In a new Storia series, we detail how rising inequality will beget a death spiral for democracy in America.
Part III: Warnings, War Zones, and Walls
In 1977, following her tenure as mayor, Harrison was appointed as one of the first woman Environmental Protection Agency regional directors, in charge of the EPA's anti-pollution efforts in five southwestern states. She held this position until 1981, when she became chair of the Dallas Area Rapid Transit Authority Board (DART), as highlighted by the Jewish Women’s archive.
Harrison’s stories to the audience only backed up her reputation for being a smart, determined, and strong woman who doesn’t back down from a good fight. She recalled fights with the Carter administration regarding their oil pipeline plans and recalled her learning experiences from lobbying, advocating, and pitching to the public the idea of DART, the North Texas mass-transit-rail system.
She talked about how hard one needs to fight for the greater good when the field is tilted in favor of special interests. She recalled the many projects in which she needed agreement from both sides of the aisle. She even received glowing recommendations from GOP peers to stay on during the Ronald Reagan administration, but the newly elected President Reagan had quite a different strategy for the EPA.
When she was recalling the past, Harrison was quite charismatic and joyful. But when it came to talking about the present, she had a stern warning for us in the audience. Harrison expressed her fears that we as a society have become complacent. But even worse, we have become more self-absorbed and self-interested than ever. She warned that without active civil engagement by common citizens, special interests will write the rules for our future.
At 93, Harrison has never been as fearful as she is today for our democracy. She warned that the prevalent attitudes and the business-as-usual culture will lead us down a dark path of more inequality, segregation, and climate change. She worries that rising inequality is causing seismic cracks in our society’s foundation.
Harrison’s pride and spirit for the city of Dallas and state of Texas were on full display throughout her presentation. But near the end of her talk, it was clear that the city and state that she has done so much to help shape was morphing into an inherently unequal environment that was becoming unrecognizable to her. And for good reason.
From Detroit to Dallas, Inequality Is Destroying Our Democracy
Much like the town where I grew up, Dallas is a tale of two cities. I grew up several blocks away from the infamous 8 MileRoad in Detroit. You may have heard of this socioeconomic boundary because it was popularized by the movie with the same name (“8 Mile”), and featured the rapper Eminem.
According to the Urban Institute, I lived in the tenth most unequal area in the country. This wealth gap was measured by the difference between the top 10 percent of neighborhoods in a region and the bottom 10 percent. The actual difference between these two groups goes far beyond wealth. As noted by the National Journal, residents of the richer neighborhoods were more than 10 times likelier to have finished college than those in neighborhoods like mine.
The Economist recently published an article titled, “Boomtown, USA,” which revealed just how amazing the recent growth of Dallas-Fort Worth has been. No doubt, there has been an economic boom. It just hasn’t been evenly distributed. With all the media coverage on the tremendous expansion of many areas of Dallas, it is easy to neglect and forget areas where the majority is a struggling class.
Like Detroit (the old Boomtown, USA), Dallas is a city made up of affluent suburbs where cars are still the predominant, preferred mode of transportation. Imagine pitching DART, the mass-transit-rail system, to a city like Detroit. That is exactly the fight Harrison took on with Dallas.
Two summers ago, I used to drive from my neighborhood in east Dallas to downtown for work every day. There was no greater reminder of the city’ disparity than when I drove by a dead body one morning. The shooting occurred around 5 a.m. When I happened to drive by an hour later, the police were still covering the body. The homicide took place a few blocks south of I-30 on Grand Avenue. It became quite evident to me that I-30 essentially functions as the economic and racial segregation line of the Dallas, just as 8 Mile does for Detroit.
Detroit's 8 Mile is enveloped by the tenth most unequal area in the country. Do you happen to know where the greatest divide in our nation is?
Rising Income Inequality Sends Our Indigent into War Zones
Last year, I worked at a legal clinic in Dallas helping residents on its south side with expungement applications. Many sought expungement of records so they could obtain employment. But one encounter with a south Dallas resident hit me to the core. I still remember helping to onboard him to this day.
When I asked him why he was seeking an expungement of record, he matter-of-factly stated, “So I can move my son and I out of the war zone we live in. We hear bullet shots at night all the time and no apartments anywhere else will let me move-in with this felony on my record.”
His son, around seven months old, was sitting on his lap during our appointment. No doubt, he would soon be able to walk around on his own. I can only hope he won’t have to walk through war zones during his most formative years.
Our criminal justice system is beginning to look like just a criminal processing system. Not only are we disenfranchising a substantial portion of our population, we are sentencing those most at risk to premature death sentences.
Texas is a Microcosm of the Rising Inequality In Our Country
In his 2014 book titled, “Lone Star Nation: How Texas will transform America,” Richard Parker boasts: “This is not the Texas of George W. Bush or Rick Perry. Instead, this is a Texas that will remake the American experience in the twenty-first century—as California did in the twentieth—with surprising economic, political, and social consequences.”
However, just last month, Parker penned a column for The Dallas Morning News titled, “The Texas Economic Miracle is Over,” where he warns: “To sustain a robust economy, our young people will need skills and education. That’s the kind of investment smart people make when they can afford to do so. Texas did not make those investments during the boom years… and now, we’re flush and the cracks in the foundation are starting to show.”
More and more, we are becoming a nation of privilege and prisoners. And the cracks in our democracy are beginning to show. It was wonderful hearing Adlene Harrison, a trailblazer in the Dallas community, talk about the importance of civic engagement and the power of engaged individuals. But her warnings to the audience that our democracy is in danger hit me to the core. Our nation is becoming a sordid tale of two economies, where the other half are confined to war zones and sentenced to premature deaths.
'Tear Down This Wall'
Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never witnessed the insurmountable socioeconomic barriers that are being constructed between the social classes as we are encountering today.
With the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall approaching, I am reminded of what it took to break down this barrier. It required former President Reagan’s steely determination and his challenge to Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” thousands of miles away, across the ocean.
It will take the same kind of conviction to tear down the increasingly insurmountable, invisible but no less-apparent, walls within our own communities. We will need commitment from both sides of the aisle, as well as lobbying, advocating, and the voice of the public, to tear down these walls.
If we don’t fight to reduce the ever-increasing trend of inequality in our country, then who will? It is incumbent on us to challenge our current politicians.
As Goes Texas, So Goes America
Adlene Harrison and Richard Parker have been two of the biggest proponents for the Lonestar Nation, but now they are wary of the writing on the wall. Unfortunately, this disturbing trend of rising inequality isn’t confined to a single state like Texas.
Before it is too late, we must recognize that our great experiment, democracy in America, is in danger.
Across the nation, we would all do well to heed Harrison’s and Parker’s warnings of the cracks in our foundation.
Part II: ‘The $64,000 Question’
Part III: Warnings, War Zones, and Walls
Part IV: Big Government, Big Lies
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