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A fight for the middle class

1/3/2012, 9:44 a.m.
“With this new coalition, we can get it done.”

A fight for the middle class

This is the time of year when Americans resolve to correct their bad habits. They begin a process of curtailing binges on booze and desserts, and they commit to regular exercise sessions at the health club. But this enthusiasm for rehabilitation usually wanes by spring.

In the past, most of the attention has been directed toward personal and individual development. However, this year the focus should be on social change. Americans are involved in a political battle to determine the nature and character of the nation in coming years.

African Americans have not participated in such a sustained campaign since the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century. The objective was to make racial discrimination unlawful throughout the nation. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed such discrimination in employment, education and places of public accommodation. That battle was won.

Few blacks alive today have any personal memory of the civil rights era. Someone 7 years old when the Act was signed in 1964 would be 54 today. According to the Census, 82.3 percent of the total black population would be younger than that. And only 4.8 percent are now 65 or older and would have been at least teenagers back then.

In short, most African Americans are absolute novices at the massive organizing for social change that is necessary to enact the desired government policies. The objective now is not primarily to end racial discrimination but to end the destruction of the American middle class.

While there are numerous accounts of heroic efforts by blacks combatting prejudice, it is important to understand that the civil rights movement was a multiracial campaign. It had to be. That was the only way to maximize its political impact. A coalition of trade unions, religious groups, civil rights organizations, political parties and others united to develop an irresistible force.

Two events have emerged that create the possibility of a new coalition to confront the income disparity that is annihilating the middle class. Efforts to restrict or destroy trade unions have awakened a sleeping tiger. Also, the Occupy movement has incited young unemployed college graduates to protest for greater opportunities. Slow economic recovery from the recession has raised questions among those believing in the American Dream about whether hard work is really well rewarded.

The fundamental problem is that the median household income of the top 1 percent has increased by 240 percent since 1979 while average wages have been stagnant. The remaining 99 percent have experienced minimal income growth. The problem is further aggravated by the incessant insistence by conservatives that there should be tax cuts. They are willing to reduce funds available to finance entitlements by cutting the taxes of the well-to-do.

The economic crisis has been especially devastating to African Americans. Unemployment of blacks is twice the average rate. The net worth of black families has diminished because of the decline in real estate values. There is indeed every reason for African Americans to join the battle to assure that the world’s greatest economy benefits all its citizens.