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Originally published Sunday, January 15, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Jerry Large

Turning a blind eye to inequalities isn't an option

America is a different country for every generation that occupies it. Its great gift is the urge to make itself better, an impulse we are...

Seattle Times staff columnist

America is a different country for every generation that occupies it. Its great gift is the urge to make itself better, an impulse we are celebrating today as we take stock of the work left for us to do.

The country that Rosa Parks lived in 50 years ago is gone. I can sit anywhere on a bus where I can find a seat. There are still people who might not care to sit next to me, but still, I can sit there.

Things aren't so black and white anymore. That's good, but it also can be confusing.

Young, black professionals whose parents or grandparents fled the South for refuge elsewhere have been flooding back over the past few years in search of a more hospitable environment than the Northeast or Midwest.

The most segregated cities are now in the North, where many large cities have been given over to black and Hispanic residents.

Meanwhile, teenagers in white suburbs are enthralled by the culture of young black folks in the central cities, and especially by gangsta rappers, who paint a picture of black folks that the Klan wishes it had thought up.

Things are complicated.

Latinos are now the largest minority in the country, and some people, who themselves are the descendants of immigrants, worry that immigration is a bad thing.

African American sometimes now means directly from Africa as more people emigrate from that continent than ever. Even more people are moving here from the Caribbean. And, of course, some Latinos are black. Definitions get strained.

Class, too, is more complicated.

There's a school in Seattle that has both advanced and regular programs. It has many counterparts. When I watch the kids in the advanced programs interact, I almost think race is a fading issue. They blend together unselfconsciously. They study issues that would never have been brought up in classes when I was a kid.

But then there is the large population of regular kids, mostly minority. The mirror opposite of the advanced programs, it seems. They are economically as well as racially different. The different tracks meet in some classes, but don't seem to pal around much together.

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It's a different kind of separate and unequal, and many people find ways to pretend it really isn't that way, because acknowledging it would be inconvenient.

Did you know that the language of black folks who live in the center of most American cities is further from standard American English than black dialect was during Jim Crow?

That is the result of isolation. The civil-rights movement tore down segregation by law, but segregation by income has gotten worse.

Race and poverty still are closely linked, but it is easier to think that isn't so these days because the successes of the movement built a road into the middle class that has moved a significant number of black and Hispanic Americans upward.

That movement up and out left behind neighborhoods that consist mainly of poor people.

Poor neighborhoods tend to have poor schools, and few jobs, which means poverty is harder to get out of.

But all of the very real gains make it easier for many Americans to leave the subject of equal opportunity behind. Even people who recognize there is still a problem often say the best solution is to ignore it and let it go away on its own. Don't stir things up.

That's what they thought in France. It has been French policy to ignore race in the belief that if you just say everyone is the same, there will be no disparities.

Yet poverty clearly rested most heavily on Arab and African-descended people who find themselves segregated in poor neighborhoods. Except that in Europe the poor, minority neighborhoods tend to ring the cities rather than being located in the middle of them. The effect is much the same — concentrations of poverty that are difficult to escape.

Those neighborhoods exploded in France last fall. Other European countries face similar problems because they find it hard to conceive of anyone who looks different or has a different religion as being truly a countryman.

Some people in Europe blame the problems on the nature of people who are different from them. Some people here do that, too. It's the easiest answer.

We are still struggling with that, but I like to think we will be more successful here because more of us believe in the ideals that urge us toward social, economic and political justice.

That's why we have this holiday, to remind ourselves of our nation's victories and to push ourselves to keep trudging uphill against the baser aspects of human nature.

Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com. His column runs Thursdays and Sundays and is found at www.seattletimes.com/jerrylarge.

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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