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Pondering Equality

by Frank Gruber

During my first few months as a columnist I have found two big challenges in the pundit game to be contradictory: number one, finding something to write about each week, and, number two, keeping one's column to a reasonable length.

I am still struggling with number two, but the calendar is a big help with number one, as the various holidays and other markers of time naturally stimulate ideas.

Sooner or later I will write a column about seasons, and whether we have them. It's inevitable.

But the right holiday can have the good effect of causing one to reflect on issues that can be easy to ignore.

The celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday inspired me to start plowing through a book that has lain fallow too long on my bookshelf: Taylor Branch's Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65, the second volume of Branch's trilogy about America during the years of the civil rights movement.

In truth, I might have opened the book anyway. Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court used the Equal Protection Clause to stop the counting of votes in Florida, I have been more than a little obsessed with the idea of equality, its history and its meaning.

Looking backwards, history often seems inevitable, but what has impressed me most from reading Branch's book is the lack of inevitability about the civil rights movement -- certainly there was nothing inevitable about its success.

Branch argues that the movement for equality, starting with racial equality, was the key event of American history in the second half of the 20th century, and historians a century from now will probably agree with him. Winning the Cold War will seem much more inevitable. Yet in early 1963, when the movement was stuck in its tracks, it was rare for a reporter at one of President Kennedy's famous news conferences to ask a question about civil rights.

So much for the perspicacity of the press.

But then again, the whole country was in denial. It is easy to take inequality for granted. Not only the advantaged class, whose complacency is understandable if wrong, but also the disadvantaged, have reasons to ignore the plain injustice of inequality. Martin Luther King had to convince fearful and conservative blacks that things could change before he could create cognitive dissonance in white America.

Matthew Arnold, writing about the English class system in the 19th century, could explain the general acceptance of the English class system only by invoking the idea that the English had a "Religion of Inequality."

Why are people so willing to accept inequality?

One reason might be that we are used to the fact that all individuals are not equal in their talents and capacities, even if they are entitled to equal dignity. It becomes easy for us to generalize and accept the notion that some people do better than others, some worse, because of their talents, and not because they are treated unequally.

We also hold other precepts in high regard, aside from our belief in the equality of all people, that tend to perpetuate inequality as an ancillary effect. For instance, we believe in personal responsibility for the path one chooses in the world. We believe in private property and the right to accumulate wealth, and we believe that it can be passed down.

We believe in pluralism, and rightly shun uniform solutions that might create equality of misery or mediocrity. We believe that parents are right to do what is best for their children, even though some parents have more choices than others.

We do not expect everyone to be as successful as everyone else, although we expect everyone to have the same chance.

In a culture that reveres the law, we confuse legal equality with the practical kind.

Still, notwithstanding our ability to accept it, there is no denying that we live in a society where resources are distributed unequally and that this creates a situation where people are denied the equal dignity and opportunities they deserve.

In fact, we live in a city that closely resembles the society as a whole.

According to the City of Santa Monica Community Profile, prepared for the city by Rand and published last year, about 13% of Santa Monicans live in poverty, based on the federal standard (meaning, for a family of four, annual household income less than $16,530). This is about the national average, but 22% of the residents of the 90404 zipcode live in poverty.

The Latino and African-American populations in Santa Monica live largely in just a few neighborhoods, which reflect the housing patterns that were created in Santa Monica before the demise of restrictive covenants and the advent of fair housing laws.

Forty-seven percent of the residentially zoned land in Santa Monica (31% of all the land in the city) is zoned for single family housing, virtually all in neighborhoods with minuscule minority populations, effectively precluding the building of new housing in a large portion of Santa Monica.

As for political rights, no one from the Pico Neighborhood has ever been elected to the Santa Monica City Council.

Why do I bring this up? Aside from Monday having been Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day?

It is budget season for both the city and the school district. Other big issues are coming up. It's important that ...


To be continued.

This week I accept challenge number two, and call this a wrap.

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