Which Side Are You On?

The 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was celebrated at the Johnson Library in Austin, Texas this week, but the mood was tinged with sadness and foreboding.

President Carter noted that passing such a law did not mean everyone could consider the problem solved. In the same vein, President Clinton reminded his audience that many in our society would prefer to turn back the clock to days that never should have been.

In 1964 the cruel reality of discrimination had become impossible to ignore. The photojournalism of the day had made us all familiar with separate but unequal schools, public transportation, even drinking fountains. On TV, the country had seen peaceful demands for equal treatment met with brute force – the fire hoses, the attack dogs, the beatings. And then there were the lynchings, the firebombing of churches, the massacre of the innocents.

Today the list of those demanding equal treatment under the law has grown to include women in the workplace, children of immigrants, gays and lesbians and of course the poor who are always with us and racial minorities who have not yet been granted equal treatment, in fact.

Yet the forces of reaction are resurgent. As the Civil Rights celebrants met in Texas, states once sanctioned for limiting voting rights are passing new laws to make it harder to exercise the most basic right in a democracy. Many of these restrictions have been likened to the poll taxes of old in that they make it harder for the poor and minorities to cast a ballot.

A conservative Supreme Court has aided and abetted the effort to turn back the clock by whittling away at the protections enshrined in the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.

The fight against Obamacare has been, in part, an attempt to prevent the least among us from receiving decent medical treatment.

The President, speaking in Austin, cited a personal remark by President Johnson about his commitment to passing the law. He remembered his first job in 1928, teaching children in what was called “the Mexican school” in a small town. Looking back 35 years, he said “You never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child.” The president said that he never thought then he’d have the power to do anything about it. Now that he did, “I intend to use it.”

Well, he did and now the opponents of equality are seeking the power to undo it. As the commemoration in Texas was taking place, the Republican house was passing a budget that would be dead on arrival in the Democratic Senate. But it is intended to be a campaign document, a blueprint for what they will do if they win in 2014 and 2016.

Over ten years, the Republicans say they will cut government deficit spending by $5 trillion. Everyone is in favor of a budget that isn’t awash in red ink. The question is how to get there. Should we impose enough taxes to pay for what we buy or buy less? And if the latter, what should we cut?

The Paul Ryan Republicans are clear on this score. Taxes should not be increased. They should be reduced – on corporations and the rich. Of course that means even more would have to be cut. Like what? Defense, perhaps? Never. Spending for defense should be increased too. So far the deficit is getting worse.

So where does the $5 trillion in savings come from? Repealing Obamacare. Cutting Medicare by $700 billion, cutting the amount spent on Medicaid for the poor, on food stamps for the poor, on school lunches for the poor, on aid to education for students who can’t afford college. And for “reforming” Medicare for the next generation so it is a private insurance program not a government guarantee of security in old age. We all know insurance companies can be trusted to take care of the elderly. And the few Republicans who refused to vote for the Ryan budget did so not because it went too far, but because it didn’t go far enough.

The Civil Rights era reforms were based on the idea that this country ought to be about Ben Franklin’s “We must all hang together or most assuredly we will all hang separately.” Not about George Wallace’s “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Today the segregation isn’t racial alone, it is by class, income and access to education and health and, once again, to the vote. As the late Pete Seeger sang all those years ago: “Which side are you on?” Winner take all? Everyman for himself? Or We’re all in this together?

The dirty little secret is, the rich can buy elections and tilt the playing field in their favor. The poor and minorities and immigrant children and the disabled and the disenfranchised and poorly educated can be kept outside the gated communities, but they are still there and still Americans.

Like it or not, we really are all in this together. We can aim to be an equal rights, equal opportunity society or a haves-and-have-nots oligarchy, a banana republic. Which side are you on?

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