What Century are We Living In?

© Josh Sager – October 2012

Common sense (and my computer calendar) tells me that we are currently living in the year 2012, yet, judging purely by recent politics, I would question whether we aren’t re-living the twentieth century. Huge swaths of public policy currently being debated in our state and federal legislatures are surrounding issues that have been transplanted directly from the political fights of the 20th century:

  • Women’s rights: Abortion policy, contraception availability and equal pay guarantees are all fights that persist from the mid-twentieth century.
  • Voting rights: Recent attempts to block the votes of minorities and poor people (ex. voter ID) parallel the attempt by early-twentieth century politicians to block the black vote (ex. poll tests).
  • Entitlements: Conservatives failed to stop the implementation of entitlement programs during the twentieth century “New Deal”, but are still fighting today to kill the programs (or fundamentally alter them to be less effective).
  • Racism: According to recent studies, hate group affiliation has skyrocketed, thus proving that racism is alive and well in the USA. In addition to cultural racism, institutional racism still exists, as demonstrated by the recent miscarriages of justice involving race (ex. the Trayvon Martin shooting response and the “Stop and Frisk” policy).
  • Economic Policy: The right wing ideals of deregulation and tax cuts represent a return to the pre-depression era economic policies; their recovery initiatives of austerity are also virtually identical to the policies that Hoover implemented to try to stop the Depression.

If we look back at the 20th century, we see that current fights correlate to many of the major sociopolitical fights of the previous century—fights most Americans believed to be settled.

The civil rights fights of the mid-twentieth century focused upon the rights of minorities and women to be full and equal members of society. While rhetorically these issues have been settled (bigotry is no longer politically acceptable and must be disguised), the policy realities have shown the fight for equal rights to be ongoing. Women and ethnic minorities are enduring attacks on their rights, similar to those that they experienced over the last century: Women still face the prospect of losing control over their reproduction, based upon the ideals of a politician, and lack strong guarantees that they will receive equal pay for equal work. African Americans and Hispanics still face impediments to voting, latent racism, and institutionalized bigotry from our law enforcement.

With the election of Barack Obama, to the office of president many would say that we live in a post-racial society and that racism is a thing of the past. Racism is far less open than it was during the past century, as there are no signs proclaiming “Whites Only”, but this does not mean that race is no longer an issue. Institutionalized racism is present in numerous sectors of the current government, including the important sectors of criminal justice and education. Mass incarceration of minorities under the aegis of the drug war has led to huge and disproportionate numbers of black Americans being imprisoned.

Public education is available to all, but the quality of education in predominantly ethnic minority areas is often poorly funded and staffed when compared to primarily Caucasian areas. According to a study by Duke University, many public school districts in the south are still segregating their schools along racial lines. This continuance of segregation is a concrete example of how we are still living in the twentieth century—segregation was declared unconstitutional by Brown V. Board of Education in 1954, yet we still face it in the USA’s educational system 58 years later.

While blatant racism and racially motivated violence have undeniably decreased since the mid-twentieth century, racial violence is still an issue in the USA. According to classifications by the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are now 1018 hate groups in the USA; up from only 602 at the turn of the last century. The killing of Trayvon Martin in February of 2012 illustrates the extreme case of racially motivated homicide, virtually sanctioned by law, that many believe a relic of the past. In the pre-civil rights south, African Americans were under the constant threat of violence and even murder, with little recourse under the law; the law either turned a blind eye to violence aimed at blacks or openly covered up the actions of the racists. Martin was killed in a racially motivated homicide and his shooter was let go with only a cursory questioning—let go without charges pending or bail and with the still-loaded murder weapon. While Zimmerman was arrested and has been charged due to the massive public outrage, this terrible situation is reminiscent of the 20th century lynching of young black men, simply for walking down the wrong street at the wrong time. With all of the supposed progress of the last century, you would think that this kind of travesty would be a terrible surprise, but unfortunately it is an all-too common occurrence in our society.

In addition to minority rights, women’s’ rights is an area where we are still living through past fights. One would think that the argument over equal pay for women would have been settled with the passing of the civil rights era Equal Pay Act of 1963, but this has not been the case. Gender based pay discrimination may not be politically or socially correct and it is certainly smaller than it was during the last century, but it is alive and well. According to a study by American Progress, the average woman makes far less than the average man, even when education and career choice have been accounted for. Currently, over an entire career, the average Male/Female wage gap for Americans with higher education degrees is around $713,000. Legislation, such as the Federal Lilly Ledbetter act of 2009 has been designed to correct this imbalance, but we have yet to see the results.

Despite the fact that the 1973 Roe V. Wade decision established the right of all American women to have access to safe and legal abortions, politicians have continued the fight to restrict abortion rights to this day. Over 1000 anti-abortion bills have been proposed in the legislatures of the Unites States during the last legislative session: these bills range in severity between forced ultrasound laws (Virginia HB462: “Virginia Ultrasound Bill of 2012”), intended to shame women into not getting abortions, and bills allowing doctors to let women die rather than performing an abortion (Federal HR358: “Protect Life Act”). Many recent anti-abortion bills are intended to limit the rights of women to the point where Roe V. Wade is essentially irrelevant; rather than attacking the right to abortion head on, these laws circumvent a direct challenge and rely upon restrictions on where, when and how the procedure can be performed.

One of the largest and hardest fought fights of the 20th century was the one over entitlements and the rights entitled to the average citizen; unfortunately, it looks like we will see another, equally hard fought, battle over these issues in the next few years. The “New Deal”, born out of the aftermath of the great depression is under attack—ironically, due to the aftermath of the great recession. The big three entitlement programs (Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security) created in the early 20th century are under attack due to budget shortfalls caused by a combination of tax cuts, war and the job loss of the recession. Many politicians (some Democrats and the entire Republican Party) are proposing cuts and even the complete elimination of entitlements, despite the strong and long term successes of these programs. The recent Ryan budgets (2011 and 2012) propose large benefit cuts to all three entitlements, as well as the transformation of Medicare into a voucher program. During the initial debates over the Medicare program in the 20th century, there was a debate over how to structure the entitlement that directly paralleled the current push to voucherize the program; this debate ended when Medicare was passed as a defined benefit program due to the fact that this structure is both more efficient and equitable than the alternative forms.

We may like to think that progress has been made during the past century: Racism is dead, the elderly are take care of, our rights are protected and women are no longer considered second class citizens. Unfortunately, while we have made progress, we are still fighting the same fights that have been simmering under the surface of society and politics that our grandparents fought. In order to successfully prosecute our case and further progress into the next century (hopefully to kill this issues once and for all), we must recognize the fight that we are involved in and use the past as an illustrator of what we are fighting against. We cannot let our country regress into the last century because we know exactly what that looks like and it isn’t a bright picture for many of our citizens.

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