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Putting the spotlight on inequities

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Melissa Harris-Perry

Education is key to “remaking the social contract,” says political commentator Melissa Harris-Perry.

Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin

Watch a video summary of the lecture by Melissa Harris-Perry.

In an election year, in the midst of a severe recession, inequality is more important than ever.

That was the message delivered by professor and political commentator Melissa Harris-Perry to a packed house Monday.

Harris-Perry started with the racial wealth gap, noting a median net worth per household of $170,000 for whites, $17,100 for blacks and $21,000 for Hispanics.

“Racism and poverty undermine our basic social contract,” said Harris-Perry, professor of political science at Tulane University and a regular MSNBC contributor who recently became host of a weekend show on the cable network.

There is a health gap as well, she said.

In 2000, the adequacy of supplies for pharmacies in African-American neighborhoods was 25 percent, vs. 75 percent in white neighborhoods, she said.

“If a black body is in pain, it gets less pain medication,” she said.

America leads the world in incarceration, with 2.3 million of its citizens behind bars. More than a third of them — 846,000 — are African American, Harris-Perry said.

“In some states, up to 10 percent of black men are incarcerated,” she said.

Racism colors our response to natural disasters, Harris-Perry added.

She quoted a post-Katrina letter from a white woman: “I would love to house a single mom with one child, not racist, but white only.”

“These are good people opening their homes after Katrina,” Harris-Perry said, “yet those folks had a clear racial idea of how much proximity to black victims they wanted to have.”

She cited the passage of an ordinance in New Orleans’ St. Bernard Parish ordering homeowners to rent only to blood relatives. The law was overturned on property rights terms.

“Education is a key component to remaking the social contract,” Harris-Perry said. Early childhood education, for example, reduces illiteracy, crime and teen pregnancy and leads to higher wages.

Charter schools are unproven, she said, suggesting that selective admission may give an unwarranted impression.

“Many of them say, ‘All our graduating seniors go to college.’ Ask how many of their freshmen go to college. That’s the only relevant measure,” she said.

Harris-Perry showed a White House photo of President Barack Obama bending over so a small African American boy could touch his head.

“He wanted to rub his president’s head to know that the president has hair like his,” she said.

Harris-Perry quoted a letter to the editor claiming that “Obama shows there is no ceiling a black person can’t shatter,” then asked her audience, “How many black men are there in the NBA?”

“A thousand,” came one reply.

“And how many black presidents are there?” she answered.

“The idea that the primary reason blacks fail is they lack the ability to imagine a better life is inherently ridiculous,” Harris-Perry said.

A question-and-answer session after her lecture produced these observations:

• “I’m not completely against corruption,” as long as it’s in the public interest. Example: Mayor Richard M. Daley tearing up Meigs Field in the middle of the night.

• “Half of Congress would be women if we had term limits. With open seats, women are just as likely to win.”

• In the 2008 election, Sarah Palin provided “a redefinition of white people. She had five children, including a pregnant daughter. She doesn’t read. And she shoots things.”

Harris-Perry stepped down from the speaker’s platform to a standing ovation.

Her talk in the Student Services Building, the 2012 Bazzani Lecture on Public Affairs, was hosted by the Institute of Government and Public Affairs.


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