Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Two Americas

On the Rich and the Rest of Us.

John Edwards famously declared during the 2008 presidential campaign that there are "two Americas"--one for the rich and one for everybody else.

While the former U.S. senator and Democratic presidential candidate's words now ring quite hollow in light of his own hedonistic, duplicitous behavior, his observations into America's ever widening economic stratification nonetheless remain true.

There are two Americas. One, occupied by an extremely wealthy minority, and the other made up of the poor, the unemployed, underemployed and members of what was once referred to as the "middle class." Or, as PBS news-host, Tavis Smiley and Professor Cornel West put it in the title of their 2012 book, there are the rich and the rest of us.

The last 30 years have seen a staggering rise in income inequality not seen since the Great Depression. Currently, the upper one percent of American society owns more wealth than the bottom 99 percent combined. This is a level of inequality unmatched among industrialized nations. As economist Joseph Stiglitz makes clear in his book The Price of Inequality (Norton, 2012), the consequences for such a wealth gap are indeed grave.

He writes:

[A]s our economic system is seen to fail for most citizens, and as our political system seems to be captured by moneyed interests, confidence in our democracy and in our market economy will erode along with our global influence. As the reality sinks in that we are no longer a country of opportunity and that even our long-vaunted rule of law and system of justice have been compromised, even our sense of national identity may be put in jeopardy (p. xii).
Yet the dystopian future Stiglitz forecasts may already be here. These two Americas come with two highly distinct sets of laws that seem to apply only to the poor. The rich are exempt.

Case in point, Ethan Couch, a 16-year-old accused of killing four people in a drunk driving accident in Texas, successfully escaped jail time by pleading a case of "affluenza." The teen, the defendants ludicrously argued, was brought up in a privileged home where he was never held accountable for his actions and therefore gained a sense of entitlement. As a result, the defense argued and the judge agreed, he should not receive the typical 20-year prison sentence for his crime.

"Affluenza," it should be noted, is not even an actual psychological condition. Indeed, this story seems more like something out of The Onion than an actual news report.

American law, as it is currently practiced, only truly applies to the poor. The rich, the elite and the powerful can break the law at will and get away with it. This is exactly what happened when Wall Street trashed the global economy through reckless, illegal gambling, and was then promptly rescued with a taxpayer-funded government bailout. To date not a single banker has gone to prison.

"The rich are different from you and me," F. Scott Fitzgerald allegedly wrote in a letter to Ernest Hemingway. "Yes," Hemingway is said to have replied, "they have more money."

Fitzgerald's classic novel, The Great Gatsby, masterfully illustrates how the wealthy elite cruelly and callously manipulate others for their own personal aims. Gatsby, in his singular quest for fame, wealth, power and, ultimately, love, erases his very identity. Gatsby, Fitzgerald writes, "invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen year old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end."

As psychologist Dr. Suniya Luthar notes in the aforementioned Affluenza story, "We are setting a double-standard for the rich and poor. ...[F]amilies that have money, you can drink and drive."

Luthar continues:

What is the likelihood if this [Couch] was an African American, inner-city kid that grew up in a violent neighborhood to a single mother who is addicted to crack and he was caught two or three times... what is the likelihood that the judge would excuse his behavior and let him off because of how he was raised?
She raises an excellent point. Perhaps no other group in America has experienced, firsthand, the blatant hypocrisy and cruel double-standard in our laws than the African American community. Black Americans--particularly young black males--are disproportionately imprisoned at an unprecedented rate. According to statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Justice, black men make up 40.2 percent of all prison inmates. One in every three black men will spend time in prison in their lifetime, along with one in every six Latino males. The vast majority of those imprisoned are serving time for nonviolent offenses, such as drug possession.

Law professor Michelle Alexander attributes this discriminatory practice to the "War on Drugs." In her revealing book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2010), Alexander argues the War on Drugs has far more to do with imprisoning and disenfranchising African Americans from mainstream society than with apprehending any actual drug-lords. Like the racist Jim Crow laws of the 19th century that prevented blacks from voting, she contends, the criminal justice system serves to create and maintain a "permanent under-caste."

Nationally, the unemployment rate for African Americans remains double that of whites. Yet, highly successful figures like Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama are consistently held up as proof that, today, blacks too can "make it if they try."

The left's inability (or is it unwillingness...?) to talk frankly and directly about class and class struggle has left it divided and impotent. This is why I long ago severed myself from the liberal class. I am not interested in dabbling in identity politics or tweaking the capitalist system so more people can join the ranks of the rich. I want a real democratic revolution.

Until such a revolution occurs, may I suggest a slight amendment to the Pledge of Allegiance? Given the vast discrepancies in the enforcement of the law with regard to rich and poor, it is no longer accurate to maintain America provides "....liberty and justice for all."

We should, therefore, change one word so it reads, "....with liberty and justice for some."

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Error: In the original posting of this piece, 16-year-old Ethan Couch was incorrectly identified as "Andrew Couch." The name has been corrected. Guerrilla Press is dedicated to accuracy and regrets the error.


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