have to be as unjust as they are.

Instead, we can put millions of Americans to work improving our physical and educational infrastructure — which will do more to enhance our world-wide competitive position than any trade agreements. But Democrats have to unite behind it and make such infrastructure upgrades the priority message of the day — every day.

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