The latest issue of The New Yorker contains an article by David Remnick on Bill Clinton's career as an ex-president. On page 49 of this essay, Remnick reproduces part of a dialogue he overheard earlier this summer between Clinton and philanthropist billionaire Bill Gates in Cape Town, South Africa.
Clinton had just flown in from the World Cup Finals on an MD-87 jet ("complete with leather furniture and a stateroom") provided to him by a Vancouver-based mining financier named Frank Giustra. He was joining Gates in a Gates Foundation effort to reduce the scourge of AIDS in Africa.
"On the health side, we can expect unbelievable progress," Gates said of the next twenty-five years in Africa. "Given that time frame, we should expect a pretty incredible continent where a kid born here can expect the same opportunities as a kid from the United States can."
"Well, I hope that's right," Clinton said. (Remnick, "The Wanderer," New Yorker, September 18, 2006, p. 49)
I support all serious and substantive efforts to prevent and reduce AIDS in Africa and everywhere else.
Still, at the risk of seeming rude, I have a question for the former president and the World's Richest Man: "Same opportunities as” which "kids from the United States?"
* The mainly white silver-spoon ones who live who live in the top 1 percent that owns half the nation's wealth or ... the more than one million black kids who live at less than half the U.S. federal government's notoriously inadequate poverty level?
* The ones who can act up and out in every way imaginable and still count on being wealthy for the rest of their lives or ... the ones whose "mistakes" and technical transgressions will doom them to repeated incarcerations and the crippling lifetime mark of a criminal record?
* The ones who live in communities with widely available private and public resources -- bookstores, libraries, expensive athletic facilities, sit-down restaurants, full-service grocery stores and much more -- or the ones who live in hollowed-out ghettoes where currency exchanges and corner liquor/grocery stores outnumber banks, parks, doctors' and dentists' offices and where police cameras and parole agents are more prevalent than legitimate jobs?
* The ones who live (for example) in the northern Chicago suburb of Lake Forest, where median household income (2000 Census) is $136,142, where 60 percent of the adults work in the Census Bureau's most elevated employment classification ("management, the professions, or related occupations"), where less than 2 percent of the children live in poverty, and where public school children are funded at more than twenty thousand dollars per year or...
*... the ones (for a different sort of example) in the 90-pecent black southern Chicago suburb of Harvey, where median household income is less than $32,000, where 28 percent of the children are officially poor, where just a fifth of the adults are employed in the elevated job category and where children are priced at roughly seven thousand dollars per year (just more than ONE THIRD of the comparable per-student funding number in Lake Forest) under the state's privilege-preserving method of distributing scarce school dollars?
As Jonathan Kozol said of New York area school and living disparities in his 1999 book Ordinary Resurrections, "these are extraordinary inequalities within a metropolitan community that still lays claim to certain vestiges of the humanitarian ideals associated with the age of civil rights and the unforgotten dreams of Dr. Martin Luther King."
I could go on and on ... the empirical presentation of internal U.S. disparities is long and depressing, as one would expect in the industrialized world's most unequal and wealth-top-heavy state by far.
The examples I give above are just small parts of the vast mountain of heavily racialized social disparity that lives on and deepens beneath the sickening national-narcissist celebration of supposed American superiority that is so commonplace in U.S. discourse. Our ideologists congratulate the U.S. on shedding its racist and plutocratic pasts while black household net worth falls to 7 cents on the white net worth dollar, while the poverty rate goes up for five years in a row (something that has never happened in the history of the poverty rate) and as the top 20 percent of income earners now receives more than half of all national income for the first time since national income statistics have been tabulated.
As Frederick Douglass told white America in 1852, "your celebration is a sham." And as King said 115 years later, the "greatest purveyor of violence in the world" -- the U.S. -- was fighting a "war for so-called freedom" in Vietnam "when it does not even have its own house in order."
I am not some kind of a leftist isolationist or "America Firster." The United States has done an enormous amount of harm around the world and would have a moral obligation to meaningfully assist global humanity even if it had never caused injury outside its borders.
Still, the two Bills (Clinton and Gates) and other rich and powerful Americans who are eager to repair "broken societies" and correct "failed states" would do well to take a long and honest look in the imperial homeland mirror, where the elite's global and military obsessions both fuel and reflect the persistence of savage inequalities and perverted national priorities that mock the nation's professed democratic and egalitarian goals.
The Empire also kills at home. Its homeland benefits flow disproportionately to the privileged few but its homeland costs are generalized across society and fall with special burden on the most truly disadvantaged, who are expected to serve in the imperial armies and to silently suffer the most from the diversion of public dollars to something our policymakers like to call "defense." It is more honestly described by Pentagon insiders as "forward global force projection" -- a project that happens to boost the stock values and feed CEO coffers at such lovely public service entities as Boeing and Raytheon.
Paul Street is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004) and Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005). He will talk in greater detail about these and related matters in a talk titled "The Repair of Broken Societies Begins At Home," in Champaign, Illinois next Tuesday at 7 PM at the Community United Church of Christ. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
Other Recent Articles by Paul Street
Big-Box Veto and Urban Neoliberal Racism