There’s been a strange juxtaposition in the past week’s news. In our nation’s capital, the Supreme Court heard arguments about gay marriage, which is now legal in 36 states. Forty miles away in Baltimore, the death of yet another young African-American in police custody set off riots that exposed the desperate poverty and alienation of its inner city.
On the subject of gay marriage, our nation has been striding toward full equality at an amazing pace; we’ve gone from 11 states with marriage equality to 36 states in just the past two years. And the change in public opinion has been equally startling: Approval for gay marriage has shot up from 39 percent to over 60 percent in just 10 years.
In court, two Supreme Court Justices wondered why, when marriage has been defined as between a man and a woman for “millennia,” we should change the definition. Attorneys pointed out that for millennia, women were considered chattel, but we have changed that, and that slavery existed for millennia and we ended that, too. (They might also have noted that polygamy and forced marriage of child brides were other longstanding traditions.)
The takeaway message of the plaintiffs, supported by public opinion, was simply that the longevity of an injustice does not justify continuing an injustice.
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Why is it, then, that while we are making rapid progress on equality for gays and lesbians, we are so stuck when it comes to progress for African-Americans in impoverished inner cities? Why is it that we seem to do little more than wring our hands in the face of intergenerational poverty, racial discrimination, and unjust early death?
One reason is that while an ever-growing number of people report having friends or family members who are gay, the isolation of inner-city African-Americans endures. Most of us do not have friends in deep poverty, let alone in inner city areas where most of the good jobs disappeared decades ago. This makes us blind to the despair of areas of Baltimore where the black unemployment rate is 51 percent, where a third of all buildings are vacant, and where hopelessness is so entrenched that 49 percent of high school students are chronically truant.
So while gay and straight people of all colors are pulling together for equal rights, we are failing to throw a lifeline to yet another generation of inner-city African-Americans.
Much of the recent conversation about this dilemma has focused on the conduct of police, but that is just one of many causes for a black male life expectancy that is 4.7 years shorter than for whites.
Clearly, we need a nation-building project here in the U. S. that recognizes that black lives do matter. The core issue isn’t just black deaths at the hands of police; it’s black lives from birth – it’s early learning, schools that really work, major investments in job training and affordable housing, and economic revitalization of urban areas short on jobs and opportunity. It’s also sweeping reform of the criminal justice system and an end to overusing jails for petty offenses, which has given us high incarceration rates.
This is an ambitious agenda that may seem beyond our reach. But only a few years ago, marriage equality seemed equally unachievable. We are, it seems, capable of making significant leaps in expanding equality. It’s long past time we did so for our fellow Americans in places like Baltimore.