Facing the Universal Imperatives

Facing the Universal Imperatives

By Ray Marshall

Vol. 1, No. 7, 1979, pp. 16-18


The world that we live in has changed; is changing, dangerous and uncertain – and I think that if you take a look at the concerns of the Southern Regional Council and some of the universal imperatives that impinge on those concerns, you can see that the main thing that will characterize the work of the Council, as it endures, is not that things will get easier- but they will get different. It’ll be a different environment, but it will be equally treacherous.

There are universal imperatives that, I think, are fairly obvious to people, if you think about them. One of the universal imperatives that we experienced since 1944 has been industrialization and economic development. That’s caused most of the changes.

One of the universal imperatives that we’ll face probably in the future is discrimination. We haven’t solved that problem by a long shot. What’s happened to discrimination is its forms have changed. And different people are now involved.

What the Black civil rights movement started has caught fire, and other groups are now demanding equality – and that will be a continuing process. Women will continue to demand equality. Hispanics will continue to demand equality; the handicapped, the elderly; people who are discriminated against for anything, unrelated to their merit, will be caught up in that movement – and have been caught up in it. And they will see the value, the power of the moral example that the Black civil rights movement launched.

Another concern that the Council will have to grapple with in the future, I think, is a whole range of international concerns. I think these are very important, and they’re usually overlooked. But these international concerns increasingly impinge upon our ability to get civil rights, and our ability to improve the conditions of people in the society who desperately need help.

Just to mention some of these things indicates the significance of them. The whole human rights movement is very important throughout the world, and it’s not divisible; you caimnot talk about human rights in other countries, and ignore them here. Just as Van Woodward put it so well, the institutionalization of racism around the turn of the century had strong international origins. We could not go forth and fight the White man’s burden in the world and not be infested with the same kind of racism here.

I think it also works in reverse. The origins of a lot of the civil rights movement – particularly employment originated with international concerns. A. Phillip Randolph’s first march on Washington was directly as a result of a war that we were in to make the world safe for democracy, at a time when Blacks couldn’t work in the plants, making the guns to fight the war.

The anomaly and inconsistency of that had a compelling force. I think the problem that Southern Regional Council will have to deal with is immigration. The problem of illegal immigration, particularly, will have a significant bearing on the ability to improve the conditions of lowincome people, workers generally, and to get civil rights.

I believe that because we don’t legalize the flow of peo

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ple in our work force, we are building for ourselves another monumental civil rights struggle in the future. The dynamics of that struggle will be very similar to the dynamics of the struggle that we went through in the fifties and sixties, as we will have some of the same causes.

The first generation of immigrants will endure second class status; their children will not – and you can almost count on it. And if we don’t prepare for that, to assimilate people into our society with full legal rights, then we’re going to build a serious problem for ourselves.

One of the areas of greatest concern that I have about the future is our ability to have a just and humane society by providing a decent standard of living for people; a decent job, in a relatively stable economy.

Now I believe that we can do that. I believe that the means of doing that are within our grasp. But I think it’s going to require a lot of dedication, a lot of intelligencc and a lot of hard work.

I believe that we’ve established the framework for that in the passage of the HumphreyHawkins bill, that many of you helped us get, which commits the government to the achievement of full employment by 1983.

We have been trying to do a lot in the last couple of years to move us in that direction, and I think it’s imperative that we continue to move in that direction. We should not let the talk about the budget obscure the fact that the government has for too long done too much for those who need it least, and not enough for those who need it most.

What we are trying to do with our programs is to see that that happens; that we concentrate our resources on people who need it most, in spite of the budget constraints we face.

For example, the amount of job money in the CETA system that we devote to the disadvantaged has increased, both absolutely and relatively. In 1976, we spent $3 billion on the disadvantaged; in the 1980 budget, we’ll spend $9 billion. In 1976, 63 percent of the participants in the system were classified as disadvantaged. In 1980, 94 percent will be classified as disadvantaged.

The point of that, to me, is that even though we do

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have problems with inflation and budget constraints, it does not mean we cannot continue to help those who need help. It seems to me, we need to really concentrate our efforts on seeing that that happens. We need to work to reduce the disparity in unemployment rates, as well as to reduce the overall level of unemployment rates. And we can reduce that disparity by concentrating our resources on the problem of Black youth, for example, and young people generally, and by concentrating our resources on places with the highest rates of unemployment. We must do everything we can to provide job opportunities for the people in urban areas and depressed rural areas.

Another universal imperative we will face that will make it difficult for us to help those who need help most, and to continue the civil rights struggle, is inflation. Inflation is a very serious problem. It is a particularly serious problem for low-income people, and minorities. And the reason for that is very simple – the cost of living for low income people increases much faster than the cost of living for higher income people.

When you get into inflation, you tend to buy down. You quit eating sirloin and start eating hamburger. You quit eating hamburger and start eating beans. And many people quit eating beans and start eating pet food. And that is happening, as inflation inflicts damage on the poor – the very people who can least afford to bear the brunt of inflation.

Inflation is serious because it also threatens our democratic institutions. Nothing threatens antidemocratic forces as much as inflation. It strengthens support for government, and for using government to help people who need help. Inflation frequently tends to bring out the worst in people, and tends to generate a selfish attitude that causes people to turn inward, rather than being concerned about other people.

A curious thing to me about inflation is that the wealthy do the most complaining about it, and the poor do the most suffering from it. I never could quite capture the reason for it, but I read a quote recently from one of my economist friends, John Kenneth Galbraith, who said that in this light against inflation, we have to be sure we distribute the burden of fighting inflation, according to one’s ability to fight it, which means do everything we can to see to it that the people who pay for it are those who have the higher incomes and who are in the best position to deal with the problem.

Somebody asked Galbraith, “But won’t the wealthy object?” “Yes, quite a lot,” he said and gave this quote:

“You must remember that social tranquility at all times and in all countries, is always advanced by the cries of anguish of the affluent. They have a much deeper sense of personal injustice than the poor, and a far greater capacity for indignation. And when the poor hear the primal screams of the well-to-do, they imagine that the fortunate are really suffering, and become more contented with their own lives. Good statesmanship has always required not only the comforting of the afflicted, but the afflicting of the comfortable.”

Well, I think that Galbraith, in his own way, put it very well – that in the fight against inflation, there will be strong forces to try and shift the burden for the fight to the poor; the low-income people. It seems to me that a goal of this organization should be to see that this doesn’t happen.

We’ve been trying to insure that it doesn’t happen in the Administration, by seeing that the inflation fight is equitable. That’s the reason we had a low-wage exemption; the reason we ruled out the alternative of allowing inflation to be controlled by having a recession, or having a depression – and try to maintain a level of unemployment while we deal with problems of inflation.

We tried to do it in our effort to get a real wage insurance provision in the Congress – so that wrong about our ability to control inflation, there will be some insurance, particularly for lowincome people, who will suffer the most from inflation.

Finally, we resisted the cries by people who argue that we ought to deal with inflation by not increasing the minimum wage, about rolling it back, or by doing away with prevailing wage legislation that tends to help those who do not have a power in this society to improve their own conditions.

I think that we have to continue to recognize that efforts will be made to roll back the minimum wage, to have a youth differential on the minimum wage, to eliminate it all together, and if we do that, then we will transfer the fight to the people who can least afford it.

Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall is a former director of the Task Force on Southern Rural Development sponsored by SRC.