“You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” So said white supremacist Dylann Roof to black members of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston as he systematically executed nine, leaving one woman and a five-year-old child to bear witness to the slaughter.
In light of the recent resignations of two North Carolina magistrates, explained by their religious convictions that same-sex marriage is a sin or desecrates the "holy institution established by God Himself," I would like to offer a few points of clarification to the overall discourse.
The list doesn't include our most grievous offenses, those of military and economic warfare against the rest of the world. Sinful enough is our behavior at home.
1. Sin against children
Perhaps "sanctity of life" ends at birth. According to Census Bureaufigures, one out of every five American children lives in poverty. For blacks and Hispanics, it's one out of every three.
UNICEF has reported that the U.S. has a higher child poverty rate than every industrialized country except Romania. We are near the bottom in all measures of inequality that affect our children, including material well-being, health, and education.
2. Sin against the poor
The U.S. poverty rate grew from 11.3% to 15.0%, a 33% jump, in just 11 years. The impact was felt primarily by minorities and women. The median wealth for single black and Hispanic women is shockingly low, at just over $100 (compared to $41,500 for single white women).
Another shock. For every dollar of NON-HOME wealth owned by white families, people of color have only one cent.
Despite the continued economic assault on already-poor Americans, the number of TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) cases has dropped by 60 percent over the last 16 years.
3. Sin against students
Students at all levels have been losing their nation's support. States reduced their education budgets by $12.7 billion in 2012, and in 2013 the majority of states will be spending even less.
At higher educational levels, Americans are paying much more than students in other countries. Only 38% of college expenses come from public funding, compared to 70% across other OECD countries. While other nations continue to offer free tuition, with the recognition that education leads to long-term prosperity, the U.S. system has become morecorporatized, to the point that expensive programs like nursing, engineering, and computer science have been eliminated to cut costs. The profit motive has blocked the path to academic excellence.
4. Sin against the middle class
The middle class is shrinking. In 2011, according to a Pew Research analysis, 51% of the nation's households earned from two-thirds to double the national median income. In the 1970s it was 61%.
One-quarter of America's workers are now making less than $22,000 a year, the poverty line for a family of four.
Thirty million Americans are making between $7.25 (minimum wage) and $10.00 per hour.
With the transition of middle-class workers to low-income status, entrepreneurship is disappearing. Innovation doesn't come from the upper class. A recent study found that less than 1 percent of all entrepreneurs came from very rich or very poor backgrounds. Small business creators come from the hard-working, risk-taking, nothing-to-lose middle of America, but their entrepreneurial numbers are down -- over 50% since 1977.
5. Sin against the common good
A recent Tax Justice Network report placed total hidden offshore assets at somewhere between $21 trillion and $32 trillion. With about 40% of the world's Ultra High Net Worth Individuals in the U.S., up to $12.8 trillion of untaxed revenue sits overseas. Based on a historical 6% rate of return, this is a tax loss of up to $300 billion per year, money that should be paying for the public needs of education and infrastructure.
Tax avoidance is so appealing that 1,700 Americans renounced their citizenships last year. Like Eduardo Saverin, who benefited from America's research and technology and security to take billions from his 4% share in Facebook, and then skipped out on his tax bill.
Inexplicably, some have defended Saverin's actions, apparently failing to recognize one's obligation to pay for societal benefits. A Forbes writer said, "When individuals resist governmental hubris, we should exalt their actions." The American Thinker blog argued that "the U.S. tax code is so oppressive that smart and successful people like Saverin are compelled to renounce citizenship in order to keep more of their own hard-earned wages." Hard-earned, in truth, by the thousands of contributers to his social networking success.
6. Sin against nature
A number of studies show that investment in renewable energy will create many more jobs than the fossil fuel industry. And the investment will likely pay off. A National Renewable Energy Laboratory analysis determined that "renewable electricity generation from technologies that are commercially available today...is more than adequate to supply 80% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2050."
But now the prospect of cheap natural gas is leading us back to a dirty form of energy independence, with a continuing reliance on fossil fuels, and on the fracking technology that despoils our land and pollutes our water. The national commitment and political will needed for the long-term health of our nation is more elusive than ever.
7. Sin against common sense
The deception began, at least in the modern age, with Milton Friedman, who said "The free market system distributes the fruits of economic progress among all people...He moves fastest who moves alone."
This unflagging adherence to free-enterprise individualism is consistent with Social Darwinism, the belief that survival of the fittest (richest) will somehow benefit society, and that the millions of people suffering from financial malfeasance are simply lacking the motivation to help themselves. Social Darwinism is a feel-good delusion for those at the top. Or, as described by John Kenneth Galbraith, a continuing "search for a superior moral justification for selfishness."
A tenet of progressivism is that a strong society will create opportunities for a greater number of people, thereby leading to more instances of individual success. This is the common sense attitude suppressed by conservatives for over 30 years.
At the recent ACLU national conference in San Francisco, the new guard wasn't hard to spot. They were the ones sitting on the floor instead of on chairs in the debates and panels. They escorted members of the press and gave tours to those who were visiting San Francisco for the first time. They seemed to travel in packs, one slightly older young person leading a group of five or six teenagers. If you didn't know this was a conference dedicated to protecting our constitutional civil liberties, you would be forgiven for thinking it was some kind of rock concert.
Courtroom victories and media attention aside, you can often tell the health of an organization by how many young people are joining. By that simple measure the ACLU is in fine form at 84 years old. The ACLU has over 400,000 members, more than 200,000 of those have joined in the last two years and 34 percent of those new members are under 25. The organization is as sharp as ever, striking down provisions of the Patriot Act with biting briefs that manage to be both legal analysis and passionate critique. And the organization's heart seems to be working just as effectively. They have sponsored visits for released detainees to speak in Washington, D.C. and director Anthony Romero recently visited Guantanamo Bay, along with an Amnesty International representative, and wrote moving letters about what he witnessed there.
Can the new ACLU keep up with itself? Caroline Friedman, 16, an intern in the New York office, seems to think so. When asked about Romero, Friedman said, "I'm awed by all his energy." When a teenager who gets straight As in school and is active in a host of extracurricular activities says that, it seems like the highest compliment.
Friedman was at the national Membership Conference, held in July in San Francisco, talking with Morgan McDonald, 21, co-chair of the Youth Affairs Committee and William Walker, 24, a member of Northern California chapter. She spent her summer learning about the Patriot Act and teaching other teenagers in New York about its consequences. "Because of my parents, I've always had a political awareness," she says. "But after the Patriot Act passed and I read sections that said that any library book or video I take out was subject to government scrutiny," I got angry and wanted to get more involved." When she looked around for who was doing the most active organizing against the Patriot Act, she found the ACLU.
McDonald thinks that the infusion of youth energy makes the ACLU more assertive, a necessary thing in these times when civil liberties seem a low government priority. "Before, I think the ACLU would wait for people to come to them with complaints," says McDonald. "Now we have to be out there because rights are being eroded at an accelerated pace. There are more field teams and more young organizers."
"My first involvement with the ACLU was actually a direct action protest," says Walker, a tall African American young man. "I got involved in protesting Proposition 21 and got a lot of young people to get involved around juvenile justice issues." He's quick to point out though that the Northern California chapter might be more open to more grassroots activism. "The closer you get to the national level the harder it is to talk about direct action or nonviolent protest," he said.
Binah Palmer, a 25-year-old field and legislative associate with ACLU Washington finds that a lot of the organizing that people are doing locally mirrors what's happening at the state and nationwide levels. In the past two years, she's seen a huge growth of youth interest and the inception of two new Washington state high school chapters. Two new college chapters of the ACLU have sprung up just in the last six months. "Students are urging their student bodies to pass resolutions protecting civil liberties and rejecting the Patriot Act," she says. The University of Washington, Whitman College and Washington State University have all recently passed resolutions that mirror the resolutions passed by the Bill of Rights Defense Committees at the city and state levels.
"Young people see their friends being profiled and stopped on the street," says McDonald. "They hear the president talk about limiting marriage rights to heterosexual couples and they think of themselves or their friends, who one day won't be able to marry a loved one."
Miriam (she preferred not to give her last name) is a high school student from Arkansas who recently helped start a student chapter of the ACLU at her high school. "I got involved because of the proposed constitutional amendment limiting the definition of marriage," she said. "It seemed like the ACLU was one of the only mainstream groups speaking up against it and doing something about it," she said.
Still change is slow in coming in an organization. The average age of members nationwide is probably still somewhere in the fifties and the organization still wins most of its victories in courts as opposed to in the streets. Walker, McDonald and others say that while change is happening, not everyone is embracing the more active energy of some of the youth members. And McDonald points out that the National Youth Affairs Committee of the ACLU still only has one youth representative.
"Young people in the ACLU are carrying on the tradition, but with their own energy, passion and enthusiasm, " says Palmer. "They are the next generation of civil libertarians." Romero believes it is this next generation that will keep the ACLU thriving and relevant. "We need young people to make [civil liberties] their cause," he recently told a Princeton audience. "Civil rights is being redefined at this moment and we need young people to help define what climate for civil liberties we are going to live in."
But if it's clear why the ACLU needs youth, do young people also need the ACLU? Why are these young people getting involved in the ACLU instead of in smaller, local organizations? In Miriam's case, there wasn't any local organization to join. "It's pretty dead, activism wise, in my town in Arkansas," she says. She also liked the idea of being part of something larger. Living in New York, Caroline is familiar with a lot of activist groups, but she liked the idea of being part of a national organization with a long history of protecting civil liberties. "I think with the crackdown on protesters and immigrants, the ACLU is one way to be really involved in a national thing and make a real difference without risking arrest," she said.
Perhaps one of the biggest changes that young people will bring to the ACLU is not a change in tactics but a determination on keeping the focus on the issues that matter to them most. Walker and others say that the issues that matter most to young people – from juvenile sentencing, music censorship and racial profiling, to gay and lesbian rights – also matter to the ACLU. It's just a question of bringing two different styles and cultures together, they say.
"I want to make the ACLU and civil liberties concerns more relevant to youth of color and to young people in disadvantaged communities," says Walker. "A lot of people still think of the ACLU as a bunch of older white people and it isn't any more. To survive and thrive, the ACLU has to represent diverse communities and build a movement toward a freer and less racially divisive society. That might sound utopian, but that's what the world needs."