A few days ago I had breakfast with a man who had been one of my mentors in college, who participated in the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s and has devoted much of the rest of his life in pursuit of equal opportunity for minorities, the poor, women, gays, immigrants — and also for average hard-working people who have been beaten down by the economy. Now in his mid-80s, he’s still active.
I asked him if he thought America would ever achieve true equality of opportunity.
“Not without a fight,” he said. “Those who have wealth and power and privilege don’t want equal opportunity. It’s too threatening to them. They’ll pretend equal opportunity already exists, and that anyone who doesn’t make it in America must be lazy or stupid or otherwise undeserving.”
“You’ve been fighting for social justice for over half a century. Are you discouraged?”
“Not at all!” he said. “Don’t confuse the difficulty of attaining a goal with the urgency of fighting for it.”
“But have we really made progress? Inequality is widening. The middle class and the poor are in many ways worse off than they were decades ago.”
“Yes, and they’re starting to understand that,” he said. “And beginning to see that the distinction between the middle class and poor is disappearing. Many who were in the middle have fallen into poverty; many more will do so.”
He smiled. “For decades, those at the top have tried to convince the middle class that their economic enemies are minorities and the poor. But that old divide-and-conquer strategy is starting to fail. And as it fails, it will be possible to create a political coalition of the poor and the middle class. It will be a powerful coalition! Remember, demographics are shifting. Soon America will be a majority of minorities. And women are gaining more and more economic power.”
“But the 400 richest Americans are now wealthier than the bottom 150 million Americans put together — and have more political influence than ever.”
“Just you wait,” he laughed. “I wish I had another fifty years in me.”
His mentor does not have another fifty years in him. I doubt that I have another fifty years in me. My students, however, do. The struggle will continue.