A Dream Deferred

America is a land of promise. It is the promise of freedom, a promise laid out by Thomas Jefferson in his bold declaration 223 years ago, "that all men are created equal."

America is the promise of "The Colossus" by Emma Lazarus, the hand of Lady Liberty reaching out and welcoming the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

It is the promise of Walt Whitman's democratic poetry, urgently reaching, insistent, stretching the frontiers of the form, crossing the boundaries of class and race to include everyone and everything that is America.

It is the promise of Woody Guthrie's populist anthem, "This Land is Your Land," its straightforward declaration of democratic principle and promise, the vision of shared wealth and equality, of hope and the dream of a better tomorrow.

It is this promise we celebrate every July, the promise of democratic opportunity, the idea that everyone regardless of circumstance or background can rise up, can achieve, can prosper, is written deep in the American story. It is the promise that brought my grandparents here from Poland earlier this century, the promise that brought so many of our grandparents here.

But, in many ways and for far too many, this promise remains, in the words of the poet Langston Hughes, "a dream deferred."

America in the year 2000 is a country that remains divided by race and ethnic background, with many minority families remaining isolated in inner-city neighborhoods with failing schools, high crime rates, a shrinking job base and sky-high property taxes.

Over the years, their neighborhoods have been targeted as homes for trash incinerators and massive recycling plants. They have been cleaved in two or completely eliminated to make way for major highways.

New Jersey is a prime example, according to statistics compiled by the Education Law Center of Newark, which is advocating for more state funding of poor urban school districts. The statistics show that about 53 percent of all black public school students and 58 percent of all Hispanic public school students in New Jersey attend schools in the 28 poorest urban districts, although those districts account for only 21 percent of total public school enrollment in the state.

These districts -- also called Abbott districts after a lawsuit filed by a student against the state alleging funding inequalities -- have the lowest socio-economic status in the state. According to the law center, the 28 school districts are in cities where the combined unemployment rate is more than double the state rate (9.2 percent to 4.5 percent) and 73.5 percent of the students qualify for free or subsidized lunches, compared with 16.5 percent in non-Abbott schools.

It is a de facto segregation, growing from the economics of our times. And it feeds upon itself. Suburban schools -- unlike their urban counterparts -- have the money to provide a more complete education to their students, giving them a better chance to compete in college or for higher-paying jobs. But living in the suburbs costs money that most of the people living in cities like Newark, Trenton and Jersey City do not have, putting those jobs -- and the house in the suburbs -- out of reach.

So while the legal edifice of segregation has been razed, the racial divide lives on.

And as long as it does, the idea of America will remain greater than the reality of America.

I have no doubt that the gap can be bridged, that the promise that is America, the belief in renewal, in change, in freedom and liberty for all, can be fulfilled. But only if we make the effort, only if we're willing to spend the time and the money to make sure that everyone starts off with a real chance to walk Woody Guthrie's "freedom highway."

It can be done. The Browning-Ferris Industries/Bronx Lebanon Hospital Center Regional Medical Waste Incinerator closed its doors in 1997 after residents of the South Bronx, N.Y. neighborhood in which it was located took to the streets. The South Bronx Clean Air Coalition -- a group of residents of the low income neighborhood, mostly Puerto Ricans, blacks and other peoples of color -- crammed hearings, held dozens of protests, collected tens of thousands of signatures on petitions, conducted a highway blockade, street fairs and a boycott campaign over a six-year period to stop the incinerator from burning 48 tons of medical waste from three states every day. It was, as the organization says, a "community in motion."

And there are stories like this across the country:

(ogonek) in Detroit, where residents fought to ensure they would have input in a brownfields redevelopment plan;

(ogonek) in Seattle, where two community groups forced the Veterans Affairs Hospital to shut a medical waste incinerator that was dumping dioxin onto the largely minority Beacon Hill neighborhood;

(ogonek) in Huntington, W. Va., where citizen activism helped derail a plan for the largest pulp and paper mill in North America -- a plan that would have brought with it clear-cutting of forests and potential health impacts from exposure to dioxin.

"We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom," Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in 1963 from the Birmingham City Jail, where he was incarcerated after a protest march. "Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America."

Hank Kalet is a poet and newspaper editor living in New Jersey.

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