Angela Glover Blackwell has spent her adult life advocating practical ways to fulfill America’s promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for all. Now, with our middle class struggling, poverty rising, and inequality growing, the founder and chief executive officer of PolicyLink, an influential research center, finds reasons for hope in the face of these hard realities.
On this week’s Moyers & Company, Bill Moyers and Blackwell discuss what fuels her optimism.
“I’m not discouraged, and I wouldn’t even dream of giving up, because we’re at a moment right now where I think we have more possibility than I’ve seen in my adult lifetime,” Blackwell tells Moyers. “Part of what I’ve been feeling is that all the issues are finally on the table… So many people who are being left behind are now in places where they have voice, and influence, and they’re forcing their way into the conversation.”
“America doesn’t want to talk about race,” Blackwell states, but says the future “is a five-year-old Latina girl. It is a seven-year-old black boy. What happens to them will determine what America looks like.”
“And so this country, as a democracy, really cannot expect to continue to be proud on the world stage, competitive in the global economy, or having a democracy it can put forward as working in a multi-racial society if we don’t invest in the people who are the future.”
BILL MOYERS: Welcome. Whenever I despair of solutions, of a way out of the mine of corruption and dysfunction that characterizes so much of government and politics, I turn to certain individuals whom I know simply don’t or won’t give up.
Just such a person is my guest on this broadcast. Angela Glover Blackwell sees the world as it is, and still believes we can change it for the better. She has put her formidable intellect, experience, and passion to no less a mission than challenging America to fulfill the promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for all. And I do mean all.
Blackwell attended Howard University in Washington, DC, got her law degree at the University of California at Berkeley, came of age at the height of the civil rights struggle and the black power movement, and then for ten years was partner at a public interest law firm called Public Advocates. She founded the Oakland Urban Strategies Council and worked to figure out new ways to bring Oakland’s inner city back to life.
After serving as vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation, she became the founder and chief executive officer of PolicyLink. That’s an organization that embodies her abiding belief that government and public policy can still make a difference by increasing opportunity for all, including those for whom the American dream has been, as the poet Langston Hughes wrote, “a dream deferred.”
Angela Glover Blackwell, welcome.
ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: No one I know over these years has worked harder, or thought harder about how to rekindle, restore, the American Dream. And yet, here we are, middle class struggling, poverty increasing, the gap between the rich and the poor greater than it’s been in your and my lifetime. What keeps you from getting discouraged, and giving up?
ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: I’m not discouraged, and I wouldn’t even dream of giving up, because we’re at a moment right now where I think we have more possibility than I’ve seen in my adult lifetime. Part of what I’ve been feeling is that all the issues are finally on the table. Look at how long it’s taken us to have a national conversation about inequality.
And I’m not necessarily hopeful it’ll go on for a long time. But we’re having that conversation, now. So many people who are being left behind are now in places where they have voice, and influence, and they’re forcing their way into the conversation.
And I believe that the changing demographics of the nation, this reality that before the middle of this century the majority of people in this nation will be people of color, Native American, Latino, Asian, African American. That is going to cause us to have to ask some tough questions about what we’re doing leaving people behind.
BILL MOYERS: But you know, people do say that the election of our first African American president, is a sign of the progress we’ve made. But the people you say have been left behind don’t necessarily feel that their needs are being addressed.
ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: It is a source of concern that many people in this nation feel that because we have a black President, that the problems of race and opening up opportunity have been addressed. They have not.
I will tell you this. I didn’t expect that when Barack Obama got to be President of the United States, that he was going to be “the leader” who was going to lead from a place of race. That he was going to lead from being a black person, and bringing forward all that black people have been struggling with all this time. But there are some things that I celebrate, that often get overlooked.
BILL MOYERS: Such as?
ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: We live in a nation in which where you live is a proxy for opportunity. Where you live, determines whether or not you get to go to a good school, whether or not you live in a safe area, whether or not you live near a job. And this is the first presidency I have seen in my lifetime that has taken seriously, this notion of how the places where people live can hold them back.
So that we have programs, that actually say let’s stop just putting affordable housing in communities that are the poor communities in a city. Right next to a poor school, where there’s no grocery store, where the streets aren’t safe.
Let’s create neighborhoods of choice, for low-income people, putting housing near good schools, near grocery stores, near public transportation. And working with other sectors to make sure that this is a community that supports people. I also have been impressed to see that the health reform approach has included a focus on how to reform health with good things, and some disappointments in the health reform work. But also a focus on prevention.
And a focus on dealing with childhood obesity, and those kind of serious problems. And so as I look, I see the main flaw with not having focused enough on the communities that are hit first, and worst. That were hit first and worst by this recession. So if I could redo things, I would figure out a way to have policies and strategies be bigger, when they’re really smart ones, like the ones I’ve described, and ones that are focused on jobs, and unemployment really target the communities that were hit first and worst. And very often those are black and Latino communities.
BILL MOYERS Why do you focus so much on the infrastructure of transportation?
ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: In low-income communities, transportation, particularly public transportation is a lifeline. We have lots of communities in which the availability of a car is actually unheard of. There are many communities in which most people in the community don’t have a car. Twenty-five percent of people in the African American/Latino community are without cars.
And with— this is at a time when so many of the jobs are not in their communities. They’re in the suburban community. And so if people don’t have public transportation, they cannot connect to work. You may have an employer who’s an equal opportunity employer, who would be happy to hire somebody ready for the job, from an inner-city community.
But if they can’t get there, the two will never meet. We also have, in this country, many families that are struggling to provide healthy diets, when there’s no place in the community to buy fresh fruits, and vegetables. Only eight percent of African Americans live in a census tract, with a grocery store. Twenty-three—
BILL MOYERS: Say that again.
ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: Only eight percent of African Americans live in a census tract with a grocery store. Twenty-three million Americans do not live within a mile of a place to get fresh fruits and vegetables. And this means that in many communities it is impossible to be able to follow the orders of a doctor, that says eat a diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables, when they’re not there.
This means that having transportation, public transportation, is important, even to be able to access fresh fruits and vegetables in your area. Not to mention that we need to get more grocery stores in underserved communities. But I can come back to that. But let me say another word about transportation. I have a personal experience.
It just showed me what it means when it’s not adequate. Right after I got married, my husband and I moved to Los Angeles. And I had been very active in New York, around the black power movement. And so when I moved to Los Angeles, I thought, oh, I’ll get a job in something that’s serving the community.
So I just went to a phonebook, and looked for things that were black, or African, or “National,” some of the words I thought might help. I found something. And it was in Watts, I wasn’t living in Watts. Called up, got a job interview.
BILL MOYERS: Watts was the all-black area of Los Angeles.
ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: Watts was a all-black area of Los Angeles. And I was living many miles from there, but in Los Angeles. My husband had the one car, he had taken it to work. So I called the bus station, and I figured out transit, and figured out how to take a bus. They gave me five busses that I would have to take.
I gave myself an hour and a half, thinking it was way too much time. I was going to take the bus, and get there. I got on the bus, four busses later, two-and-a-half hours after the time of the interview, I had to cross the street, and get on one more bus, tear rolled down my cheek. And I just got back on the bus and went home.
But I never forgot that. Because actually I wanted a job, but my husband had one. I didn’t have to have a job. If I had needed that job, if I’d had a baby I had to support, I’d have been on those five busses every morning. A good bus system, a good transportation system is a lifeline for communities, more so today than ever before. So we feel that you have to invest in public transportation, because too many people are being left behind because they’re in communities that don’t have the investments in transit that are needed.
BILL MOYERS: I think you point out that affluent Americans, who live in upscale zip codes, tend to live 15 percent longer than poor people. Right?
ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: It’s absolutely true. It’s absolutely true.
It’s not right. It shouldn’t be. And we know the ways to fix it. Some of the reasons have to do with the absence of fresh fruits, and vegetables in communities. No place safe to get out and engage in exercise.
Too many children. Their asthma’s being exacerbated by the fact that they live near freeways, and bus depots. We actually understand that the things that we do in the communities can make a tremendous difference. And we should make those changes because if we don’t, the healthcare system is going to continue to be too expensive.
BILL MOYERS: So your big theme these days is equity. Explain what you mean by that.
ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: Well, during the Civil Rights movement, when we were really trying to break down the legal racial barriers, it was a movement for full inclusion, and participation. But the immediate strategies and tactics were really around integration. To be able to stop the legal segregation, so that we could have integration.
And in many ways we got that. We were able to get the Civil Rights laws passed that got rid of housing discrimination, jobs discrimination, and discrimination in public accommodations, those kinds of things. And that opened up the possibility of people who but for race, and racial discrimination, would have been able to access. So it allowed people who had education to now begin to gets jobs. People who had money to now be able to buy houses in different places. But there’s so many things that did not get addressed that were holding people back. I’ll go back to the transportation example.
You may have an equal-opportunity employer. But if our investment in transportation doesn’t get you a bus route to that job, it’s not a real chance. That we may say that yeah, you can go to any college in the nation. But if you happen to be black, or Latino, and you grow up in an inner-city community, the schools that you have gone to aren’t going to really prepare you to be able to go to those colleges, not in huge numbers. That’s not really a chance. Equity tries to move beyond just saying we’ve achieved equal opportunity, and ask what do we want people to achieve.
Reach their full potential. And then back into what that will take. So that equity says if you want people to be able to go to any school they want to, to be able to do well, and to move forward, we have to make sure that we are really investing in the educational system. We’re not just asking whether all the schools are open, the same amount of time during the year.
Whether they have the same books, whether they’re using the same curriculum. We want to know what do poor children need in this country so that they can reach their full potential. They need to start school, ready to learn. And they need to have access to early childhood programs. They need to have a rigorous curriculum, that goes on year-round, not just nine months during the year. They need to make sure that their communities are providing the support that middle-class families provide for their children. Enrichment programs. Safe places to play. Equity asks what do you need to reach your full potential, and how do we make sure that that is fairly available.
BILL MOYERS And you run right into what you call the most uncomfortable subject in America: race.
ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: That’s right. America does not want to talk about race. They don’t want to talk about it, they don’t want to change the status quo, they don’t want to do anything about it. And it’s going to hurt the nation if we don’t get over it. We have spent way too much time avoiding a topic that must be addressed. And now we’re at a point where we can’t ignore it anymore.
In this nation, right now, nearly half of children under 18 are children of color. By the need of this decade half will be, and by 2030 the majority of the young workforce will be of color. If we don’t make sure that the children who are moving along as a cohort into the future of this country are prepared to lead, and contribute, the future of the country is not bright.
We can look at two things side by side. What’s troubling this nation right now? We really need to figure out how to be competitive in the global economy. We really need to figure out how to have a strong, and stable middle class. We need to have people who are contributing, who are innovating, who are ready, who are educated, who can lead in every way.
The cohort coming along that will be the future is of color. America can see its future. And it’s a five-year-old Latina girl. It is a seven-year-old black boy. What happens to them will determine what America looks like. And many of the young people who are already 18, 19, 20 are going to be the workers of the near future.
And so this country, as a democracy, really cannot expect to continue to be proud on the world stage, competitive in the global economy, or having a democracy that it can put forward as working in a multi-racial society, if we don’t invest in the people who are the future.
And so I’m all for the moral argument. I’ve asked, I’ve begged, I’ve prodded on the moral issue. And I will continue to do that. But it has become an economic imperative. What we do about human development, will determine whether or not this nation has a growth pattern in front of it.
BILL MOYERS: But there are still large communities, large segments of our population left behind because of race, and ethnicity. And you’re asking us to address the needs of those constituencies, at the same time many people are saying that we’ve moved into post-racial politics. In other words, the only way to get things done is to make sure that we don’t serve primary communities that are in need, because that will enable the politicians to govern by divide and conquer.
ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: We are not post-racial. We’re not even close. Because race still controls everything in America. That when you think about part of what’s causing so many people to be left behind, and in trouble, it’s because they live in communities that don’t support them. And those communities don’t support them because of race.
We have black people, and Latino people living in inner-city, abandoned communities, because people moved away. So you have places like Detroit, were almost abandoned in terms of the people who were moving, and fleeing away from Detroit.
So race completely controls our settlement patterns, as a nation. Education. It used to be that education was the pride of the United States. And it was certainly the pride of many states, like California. I was recently talking to someone who was a leader of a state. And we were talking about poverty. And as he listed the safety net programs, for the poor, he mentioned public schools. It really caught me. I said, “Public schools, that’s become a safety net program?” I thought public schools were for everybody. But as they have become associated with people who were poor, and of color. We are abandoning the public school education. That is about race.
And we have taken men, who are important for community, and we’ve created basically a legacy of absence in communities, by pulling the men out, and putting them in prison, in numbers that are unprecedented. Our incarceration rate in this country is the largest in the entire world. And the disproportionate incarceration of black men, in particular, but a growing number of Latino men, absolutely makes the point that race is a driver, there.
Race has become so embedded, and baked in, that people can walk around feeling that they’re not carrying racism in their heart. But so long as they’re okay with disproportionate incarceration, communities being left behind, children given no chance, this continues to be a society that is plagued by the legacy of the continuing impact of racism, right into today.
BILL MOYERS: How does race play out in your life?
ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: I really was a fortunate child.
I grew up in the 1950s, and ’60s, in a segregated St. Louis, Missouri. Completely segregated. And I know the racism there was tough. But I didn’t experience it, because I was surrounded by caring adults who devoted their lives to keeping us from the sting, and burn of racism.
And my parents were educated, and middle class. And they did everything they could to not just protect us, but to expose us. So that they took us to the museum, and all of those things. But they would sit around the outside, making sure that those of us who were there as children didn’t know what people were saying, or what they might do, if they were coming in contact with us.
And having gone to Howard University, where I had a wonderful, supportive, education. By the time I went to law school, at the University of California at Berkeley, I was so fortified, and confident that if people had been treating me badly because of race, it was hard to penetrate my sense of confidence that I had from my own growing up. But yes. I have experienced racism.
But I throw it off. I will tell you, I throw it off. Because I’m on a mission. And it’s not a mission to make sure that I get respect. It’s a mission to make sure that people who deserve respect get it. And so very often when somebody’s mistreating me, I can see that it’s because of race. But I’m moving on. I got other things to do, and it’s really your problem. And it’s your loss.
What I want to highlight, though, is that I could distinguish my experience from what was happening to others. When I talk about this wonderful growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, it may have been a large social group that I was a part of. But it was a drop in the bucket, in terms of black children, in St. Louis. The majority of black children in St. Louis were poor, and didn’t have this web of protection. And they were hit with the full force of racism.
Graduated from high school, a class of 200. Only 20 of us went to college. And only a couple of us went to college outside of St. Louis. I know what happened to the rest. I remember a young man who was in my class, who I liked, probably had a little crush on.
But I would have never had him come home, ’cause he couldn’t have passed inspection in my family. They were very strict about who I could go out with. I remember thinking that he was one of the smartest, brightest leaders in that entire school. Our first summer after graduating from high school he ended up in prison, where he went for the rest of his life.
So I know that it wasn’t just being bright, that allowed me to achieve things. Many things. He was smarter than I was, he understood the world better than I did. But the world conspired to limit his opportunities. And he ended up in jail.
BILL MOYERS: Who was your father? What did he do? And your mother?
ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: My father was an educator, and my mother was an educator, as well. Most of my growing up, though, my mother stayed at home. They met at a private school in North Carolina. She was teaching English, I think he was teaching math. And they ended up getting married. They came from families, though, that really taught them to expect the best of themselves, and everybody else.
And they both came from families that taught them the power, and importance of struggle. And so I grew up in a family that was educated, that valued education, but also understood that those of us within the black community who were managing to do well, had an obligation to the rest of the community. And being a part of the NAACP, and being an activist in the community, and caring about what was going on, was very important in my household.
BILL MOYERS: Let let me go at this question of education. I read one of your studies. One of them talks about the need for education in the future. And I think you say that by the end of this decade, at least 45 to 46 percent of our jobs in America will depend upon at least some college education. Probably an associate degree. And yet we seem to be running into increasing hostility toward education, today. You may have seen or heard that Mitt Romney put down a student who said he was concerned about being able to afford college. And Mitt Romney said, in effect, “Good luck, but don’t count on the government to help you.” Let me play you that video.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi, um…
MITT ROMNEY: Hi.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I’m a senior in high school right now. I’m going to be going to college next year, and it’s not very cheap. So I was just curious, if elected, what you would do with regards to college tuition, whether making it easier for me and my classmates, or you know, with regards to that.
MITT ROMNEY: I know that it would be popular for me to stand up and say I’m going to give you government money to make sure to pay for your college, but I’m not going to promise that. What I’m going to tell you is shop around, get a good price […] find a great institution of higher learning. Find one that has the right price. Shop around. In America— this idea of competition, it works. And don’t just go to one that has the highest price. Go to one that has a little lower price where you can get a good education. And hopefully you’ll find that. And don’t take on too much debt. And don’t expect the government to forgive the debt that you take on. Recognize you’re going to have to pay it back. And I want to make sure that every kid in this country that wants to go to college gets the chance to go to college. If you can’t afford it, scholarships are available. Shop around for loans, make sure you got to a place that’s reasonably priced, and if you can, think about serving your country because that’s a way to get all that education for free. Thank you.
ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: It is shocking to me that someone running for President of the United States, would suggest that there is no obligation on the part of the government to help people get the education that this country needs for people to have in order to be able to help the country to thrive.
You cited the data, 45 percent of jobs in the— just by 2018, will require at least an associate’s degree. Only 27 percent of African Americans have it, only 26 percent of Latinos. We’ve got a real problem, when those are the people who are going to need to have those jobs. And we’re at a place in which we really need to be making sure that we are aligning the affordability of the education that the country needs people to have for the future, with their ability to access it.
I went to law school at Berkeley, and I paid about $1,000, maybe a little less, a year. I think it was about $900. That same education, law school at Berkeley, is over $40,000, now. It would have been impossible for me to access it. We have allowed educational costs to just get out of hand.
We need to figure out a way to make education more affordable. And while we’re doing that, we need to help people access education, and we need to really emphasize for young people how important it is that they do well in school, that they get the skills that they need, in order to be able to support their families in ways that are really decent. And furthermore, community colleges need to be lifted up as a real bridge that allows people who are entering, often the first in their family to go to college, to be able to afford it, and get the skills that they need.
BILL MOYERS: But you heard the applause, when Mitt Romney talked about how you don’t depend on the government to help you. And Rick Santorum was applauded when he called Obama a snob for promoting college. Because, said Santorum, college are – colleges are “indoctrination mills.” Newt Gingrich said that colleges are promoting a “bizarre and destructive vision of reality”. So you’ve got this antipathy, hostility, toward education as an avenue for which you’re asking all of us to help others travel on.
ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: At this moment we really are two, or three Americas. And one of the Americas is really scared, really frightened, really feeling that everything they thought that they could depend on is disappearing. People who have that fear can go a couple of ways.
They can get involved, and they can think about how to change things, so that the decisions that are being made don’t keep taking us down this road of insecurity. Or they can just circle the wagons, decide that anything they don’t have, they don’t need.
That anything that people are trying to get, that will help them to do better in life is going to be a threat to what they, and they and their children might have. And so part of what’s happening is we have a good number of people in this country who are just scared, and they’re shutting down. And they’re closing off opportunities.
In many ways they are prepared to be a pull-up-the-ladder nation. “I got mine, and I’m pulling up the ladder so you can’t get yours, because I think I have to keep you out, so I can stay in”. That group is really going down, in terms of their connection to what the future is really going to be like.
In, and by that I mean they are nostalgic for a time that never was. And avoiding a future that is inevitable. Then you have another America that sees the future. They know that the future depends on education. They know it depends on being able to make sure that those who are being left behind are educated, and brought forward. That understand that they can’t get the policies and strategies in place that they need, unless they begin to tell a story that allows other people to see themselves.
And that’s what I’m trying to be part of. Trying to help create a narrative that both draws together the people who understand that they need investment to go forward, and allows other people to see how they, too, could benefit from buying into that story.
BILL MOYERS: Well, I think you’re getting close to something very important here, because what – the moment I decided I had to have you on the show, it was back in January. And The New York Times ran a story about how upward mobility in America, the old story of starting at the bottom of the ladder, and going to the top of the ladder, is really in trouble.
You then followed that story with a letter to the Editor of The New York Times, in which you wrote, “The Horatio Alger ideal that someone born poor can, through hard work, become rich … [is] for the most part … a pipe dream.” What do you think has gone wrong?
ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: A lot of things have gone wrong. One of the things is that we really don’t have an economy that allows for that kind of upward mobility, anymore. That we went through a period that led us into the Great Recession. That was really fueled by a housing bubble, supported by credit. And de-regulated the financial industry. And so we went through a long period in which we weren’t producing anymore.
We weren’t creating jobs. We were just creating wealth. And we were creating wealth by laying people off, by exporting jobs, by changing the way that we reported on things. And we weren’t investing in the nation, in the workforce, in a way that allowed for a continuous flow of jobs and opportunity. And that’s really brought a halt to the upward mobility that had been so completely important.
BILL MOYERS: And the shared prosperity that was at least the ideal when you and I were younger.
ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: That’s right. Shared prosperity just went out the window. The economy stopped working for the majority of people. But it wasn’t an accident. It came about through conscious decision-making on the part of people who were wealthy, and could control the decision-making, and the policy making. And they had a wonderful ride. And they’re still having it. And too many Americans are being left behind, and for the first time we’re a nation in which the children are not expected to do as well as well as their parents. And sadly aren’t even expected to live as long, because the impact on health, and wellbeing is pretty sharp, as well.
BILL MOYERS: And the reason I think you’re onto something is because many, many particularly working white people, young white men, feel that they— the rungs disappeared. They’re not even on the first rung. They can’t get on it. And isn’t there some potential for moving beyond race, in discussing the American Dream?
ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: I think so. I think that’s exactly the potential. And that’s exactly what I hope people will catch, at this moment. And I hope those people who are white, and struggling, and fearful, will see that there is solidarity to be made with others who are in the same circumstance. They just aren’t white. So that people who are white, and being left behind, people who are Latino, black, all of the American people who are being left behind, need to join together, and ask what do we need to do differently, and how can we work together to get that in place?
Because if we don’t, the future isn’t bright. And part of what we need to do, which is why I keep coming back to race, is that we need to understand that people of color in this country, if we paid attention to what was happening to people of color in this country, we could avoid a lot of what we end up in that’s bad, and negative.
BILL MOYERS: How so? How so?
ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: Well, black and Latino people had double-digit unemployment before the United States of America discovered double-digit unemployment. And black and Latino families were losing their houses in record numbers, long before we ended up in the foreclosure crisis that hit the front pages of the newspaper. If we cared about them, if we felt connected to them as a nation, we would have started asking questions, and trying to fix this early on.
But we didn’t have that connection. And so we need to keep race in mind, because we live in a nation in which what happens to people of color is often the canary in the coal mine of the nation.
BILL MOYERS: One of your papers says that by nine— by 2042 the majority of people in this country will be of color.
ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: Yes. By 2042 the majority of the population will be of color. And already we’re in a situation in California where 73 percent of those under 18 are of color. Already, in California.
BILL MOYERS: How’s that playing out?
ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: It’s not playing out very well. And it’s a case study in what not to do. That California, just to go back, to after World War II, California was a place that did not look like it was going to have a very bright future. Half of the population was from someplace else. People had drifted into California. A quarter of the population lived below the poverty level. And half of the population did not have a high school diploma.
California looked at this group of white people who were poor, and uneducated, and said, “We’re going to invest in this population, and really bring this state up, to really leading the nation.” And they did that. By 1960 California had a 25 percent advantage in employment, and education over the rest of the country. Newsweek had ’em on the cover.
“No. 1 State: Booming, Beautiful, California”. That is a case study in equity. Because what California did is it said, “Where do we need for people to go,” and then, “How do we back into what they need?” Developing the best educational system, the best work environment. The best health system. Really saying, “We’re going to take what we have and build what we need.”
Now California as a place where the majority of the children are of color, has stepped back on everything. They’re near the bottom, in terms of education. They’re near the bottom in terms of high unemployment rates. They really are not doing well at all, because they’re not doing what they did after World War II. And part of the reason is because the decision-makers, and the people who have wealth, and influence, don’t feel connected to the people who make up the population.
Our racial divide has become a generational divide. That the divide in this country that causes people not to feel connected to the other – the white homeowners, the white politicians, don’t feel a connection to the children who are Latino, and African American, and Asian.
That divide, that lack of connection now has a whole generation of young people without a robust public school system. Without a robust public transportation system. Without communities all over the state that are healthy communities, giving people the ability to be able to start a family wherever they might want to.
Our lack of connection, that I call our racial divide, now has a whole generation of young people, including young white people, not finding the investment coming from their government, and from their private sector, that puts them in a position to be able to have the life that they saw their grandparents, and their parents have.
BILL MOYERS: Are you placing your hope in the possibility of redemption for folks who see the other, and see an alien, and a stranger? Or are you placing your hope in the fact that as the country reflects politically, the growing numbers of people of color in this country, people of color will out-vote everyone else?
ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: I am placing my hope in the self-interest of the people, and the nation, to make the investments that are essential for the country to be strong. I actually believe this one thing, that people say across all party lines. That people do love their country. And I think that if people love their country they have an opportunity to help their country continue to be strong, by investing in the people who are going to be the future. I’m also placing my hope in the political impact of changing the nature of the voting public.
That people who are of color become a majority. They begin to vote more, they become engaged more. They will see their interests. I’m placing my hope in communities of color, and progressive white communities, and people who have the ability to be able to think about the future. And act on the future. Seeing themselves as a huge movement to transform the nation.
BILL MOYERS: You make such a persuasive case, based upon an affirmative reading of human nature, and American democracy. But we both know we’re up against the realistic politics that is based on divide and conquer.
Wouldn’t you say that politics of discord rules today, and undermines that hope you have for a more affirmative future, and a more affirmative democracy?
ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: When I was a girl the politics of discord seemed to rule then, too. I remember, as a girl, having no expectation that the barriers that were set up for black people would ever be removed. I remember envisioning my future as one like the one that I grew up in. I thought that I would be forced to create an enclave in a black community that would protect my children from racism.
I remember going to college. I went to Howard University, and one time my friends and I wanted to go ice skating. And one of my friends was so light in complexion, that if you looked at her you couldn’t tell that she wasn’t white. So we went to the ice skating rink, and we sent her in, to see if we could ice skate.
She said, “No.” We went to the movies. We accepted that, as a part of life. And it changed. It changed, because some people said no, and they worked on it for a long time. And a lot of people who were not black, joined them, and worked on it, too.
And the public media, really got involved in showing America its worst self, and showing leaders who were trying to take it someplace else. I am not naïve. But I believe in struggle. I believe in becoming enlightened. I believe in coalition building. And I also believe in the power of logic.
The middle class is in jeopardy. And we know it is. And we need it, for democracy to thrive. When you look at the changing demographics, you look at the vulnerable middle class. It is clear that we need a strategy going forward, that invests in people, so they continue to be that middle class.
We have a context that makes the narrative that I’m putting forward one that some people are going to want to listen to. The more people listen to it, the more people coalesce around it, the more we have policies and strategies that don’t exclude, but include. Because white people are being left behind too. And I’m talking about them, when I talk about people who are being left behind.
BILL MOYERS: I urge you to read the new book by one of our greatest journalists about these issues Thomas Edsall, formerly of The Washington Post, now at Columbia School of Journalism. His book, The Age of Austerity, discusses how, reveals, shows how we’re going to be squabbling over shrinking resources in this time of rising debts, and polarized politics. How are we going to pay for all that you’re talking about, in a time of austerity?
ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: We are not a poor country, and we need to stop acting like one. We just are not a poor country. We have done this to ourselves. We are nickel-and-diming ourselves. We have money in this country. We’re still the wealthiest nation on the face of the earth. We have so many wealthy people.
But our tax system is not tapping our wealth. And so we need to stop acting like there’s no wealth to tap. We’re a wealthy country. And so your question is not how in a time of necessary austerity do we do what we need to do, but how in a time of stinginess do we develop the public will to use our resources, to tap our resources, to do what must be done. Part of what we have to do is we have to change a narrative about our future.
When you think about what the world needs, in a global economy, it is an asset to be multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and multi-cultural. To be connected to the places around the globe. In any nation, in a world in which the industrialized nations are aging, to have so many young people in your country.
That is an asset. And that asset of global connectedness, and youth, it’s coming from the people who are going to be the future. We need to embrace that, and understand that if we invest in it, our future is strong, for all.
BILL MOYERS: But let’s be very specific. You are asking people with money to pay more taxes, to help those who don’t have money. And that’s not, remember when Walter Mondale, in the debates, in 1984, said, “I will raise taxes,” he lost overwhelmingly. And you’re asking people with money to pay for a future they won’t inhabit, and for people now who don’t have money.
ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: Asking them to pay more, yes, in taxes, and they have more. Part of what we’ve seen as a result of this focus on inequality, is how much more the wealthy do, in fact, have.
So yes, we’re asking people that have more to pay more. But they have more, and they can. We’re also asking that we have a fairer tax system, that actually taxes people in ways that are proportionate to what it is that they are making. The gifts that they have received. The fortunes that they have been able to build.
Because they have been in this nation. It’s been built on the backs, and with the labor, and with the consent of a government, and people who have allowed this economic system to go forward. I don’t think that I’m asking anything unreasonable. And if we can get over this sense of disconnectedness, then people will see it as they had seen it in the past. California, back in the time that I described, it was under Republican Governor Earl Warren, and Democratic Governor Pat Brown, that California sacrificed, paid taxes, and built a state that everybody was so proud of. People can do it again.
BILL MOYERS: How does Occupy Wall Street, the whole Occupy movement, fit into all of this?
ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: I have been so thankful for the Occupy Wall Street movement. Because it put inequality on the front pages of the newspapers, on the nightly news. And allowed people, in their private homes, to start talking about something that had not been a topic of conversation. So the Occupy Movement has done one job, already.
They brought the issue of inequality front-and-center. The next thing that it has been able to do is to encourage people to be visible. To get organized. PolicyLink had a summit in Detroit.
The people who were there, mostly activists, and leaders in their local communities, were very anxious to figure out how to talk about what we had been talking about all along, in the context of the 99%. Very happy to take the issues that very often are issues that low-income people of color care about, and connect them to a national concern about growing inequality.
So the movement has helped to jump start a conversation, and I hope that those of us who have been working on things all along, will keep fanning this conversation about inequality until we begin to get some policies that do something about it.
BILL MOYERS: How long have you lived in Oakland?
ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: Since 1973.
BILL MOYERS: So you know it well. Many people felt that Occupy was moving positively, and going to make great strides, until it ran into Occupy Oakland. I brought a headline with me. “Occupy Oakland’s Violent Turn Proves the Movement has Lost Its Way.” Tell me what you saw out there, and whether you agree with that headline.
ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: I was not there. I was in the airport. I looked up, and saw what I thought was fighting in Syria, frankly. That’s what I thought I was looking at. And then I saw Oakland. I said, “Oakland? What’s happening in my hometown.” I was shocked, and dismayed. And embarrassed, and sorry, and thought it was a terrible turn of events.
And I think that the Occupy movement did suffer because of it. Because then it became commonplace to move people out, and to move on them, in ways that were violent. It didn’t kill the movement. It has not killed the movement. The movement has taken itself into different realms.
But movements have to figure out how to grow, and how to turn corners, and how to develop new strategies, in turning the movement to the foreclosure crisis, in turning the movement to the banks. In turning it in different places. I think the Occupy movement may take on different forms. It is far from dead.
But it is the collective action of people that can make all the difference, it always has. That is the one piece that we are missing right now.
Occupy Wall Street has opened up that possibility. But we don’t have that collective action of people. We have been so separated, those of us who have organizations, and people who are leaders, are so separated. Put in this box, and that box.
Rather than understanding we’re on a collective mission. And our moment has come. That the nation is having a conversation about inequality, don’t let that door close. Let’s bring everything we know into it, prop it open, and bring through the army of people, and ideas, who are ready to make America better, and help America see it’s not scary. It’s glorious.
BILL MOYERS: I’m reluctant to bring this conversation to a close, but it’s been very good to talk to you, Angela Blackwell. Thank you for being with me.
ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: Oh, thank you.